Joy is not the same thing as happiness.
I don’t know how many times I’ve cited this refrain, nor could I tell you how many times it’s been cited at me. It’s one of those popular little phrases vague enough to be loaded with meaning and trite enough to be annoying. It’s the proverb I pluck up and spit out when something terrible happens and the Christian chorus of “all things work together for your good” begins; the sufferer is expected to rejoice in his or her pain, an idea that has always baffled me at best and infuriated me at worst. Joy is not the same thing as happiness. It’s the phrase that, in many ways, has reconciled my Christian faith with an evil world. It’s a phrase I didn’t have much cause to unpack in any meaningful way until recently, and one that became somewhat problematic when I did. All the same, I suspect it to be true.
My husband and I discovered Impractical Jokers in 2014 at an opportune time. We came to the show in the midst of deep anxiety and grief. We couldn’t afford our bills, despite both of us working full time. Our recently purchased home’s plumbing began malfunctioning in such a way that it produced an odor three different plumbing companies were baffled by and eventually cost us a small fortune to repair. The year ended with the first of multiple miscarriages we would suffer.
Joy is not the same thing as happiness. This became my mantra, the thing I would whisper to myself in rare moments alone — at my desk or in the shower, while rocking my son to sleep, so softly that even if he understood English he couldn’t hear me. I expected it to help, but it didn’t. In my more volatile moments the refrain became a justification to rage against God for pouring me such a bitter cup, but more frequently it did nothing at all for me. It didn’t cast a rose-colored light on the grief my family was walking through and it didn’t make the sadness I simultaneously wanted and did not want to feel any easier. I knew I was called to joy, and I knew that didn’t mean I had to feel happiness in my suffering, but if it didn’t mean that what did it mean? What was I supposed to feel on the heels of a miscarriage? I had no idea, but mostly I felt alone.‘Impractical Jokers’ made us feel closer to other human beings, and allowed us to feel that closeness from a respectable distance.
Impractical Jokers became a salve for this loneliness when few other things were. The premise of the show is simple: four lifelong friends (who also happen to be comedians) compete to embarrass one another by completing outlandish dares amidst the general public. If anyone refuses to complete the challenge he loses, and the joker who loses the most at the end of each episode is punished with an even more embarrassing task he cannot turn down. (Apparently they all agreed that if anyone refuses a punishment, he’s off the show.)
Impractical Jokers’ premise could easily become slapstick-ish in the worst way, crude in the same vein as shows like Johnny Knoxville’s Jackass. What makes the show great, though, is that it never descends to such humor. The Jokers — Joe, Sal, Murr, and Q — frequently turn down challenges they deem too cringeworthy or demeaning to another human being. The result is a show that’s more than just funny; it’s also endearing and warm, a study in the beautiful ways human beings relate to one another. It highlights the gap between strangers in a way that siphons out the social expectations we fill those gaps with and exploits them for comedy. And yet, their dares don’t exacerbate the spaces between strangers; in an odd way, they minimize those spaces.
I like to think this is the reason Impractical Jokers helped my husband and I feel joy during a time when joy did not come easily — not just because the show made us laugh (though it did), but because it made us feel closer to other human beings, and allowed us to feel that closeness from a respectable distance.
Time after time, the impractical jokers amazed us with the reactions they could garner from the human beings they interacted with. The elderly woman who pretended to squeeze Murr’s bottom when she thought nobody was looking; an entire line of people nonchalantly letting Joe cut to the front because he called out to the imaginary “Larry!” over and over; Sal convincing a disgruntled middle-aged man to dance with him in the park without using words — all of these moments made me feel somehow less alone, like I belonged to a collective human experience that did not separate its members from one another, but united them even as strangers. And after all, isn’t that intrinsically true of the human experience? Didn’t Jesus similarly highlight the spaces between strangers and call us to fill them?
My favorite moment from the entire series so far is also my husband’s favorite moment. The setup isn’t complex: Murr is looking for a roommate. The producers prepare a luxury apartment (outfitted with hidden cameras, of course). The rest of the jokers hide somewhere in the apartment, communicating secret orders to Murr as the interview commences. Enter Murr’s would-be roommate, an infectiously exuberant man who works with stocks and is in disbelief that he’s actually going to hit it off with Murr. Murr’s only dare is immediately given: match the other man’s enthusiasm. The excitement builds until it reaches a crescendo and Murr is actually jumping up and down on a couch with a complete stranger. Even though the two will obviously not become roommates, the moment is moving.
Moments like these on Impractical Jokers helped me walk through my grief in a way that was both honest and hopeful. I still don’t know precisely what the difference between joy and happiness is, but I suspect I walked the dividing line of these two things during this period of my life. There was sadness there — even anger, at times — but there was also a sense of peace in knowing goodness could intermingle with such sorrow. I have probably never been so isolated as I was that year, but I somehow did not feel alone — not completely — and to some degree, Impractical Jokers helped with that. I started watching the show because I wondered “How outrageous will these guys be?” I kept watching, though, because I realized that at its core, the show asks a different question: “How alone are we really among strangers?”
The answer has been “not alone as you might think,” and that’s what makes Impractical Jokers worthwhile.