DUBNER: He gave you a pink sweater, too?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. We all have the same pink sweater.
* * *
DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.
DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: would it be better to have funerals, and give eulogies, before people die?
DUBNER: They could turn into interventions, essentially. You know, there’s something I’ve been wanting to say to you for a long time now.
Also: comedian Eugene Mirman joins us to discuss the question, “What do all funny things have in common?”
DUBNER: They’re all small.
DUCKWORTH: They’re all yellow.
MIRMAN: They’re always delicious.
* * *
Stephen J. DUBNER: So, Angela, I had a question to ask you today, and it suddenly became much more timely unfortunately though, because it’s a question about death. We’ve discussed death a bit on the show. My original question was going to be, wouldn’t it be better, generally, to have funerals for people before they die? Because, you know, we tell stories about people and discuss their virtues. And it makes me sad that so many people gather together to share stories about the dead person, and they aren’t there to hear them. I know some people do this. Tuesdays with Morrie, the book by Mitch Albom, had a famous living funeral. But I think they should be the norm.
Angela DUCKWORTH: Not the exception.
DUBNER: Yeah. So, I wanted to know what you think about that. And then, just last night, you let me know that a mutual friend of ours had died, Anders Ericsson.
DUCKWORTH: Yes. So I guess, in a very strange and sorrowful way, it’s a question we should be talking about. So, prior to our getting that sad news, Stephen, you were thinking in particular about eulogies, right? Because there could be many reasons why you would want to change cultural practice about funerals.
DUBNER: Yeah. I mean, I’ll be honest with you, when I say a living funeral, I really only want the eulogy part. I don’t want the rest of the funeral.
DUCKWORTH: You don’t want the casseroles, and the dark clothing, and the crying.
DUBNER: I’m okay with the casseroles too. Casseroles and eulogies.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. We’ll keep the casseroles.
DUBNER: But the thing about eulogies is they’re not a recitation of how important or accomplished this person was, right?
DUCKWORTH: I bet there are cringey funerals where really it is a reading of your vita.
DUBNER: I’ve been to a couple of funerals where a majority of the eulogists made note that they had attended the same college in Boston with the dead person.
DUCKWORTH: Oh gosh, I’m cringing even just listening to you.
DUBNER: So, yeah, I’m not talking about that so much. What I’m talking about is this. I’ve been to funerals of people that I didn’t know particularly well, for instance, like the parents of close friends. I might have met the parent a few times. In one case, as a child, he escaped Nazi Germany, or was sent away on a Kindertransport to England, and then ended up in the United States. And I knew the basics. But then you hear these stories and you’re like, “Oh, my goodness, what a life that was.” But then my next thought is always: I wish they were here to hear it, too. I wish they were here to understand the way that their life story was processed and appreciated by others. And it just made me think, why don’t we do this ahead of time? The logistics you’d have to work out. Do you do it only when someone is terminally ill? I think that’s when most pre-funerals are held now, is when you know someone’s going to die fairly soon. And, and that’s fine. I’m not against that. But maybe just pick a date. Theoretically well in advance, when you’re in your 50s, or 60s, or 70s.
DUCKWORTH: Take your chances there. But, yeah, a reasonable date.
DUBNER: So, you’re a savvy person and a psychologist. What do you think of this idea? Do you think it has value?
DUCKWORTH: When you said, “When I think of a eulogy,” Stephen, you’re thinking of the touching, personal stories. I thought you were going to say something else that’s true about eulogies, which is that, in a long, long life, there are definitely moments that we probably all regret and we weren’t our best selves. And those are not what come up in eulogies, right? So I thought you meant that, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could play the highlight reel while the person was still alive and draw attention to all the positive things. My father passed away a couple of months ago, and it was actually during the pandemic. So, we didn’t have a funeral. But we had a Zoom call for the family. And there were lots of things to say about my dad. The stories that we told were just almost uniformly humorous, warm, positive ones. It was not an even account of his lived life.
DUBNER: So, when you said, “There were lots of things to say about my dad,” the implication was lots of negative things, things you could have brought up.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. And what’s interesting is that, in more one-on-one, one-on-two conversations that I had with my sister, and my brother, and my mom, we did actually process some of the and-this-wasn’t-so-great aspects. But there’s something about being in a larger group, even if it’s on a Zoom call where, it’s the thing to do, is to celebrate the beautiful stories. And there were those, too. So, I’m glad we got to tell those, too.
