So one day this guy hears his doorbell ring and he goes to answer the door. He doesn't see anybody there, but looking down he sees a snail creeping along the welcome mat. He picks it up and tosses it far across the lawn. Two years pass. The doorbell rings. The guy goes to open the door. The snail looks up from the doormat and says, "What was that all about?"
Yes, I can hear you not laughing. Every time I tell this joke nobody laughs. My whole family has an oddball sense of humor, tending to the whimsical or surreal, typified by the old radio team of Bob & Ray (sample them at www.bobandray.com). No one else could dream up whip-wielding butterfly trainer "Ticcy" McGonigle, who never actually hits a butterfly "because then I'd have an enemy for life."
Why do we like to laugh, though it jostles us and makes us out of breath? Why do people vary so widely in what they consider funny? Is humor always a good thing, or should Christians avoid certain kinds? I've heard there are only seven joke formats in the world, but I can think of many more: absurdity, insult, slapstick, reversal, sick, satire, parody, shocker, sleepy-dog, character study, and& amp;mdash;occupying the lowest circle of hell& amp;mdash;puns. A few popular types are worth questioning: irony, insult, and black humor.
Irony, the prevailing tone of the 1990s, has been scrutinized recently. In For Common Things, Jedediah Purdy argues that habitual irony has eroded our ability to trust and has undermined community. Yet many Christians would defend its cousin, satire, as a useful tool of social surgery.
Political cartoons seem mean-spirited when we disagree with them, but fearlessly truthful when we agree. Irony slides into satire, and satire into parody, and before long we're at master parodist Weird Al Yankovic, whose work is unquestionably benign. Categories are hard.
Insult humor is more obviously unhealthy for people commanded to "love one another." Awhile back this form existed mostly as ethnic jokes, but now the sneering attitude is everywhere.
In a New Yorker profile the TV humor writer George Meyer locates one source for this advancing cold front: sitcoms. Characters constantly crack jokes "meant to injure other people. [A friend] once said that if anyone ever said to her even one of the things that the people on sitcoms routinely say to each other she would probably burst into tears and go running out of the room."
Meyer believes that live audiences "hate it when they have to figure out whether something is funny or not& amp;mdash;[they] have an anxiety about laughing in the wrong place." So sitcom humor becomes increasingly obvious, broad, and mocking. Old sitcoms were framed around absurd premises& amp;mdash;my friend the Martian, my mother the car. Now they showcase young, gorgeous stereotypes, each braying lines like a standup comic.
Meyer himself is head writer on The Simpsons, a show widely castigated among Christians. But the sourness of creator Matt Groening has waned over the years, and Springfield has become a village full of idiots whose cheerful incompetence drives the show. When gluttonous Homer wolfs down even the plastic bride and groom on a wedding cake and murmurs contentedly, "Mmmm hellip; pointy," it's not a sitcom one-liner, but character-based affection. Meyer enjoys another kind of joke, sometimes called black humor. In Springfield the pet shop sign reads "All our pets are flushable," and a Krusty the Klown pregnancy test kit is labeled "May cause birth defects." Meyer cites a favorite non-Simpsons joke: "They can kill the Kennedys. Why can't they make a cup of coffee that tastes good?" I recoiled, but was intrigued by his analysis: the joke combines the horrifying with the banal, illuminating that in our culture everything "leads to something I can consume."
Such humor can be an honest attempt to make sense of a puzzling and tragic world; scratch a cynic and find a romantic. For people who don't have a coherent worldview with a loving God at the center, it may be the best they can do.
The online newspaper parody The Onion produces some of the best humor, such as "Clinton Deploys Vowels to Bosnia" (an airdrop of E's so "the people hellip; can have some vowels in their incomprehensible words"). In an essay titled "I Wish I Was One of the Golden Girls" an aged woman naïvely wishes she had friends like those on TV. As she guilelessly contrasts her lonely life with Hollywood's phoniness our sympathy and affection grow, but there isn't a laugh on the page.
Is this humor? Is it wrong? Thoughtful black humor can be both repellent and a solemn teacher. Sometimes when you laugh it's only to keep from crying.
Newsweek ran an article earlier this year that looks at the prevalence of irony in American culture, especially in the area of entertainment. Britannica.com has entries for 'irony' and 'dramatic irony,' as well as an excellent and extensive entry for 'humor.'
For something completely different, an interesting (although somewhat shrill) article from The Christian Courierdefends Jesus against the claim that he didn't laugh. Books in this same vein include The Joyful Christ and The Humor of Christ.
If you could use a good laugh yourself, try About.com's Christian Humor page, which is maintained by Greg Hartman. Other fine sources of Christian humor include the magazines Ship of Fools and The Door.
Visit Frederica Mathewes-Green's Web site at www.frederica.com
Earlier "Your World" columns by Frederica Mathewes-Green columns include:
- Sex and Saints (Apr. 11, 2000)
- Psalm 23 and All That (Feb. 15, 2000)
- The Abortion Debate Is Over (Dec. 28, 1999)
- The Thrill of Naughtiness, (September 6, 1999)
- Escape from Fantasy Island, (July 12, 1999)
- Men Need Church, Too, (May 24, 1999)
- My Spice Girl Moment, (January 11, 1999)
- Moms in the Crossfire, (October 26, 1998)
- Gagging on Shiny, Happy People, (September 7, 1998)
- Whatever Happened to Middle-Class Hypocrisy? (July 13, 1998)
- I Didn't Mean to be Rude, (May 18, 1998)
- So I'm Sorry Already, (April 6, 1998)
- Don't Blame the Publishers! (February 9, 1998)
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