The Redemptive Power of Humor
By Robert Darden
Copyright © 2008 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.
Chapter One What Humor Is and How to Recognize It, Day or Night
To explain the nature of laughter and tears, is to account for the condition of human life; for it is in a manner compounded of these two! —William Hazlitt
Laughter. Humor. Gaiety. Mirth. Joy. Happiness.
If the thesis of this book is that these things really do matter to Christians and the church, then perhaps it's a good idea to explain/understand them and—in a perfect world—even learn how to use them. Your salvation does not depend on whether or not you get your pastor's latest joke. In fact, as we'll see, we're not even talking about jokes. But the quality of your life both before and after your salvation depends, in part, on your understanding of, as Hazlitt says, "the nature of laughter and tears" (1901, B). Or, as William H. Willimon expresses it: "... the very essence of grace is to receive the gift of laughter, especially when the joke is on us, particularly when the most laughable incongruities consist of the gap between who we are and who God would have us to be" (1986, 10).
Most of us have the tears bit figured out pretty well. We've already got two books in the Bible that spend 99 percent of their time telling us how crummy things are and how come we deserve it—Lamentations and Ecclesiastes. And you should probably avoid Job, James, and Revelation if you're a little blue too. For balance, you'd think there would be at least one book in the Bible titled "Delirious" or "Giddy with Delight" or even "Slap-Happy." But there's not.
Fortunately, humor and happiness are two intimately related concepts that you can learn to recognize, learn to reproduce, and even learn to internalize. And, in the pages ahead, I hope I'll be able to convince you that it is a good thing.
[T]he ability to see the humor in things, or to create comic tales and rituals, is among the most profound and imaginative of human achievements. The comic sense is an important part of what it means to be human and humane. Without it we return to brutishness, and the Philistines are upon us. (Hyers 1981, 11)
From a scholarly, academic standpoint, science is still a little wobbly when it comes to explaining laughter and humor. Susanne Langer's pivotal Feeling and Form notes that laughter erupts, often unexpectedly, from a "surge of vital feeling." It's a complicated physiological and emotional process, she says, "a culmination of feeling— the crest of a wave of felt vitality." Langer further defines laughter as being more "elementary" than humor, since we can break into spontaneous laughter without any apparent stimulus or cause. "People laugh for joy in active sport, in dancing, in greeting friends; in returning a smile," she writes, "one acknowledges another person's worth instead of flaunting one's own superiority and finding him funny" (1953, 340, 341).
Comedy, still another separate quality, occurs when something is reinterpreted for us, somehow surprising us, creating something new:
Humor, then, is not the essence of comedy, but only one of its most useful and natural elements. It is also its most problematical element, because it elicits from the spectators what appears to be a direct emotional response to persons on the stage, in no wise different from their response to actual people: amusement, laughter. (346)
The most crucial concept related to humor that Langer identifies is surprise. Simply put, without surprise, there is no humor. Period.
Consider this: You're going to hear your favorite musical artist— Loreena McKennitt, Van Morrison, Prince, whoever—in concert. You scream madly each time he or she performs one of your favorite songs. And for an encore, you scream even louder to hear one (or more) of them again. If they comply, you leave feeling satisfied.
But say you've heard a very funny story. You want to share it with a friend. How do you preface your story? You say, "Stop me if you've heard this one before ..."
Why? Because if they've heard it before, there is no surprise. Without the surprise, the story, the joke, isn't funny. The humor is in the surprise ending.
So the first great essential of humor/comedy is surprise.
Surprise comes from expectations being overturned. You expect one thing, but something unexpected happens. Surprise is—essentially— pulling the rug out from under someone's feet. But first you have to get them to stand on the rug ...
In order to have surprise, you have to have the commonplace. The normal (or what appears to be normal) order of things; the everyday.
You'd expect the founders of our faith to be sterling individuals, saintly aesthetes who walk in God's favor. But the revered patriarchs and matriarchs of the Old Testament steal, lie, dissemble, flee in fear, kill, cavort with undesirables, fail repeatedly, and, in general, behave as badly as freshmen on Spring Break. If you're looking for heroes in the Bible, you're going to be surprised by the antics of Joseph, Isaac, David, Rachel, Tamar, Abigail, Jael, Solomon, Elijah, and all of the rest.