DUBNER: Do you think that if living eulogies became more popular, that they would include more negative stories, or at least less pollyanna-ish retelling, because the person is there to maybe process the feedback and maybe even learn from it?
DUCKWORTH: Maybe this is where my head is because Anders passed so recently, but in his seminal work on experts, and how they become so great at what they do, Anders observed that they had no fear about knowing what was wrong with them, right? So one of things experts do is they drill on their weaknesses. In a way, they are paying more attention to what’s wrong than they are to what’s right. I imagine that if Stephen Dubner got his way and culture shifted toward a practice of living funerals, that they would still probably focus on the positive for the most part.
DUBNER: They could turn into interventions, essentially. “There’s something, Gene, I’ve been wanting to say to you for a long time now.”
DUBNER: So, I think we should tell listeners a little bit about Anders Ericsson, who he was, and what his research was. You alluded to it a bit, but one reason I felt so sad when he died is just because I really liked him a great deal.
DUCKWORTH: He was such a great person.
DUBNER: Just a very, very kind and warm and really humble person, especially considering he really was a giant in his field of defining, and understanding, and analyzing, and promoting what came to be known as “deliberate practice.” He worked really for 30 or 40 years on this body of work that came to be reduced as the 10,000-hour rule. The idea that if you do 10,000 hours of a thing via deliberate practice, you’ll become great at it. That was the popular reduction. And, and he bristled because it wasn’t that simple, of course.
DUCKWORTH: Yes, it was a pet peeve of his.
DUBNER: But he did spend all that time studying expert performers in many, many fields — sports, and music, and different cognitive things, and different physical things. Did you ever talk to him about why he got onto that thread? He began life as a nuclear physicist.
DUCKWORTH: That’s right. And then became a psychologist, to his own surprise.
DUBNER: And do you know why?
DUCKWORTH: I know a little bit. Yeah. In his native Sweden, his observation was that it was widely accepted that people could learn and grow. And there weren’t geniuses and non-geniuses categorically. And when he began working and studying in the United States he sensed that there was a different zeitgeist, that we were really interested in who’s talented and who’s not. And the people who had the talent were going to go the farthest. This juxtaposition between his native culture and then the culture he came to live in for most of his life.
And then he met Herb Simon, the great behavioral scientist, Nobel laureate. And they began working together on cognition. And I think one of the things that never left him was the insight that human beings acquire so much of their skillset that it feels like people are born knowing how to do things, but that that’s an illusion.
DUBNER: So deliberate practice, as Anders discussed it, had what I think of as three key components. One was setting very specific goals. Two was obtaining immediate feedback, whether through coaching or self-analysis or whatnot. And three — and this was the one that I find hardest — which is concentrating as much on technique as on outcome, which is a very challenging thing for a lot of people trying to learn something, especially physical. You want to say, did it work? Did I hit the ball well? Did I play that riff correctly? And so on. He really, I don’t want to say, reduced expertise to a science. He maybe enlargened expertise into a science.
DUCKWORTH: He lifted the hood up, right? So you could see what was going on.
DUBNER: Why don’t we do this, if you’re willing. I wonder if we should maybe act as if Anders is with us. And we can do the living eulogy. Would you like to go first?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I met Anders when I was in graduate school, and I was reading these scientific papers on what makes experts experts. You know, how do Olympic athletes get to do these unbelievable things that we only lay eyes on every four years from the comfort of our living room couch? And he was so kind. I called him in his office at F.S.U., if you’ve ever seen it.
DUBNER: I have. It’s a mess. And he’s a big guy, too.
DUCKWORTH: There’s these towers of papers everywhere. Like, total fire hazard, right? I mean, books and books.
DUBNER: It was an everything hazard, actually.
DUCKWORTH: Exactly, tripping hazard. So, he was so kind. He said, “Come to Tallahassee, Florida.” And I flew down, and I spent a very hot and muggy day walking around with him. And that was now years ago. And he became a mentor and a friend.
