Fans of The Big Bang Theory know the character of Sheldon Cooper as a nerdy, Klingon-speaking manbot who, according to his friends, is one lab experiment away from turning into a comic book villain. He’s a theoretical physicist who has no use for human contact, feelings or sentimentality, especially around the holidays; he calls Christmas “a bunch of bologna created by the tinsel industry.” Naturally, he doesn’t believe in Santa.
So it’s no surprise that Eric Kaplan, one of the show’s writers and a co-executive producer, has written a book called Does Santa Exist?: A Philosophical Journey. The question does not have an easy answer — most kids believe, most adults don’t. And unlike his TV character, Kaplan isn’t interested in disproving the being of world’s biggest holiday symbol. Instead, he writes that like all of life’s ponderables — God, love, the self — Santa is a self-contradicting paradox that involves rationality, belief and faith. It’s complicated.
For Kaplan, it all started after a playdate gone wrong: His young son was set to go to the zoo in December with a friend whose mother canceled the trip because she didn’t want Kaplan’s boy telling her son that Santa doesn’t exist. (Kaplan and his family are Jewish). Puzzled by a woman who didn’t want to spoil her son’s innocence while knowing that she’s the one buying the gifts, Kaplan uses that conundrum to philosophically explore the meaning of St. Nick, as well as his own beliefs.
“I was pretty sure he didn’t exist,” Kaplan tells the Weekly. “But I’m a tolerant person. I studied comparative religion and I was thinking, ‘Why can I be tolerant of some Hindu deity, but I can’t understand the meaning of some American deity?’ I’ve never seen the Israeli supermodel Bar Rafaeli and she exists. What if I go to the North Pole? If I don’t see him does that mean he doesn’t exist? That’s obviously a stupid suggestion because I’d probably freeze to death.
“Also, he’s supposed to be a spiritual, magical being, so even if I tried to take a photo of him, and I couldn’t, maybe his beard has the power to bend the rays of light. I realized I couldn’t quite prove that he doesn’t exist. Maybe there’s different ways to exist and I just wanted to get to the bottom of it.”
In the book, Kaplan uses three approaches to probe the Santa paradox: First, he argues that logic and the principles of reasoning are all about clarity and therefore leave no room for contradiction. Then he tackles mysticism as an alternative using Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and some UC Berkeley philosophers as examples. Mysticism, Kaplan, says, embraces contradiction as a way of seeing ourselves. Finally, Kaplan settles on comedy as the best of both worlds. Smart comedy (Sarah Silverman, Monty Python sketches, episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show) bridges the gap between logic and mysticism and further embraces contradiction in a way that’s limitless and even revelatory.
Kaplan quotes a joke from the late stand-up comic Robert Schimmel: “My son got cancer and I thought that was really bad. But then I got cancer.”
“I thought that showed that you can have a double vision about life,” Kaplan says. “You can simultaneously think that you’re the most important person in the world and you’re not the most important person in the world, and both of those can be true. Comedy deals with the paradoxes of life.”
Kaplan is perfectly adept at examining all the above. His other writing credits include The Late Show with David Letterman, Futurama, Malcolm in the Middle and Flight of the Conchords. Before that, he was ordained as a Buddhist monk, and is currently completing his Ph.D. in philosophy at UC Berkeley.
Kaplan insists that he doesn’t fall into either camp and doesn’t have an ax to grind.
“I want people to realize that they believe in things that they cannot justify,” Kaplan says. “I want people to come away with an interested and forgiving attitude towards variations in religious beliefs.”
He might be persuaded to become pro-Clausian, though, when in January he attends a reunion of the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas, an O.C.-based organization of professional jolly men who pride themselves on having natural beards.
“I was giving out books at a library convention in Las Vegas and Santa and his wife came up to me and they gave me their card,” Kaplan says. “I didn’t know Santa had a card. He invited me to talk there. I’m gonna have to bring my A game obviously.”
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