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How many times does a Mennonite laugh at a joke? Two times. Once when the joke is told. Once when it’s explained to them.
“But you must never imagine that just because something is funny… it is not also dangerous.”
—Mr. Croup, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere
Within many Christian circles there seems to be an unwillingness to engage with humour and comedy. In fact, I don’t recall any discussions about comedy or the nature of laughter in my lifetime of church-going. Besides an amusing list of bulletin typos or the odd joke at the beginning of a sermon (and the less said about these the better), humour doesn’t have much of a place within the church. Some view humour with suspicion, at best a distraction, at worst idleness. Why is there such ambivalence about laughter and the art of making people laugh?
In the 1980 historical murder mystery, The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco suggests one perspective on this unwillingness to engage in deeper thinking about comedy. While investigating some murders in an Italian abbey, William of Baskerville, a Franciscan monk, discovers the importance of some illuminated manuscripts of the abbey’s. While visiting the scriptorium, William encounters Jorge, the blind librarian whose opinions on the evilness of laughter surprise the Franciscan. In Jorge’s opinion, laughter distracts the faithful from the serious-mindedness of the gospel: “The comedies were written by the pagans to move spectators to laughter, and they acted wrongly. Our Lord Jesus never told comedies or fables, but only clear parables which instruct us on how to win paradise, and so be it… laughter shakes the body, distorts the features of the face, makes man similar to a monkey.”
Of course this isn’t the only perspective held within the church. When I was a fresh-faced youth (many, many moons ago now), I could never figure out why the comic strips in my denominational youth magazine weren’t funny. Not even a little bit. Obviously someone thought the magazine should have comics, but the product missed the mark. As an avid reader of Garfield and Calvin and Hobbes, I knew comics could be funny, but these were just embarrassing.
Now, I get that comedy is subjective, much more subjective than drama or tragedy. While people tend to have a more shared emotional response to sadness or fear, humour is much more individualized. People find the strangest things funny (and this is the only way scientists can account for the success of Hee Haw or my father’s love of Ernest movies). I think that it’s this individualized response that tends to make people dismissive of humour that they don’t like or get (see my earlier comment about my father’s affection for Ernest).
When I was a little older, our church’s drama team would purchase books of “HIL-ARiOUS!!!” (always three exclamation marks) comedy sketches written for Christian audiences which relied on silly puns, wacky characterizations, and bizarre character names, all while trying to impart some kind of clear moral message and (perhaps most importantly) not offend.
What struck me most about this format was the failure to see comedy as a powerful tool. I was watching Saturday Night Live, In Living Color, Kids in the Hall, Monty Python’s Flying Circus; I was listening to Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin, George Carlin. These were groundbreaking comedians who had a message, who challenged and pushed their audiences. Skits about Sam Son and his barber Deli-Liar weren’t cutting it (get it? GET IT?). Real comedy, the best comedy, is dangerous.
By “dangerous” I don’t mean explicit—although some time that’s true. But I mean “dangerous” in the sense that all good comedy says something about the state of society and the world. It’s anti-disestablishmentarian. While not every comedian exposes the hypocrisy of society and social order as ferociously as Pryor, the best comedy sets itself aside from the value system of the world to expose the holes in that value system. Church could use some real comedy, not just to make people laugh (and Lord knows we need a little of that) but to challenge itself and its assumptions. Real comedy that isn’t afraid to step on some toes, that’s a little bit dangerous.
Michael teaches English Literature and Film Studies. He is a professor at Booth University College in Winnipeg and his other publications are scholarly works. He's published on Hitchcock, Alec Guinness and James Bond. He likes coffee. A lot. And Jonah Ray follows him on Twitter.