DUBNER: I didn’t know him super well. We wrote about him a long time ago. Then we collaborated a little bit on some things. We did visit each other a couple times. But what I appreciated was that he pursued a line of inquiry that he felt was interesting to him, and therefore it was worth doing. In other words, it wasn’t about, oh, this is a new cutting-edge, abstract theory that’s going to set conferences on fire. This was, I’m really curious to know how I can understand how people get really good at something. And if I can do that, and if I can generalize it, and write some rules around it, which he did, then that might help millions of other people. And Anders wrote a book which I really enjoyed, called, Peak.
DUCKWORTH: It’s great. I think you have his motivation exactly right. I think he understood that the implications of his discoveries about how people really do get better and that it’s not all innate ability, like, I think he could foresee that there would be a revolution and that what people can do 10 or 15 years from now when we fully internalized this idea, would be radically different from the way we’re operating right now.
DUBNER: I once gave a lecture at Florida State. It was — I get hired as a Freakonomics guy to come and give talks. I want to say it was like alumni thing for the school of business or something. And honestly, I hadn’t even thought about visiting Anders. I was in and out the same night. And I sat down at the table. It was like a dinner. And I was going to give the talk. And who’s sitting there next to me but Anders Ericsson. I said, “Anders, it’s so nice to see you. I had no idea you were affiliated with this business school.” And I think he wasn’t. He said he just came because he saw that I was speaking, and he thought it would be nice to say hello. And I was so delighted because Anders is the big-deal researcher. And I was just literally the after-dinner speaker. And I do remember at that conversation, I had just gotten into golf. And I said, “Listen, I need to know what you can tell me about golf and expert practice and so on.”
DUCKWORTH: You said this in a whisper so that nobody else would hear these.
DUBNER: He did give me a really good tip. You really have to be a great putter to be a great golfer. And he said, “I studied very good golfers who were very good putters. And I found there was a surprising contributing factor to excellent putting, and it was leg strength.” And he thought the mechanism was that you really just need to be solid, rooted, steady. From that day forward, it’s been eight or nine years now, I never skip leg day at the gym because I want to be a better putter. So, thank you for that.
DUCKWORTH: Did it help you, by the way, Stephen?
DUBNER: I am a less-bad putter than I used to be. And I can’t tell whether that improvement, marginal as it is, was due to improved leg strength or just getting better over time, because I was pretty terrible when I started. But I’m going to attribute whatever improvement I’ve had to Anders Ericsson.
DUCKWORTH: I have a story of Anders giving me advice. Maybe every two or three years, I would call him, distraught, at some turning point: didn’t know what to do with my research program, didn’t know how to prioritize my time. And he was like, “Can you name a role model of somebody who closely approximates best-case scenario for what your professional life would be?” And I thought, “Oh, Carol Dweck. If I could die half of a Carol Dweck, the great Stanford psychologist who gave the world the idea of growth mindset, I would die a happy person. I really would.” And then he said, “It’s very often very helpful to have a very clear mental model of what you’re aiming for.” And I actually have to say, it was phenomenal advice. And when I get a little lost, I think, “What would Carol Dweck do?” And I return to what Anders said. And anyway, what a great person. Just the most generous, kind, warm, humble, as you say, Stephen, funny, great dinner-party guest.
DUBNER: So, Angela, let me ask you this — one thing that makes a eulogy viable is that the person isn’t there to hear it, so you can say things that may be so emotional or mushy or sweet that you’d feel uncomfortable saying. Do you think that’s a problem we could get over? Or do you think maybe that’s why we wait? Because it’s not like we get together with people routinely just to tell them how much we love them.
DUCKWORTH: I have an alternative that I think actually works both to solve for the thing that you want there to be living funerals for and also some of this awkwardness. You know, I never wrote Anders a gratitude letter. And a gratitude letter is what it sounds like, but unlike a thank you note, which is, “Thanks for the pink sweater. I will wear it and think of you.”
DUBNER: He gave you a pink sweater, too?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. We all have the same pink sweater. No, I mean, a gratitude letter is a letter that you write to somebody you have never properly thanked. And it actually is the subject of much scientific inquiry. It’s something usually that you write, say, for a parent. It’s very often to a teacher. And I do regret that I never sent Anders a gratitude letter. And this is, I think, something which solves for the same things you’re craving, right? Like, I wish I had appreciated you more actively and in a way that you could know what I was feeling and thinking. So, what do you think about that proposal?
