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 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 ...

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