Every Wednesday in Holy Relics, Martyn Jones explores artifacts unique to Christian subculture.
Humor me for a moment? I have just handed you a shrink-wrapped DVD case. Would you be so kind as to hold on to it for, like, 120 seconds or so? Thank you.
Danish ironist Søren Kierkegaard is apt to illustrate a recent article in the Atlantic about comedy. I’ll explicate the relevant bits of the article in a moment. For starters, here’s one of the Dane’s journal entries, dated 1836:
I have just returned from a party of which I was the life and soul; wit poured from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me—but I went away—and the dash should be as long as the earth’s orbit————————and wanted to shoot myself.
This isn’t a hard sentiment to understand, and it gets at a cluster of issues related to comedy that are worth unpacking. First, back to the Atlantic, where author Olga Khazan finds a team of British scientists claiming that comedians are more likely than normal folks to “exhibit psychotic traits.” Her piece also mentions a New York Times analysis of obituaries that suggests comedians die an average of eight years earlier than members of the military.
Generally speaking great comics, psychological instability, and early deaths run together in the American cultural imagination. Think of John Belushi, Andy Kaufman, Mitch Hedberg. Some comedians live wantonly and incur mortal risks thereby, as did these three; still others find themselves in a dark place where they entertain thoughts of death as an escape. Khazan keeps from sticking on these connections, ultimately linking humor to intelligence and then to mating strategies bequeathed by our evolutionary past, but there’s still something to be said for letting darkness and humor share an intimate bond.
A downwards cast of mind can be useful for developing jokes; pessimism can foster a clarity that cuts through the haze of commercial and societal illogic, throwing the ironies of life into relief. Connecting those disparate bits of information and misinformation, the gap between appearances and realities or expectations and results, can bring on a rolling swell of laughter in a hurry.
When I think of my favorite writers with reliable comedic sensibilities, a darkness is apparent everywhere. Joseph Mitchell comments in the introduction to his omnibus Up in the Old Hotel that a subtle kind of “graveyard humor” typifies his cast of mind; George Saunders’ hilarious story “The Wavemaker Falters” hinges on a mechanical misfortune that crushes a child and floats his bloody shorts back into a pool where paraplegics are moored and helpless to escape the oncoming tide of gore; David Foster Wallace’s essays point a finger at the insane parts of life under the conditions of late Western modernity, and he foments outrage even as he elicits our deep, assenting laughs.
But it seems as though this darkness might be particularly well-suited to one comic mode above the rest. I’m thinking of stand-up comedy, of course—a kingdom ruled at present by Louis C.K., who can go spelunking through hell with the best of them, as it were.
Humor has a subversive component. This the Atlantic article also makes clear; Khazan there describes the transaction between comic and audience as one of “benign violation,” whereby enough of an offense is committed to prick the mind of the listener, but not enough to completely put them off. Humor is clearly dependent to a degree on community standards and personal mores, which define the zone in which a joke can successfully land. Too little of a violation and you’re boring; too much of one and you’re anathema. The goalposts shift with each audience. Each merrymaking, anxiety-ridden, dollar-bill-clutching audience.
And at this point we might take the shrink wrap off the case you’ve been holding for “Apostles of Comedy,” a Christian stand-up special I first heard about while researching marketing copy for a famous Christian comic.
Judging by my only available metric—a YouTube view count—there’s been plenty of interest in this special. Who can resist even the straightforward message of the title? Some say “I follow Peter,” and others say “I follow Apollos.” Well, here are a few guys whose hearts are sold out for comedy alone. Soli commedia gloria.
And what glory there is to be had. If we were made for any secular vocation in particular, evangelicals were made for this. James K.A. Smith might give a stand-up venue the sort of gloss he gives a shopping mall in Desiring the Kingdom: consider the solitary figure taking a stage, microphone in hand, wiping his brow and holding forth on the badness of the world for an approving audience, which audience then returns home to purchase his books and listen to his talks online. Some of you say, “I follow Peter…”
And yet, our apostles have not received their reward. To change metaphors, the in-house A-team has abandoned the darkness within—ripe as it is for comic subversion—to shadowbox an imagined darkness without.