DUBNER: I like it. I think it has virtue. But I also think it has shortcomings in that it’s not interactive, and it’s also not being shared with anyone.
DUCKWORTH: You want this to be like a public celebration.
DUBNER: Yeah, I like the idea of the community. I’m thinking particularly of a couple of funerals of, like I mentioned, parents of friends. And then when you hear the stories and you’re with other people, there’s something in that shared event that I found really powerful. And to me, maybe this is my favorite part of it, it led to further conversation later. And I felt the eulogy really “worked” in that it helped build the community, and it helped build the memory of the person after they were gone, because you now are sharing these stories and amplifying them, and talking about them. A gratitude letter, which is wonderful, obviously wouldn’t accomplish that. I think it’s a complement and not a substitute.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. I have a refinement on this. Have you ever heard of a festschrift?
DUBNER: I have.
DUCKWORTH: Have you had one?
DUBNER: I haven’t had one. Wait. All right. Tell us.
DUCKWORTH: And I don’t know whether — there must have been one for Anders because he was so great. In academia, there is a tradition of a festschrift and it’s from the German celebration (fest), schrift (work). A celebration of work. And usually what happens is there’s like a one-day symposium of work that was inspired by a very senior academic. So, the senior academic may be in their 70s or 80s. It happens usually within their lifetime, but it’s toward the end of a storied career. And then all the students, and the students’ students, and the students’ students’ students get up and they often deliver papers that are inspired by the original scholar’s contributions. So, it’s actually not quite what you want, Stephen, because you want a celebration of life, not a celebration of work. But what if we riff on that? I think a celebration of one’s life where friends and family go up to the podium with their little notebook and their handwritten stories where they read them into the microphone and everyone listens. I think that’s a brilliant idea. And the festschrift is the closest thing that I can think of as a ritual that already exists that comes close. But it’s not quite the same thing.
DUBNER: So, I say, Angela, I propose a toast. Hang on. Anders Ericsson, that’s for you. We’re going to miss you as a person, and as a thinker, and as a friend. And I thank you for teaching all of us so much. And for being such a shining light for those of us who like to think about getting better.
DUCKWORTH: And I will say that in most eulogies you have to edit out all the things that you think would be critical or negative and you just leave the good parts, but with Anders, you don’t have to edit out anything. It was just all warmth, all generosity, all curiosity, all science, all learning, and all friendship.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: comedian Eugene Mirman joins us for a conversation about humor that turns into a discussion about life, death, and finding comedy in both.
DUBNER: Do you want to talk about it?
MIRMAN: It would be funny if I was like, “I want to talk about it, but only with Guns N Roses.”
* * *
DUBNER: Angela Duckworth. It’s a special day. We have a guest today. It’s a great guest.
DUCKWORTH: He is a great guest. Yeah.
DUBNER: The comedian Eugene Mirman, who’s a good comedian and a good person. Probably best known as the voice of Gene in Bob’s Burgers, but he’s also done many comedy projects, including a 9-volume comedy album called I’m Sorry (You’re Welcome). Eugene Mirman, are you on the line with us?
Eugene MIRMAN: I am on the line with you. I am in Cape Cod, where I live.
DUCKWORTH: Eugene, nice to meet you.
MIRMAN: Nice to meet you.
DUCKWORTH: I love your work, but I’m not a comedy expert. Here is a question I have been thinking about literally for years. What do funny things have in common?
MIRMAN: What do funny things have in common?
DUBNER: They’re all small.
DUCKWORTH: They’re all yellow.
MIRMAN: They’re always delicious.
DUCKWORTH: Well I’m going to quote the novelist and writer E.B. White who said, “Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the things dies in the process, and the innards can be discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.” So I wondered whether you think humor can be dissected, reverse-engineered? And do you think we shouldn’t even talk about it, because we’re going to kill the thing while we do so?
MIRMAN: So, with comedy, yeah, you can dissect it. You can think: what word is funnier when? What pause makes something work better? But it’s also very scientific in that it’s trial-and-error. Stand-up, you do lots of shows and you try different ways to explain things, different punch lines. I think of it as a puzzle you have to solve. There’s sort of an observation or an experience or remembering a story. And then, you have to figure out, one, how to convey it to an audience, and then, two, how to make it both clear and funny.
