The Divine Art of Funny
As an adult who’s spent the last year of his life writing and revising a Christian novel he helplessly describes as a “rock n roll zombie comedy,” I’ve wasted a considerable number of hours pondering that psychic disturbance we call funny. What is funny? What is it made of? Does it get good mileage on the highway?
I’ve come to the conclusion that at the core of the best and the purest of humor and in the creme de la creme of parody and mockery, is the joyful blossoming of God’s Spirit in a broken world. It is the recognition that our world is full of things that aren’t what they were intended to be, that there is a possibility of something far, far better. It is the juxtaposition of falsity and truth, of shadow and reality. We laugh, not because the comedian’s facts are exaggerated, but because a deeper truth is exposed and magnified.
Growing up, my Sunday worship consisted entirely of reading the full-color funny pages and the latest Dave Barry column to my dad over the phone. My mom or her then-husband would return from the store with armfuls of groceries and a bulging Sunday paper rolled up and stuffed in one of the bags. I’d dart in before my older sister, snatch the colorful four-page spread of the funnies section and the much less exciting Opinion page where Dave Barry lived, and steal away to a remote corner of the house with my haul. The Funny Bandit strikes again. I’d park myself next to one of those old landline telephones with the long, curly pig’s tail of a cord, and wait for my dad’s weekly call. He lived on the other side of the country, in a house decorated with ceiling-high stacks of stereo equipment and quotations from Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, and Friedrich Nietzsche. He was into books and computers. Of all the people in my family, I felt he was the only one who understood me as a person. He was also a thousand miles away. Those days were like The Matrix, in a way; that old telephone was a connection to reality, a solid world of joviality and mirth. When I hung up the phone, I was back in the dream world, a place of muted colors and muted laughter.
I moved around a lot with my mom, and we lived a lonely, quasi-nomadic existence. My older siblings went off to college before I even reached high school, my younger brother was left behind when his father took custody of him. Marriages, houses, schools, and friends came and went. Funny was my solace. It was a reason to laugh, to smile, even to inhale. In the lonely times and in the sad, quiet hours, humor was a glimmer of light. There were times in my teenage years where I felt I’d fallen in a deep shaft with no light and no escape. It was the world of comedy that brought fresh draughts of air and warm rays of light, faint as they were in my deep place.
But what is funny? And why do we laugh? I reject the naturalist’s postulation that laughter is simply an evolved social mechanism,1 an ancient coincidence of breeding and survival not yet replaced by a superior natural defense against predators. “Funny” has it no better with the evolutionary psychologists; humor is the term for when the brain recognizes an unanticipated pattern and generates a pleasurable response. Laughter is the incidental noise the body emits when this occurs.2 Such definitions are both joy-killing and short-sighted. As a Christian, I believe that God designs all things (including armpit hair) for a purpose. There are no coincidences in his design, only details. We are more than mountains of atoms; God made Adam from not just dust, but his holy breath, too. Everything that we are is made for a purpose, and every piece has its end in good. Humor and laughter included. Funny is an essential part of all human culture, too. That is not a coincidence. We were made to laugh.
I agree to a small extent with the evolutionary psychologists that we laugh when we notice something “off”. Why do we laugh, though, if not because of some long-honed survival response? I believe that genuine laughter is a joyful response, a positive, pleasurable reaction to something heard, seen, or smelt (regardless of whomsoever dealt). Laughter is a godly thing, an inclination to the joyful divine. It is a turn in the direction of good. And if laughter moves us closer to God, as I believe it does, then funny is something “off” that moves us Godward.
Yet the Bible mostly portrays laughter in defiance of God. Abraham and Sarah laugh in disbelief when God promises them a son. The crowd laughs when Jesus says the young girl is not dead, but asleep. In Psalms, laughter is reserved for the Lord and for the enemies of Israel. While laughter of men in these cases is derived from hearing or seeing something unexpected or ironic (as in the case of Israel’s subjugation), it is a negative laughter. It is laughter that pulls men away from God. If laughter is as good and divine as I believe, then why is it often a symbol of scorn in the scriptures? I find it likely that humor and laughter, like sex, are so fundamental and so obviously a part of human relationships that they require no discussion outside of when they go astray or veer into corruption. The Bible is an instruction manual on establishing and maintaining a relationship to God. It is like a map to park. A map provides no instructions on how to climb a tree. It doesn’t need to. Likewise, we don’t need instructions on laughter. Or procreation, for that matter. We come with all that built in.
Genuine humor, then, is the pleasurable reaction to something discordant with our expectations. Humor is intrinsic, and it is meant to pull us towards God. But what is it? I divide humor into types: humor of joy and humor of justice. In the first case, humor of joy, we respond to something “funny” because it is surprisingly and unexpectedly lovely and wondrous, and through our laughter we share this moment of beauty like communion. This is why we laugh at a video of a young girl crying because she just discovered her baby brother will one day “grow up” or a small dog going nuts when America’s Funniest Home Videos comes on the television. In humor of justice, we laugh when notice something strange in this world, something broken, and either consciously or unconsciously we understand that there is a better way. This is the essence of satire and observational humor. Comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert thrive on this species of funny. We laugh with joy and pleasure here, but each echo of laughter is a plea for a better world.
I won’t claim that I’ve provided an exhaustive analysis on “funny” in this article. Many questions remain. If humor and laughter are essentially divine, why are so many comedians atheists? And why do so many Christians come off as totally humorless? If laughter is as intrinsic and fundamental to people as sex, then why does the Bible have Song of Solomon but no really good jokes? What category does flatulence fit into? After a day of travel and teaching, did Jesus and the disciples ever sit around the fire and swap funny stories? On that point, I insist the answer is yes: no peaceful gathering of blue-collar men ever goes ten minutes without some great jokes.
2. Nauert, Rick. “The Evolution of Humor.” Psych Central. June 30, 2008. Accessed September 24, 2014. http://psychcentral.com/news/2008/06/30/the-evolution-of-humor/2523.html.
Photo courtesy of CircaSassy at Flickr Creation Commons under (CC BY 2.0).