You'd expect the Founder of Christianity to speak in Grand Truths, in stirring, noble language, not to speak in riddles or tell little stories about goofy, common, infuriatingly normal people. And if you do fall for the Founder's gentle message, you're sure not expecting logic to be so consistently turned on its head—to conquer death, you only have to die; the last shall be first; it is better to be the servant than the master; you must be born again; and how come the rich man has such a long, hard slog if he's going to get to heaven?
You'd expect the long-awaited messiah to ride triumphantly into Jerusalem on a magnificent white stallion, at the head of a powerful army. But he trots in on a donkey, his way littered with palm fronds, surrounded by the common people of the city—some of whom may or may not call for his death in just a few days. Another surprise.
Oh, the Bible is all over surprise.
The best example of this is the surprise death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The sheer, unadulterated, holy, outrageous unexpectedness of it is—sadly—lost to us today. We're told the story as soon as we're able to (barely) understand it. But two thousand years ago, the apostles were absolutely gob-smacked (to use one of my favorite British colloquialisms). Stunned. Flabbergasted. Mary didn't recognize Jesus in the garden—she thought he was the pool boy! John and Peter raced each other to the empty tomb and babbled about what they saw—or didn't see—so much so that the accounts in Matthew, Luke, and John are all slightly different.
The biggest joke of all, of course, is on Satan. That would be Easter, the day the bad guys thought they'd won—but didn't. The ancients have a long tradition of understanding Easter Sunday in terms of humor.
Early church fathers such as Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and even John of Chrysostom mused that God played a practical joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the grave. The Greek Orthodox Church even gave the joke the theological name of "risus paschalis"—Easter laughter (Segal 2001, 24).
In fact, Dante Alighieri called his greatest work, a cosmic exploration of the Christian experience, The Comedy (the "Divine" was added later—but as a title, it works even better; Musa 2003, xxx). Nobody was more surprised that glorious day two thousand years ago than Old Scratch.
Jürgen Moltmann (1972, 29–32) says that since historic times, Easter sermons in the Protestant tradition (which he notes wryly, is "well-known for its dryness") have often begun with a joke. In fact, he believes that 1 Corinthians 15:55-57 is really an Easter hymn that mocks and laughs at Satan:
Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Greek Orthodox Church does it one better than the Protestants— many churches still follow the ancient custom of setting aside the entire day following Easter for twenty-four hours of non-stop humor, comedy, joking, and laughter because of:
[T]he big joke God pulled on Satan in the Resurrection. Cosmos has been victorious over chaos, faith over doubt, trust over anxiety; and man is now truly free to laugh with the laughter of higher innocence. (Hyers 1969, 239)
Even C. S. Lewis got into the act. What's the first thing that Aslan does after the great lion is "resurrected" in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? He romps and plays with Lucy and Susan, "so that all three of them rolled over together in a happy laughing heap of fur and arms and legs" (Lewis 1978, 160; emphasis mine).
"The laughter of the universe is God's delight. It is the universal Easter laughter in heaven and on earth" (Moltmann and Moltmann-Wende 2003, 85). To create that kind of surprise—and thus humor—you have to take chances, be willing to alter the established order of things, dare to dream, and, most important, be willing to fail. Good comic writers daydream a lot, placing things in juxtaposition that have never been side by side before. That juxtaposition of two normal things sometimes creates an entirely new third thing.
One of the great masters of creating surprise was filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. His best films are full of surprises. People went to see his movies knowing they were going to be surprised, and yet he still managed to surprise them repeatedly.
In any given Hitchcock film, a bad guy is usually waiting to jump out and kill Jimmy Stewart (it was almost always Jimmy Stewart) in a dark house. Everybody in the theater knows the bad guy is in the dark house except Jimmy Stewart. In fact, the bad guy's waiting down at the end of this long, dark hallway. Jimmy walks slowly down the hall, unconcerned, whistling a brave little tune. The anticipation builds. Just as he gets to the intersection with the next hallway where we're sure the bad guy waits ... a flash of movement! Everybody shrieks! But it is only a cat. Jimmy relaxes. We relax and breathe a sigh of relief. Just a cat. It's then and only then that the bad guy jumps out! Double shriek!
A good surprise requires careful buildup—setting the stage, establishing the characters, creating expectations—then and only then, when the reader or congregation least expects it, pulling that rug out.
The result? People laugh. It's a natural, healthy response. A release.