DUCKWORTH: I always think of humor as a form of intelligence. And I think that the inspiration comes from an insight, right? Like, you see a truth. You have an observation. But I was just curious — you weren’t a very good student. So, are you smart? Are you not smart? Why didn’t you do well in school?
MIRMAN: It’d be funny if I was like, “They all didn’t understand how brilliant I was, and then they gave me a 2.1 grade point average,” which is very bad.
DUCKWORTH: That’s how dumb they were.
MIRMAN: Yes. That’s how foolish they were. So, I was also in special ed. I was a very bad student. And it could have started from just being foreign and having a tough time at school.
DUBNER: You came here at age 4 or so from Soviet Union? Yes.
MIRMAN: Yeah, exactly. I came here when I was 4. And, I don’t know if I had A.D.D. or not A.D.D. or —
DUCKWORTH: Well, you had to have some diagnosis, right? Like, do you know what your special ed form was?
MIRMAN: I don’t know in the 80s if they would diagnose you. I think they’d just be like, “You can’t focus. You’re bad at school. You test erratically. We don’t have a word for this yet, but let’s try to help you.” And I did sort of get better. And then I did go to college. I created a major of comedy so that I would largely do the things that interested me.
DUBNER: You went to Hampshire College, correct?
MIRMAN: I went to Hampshire.
DUBNER: And what was your coursework?
MIRMAN: I did a paper on Lenny Bruce’s social effect. I did a paper in science on the physiology of laughter. And I did a weekly comedy show in the basement of my dorm. So it all came together into my final project, which was a one-hour stand-up act.
DUBNER: Okay. I have to say, the great irony here is that your major in comedy sounds like the least practical, applicable major that you could choose in college. And yet it has been for you as on point as any college major could be, as opposed to everybody else’s college major. So, congratulations.
DUCKWORTH: No! You know what? He got competition. Will Shortz, the famous New York Times crossword —
DUBNER: He got a major in crossword puzzles?
DUCKWORTH: Yes. He studied puzzles. He actually created his own major. You two, actually, both did pretty well by pursuing what you really were interested in.
MIRMAN: The format of Hampshire where you had to figure out your own education was actually quite helpful when I left for all the things I had to do to actually become a comedian.
DUBNER: So, Eugene, the recent documentary film, It Started As a Joke, which I loved, is about the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival, which I’d love you to talk about a little bit for those who don’t know. But it’s also a lot about you, and your family, and your wife, who died recently from cancer. Before we get to that, can you just describe the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival?
MIRMAN: Basically, it’s a festival that started, I mean now, over 10 years ago. And the festival was somewhere between celebrating the New York-Brooklyn comedy community and also a slight satire of festivals in general. The last year of the festival I think was 2017.
DUBNER: And you met Katie, your would-be wife, in what year?
MIRMAN: I met her in 2006.
DUBNER: And so you ended up being married for a bunch of years. And in the film, we see her. She’d had cancer before you were married, and then she got cancer again. And we see you and her, and your son, Oliver, dealing with this. Then we see that she died. And in the film she said something that I wanted to ask you about. She said, “Nobody ever wants to talk to me about cancer.” Because you, Eugene, you were going out and in your comedy, talking about helping your wife who had cancer and trying to understand it and so on. And she says, “Nobody ever wants to talk to me about it.”
MIRMAN: Yeah. I mean, it’s hard because there’s two kinds of cancer. There is the kind that can get better and goes away and maybe never comes back. And then there’s the kind that’s terminal and you don’t know how long.
DUBNER: And she had them both?
MIRMAN: Yes, she had the one that theoretically would go away. And then she got terminal cancer that came back. And she had it, basically, for six years.
DUBNER: So, what did she mean by that when she said, “Nobody ever wants to talk to me about cancer?” Did she want to talk more about it? And was she put off by the fact that people would dance around it?
MIRMAN: Not exactly. I think it’s the idea that, and I say it in the movie, where talking about it isn’t going to be the thing that kills you. I mean, Katie and I felt comfortable talking about it. It was a part of our daily life. I think that there was also this sort of feeling whenever I told someone that Katie had cancer, their reaction was almost as if they were telling me that Katie had cancer.
