Freedman dishes out wit, wisdom in new book
November 17, 2005
During his years as a Chicago psychology professor, Phil Freedman ran a series of experiments on learning theory, the notion that people repeat behaviors that reward them. It was a continuation of the dissertation work he had done on rats. The rats had performed up to expectations, but his human subjects were less predictable (and in Freedman’s frank estimation, dumber). After three rounds of experiments that yielded inconsistent and useless results, Freedman decided to submit his report to the esteemed journal, The American Psychologist – as a humor article.
“My friends said, ‘You’re sending this to the most serious journal in psychology?'” said Freedman.Freedman’s “Learning Theory: Two Trials and Tribulations” became, according to its author, the first and only piece in The American Psychologist to elicit laughs, rather than results that any psychologist might build on. It also drew more requests for reprints than any of the several dozen other articles Freedman would go on to publish.Despite that favorable response, “Learning Theory” was the only comedic writing Freedman submitted to an academic journal. “I didn’t want to look like a clown within my profession,” is his explanation. (My own conclusion is that Freedman was no smarter than those humans he thought were no smarter than the rats.) The experience did lend evidence to the “alternation” theory, though, that people won’t automatically explore the exact same path that rewarded them previously, but will figure the reward has been exhausted and will try another route. Freedman, who had written comedy as a student – biting satire for the Rutgers University daily, The Targum, during his undergrad years and skits that mocked the faculty for the University of Iowa’s Regression Dinners as a grad student – thus settled into writing “horrifyingly dull articles” for psychology journals.
In 1997, Freedman found himself 59, retired, living in Basalt and as short as ever. He also noticed he was still married, and that his wife of 36 years was ready to make something of the rest of her life. Anne Freedman had become involved in Basalt politics (after eight years, she will soon be forced off Basalt Town Council due to term limits). “And she said, ‘So what are you going to do?'” recalled Freedman.It took but a minute for Freedman to decide that he wanted to write about the history of condoms. For years, he had told a story about his childhood job in his father’s Asbury Park, N.J., pharmacy, when young Phil blurted out the memorable line, “Izzy, do we have any Trojans?” and sent a horny customer scurrying out the door. The story always got laughs, which got Freedman thinking: “I wanted to write about the history of condoms, how they got from under-the-counter to on the shelf next to the candy.”The story earned Freedman a space in the defunct Roaring Fork Sunday for his humor column, Whatever, which moved on to the Aspen Daily News and, eventually, to a website, http://www.whatever-freedman.net. (At both papers, a change in editors limited Freedman to a nine-month stay.) Perhaps fearful that his current editor – his wife Anne – will follow the actions of her predecessors, Freedman shows up at his computer dutifully, at 4:30 a.m., to do some funny writing.
Freedman has collected favorites of his 600 or so columns into a book, “Izzy, Do We Have Any Trojans? The Wit and Wisdom of Phil Freedman.” Contrary to the opinions the editors who nixed his column, Freedman is funny, in the manner of any self-deprecating East Coast Jew who cannot be embarrassed by any revelation. The column-sized pieces draw on personal experience and flights of fancy. In the former category is “An Army of One, But It’s Not Me,” in which Freedman recalls, “My fiancée worried that I would be too hot in a tank and I worried that I would be killed in one.” “Burying Benny,” in which a commercial airline seat turns out to be the cheapest way to get a corpse from Colorado to New Jersey for burial, is, thankfully, imagination. (Well, mostly imagination. Freedman was inspired in the tale by thoughts of his mother-in-law.)Freedman is even funny in his dedication (“to my granddaughter Dylan who will someday find it and use it as a door stop”) and the About the Author notes (“After two years in the Army, he was disgorged with relief on both sides”).A generation of psychologists will never know what they missed.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org