If it Wasn’t So Awful, it Would Be Funny!

Recent events just up the road in Charlottesville have me reflecting on the role and importance of humor in our lives. Well, Charlottesville, Virginia! That little gem of a city is much in the news these days. (See the lead photo, courtesy of gettyimages.) And it is near and dear to my heart. My youngest son, Kevin, graduated from the University of Virginia some years back, and my husband and I fell in love with the place back then. Of course, as we all know, that city was trashed last weekend – at least a park or two and part of the historic downtown mall – where that white supremacist plowed his car into a crowd of counter-demonstrators, killing one and injuring nineteen others.

But we all know that. The video footage of the marching neo-Nazis and white supremacists, shouting Nazi and racist chants, holding torches aloft … and we all saw the images of the vitriolic shouting duels played over and over on CNN and other networks. It was a horrific and sad spectacle to behold. Wendell Berry, one of my favorite poets, writes, “If we have become a people incapable of thought, then the brute-thought of mere power and mere greed will think for us. … When we cease from human thought,a low and effective cunning stirs in the most inhuman minds.” (Leavings, 2010, p. 46.) (See second photo below.)

But all of this, as well as President Trump’s initial and third responses to the sorry events (with a written script supplied by his handlers – such as they are – sandwiched in between) are not the immediate topic of this blog. All the talking heads on TV and radio have done and re-done commentary … from both the right and the left. But again, if it wasn’t so awful – if you stand back from it all and view the spectacle from afar – it would be … seriously … funny!

Of course, Trump’s whole administration has proven to be a gold mine for TV comedians. I am a regular viewer of Trevor Noah on The Daily Show … and he’s sooo good at mocking the President. It is funny … if it weren’t so serious and scary and – as Trump himself would say – sad! I remember years ago watching Johnny Carson’s opening monologues on The Tonight Show: After culling the daily news headlines, he’d turn to the audience and say, “You can’t make this stuff up!” Again, it would be funny if it weren’t so awful. Which brings me to this current blog’s topic: Humor. In all its forms, from comic, to satire, to irony.

Some time back – three of my books ago, actually – I was inspired to write a book on humor – comedy in all its forms – after reading a very enlightening book on humor by the theologian Peter Berger entitled Redeeming Laughter (see third image below). I wrote the first chapter as a sample of what the book would be about, sent it off to an editor at Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, and attended the American Academy of Religion meeting that November. Must have been about 2003. Then I sat down with my future, dear editor, Jon Pott (who had read a copy of the chapter the night before) to discuss my new book idea. Well, let’s put it this way. Jon didn’t like it. And that was that. So I went home, and over the next four years, wrote Imagination and the Journey of Faith, published by Eerdmans in 2008.

But now – three books later – I still think the topic is of major importance and here’s why. First, the human phenomenon of humor is universal – only humans laugh. All cultures had and have it. Still what is found humorous is relative to time and place. What strikes people as funny and their overt response to it differs from age to age, from culture to culture. As Berger puts it, “humor is an anthropological constant and is historically relative.” The history of humor in all its forms across history is a fascinating one, and is too complex to go into here. But humor appears through time and cultural circumstance in many forms, from benign, simple entertainment (think Lucille Ball or Cheers); tragicomic form (a lot of Jewish jokes are funny but cover deep sadness at their people’s plight – think Fiddler on the Roof); satire (consider H.L. Mencken’s malicious satire for example); and folly (for example, Shakespeare’s wise fool speaking truth to King Lear).

Berger makes a major and important distinction that I do want to stress here. First, other than benign – simple comedy aimed to just make us laugh – humor can cut through the surface of everyday reality to uncover some underlying, larger truth beneath it. This is not always the case – sometimes the point is misplaced or just plain wrong. But often it transcends the surface reality and touches on some truth beneath the surface. Berger distinguishes between what he terms Transcendence in a lower versus higher key.

Transcendence in a Lower Key can cut powerfully beneath the level of everyday “in the service of a larger moral purpose.” Another writer on humor says, “Humor worth its salt is always a moral creation, with moral lessons to teach.” I think much of the satire on the late night shows of Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah serves a deep moral purpose beneath the stupid antics of certain political figures of our day. In fact, one element of humor – and what provokes our laughter in response to it – is the phenomenon of incongruity. In the case of Colbert and Noah’s satiric and ironic humor is the incongruity – the lack of fit – between what is going on in our daily national life and our deepest sense of what is fitting in a moral society. And it’s awful … funny.

Transcendence in a Higher Key for Berger reaches beneath the moral, human domain of fit living within a just society to some larger, deeper level of reality – that largest sense of what is fundamentally important in our human lives, that deepest level of meaning, informed by grace and shaped by a belief system that colors all reality and gives human life meaning. That deepest truth about humanity and where we fit into the largest scheme of things. For examples of such transcendence, in the film As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson’s character finally expresses God’s love and compassion for those in need. And in the Bible – with humorous stories sprinkled here and there – the funny story of Jonah and the whale reflects deep down God’s mercy and forgiveness, God’s treasuring of all humankind in the end.

I believe there are certain disclosures of the comic which do hint at some deeper meaning, some redeeming meaning, some sense that life, even amid all its awfulness, may yet be ultimately good. As Berger insists, this transcendence from a lower to a higher key, a religious key, is not an inevitable passage, otherwise “every stand-up comedian would be a minister of God.” No, the passage from the lower to the higher key does require an act of faith. Grounded in a sacred story, this intuitive grasp of another Reality then becomes more real than the mundane everyday, becomes finally a reality where the world is made whole and the miseries of the human condition will finally be abolished. The hard facts of human life, including death, may now be seen perhaps as temporary and eventually superceded by a deeper world of meaning … a world without pain and suffering, a world redeemed and made whole, a world where God and humans laugh together.

In the meantime, we do what we can to face down the immoral, to respond with laughter to the satiric and ironic comics who can speak to our souls, and reach perhaps to that deepest level of transcendent meaning that finally gives hope to our lives.