DUCKWORTH: They’re so tortured.
MIRMAN: Yeah. There is a taboo of sorts. And I mean, in some cultures, there’s a real taboo where people whisper the word “cancer”.
DUCKWORTH: You mean they won’t speak it. They’ll only whisper it.
MIRMAN: Yeah. And that’s probably true of America in the 50s.
DUBNER: And Eugene, what about for you? I hope it doesn’t feel like I’m insensitive in asking this, do you want to talk about it all? Not necessarily with us, here, now. Do you want to talk about it generally?
MIRMAN: It would be funny if I was like, “I want to talk about it, but only with Guns N Roses.”
DUBNER: I can see the appeal of that.
DUCKWORTH: A very specific request.
MIRMAN: I am happy to talk about it. The stand-up was largely about people being at a loss of what to say or how to talk about it.
DUBNER: And you created ice-breaker cancer cards, we should say, ways to start the conversation.
MIRMAN: Exactly. I will say that as a result of both the movie and even that bit and stuff, different people reach out to me and talk about their own experiences and how they are very heartened by the ability to talk about it.
DUCKWORTH: If you do have a friend who you know that their spouse or their child has a disease, a cancer, should you say, “Would you like to talk about it?” I mean, I think you’re so generous when you say that people mean well. And even their clumsiness and their whispering and it’s very generous of you to say that because I think it’s true. But what advice do you have then —
MIRMAN: I would say that anyone would have to appreciate somebody trying. If you don’t know what to say, trying and being clumsy is okay. Katie and I would often be like, “We don’t know how to talk about it.” Our feelings are complicated. And she lived for years and there were times where she was doing kind of okay and we could do stuff, and times where she was on a stronger chemo and we couldn’t. And then, it was often up and down, you know? When we thought things were bad, they actually would often get better because the previous treatment stopped working and a new one, actually, would work. And it is this strange roller coaster. So, yeah, I would say that my advice would be to just broach the subject and to see what the person says.
DUBNER: Eugene, we’ve spoken before — Angela and I have — about this idea of a living eulogy, where rather than waiting till someone’s dead to say all these things that you loved about them, that you actually do it while they’re alive, whether they’re terminally ill or not, just that eulogies are wasted on the dead generally. I’m curious if you have any thoughts on that idea. And since she was terminal, you knew she was going to die, and since she was so young, whether you did anything like that with friends and family.
MIRMAN: Well, I mean, we made a movie. That she saw.
DUCKWORTH: I guess you did do that.
MIRMAN: We didn’t hold a pre-death party. But I think I would often say to her the things that I loved about her. I mean, it’s interesting, because I would say that actually so many of the things that people said at Katie’s celebration of life that we did a few weeks after she died — I will say that she would have known a lot of it. She would have known those stories. I mean it doesn’t make it any less hard or sad, but it also does make it warm.
DUBNER: So, there was something Katie said in the film that struck me. She said that despite cancer and then she said, “which is a big despite,” that she was happier than she’d ever been, even though she knew she was going to die pretty soon. She said, “I’m okay with that.” I was curious about you, though, like, were you okay with her being okay with that?
MIRMAN: I mean, yes, in the sense that we tried very hard to have as happy of a life as we could at each sort of moment. So, it’s obviously hard and strange knowing that someone will die. But also, we did largely live in a world of kind of month-to-month. And it would always just depend on what was plausible in terms of how she was feeling. But we did — we got married. We had a child through a surrogate. We did the things that people do to be happy in life as much as we could. Her sort of resilience and tenacity, to me, were incomparable. And also the way that she looked at things. She was resigned to the truth of the situation while fighting for the moment.
DUBNER: And how does your family function, meaning you and your son, without her strength and resilience now? Do you find that you are finding ways to compensate or make up for that?
MIRMAN: I mean, a lot of it was I was very focused on making sure that he was okay and figuring out ways to talk to him about it. But, I mean I have a therapist, who is also a child psychologist, to really help me with just how to help him and each of us helping each other.
DUBNER: Before we let you go, our producer, Rebecca Lee Douglas — so, Bob’s Burgers is her favorite show in the world, I think in history.
