‘Nothing produces laughter more than a surprising disproportion between that which one expects and that which one sees.’ — Blaise Pascal, Pensées.
‘God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me’ — Abraham’s wife, Sarah, Genesis 21:6
‘No matter what happens, we still need to laugh,’ a close friend reminded me as I watched 100% of my live work shrivel and drop off like a cursed hand in the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown announcements last March.
And so I, like many of my fellow clowns, stepped right up to the coconut shy of video content, breathlessly hurling comedy at a wall of social media, desperate to win a prize that resembled a writing commission. And lots of it was poor, and lots of it was in poor taste. I think when comedy goes wrong and seems ill-judged, it’s because people realise that ‘we still need to laugh’ but don’t give enough time to considering precisely what we need to laugh at, when we need to do it, and with whom. Some might therefore try to furlough the carnival entirely, insisting that when real lives are being lost, putting on a red nose and silly hat is frivolous to the point of being
Humans tend to be utter moralists when it comes to humour. Almost invariably, when we don’t understand a joke or when we are personally offended by something, we will say, ‘It’s not funny’, not simply, ‘I didn’t find it funny but then I realise I’m not the creative or moral arbiter for the world’s comedians.’ I think we need to retrace and cultivate that narrow path which picks its way between two boundaries, and to understand the distinction between what comedy can do and what select comedians actually do.
We believe in unconditional love; we desire purpose; we know intuitively that freedom is better than imprisonment; we apprehend joy and hope and beauty.
Some commentators would seek to canonise comedians as the modern-day prophets, ruthlessly and selflessly speaking truth to power. I’m afraid that slogan is almost exclusively flawed, and I could count on one hand of an amateur crocodile wrangler the exceptions to that rule. Comedians are confidence tricksters, yes men, snake oil salesman. Most comedians are blessed with talent, to which they’ve added graft and developed nous, but the only thing most of us are seeking is the next laugh - not liberation for the widow and orphan.
However, humour as a mechanism for laughter is indeed a pure and beautiful thing. When I’m preaching, I often talk about how we’re looking for a Big Story that matches our Little Story. Our little story consists in those qualities and sensations and beliefs that are hardwired into us, no matter our worldview. We believe in unconditional love; we desire purpose; we know intuitively that freedom is better than imprisonment; we apprehend joy and hope and beauty. We don’t just understand what the words mean, we recognise the emotions that ride along with those linguistic definitions. You and I may hope for different things or find joy in different things, but joy and hope feel the same for both of us.
We realise that this core of non-negotiables is part of our Little Story because these qualities are noticeable by their absence as much as by their presence. We know we believe in unconditional love when we feel rejected; we understand our clamouring desire for freedom when we feel trapped; the need for purpose announces itself when it seems as though our life is going nowhere. This is what it means to be made in the image of God: the qualities of which He is the source have been bestowed on us, wired into us. And laughter is one of those integral gifts from God. We may laugh at different things, but laughter follows the same chemical process and carries the same emotional benefits for all of us.
When you have a good chuckle, endorphins are released which have a healing impact on you physiologically. More than that, laughter is just tension leaving the body: as you laugh, all the tension in your body is cast out, exorcised, not allowed a place at the table. Laughter, if you like (which I do), is essentially a leaf blower for the soul.
Humour is to laughter then what an incoming love letter is to hope; what a mountainside sunrise is to our in-built apprehension of beauty. Humour and comedy are the catalysts for the release of this God-given gift of laughter. Obviously, when humour is raised as part of any theological discussion, the go-to verse is Ecclesiastes 3:4 — ‘[there is] a time to laugh’. So the question is: When is the right time to laugh at this? When should we press that big red button? Comedy is all about timing anyway, so how do we, both individually and corporately, develop a comic timing to accompany our pastoral bedside manner?
In my experience, the spirit with which you come is always dominant over the words and language that you actually use. An infant school child dropping an expletive that they heard on the playground surely is less culpable than a grown man in a clown costume decimating a child’s birthday party with the same word?
Laughter, if you like (which I do), is essentially a leaf blower for the soul.
The uniqueness of the gospel, remember, is that it stands alone as the only means of reaching God (or heaven or salvation) without relying on your own goodness, your ability to toe the party line or whatever. When you seek, as Romans 12 urges you, to ‘honour one another above yourselves’, you need not fear, by misjudging a situation or mistiming a joke, that the Lord of all Creation will act to discredit or disqualify you (Rom. 12:10). There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, even if that meme they shared is questionable (Rom. 8:1). And there is neither death nor life, nor angels nor demons, nor grotesque impersonations nor risqué one-liners that can separate us from the love of God (Rom. 8:38-39).
Within this brave new world, we are going to make mistakes. The creative pioneers are going to make people feel uncomfortable because, to quote Dolores Abernathy in the TV show ‘Westworld’, ‘a strange new light can be just as frightening as the dark’. For comedians, certain jokes are going to draw cries of ‘too soon!’ and the zeitgeist moralists will work to de-platform anyone not staying on wherever the right side of history happens to be this week.
The path ahead of us has yet to be properly trod, marked out and bordered, and nobody really knows what lies over yonder horizon. So I would encourage us to show grace for those people hacking their way through a creative wilderness. I would also urge us as a church to bring laughter and joy wherever we can, viewing it as one of God’s most precious heavenly gifts. Dr Virginia Trooper once said, ‘When the mouth is open for laughter, you might be able to shove in a little food for thought.’ When you laugh with somebody, it becomes psychologically impossible to hate them. What an amazing foundation for gospel conversations!
Go into all the world and make disciples and funny memes. Put on love first, but make sure you carry the silly hat with you – for such a time as this.
Andy Kind is a comedian and preacher. He lives in Aylesbury but don’t just turn up unannounced. His new comedy tour, A Pilgrim’s Tale, is taking bookings for next year. If you’re involved with church events, get in contact: firstname.lastname@example.org