One of the masters of using surprise to force both a sudden reevaluation of something that has become over-familiar and (sometimes) involuntary laughter is Flannery O'Connor. From her dark, disturbing story "The Violent Bear It Away" comes this snippet of the Christmas story, told by a child evangelist:
She began again in a dirge-like tone. "Jesus came on cold straw, Jesus was warmed by the breath of an ox. 'Who is this?' the world said, 'who is this blue-cold child and this woman, plain as the winter? Is this the Word of God, this blue-cold child? Is this His will, this plain winter-woman?' "Listen you people!" she cried, "the world knew in its heart, the same you know in your hearts and I know in my heart. The world said, 'Love cuts like the cold wind and the will of God is plain as the winter. Where is the summer will of God? Where are the green seasons of God's will? Where is the spring and summer of God's will?' "... You know and I know," she said, turning again, "what the world hoped then. The world hoped old Herod would slay the right child, the world hoped old Herod wouldn't waste those children, but he wasted them. He didn't get the right one. Jesus grew up and raised the dead." (1964, 383)
There is a strange, chilling laugh that culminates in the final words of this paragraph. A wild, untamed quality. Humor, at its best, reorders the universe in new and exciting ways. What can you do but laugh at the wonder of it? It is in O'Connor's work that Frederick Buechner (a pretty funny guy himself) thinks he's found the wellspring of this kind of dangerous holy humor. He believes O'Connor is "one of the most profoundly funny writers" of the twentieth century:
I suppose it is precisely because she has a mystic's sense of what holiness truly is that she is able to depict in such a wry and sometimes uproarious way the freakish distortions that it suffers at the hands of a mad world. Her laughter comes from a very deep and holy place inside herself, in other words, and that is probably why it is so deeply infectious, why the comic element of her work is not merely one of its embellishments but of its very substance, as inseparable from the tragic element as grace is from sin. (Buechner 1992, 69)
Why is surprise the primary impetus of humor? It could be because it is at the root of "elemental laughter," the first giggles from a newborn child. Studies have shown that a baby's first laugh usually comes following the briefest of separations from the baby's mother and her sudden reappearance. It's that oldest of baby-games, "Peek-a-Boo." The most elemental laughter derives from the reunion of family. And isn't that what the Easter Surprise, the Easter Laughter is all about? But first you must have the surprise (Segal 2001, 25).
In the end, without surprise life has a numbing sameness. Once we excise the possibility of amazement from our lives, existence veers dangerously close to tedium. It's that lack of predictability that makes a long prison sentence so soul-sapping. Life shouldn't be like a prison sentence.
Commonality and Community
The second element necessary to create quality humor is the establishment of a shared community. The best humor is about the people (or people types and—as a last resort—stereotypes) you know. You're at a party. Suddenly, a guy gets a banana cream pie in the face. That's mildly amusing. But if the guy getting the pie in the kisser is your obnoxious brother-in-law, now that's funny!
That's why the best comedians quickly create a community of easily recognizable characters, people you can identify with. That's why they pick on popular (or unpopular) politicians, entertainers, and athletes. You know them; you know something about them. No matter how funny he is, a British comic making wildly clever observations about English politicians probably isn't going to get many laughs in Omaha or Waco. We just don't know those guys. The connection isn't there. It isn't funny.
That means the best humor is narrative-based, not joke-based. Jokes and puns are the lowest kind of humor, a smile-inducing (at best), momentary break from the norm. But if you're writing or talking about real people, in real settings, facing real issues and problems, then you've created community and the potential for real humor. The humor flows out of the characters naturally. The reader/viewer/congregation invests in these characters and empathizes with them—even if they're animated, like Bugs Bunny, Nemo, Shrek, or the gang in Peanuts or Bloom County.
Related to this, humor is always funnier in a group, just as faith is better and stronger in a group. Watching a comic DVD alone on your home computer may be only mildly amusing. But watch it with a group of good friends and it is riotous. You may indeed be able to worship God in your own way out in the fields and by the beach. But it is better as part of a loving, wounded, searching community.
To create true, enduring humor, you must create community—think of old family friends sitting around talking ... the laughter rolls naturally, regularly, and often. They're not doing anything but talking, and they're having a great time. As a kid listening in to these conversations, I didn't get it. How come they were having so much fun? All they were doing was talking.
A humorist's greatest challenge is creating community and a tacitly acknowledged group of shared assumptions in a room of disparate strangers. That's why pastors have it easier. They have a common language, a common set of known, recognizable characters, and they have a community.
That's why the best stories, the funniest stories from the pulpit or in print are—whenever possible—real stories about real people. There is a significant difference in listener investment between a story that begins:
Excerpted from Jesus Laughed by Robert Darden Copyright © 2008 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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