MIRMAN: More than Gunsmoke?
DUCKWORTH: Even more than Gunsmoke.
Rebecca Lee DOUGLAS: Hi Eugene. Yeah, I have some questions. So we were talking about process and what things are funny. I’m wondering if there’s anything that you’ve found funny that you just can’t make work on stage or other people don’t find funny for some reason. I know you worked on the cancer cards for a while, and it seems like ultimately you were able to get it to a place where people were able to connect with it and laugh about it. But I’m just wondering, like on your 9-volume comedy album I’m Sorry (You’re Welcome), you had some things that you didn’t want to put on it, like comedy for dogs and things like that. Was that because people couldn’t connect with it? Or is that because you couldn’t make it work?
MIRMAN: No. I think it was just more like the idea of a whole album of comedy for animals is very funny. But what it would actually be is unclear. So, I think I had like pages and pages of random strange ideas. Like, making what I imagine to be stand-up for a giraffe. That concept is very funny to me, but what am I actually saying and recording? And maybe it’s funny, but then you’re like, “Oh, but do I have, like, 17 minutes?”
DOUGLAS: Also, I’m curious, is there anything, as a father, that your son finds particularly funny? How old is he? He’s —
MIRMAN: He’s three and a half. He’s approaching four.
DOUGLAS: Is there anything that he finds funny that has made you look at that thing in a new way and maybe incorporate it into a joke or stand-up, or something like that?
MIRMAN: He said — and this is like, I don’t think he’d even turned 3 yet. We had been to a seafood store that had also some stuffed animals, and then some stuff hanging on the walls. He wanted to go back to it to get something. And I didn’t know what place he was talking about. And I was like, “Oh, are you talking about the place with the toys?” And he was like, “No. Decorations.” And he was like, “When toys are up high, they are called decorations.”
DUCKWORTH: Did he know he was being funny though? That sounds just like the wisdom of children.
MIRMAN: No. He was like, “What I think of as a toy, you hang up as art, you weird idiot.” Like, why is that fish on the wall?
DUBNER: And it’s too high for me to get to, so it can’t be a toy.
MIRMAN: Yeah. So, that made me go like, oh my God. Decorations are just toys that are up high. He was weeks from turning 3. I was like, that’s a really oddly astute thing.
DOUGLAS: And then, okay, I have one more question. So, before we called you, we were having this conversation about living funerals, funerals while a person is alive. Angela and Stephen mentioned this thing that I’d never heard before, called festschrift. Is that how it’s pronounced?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Well, it’s German, so I’m sure I’m butchering it. But yeah, festschrift.
DOUGLAS: Yeah. This celebration of an academic while they’re alive and all of these other academics come and talk about their work and why they’re great. And it’s interesting because it does seem like this film was a festschrift or a living funeral but for both Katie and for you, because all of these comics got to come together and talk about what they loved about both of you guys, but they didn’t have to say it to your face. So, it wasn’t super awkward or mushy. You just got to watch it back later. So, it seems like the best of both worlds.
MIRMAN: It is sort of uncomfortable to hear people say lovely things. Yes. But that sounds like a fun thing. I think in comedy, there’s roasts where people say lots of mean things and half of them mean the opposite. I think, in comedy, the closest thing to Germans saying nice things about academics is a roast.
DUCKWORTH: Would you rather be present for a roast or for a living eulogy? Would you rather be there for two hours listening to friends and family talk smack about you or praise you to the heavens?
MIRMAN: I guess, probably a roast. Like, ideally also, like, it’s a roast where it’s, like, your friends and loved ones, not just, like, David Hasselhoff and some other strange person. I’m thinking of a roast as like people I love warmly teasing.
DUCKWORTH: Actually, that sounds pretty good.
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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network. This episode was produced me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here is a fact-check of today’s conversations.
Angela’s description of a festschrift was actually slightly misleading. She said that it’s usually a one-day symposium. But the word actually refers to a book honoring a specific person, although a festschrift conference usually accompanies it. Angela thought that there must have been a festschrift for Anders Ericsson. And while Anders did participate in many festschrifts to honor other academics, there was never one dedicated to him. That may have been because he was relatively young when he died — 72-years-old, and he was still researching, and teaching, and publishing articles.