The structure of the 22-minute promotional excerpt for the special makes this clear enough. Comic bits are interspersed with personal testimonies and reflections, most of which involve our apostles describing past sins and struggles as safely located in the past. This reassures the target audience that these comics are safe for family viewing—they’re playing for Our Team, after all—and this in turn shrewdly widens the zone of “benign violation,” or so one might think.
But where do our believing comics take things? In one of a handful of directions: exhaustingly cliché (and frequently offensive) “wife jokes,” bizarre jabs at Wiccans, filial anecdotes, jokes about growing up poor and black (played for a predominantly white crowd), and cheesy, smarmy church-related humor.
I take it that no-one in the audience of these apostles is much at risk of being offended by these jokes, but plenty of people outside the church likely are. Why poke fun at a practitioner of Wicca who requested that elementary school children not dress like a witch for a Halloween gathering? The joke on tape is that the woman is ridiculous and oversensitive. How stupid. How idiotic this woman is. Do you all understand how dumb witches are? Do you? Might I put a blunter point on the idea for a few minutes? Will you join me in reveling in the sheer stupidity of witches?
This sort of performance may draw us into Milan Kundera’s “demonic laughter.” These are laughs that come out of a sneering face. Demonic laughter revels in meaninglessness and absurdity, and it animates audience responses to a lot of contemporary outrage comedy. To be sure, it’s appropriate in the right contexts; irony and satire have an important function as tools of empowerment for those in positions of disadvantage and invisibility in this world. A sneer can knock a corporate executive or military commander on his seat. Martin Luther wagged his pen and broke wind when he believed Satan to be accosting him. Mockery has its place.
But in the presence of our apostles, we’re talking about this laughter being directed at figures imagined far outside church walls. We’re also talking about humor at the unwitting expense of women and, arguably, minorities. This is bloodless commercial pablum, plain and simple. It is afraid of pointing the finger at us or at the darkness within us. Like a lot of commercialized American culture, it is afraid of death.
Shouldn’t evangelical stand-up be made of sterner stuff? G.K. Chesterton’s famous remark on original sin being the only empirically-verifiable Christian doctrine is relevant here. Combine that with the fact of Christ’s ultimate victory over the encroaching darkness, and you’ve blown the doors right off the barn. The ironic interval between present-day miseries and the eschaton is massive. If anything, Christians ought to have the sharpest comedic sense for better discerning the evils of the world and our species’ long litany of tragedies than anyone. Could there be a Christian stand-up with the creative depth and acuity of vision of a Flannery O’Connor? Should there be?
Is there, and has that person’s voice simply been muffled because of unsuccessful test marketing?
But this also gets at a kind of laughter that might not be as closely linked to stand-up, but which might carry a uniquely Christian spirit in its own way. Milan Kundera’s second variety of laughter is that of the angels, which rejoices in the super-abundance of meaning. C.S. Lewis gets at a related phenomenon, which is the sort of laughter that uses a joke only as an excuse; the real joy is in the meeting of a friend or loved one, or of the glory of God in his work to redeem us in spite of ourselves. It’s a laugh like a cup overflowing.
Pain is specific and personal; it’s easy to identify with it and remember it, as Graham Greene’s narrator relates to us in The End of the Affair. Joy and love, by contrast, lift the mind out of itself and direct it outwards. The joy that might characterize a distinctly Christian comedy might render it self-forgetful in the way that good preaching is, apt to fly off on any excuse to revel in God’s revealed mercies and character. But ultimately, perhaps it would thereby cease to be comedy. Perhaps the great secret that Chesterton suggests Christ could not disclose on earth—his mirth—is so holy and other that it is simply unintelligible on this side of Christ’s return, at which point Jesus might patiently explain the divine humor to us.
In the meantime, then, I hope for O’Connor’s spirit to alight like a dove on the shoulders of clear-eyed, unsentimental, cheese-averse comics of faith. The “Apostles of Comedy” might tell us something about the commercial tastes of an evangelical subculture, but prophets—those who know the deeper truths about us—are rarely welcome in their own hometowns. Perhaps we will have to go looking for them, our own friends and children whom we’ve inadvertently told to flee. And then, perhaps, having put away childish things, we might remind the world that we are in fact those who have already made peace with death and eternity—and are therefore capable of smiling about both.