Get It?

[Christianity Today, May 22, 2000]

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.”

Sometimes I wonder what God’s purpose is in humor. Why do we like to laugh, though it jostles us around 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 once heard that there are only seven joke formats in the world, but can think of many more: absurdity, insult, slapstick, reversal, sick, satire, parody, shocker, sleepy-dog, character study, and occupying the lowest circle of hell, puns. Three popular types worth questioning are irony, insult, and sick humor.

Irony, the prevailing stance of the 90’s, has come in for some scrutiny. In “For Common Things,” Jedidiah Purdy argues that habitual irony has eroded our ability to trust and 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 Yankovich, whose work is unquestionably benign. Categories are hard.

Insult humor is more obviously unhealthful for people commanded to ”love one another.“ Awhile back this form existed mostly as ethnic jokes, but now 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 contribute to this. ”Audiences hate it when they have to figure out whether something is funny or not — [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—my friend the Martian, my mother the car. Now they showcase young, gorgeous stereotypes, each braying lines like a stand-up comic.

Meyer himself is headwriter on a show widely castigated among Christians, ”The Simpsons.“ 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…pointy,“ it’s not a sitcom one-liner, but character-based affection.

Meyer enjoys another kind of joke, sometimes called ”sick“ or ”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 Meyer’s analysis: the joke combines the horrifying with the banal, he says, 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 absurd humor today, such as ”Clinton Deploys Vowels to Bosnia“ (an airdrop of ”E“ s so ”the people of Bosnia can have some vowels in their incomprehensible words“). But the Onion can be very bleak. In an essay titled ”I Wish I Was One of the Golden Girls" an aged woman naively wishes she had friends like those on TV. As she guilelessly contrasts her lonely life with Hollywood’s phoniness our sympathy and affection grows. There isn’t a laugh on the page.

Is this humor? Is it wrong? Thoughtful black humor can be either repellent or a solemn teacher. Sometimes, when you laugh, it’s only to keep from crying.

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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