Later on, Eugene says that, as a child, he was placed in a special education program at school. He didn’t think he had a specific diagnosis and he didn’t know if it was required at the time. The 1975 Education for Handicapped Children Act, which became law before Eugene was school-aged, required that public schools evaluate children with disabilities and create an individualized educational plan with parental input. However, the evaluation requirement was unspecific at the time. His program may have required a diagnosis, but not necessarily from a doctor.
Finally, Angela mentions that Will Shortz, the crossword puzzle editor for The New York Times, studied puzzles in college. That’s correct, but the official name of his major was actually enigmatology — the study of enigmas. Shortz designed his own curriculum through Indiana University’s individualized major program and graduated in 1974.
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No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, James Foster, and Corinne Wallace. Thanks also to our intern Emma Tyrell [tur-ELL] for her help with this episode. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. And if you’d like to listen to our show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can also follow us on Instagram and Twitter at NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. Also, if you heard Stephen or Angela drop a reference to something that you’d like to learn more about, you can definitely check out Freakonomics.com/NSQ where we link to all of the studies and references that you heard here today. Thanks for listening!
DUBNER: Eugene, all right, I know you love math. How many podcasts do you think were started in May of 2020?
MIRMAN: I don’t know. Uh, 800?
DUBNER: It’s actually 100,000. So, here are the things that people are doing during the pandemic: baking bread, making podcasts. Period.
MIRMAN: I’m going to say that is 99,200 more than we need.
Question #1: Should we have funerals before people die?
- Stephen refers to a living-funeral scene in the book Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom. This was the living funeral of sociologist Morrie Schwartz who, after being diagnosed with A.L.S., arranged for his loved ones to eulogize him before he died.
- Stephen and Angela reminisce about the work and life of their recently-passed friend Anders Ericsson, a cognitive psychologist. Ericsson authored the book Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise and researched the thinking and reasoning of champions and those who excel. Ericsson has been on several Freakonomics Radio episodes, including “How to Be More Productive,” “How to Become Great at Just About Anything,” “How to Get More Grit in Your Life,” and “Why We Choke Under Pressure (and How Not To).”
- Angela discusses Anders Ericsson’s work with Nobel Laureate Herb Simon. They collaborated on Protocol Analysis, which argues that human skill sets are mainly developed, rather than inherent.
- Anglea shares that her professional role model is behavioral scientist Carol Dweck. Dweck is a psychology professor at Stanford University. She specializes in social, developmental, and personality psychology. To learn more about her research on “growth mindset” check out her 2014 TED Talk, “The Power of Believing That You Can Improve.”
- Angela wishes that she had sent Anders Ericsson a gratitude letter, which she defines as “a letter to someone who you never properly thanked.” Research suggests that you may be able to increase your own feelings of positivity by articulating the gratitude that you have for others.
- Stephen and Angela discuss festschrifts, or a way to celebrate a senior academic’s prolific career. To learn more about the tradition, check out this piece from The Scientist.
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Question #2: How does a comedian cope with tragedy?
- Stephen and Angela have a conversation with comedian Eugene Mirman. Eugene is probably best known as the voice of Gene of Bob’s Burgers.
- The 2019 documentary “It Started As A Joke” depicts both the 10-year-run of the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival and the challenges of supporting a loved one through terminal cancer.
- In 2015, Mirman released the nine-volume comedy album “I’m Sorry (You’re Welcome).”
- Angela quotes children’s book author E.B. White in her discussion about dissecting and re-engineering humor. There was some debate over if E.B. White is indeed responsible for this quote, but he was the likely originator.
- Eugene Mirman recalled that he created his own academic major in comedy at Hampshire College. Hampshire College does give its students a framework to create their own major and study area that culminates in an independent project by the student.
- Angela says that Mirman could be rivaled for the most applicable college major by Will Shortz, The New York Times crossword puzzle editor. He created his own major of enigmatology, otherwise known as the study of puzzles. You can learn more about Shortz from the documentary Word Play.
- Mirman mentions that a roast for comedians is equivalent to a scholar’s festschrift. Rolling Stone has a 2015 list that ranks the best and worst Comedy Central roasts. More recently, there have been some notable roasts of Justin Beiber and Alec Baldwin.