Todd May isn't sure how his book "Death" ended up in the hands of a sitcom writer at NBC, but he aims to find out one day. It was the beginning of a fruitful, if unlikely, relationship.
May, a philosophy professor at Clemson University, is one of a handful of experts the television network consults on its quirky series "The Good Place." The show follows the moral quandaries of characters in an afterlife paradise gone haywire.
After May's 2009 treatise on mortality made an impression on one of the writers, who passed it on to his boss and show creator Michael Schur, May found himself having long, fascinating conversations with Schur.
"We had one Skype, which then turned into a series of Skypes," May said.
The network has since flown him out to Los Angeles for hours-long talks in the writers' room.
As it turns out, Schur — who made his name with hit shows like "The Office," "Parks and Recreation" and "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" — wanted to make people laugh, but he also wanted to get the details right. When a character made a joke about Aristotle, Schur wanted to fact-check the punchline. When the moral philosopher character Chidi loosened up on his strict Kantian position, he wanted the shift to look believable to folks who have read some Kant.
Consulting on a network TV show is an odd career turn for an expert on poststructuralism and other esoteric topics in 20th century continental philosophy. May's work was not always this accessible: In classic academic form, his 1989 doctoral thesis at Penn State was titled "Psychology, Knowledge, Politics: The Epistemic Grounds of Michel Foucault's Genealogy of Psychology."
But with three decades of college teaching and research under his belt, May said he was ready to share what he'd learned with the world.
"When you start in academics, you’ve got to show that you’ve got chops in the field that you’re in — you can speak the lingo, make the moves," May said. "So I did all that early on, but as I went on, I started thinking I could probably write for a wider audience. The machinery’s all there, but I don’t have to show all the machinery."
Outside of the ivory tower and millions of weekly "Good Place" viewers, May has taken his teaching to at least one other venue that might cause Foucault to raise his eyebrows: prison.
On a chance invitation from a friend, May started teaching philosophy classes this year at Perry Correctional Institution, a South Carolina prison about 40 miles from Clemson University. He now teaches two class groups: one for general population, one for lifers.
"The students were really responsive, the questions they asked were great, they did the reading. I’d give them just a few pages of reading for each class, but you could see they had it all marked up," he said.
The inmates have pondered the meaning of life, he said, and they've had lively debates on gun control and the death penalty.
Back on campus in the spring of 2018, May's undergraduate students were studying Aristotle at the same time as the inmates. When the students asked how the inmates were handling the material, May told them, "Your goal should be to be as motivated as the prisoners are."
Later in the year, May made waves with a provocatively titled Dec. 17 op-ed in The New York Times: "Would Human Extinction Be a Tragedy?" The site closed the comments section after 1,630 responses.
Meanwhile, on NBC, the topic of death has provided rich soil for comedy. "The Good Place" was recently renewed for its fourth season.
"In the book ('Death'), I write that death is something that on the one hand takes away meaning from us because it cuts us off, but on the other hand it gives us meaning because if we were immortal, life would be shapeless," May said. "So we construct our lives and we try to live our morality within our mortality."
With the third season on hiatus during the month of December, May recently sat down for some lengthy on-camera interviews on basic topics like utilitarianism, psychological egoism and Kantian deontology (the study of duty and obligation).
The hours-long interviews have been boiled down into YouTube clips for a web series.
His four-minute breakdown of existentialism has racked up 65,000 views since mid-December.