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Sharing laughs and a love of philosophy

Old friends from Harvard combine philosophy and humor in 'Plato and a Platypus,' the surprise hit of the book world

Tom Cathcart (left) and Dan Klein are old Harvard friends who wrote the surprise bestseller 'Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar,' that combines humor and philosophy.
Tom Cathcart (left) and Dan Klein are old Harvard friends who wrote the surprise bestseller 'Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar,' that combines humor and philosophy. (Globe Staff Photo / Michele McDonald)

SANDWICH -- Two friends are having lunch, and one tells this joke: Guy comes home from a business trip and finds his wife in bed, a nervous look on her face. He opens the closet to hang up his coat, and finds his best friend standing there, naked. Stunned, he says, "Lenny, what are you doing here?" Lenny shrugs and says, "Everybody's got to be someplace." The joke-listener laughs, then says, "He's giving a Hegelian answer to an existential question," and the joke-teller says, "Hm. There's a book here somewhere."

This curious match of amusing with a musing is the true story of how Dan Klein of Great Barrington and Tom Cathcart of Sandwich conceived the zaniest bestseller of the year: "Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes." Released in the spring, the 200-page book jumped onto the New York Times bestseller list and stayed for five weeks; it's still no. 32 on the 35-title online list (the printed list has 15 titles). The book's career so far demonstrates at least one point: Writers shouldn't give up too soon on a book they believe in.

Crammed with 143 jokes and an occasional cartoon, "Plato and a Platypus" is a 10-chapter course on the classic categories of philosophy, written in a Marxist style (Groucho's), paced by the frequent appearance of Dmitri and Tasso, a comic two-man Greek chorus. The chapter titles -- "Metaphysics," "Logic," "Epistemology," "Ethics," "Existentialism," and "Philosophy of Language" -- are serious, but the content that follows is anything but.

Interviewed together on Cathcart's Cape Cod porch, the two writers manage to share the answers to questions without interrupting each other. They display such easy chemistry and create such a constant straight man/funny man repartee that one might forget that they are serious about philosophy and worked hard on this book. It's obvious that they are also serious about friendship -- the first thing out of Dan Klein's mouth was, "We've been best friends for 50 years."

Both men concentrated in philosophy at Harvard, class of 1961. Klein, 68, is from a science-oriented family. His father, a chemist, worked on the Manhattan Project. Though he says he's from "a long line of devout atheists," he is deeply interested in religious thought. After college, he had a long career as a writer for television comedies and quiz shows, writing jokes for such talents as Flip Wilson, Lily Tomlin, and impressionist David Fry. He devised stunts for Allen Funt's "Candid Camera." He says he has also written about 30 books, fiction and nonfiction, including a mystery series casting Elvis as a detective (one is titled "Blue Suede Clues"), and co-invented a bestselling board game called Group Therapy.

Cathcart, 67, grew up in a churchgoing family, mostly in Needham. After college, he went to divinity school at the University of Chicago. Though he decided against ministry, he is still involved with church life. "I always had straight-arrow jobs" in health care, he said, both physical and mental, and eventually he became chief operating officer of Mercy Hospital in Portland, Maine. He managed a hospice for AIDS patients -- "the best job I ever had; I loved it," he said. Both men are married, with one daughter each.

At Harvard in the late 1950s, philosophy concentrators were few -- about 20 students out of a class of 1,000 -- but the two friends loved the intellectual challenges. "I was pretty good, but he was very good," Klein said. "It became part of our conversation, the key to what we have talked about for 50 years." The world's disdain for the supposed impracticality of philosophy never bothered them; they never intended to be professors.

Almost every year, Klein said, "we have gone on a vacation together, just the two of us, to talk and think about projects." In 1997 they published a book of politically incorrect reflections, supposedly by two barflies named Ralph and Reggie, called "Macho Meditations," and another time they produced a seven-minute film on the Old Testament.

Cathcart: "We discovered there isn't a big market for seven-minute films."

Klein: "The material was there, but we didn't have a good marketing plan."

On one such vacation in 2004, in Gloucester, they brainstormed about Klein's idea of a book of philosophy and jokes. Cathcart had said there can't be more than four jokes with philosophical implications, but Klein was sure there are hundreds. At the end of the trip, they agreed to give the book a try and soon got down to serious -- but not too serious -- research and development.

Cathcart: "Danny was the jokester."

Klein: "Tom was the brains of the outfit."

Klein dug up most of the jokes, while Cathcart explained the philosophy. Yet they collaborated closely on both parts.

Klein: "We figured out that jokes and philosophy have a lot in common. Every joke has that 'aha!' moment."

Cathcart: "One reason you laugh at a joke is that you are so delighted with yourself that after that split second, you 'got it.' There is that experience with philosophy -- some ideas are a little offbeat. You have that moment when you don't get it, and then you say, 'Oh, right!' "

They were determined not to explain why the jokes are funny but rather how they illuminate philosophical ideas. In the joke about Lenny in the closet, for example, Cathcart says the husband asks an existential question -- "What are you, an individual person, doing in this particular place and time?" -- but by answering, "everyone has to be somewhere," Lenny is making a general statement about the operations of human history, in the manner of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Meanwhile, we laugh.

When he got the manuscript, Klein's longtime agent was underwhelmed. He sent the book to 10 publishers, all of whom rejected it. Klein came to suspect this project needed a new agent, someone as offbeat as the authors, so he offered the book to an old friend, Julia Lord, a live wire who had represented actors before switching to literary agency.

"I loved it," Lord said. "I thought, it's funny and smart and everybody likes to laugh and feel smarter." She sent the manuscript to 32 publishers -- 31 rejected it, on top of the 10 who had seen it previously. "I found editors who said, 'It's so funny and smart, but I can't sell it,' " Lord said. Still, she refused to quit.

"When I think something is good, I don't give up," she said. "I'm used to working on my own, and I think I'm as right as anyone out there -- there must be more people out there like me." The 42d house to consider the book was art publisher Harry N. Abrams, which was starting a new imprint, Abrams Image, intended to combine original writing with clever design. Abrams accepted the book.

"Everyone said, 'There's something really cool here,' " said Ann Treistman, the book's editor at Abrams. "With everyone from the older, die-hard publishing types to the young assistants, it really connected. I love the fact that [Klein and Cathcart] are older. So much buzz happens around young, hip writers."

The writers were stunned by the book's success. "When I told my father I was going to major in philosophy, he said, 'Why do you always do things that lead nowhere?' " Klein said. "I wish I could tell him now, 'Fifty years later, I finally made a buck on it!' " Paperback and foreign rights have been sold, and it has been optioned for a PBS documentary film.

What do two philosophy nerds do when they publish a bestseller? They write a sequel, of course. "Aristotle and an Aardvark Go to Washington: Understanding Political Doublespeak Through Philosophy and Jokes" is due out next winter -- just in time for the election season, when we can all use a laugh.

David Mehegan can be reached at mehegan@globe.com.

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