Finding the Joke in Beautiful, Horrible People
Ben, you’re going to be Jesus.”
Our improv class was practicing stage safety, learning how to fly and fall in a way that wouldn’t be harmful to ourselves or others. And now my teacher was calling for me to walk on water. I thought it was ironic that a Christian was selected for this movement, and I wondered how many improv scenes involve water walking. As I was raised up on the shoulders of classmates, my teacher told me to talk like Jesus, and not in the way my youth pastor encouraged. She wanted me to be funny, and so did the dozen faces staring at me. I had no idea what to do. I was Jesus, and I needed a new comedy framework.
I was uneasy because I had never had to think about how to joke well. Before moving to Chicago in 2009, my humor framework was a vague “Be as funny as possible without offending Mom.” This philosophy had served me well enough, performing comedy in high school and at Oklahoma Baptist University. Not all my writing partners had a Mom Test, but we all had an idea of what we could and couldn’t say on those stages. I could joke freely without thinking about it. But then I moved from the Christianized south to an urban comedy community and found myself among talented peers who shared neither my religion nor my mom. I had driven all my belongings in a Toyota Tercel to be part of this community, and I was faced with a choice to either continue in my unease, retreat to a more comfortable audience, or adapt to this new environment.We’re all beautiful, horrible people, and with both of these realities in mind we can ask, “What’s the joke?”
Fast-forward a decade, and many comedians are feeling a similar unease, a sentiment Dax Shepard captured on an episode of his Armchair Expert podcast: “I feel like we whittle away more and more of what can be made fun of.” For a long time, comedy was all about getting a laugh or reaction, with ample encouragement to push boundaries and see how far you could take a joke. With patron saints like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, censorship was mainstream comedy’s only dirty word. But as comedy continues to get more diverse and as audiences become increasingly aware of the toll that words and actions have, particularly on non-majority groups, many jokes have not aged well. Comedians recently shared with Vulture some jokes they regret, and subjects include the word retarded, 9/11, the Rodney King riots, and even rape. All of these jokes got a laugh or reaction at the time, and in some cases there was a clever angle. But looking back, these comedians don’t think it was a good laugh. Laughter alone can no longer be seen as a sign that something is right or true.
This shouldn’t surprise us, as we can all think of a time when someone made a joke about us that was unfair, insensitive, or just plain mean. Perhaps it was followed by “I’m just kidding” or a call to “lighten up.” Maybe others joined in the laughter, uniting together at your expense. When you’re on the receiving end, this kind of unity feels a lot like bullying and it’s easy to see that laughter can be misguided. If laughs can be personally hurtful, it’s not a big stretch to realize that jokes about gender, race, sexuality, religious beliefs, political convictions, physical appearance, level of ability, or accent can also be hurtful, even when they’re not directed toward a specific person in the room.
On the Armchair Expert, Shepard was quick to agree with his guest, The Good Place showrunner Mike Schur, that not being able to “make the same jokes I made in the ’70s” is worth the trade-off that “entire groups of people don’t feel marginalized and ridiculed.” But getting consistent laughs is hard work. For those whose comedy style seems to be working, change may not feel like it is worth it. This new “restriction” of material seems like the opposite of my Mom Test problem, but it’s functionally the same dilemma. In a new cultural landscape, you can continue joking with unease, retreat to a more comfortable audience, or find a new framework that allows you to joke freely.
This isn’t just a comedian problem. Many of us are asking, “How do I laugh well in this cultural moment?” In this exhausting, divided chapter of America, we sure could use the connection that laughter provides, but like everything, joking just feels harder than it did a couple years ago. Humor plays in the gap of what’s off about the world, but what’s accepted as off seems to change weekly. The common ground of laughter requires some common ground to begin with, and when it’s in short supply, we’re incentivized to find a friendly audience. In 2015, Jerry Seinfeld caused a stir by saying college audiences aren’t worth performing for because “they’re so PC,” but we do something similar when we save our joking for people who share our ideological beliefs.
In this climate, some of us choose to “just be careful” because “you can’t say certain things anymore” thereby turning humor into an HR problem. In essence it’s saying, “the way I’ve been joking is fine, and I just need to protect myself,” or maybe even “I don’t need to change how I see and joke about my neighbor, just what I say about them out loud.” This path will feel like walking on eggshells, and if it gets old, you may choose to reject sensitivity altogether and let loose with a friendly audience or just stop caring who’s offended.
But for those of us who acknowledge the hurt that words can have, it seems like the only option left is to “change with the times,” a mantra championed by Sarah Silverman. And while it’s very good to repent of laughs that have marginalized and reinforced stereotypes, the call to change with the times is easier said than done. It doesn’t tell us how to joke or help us make sense of the jokes around us. Do “the times” require Jimmy Fallon-esque escapism or John Oliver takedowns at every turn? And what happens when culture shifts again? If you go all in on a way that deals with this specific cultural moment, in a few years you may find yourself changing with the times all over again, always a step or two behind.
