What Happened to Humor?

When was the last time you experienced a side-splitting laugh? You know, the kind where you laugh so hard your stomach hurts and tears blur your vision. There’s nothing like it!

Something was absolutely hilarious – maybe my golf game?

Too often, we come up empty when browsing Netflix, Amazon and other streaming services for something uplifting or laughter inducing. One night, we stumbled upon The Good Fight (Episode 4 of season 5) making fun of a culture that has forgotten how to enjoy a joke. It was intelligent, insightful humor, and generated a discussion about the difficulty in finding decent comedy. Maybe it’s a year and a half of Covid or too much social media, but somehow, we’ve become way too sensitive, take ourselves too seriously or have lost the ability to find the humor in life. It’s a shame, for laugher is good medicine.

So, I googled “what’s happened to humor” and found two interesting articles written about 60 years apart. ‘What Killed Humor,’ by Joseph Epstein in the Pittsburg Post-Gazette in February, 2021, and ‘What’s Happened to Humor’ by Edward J. Gordon in The English Journal published in March of 1958. This is apparently not a new concern.

According to Epstein, many comedians have gotten lazy or are too politically correct and/or we’ve gotten too sensitive. He misses comedians regularly appearing on now non-existent variety shows and fondly remembers Johnny Carson introducing new comedians. He notes that, “Political correctness, with its comfortable home in our universities, would make a lovely comedic target for any comedian with the courage to engage it.”

Gordon makes a more intellectual argument and, I believe, gets at the root of the issue. He writes that we need comedy because humor can reveal our self-deception by “cutting through the roles we play in life and getting at the reality, at who we really are.” He says that humor is an…

“…intellectual exercise: the catching of those surprising incongruities in man’s actions…Walpole’s statement is still true: ‘The world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those who feel.'”

Edward J. Gordon in What’s Happened to Humor

The literary definition of a tragedy is a story in which a heroic individual or society uses its fatal flaw to initiate a downward trajectory; it doesn’t end well. In a comedy, characters overcome their difficulties and there is a happy ending. It can include challenging events, but overall, it’s an uplifting experience.

Gordon says that humor “portrays an optimistic view of the world…tragedy is concerned only with the first half of the struggle, that leading to defeat; comedy, with the last half, the purgation and triumph.”

Confronted as we are with 24-hour news cycles providing a different disaster every day, social media overload, and the polarization of our culture, we get stuck in today’s tragedy and it can be hard to imagine any triumph in the future.

To get one more perspective, I read What’s So Funny About God? A Theological Look at Humor, by Steve Wilkens. I’ve always considered the Bible to be about serious stuff; not humor. Wilkens disagrees, and argues that “Funny and serious are not opposites.” (p. 10)

There are some funny moments in the Bible, like when a donkey talked to Balaam, or when David, who was running from King Saul, found himself in the back of the cave in which Saul was relieving himself. Generally, the Bible’s humor is more inventive than obvious, but if we have eyes to see it, we’ll find it.

Humor is about incongruity, surprise, misdirection, reversal and other elements that shatter expectation. That’s why we can find humor all around us…These sorts of juxtapostitions occur on every page of the Bible. Heaven invades earth, humanity encounters God, and the future overlaps with the present.

What’s So Funny About God, p. 11

Advent is a good time to think about God’s humorous ways. It’s a time of joy, getting together with family and friends, cookie baking and gift giving. We’ll enjoy the season and laugh in the midst of craziness. It’s also a celebration of God’s most astonishing surprise.

The Jews had been anticipating the Messiah for centuries, but it never occurred to Jewish experts that God would become man, that he would be a baby born in a stable to a virgin and her bewildered husband and that his birth would be announced to shepherds, of all people.

The Christmas story is full of surprises, misdirections, and reversals. Perhaps God winks at us as we read of these humorous situations, asking, do you get it?

If you understand the astonishing truth that God became man and that he was born, not to wealthy nobility, but to average humble people, and that he would go on to sacrifice his perfect life for us imperfect people, then you get it. Smile as you read the Christmas story this year. Get a chuckle out of the incongruities that you notice. Have a good laugh with God. When you’ve finished giggling, seriously consider the miracle, the incongruous and undeserved gift of Jesus, and worship him.

What happened to humor? I think we’ve forgotten that the overarching Bible story is a comedy, that it began long ago and will end at some point in the future, but we can be confident that we are living a comedy. There are plenty of tragedies during our lives, for sure, but Jesus will have the last laugh.

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