So how do we laugh well in light of our neighbor? How do we laugh and joke well in this cultural moment, in a way that won’t leave us scrambling in 2030? Is it even possible to come together and be funny in this exhausting, divided America?
I first found comedic freedom in Writing from a Christian Worldview, a talk that New York City pastor Tim Keller gave to a writers’ group in his Manhattan congregation. He argues that every story lives in light of a larger story and that Christians believe we live in a meta-story of creation, fall, and redemption. The first two-thirds of this tale is that God created a good world, but because of sin everything’s a mess. This is fertile ground for comedy, which plays in the gap between what is and what should be. Between the two poles of sin and the “image of God,” we can laugh freely.
Comedy highlights what’s off about the world, and Christianity has a name for the off-ness: sin. Sin isn’t just about immoral behavior or wrong choices, but a brokenness that’s hardwired within each of us, an ever-present capacity to destroy, hate, and kill. Our best intentions and discipline and truest beliefs can’t push out the brokenness, but instead it’s such a part of us that we weave it into the fabric of our communities and institutions. A person or organization that is good and well-functioning today could easily fall tomorrow because we just can’t help making a mess of things.
This idea, that we’re all terrible, is great for comedy. If everything is broken and even good people can’t help but make a mess of things, then we can make comedy about anything. If no area of life is beyond sin’s reach, this is our healthy outlet for the comic impulse to joke further and push the envelope. In areas where people think they’re fine, we can show how not fine they really are. Like Jesus, we can say, “You think you’re a good person because of X, but actually…” Our jokes may even test our own comfort, because a joke about someone else’s hypocrisy is a joke about our own. We’re all horrible.
But we’re also beautiful. There’s something good inside each of us that wants to make the world a better place, that loves people, that hurts when others hurt, that seeks hope and peace. Even the worst of beliefs can’t snuff that out, not completely. In Genesis 1, the Bible says God created humans “in his image,” or “after his likeness”, and he saw that it was very good. This image of God, or Imago Dei, makes every person a sacred treasure. If you believe your neighbor has an inherent worth, you’re not just worried about “being careful” to spare your own reputation. You value your neighbor and want to treat her with respect.Many of us are asking, “How do I laugh well in this cultural moment?”
These two ideas, the Imago Dei and sin, together make up the human condition. We find both lodged in our souls—the beauty and the horror, the blessing and the curse. We’re all beautiful, horrible people, and with both of these realities in mind we can ask, “What’s the joke?” Is the joke that this punchline or character is a woman? Is liberal? Conservative? Christian? Muslim? Gay? Black? Speaks poor English? Has an eye patch? Is that what’s wrong with them? Is that what’s off about the world? Or is it because they’re a broken person who is selfish, arrogant, hateful, indifferent or power-hungry just like me? Is this female character selfish because she’s a woman, or is she a woman who exhibits the selfishness that infects us all? We need hypocritical characters who happen to be liberal or conservative, arrogant characters who happen to be Christian or atheist.
Our world is broken. And with comedy, we can call broken things broken. But as we use humor to expose indifference, racism, sexism, classism, lies, and hatred, we cannot believe or perpetuate the lie that We and Our Kind are above any of it. It’s not the horrible They who are destroying the world, and it’s not the beautiful We who will save it. We’re all beautiful, horrible people; even you, even me.
If you know the power of sin lies in your own heart, you’ll listen when people say your words are hurtful, regardless of your intent. If you believe you are made in God’s likeness, you can joke about yourself because you do weird human stuff and not because you believe you are the joke. In her famous Nanette special, comic Hannah Gadsby says, “I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak.” And when we believe our own inherent worth, we can join her in declaring, “And I simply will not do that anymore.”
Between the two poles of sin and the Imago Dei, there’s freedom to laugh. If we want a break from this cultural moment, we can laugh at the silly and absurd as long as it doesn’t gloss over or normalize sin. If we prefer humor with bite, we can laugh freely as long as the Imago Dei is not the joke. We’re also free to not laugh. If a comedy bit doesn’t work for us, we don’t have to jump to declare it’s not funny. If it clearly passes the beauty-horror test (and there’s lots of room for debate there), we can freely say it’s not our humor preference or maybe just nothing at all.
This freedom also lets us laugh with our neighbors. Even without the same theological underpinnings, most people believe we’re all beautiful and horrible. Writing about The Good Place, Christ and Pop Culture writer D. L. Mayfield says, “No matter where you fall on the spectrum of religious beliefs, The Good Place has the same message: humans are the worst, and humans are also capable of astonishing amounts of goodness, especially where you would least expect to find it.” A Christian can freely laugh at a show with that philosophy, and a talented (and lucky) Christian writer would fit well in that writer’s room.
If your sense of humor is rooted in something that’s bigger than you, something true that values your neighbor, you won’t be thrown off by this cultural moment or the next. You won’t always find yourself always having to be careful or change with the times. And maybe you’ll find yourself leading the way, teaching others how to laugh well as times change.
Be sure to listen to Ben Fort discuss the important role of humor in good conversation with Erin Straza and Hannah Anderson on the “Funny Talk” episode of Persuasion.