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Volume 16, Issue 1: Thema

Ironies of Laughter

Douglas Jones

Irony is a dangerous lifestyle, especially around people with easy access to staplers. But Socrates raised petty irony to a new high, and Athens responded, justly, by making it a capital crime. The philosophical Greeks were never very comfortable with irony or humor in general. For them, the real world was geometry, and geometricians have yet to produce a notable line of comics.

In his final dialogue, titled Laws, Plato was finally able to cut loose once his tedious teacher Socrates was gone and buried. Apparently, even Plato got fed up with irony and humor and recommended punishing comics: "Do we admit into our state the comic writers who are so fond of making mankind ridiculous?" To which the reply was: "A comic poet, or maker of iambic or satirical lyric verse, shall not be permitted to ridicule any of the citizens, either by word or likeness, either in anger or without anger. And if any one is disobedient, the judges shall either at once expel him from the country, or he shall pay a fine of three minae." To make such a law against comics is like scaring off a lion by waving steak. So when the ancient comics were forced to choose between exile and the three minae fine, they begged for microphones.
But why go to such lengths for comedy? Why does comedy provoke such responses? What is the meaning of laughter? Why is laughter always surrounded by fines, suicide, and blank stares? Can I fit any more questions here? Charles Darwin claimed we laugh in order to win the best food at a restaurant. That explains why waitresses don't laugh, but it doesn't explain the oddness of laughter. It is quite the bodily thing. It is often beyond our control. Our body just takes over, self-control gone. Simon Critchley notes "In laughing violently, I lose self-control in a way that is akin to the moments of radical corporeal exposure that follow an orgasm or when crying turns into an uncontrollable sobbing. . . . [L]aughter is an explosion expressed with the body. When I laugh vigorously, I literally experience an oscillation or vibration of the organs, which is why it can hurt when you laugh."
Scripture commends self-control but not forever, not for the eschatalogically mature. Self-control is more like training wheels. The whole direction of the New Covenant moves away from external controls toward the law-made-instinct on the heart (Jer. 31:33,34), a move away from training wheels toward instinctive wheelies. Barry Sanders ties the absence of grunted self-control in laughter to the goals of Eden: "One might argue that only inside the Garden of Eden can we experience our true nature, in that idyllic place where we are free to act without the restraints of shame or embarrassment, where we are free to be ourselves. Little kids who spin madly about and finally fall, giggling all the way down to the ground, their arms and legs turning every which way, have abandoned themselves to the same giddy state. How delightful to be so out of control —so safely, so playfully out of control." Laughter is a taste of Eden, a return to childhood without the height disadvantages. When Jesus confirms this with, "whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven" (Mt. 18:4), we should think of spinning kids.
Abraham and Sarah had this sort of laugh attack. First, the Lord framed the comic attitude for Abraham: You know what's weird about the covenant? And then He gave the setup premise: It offers diapers as retirement benefits. The punchline is history, and "Abraham fell on his face and laughed. Shall a child be born to a man who is one hundred years old? And shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?" (Gen. 17:17).
Though Abraham did get into trouble with Sarah for blurting out her age so loudly before the Lord, he still didn't get the depth of the joke. Abraham replied, "Oh, that Ishmael might live before You!" Abraham offered that other kid. Perhaps Abraham was concerned about the threat of nightfeedings, or how his friends would tease him about how old he would be when Isaac graduated from college. But the God of the Gospel is the God of foolish means: "God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise" (1 Cor. 1:27). I love the fact that Abraham actually fell on his face. A pratfall grounds the very origins of the gospel. It is part of the greatness of Abraham that he knows God so well that he can laugh at God in God's presence and be hailed as the friend of God (Jam. 2:23). This actually tells us much more about God than Abraham. Jehovah is the friend of the best kind of foolish things, not angst, scowls, academic prose, or rice cakes.
Sarah laughed too. The Lord got laughed at every time He introduced this plan—a sure sign of its brilliance. "Sarah laughed within herself, saying, `After I have grown old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?'" Then she went into denial and weaseled for a moment like a presidential candidate caught making an ethnic joke. But in what seemed like years later, the length of a pregnancy, Sarah laughed again, unpolitical this time: "`God has made me laugh, and all who hear will laugh with me.' She also said, `Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? For I have borne him a son in his old age," (Gen. 21:6,7). Notice this time the quick dig at Abraham's age but not her own. Sanders says, "Sarah's announcement of the event stands out as the only instance in the Old Testament of joyous laughter. . . . Thus Sarah establishes a covenant, one forged out of laughter, with everyone, including strangers, who hears the news of her miracle." I'm sure much of this claim is false, but it certainly sounded good on a first reading.
These episodes provide test-tube cases for figuring out the meaning of the weird bodily sounds we call laughter. At least, they help us defeat one historically prominent explanation of laughter, namely, the superiority view, the view that "laughter signals the wit's sense of superiority and is a most effective technique for correcting the butt's errors," as F. H. Buckley has recently argued in The Morality of Laughter. His book is quite a delight, and I wish we had more like it, but I must part ways with his central thesis.
In claiming that laughter always signals a personal sense of superiority, Buckley could seemingly point to evidence like comic Brian Kiley's quip, "My kids can be cranky and don't like to take baths. They're like little Europeans." Or as Emo Phillips says: "New York is such a wonderful city. Although I was at the library today. The guy was very rude. I said, `I'd like a card.' He says, `You have to prove you're a citizen of New York.' So I stabbed him."
Here Europeans, New Yorkers, and kids are the joke butts, and the wits hover over them in superiority. Buckley doesn't argue that a sense of superiority alone is sufficient to produce laughter, or else super models would be funny. But superiority, he says, is necessary in every joke, and it, along with sociability, surprise, and playfulness, generally cause laughter. Superiority, he argues, even shows up in humor that is merely exuberant, innocent, ironic, or self-deprecatory; they all at least "take pride in our clarity of vision."
One problem with Buckley's explanation is that it turns all laughter into a classroom. Every humorous comment becomes a hidden exercise of frowning social reform. Comedy is reduced to moralism. Buckley says, "Our laughter teaches him [the butt] valuable lessons about life. . . . [L]aughter assumes a normative order from which the butt has deviated. The thesis holds that laughter signals our derision at a defective act or life. Since this entails a comparison with superior life, comic vices assume comic virtues, and he who laughs must in his own way be a moralist." I'm all for a normative order that comedy assumes, but that order isn't just ethical. Certain jokes and humor genres focus on morality. Satire, for one, is didactic in this way, but not everything is.
To force all humor into the closet of genuine moralistic superiority misses the spirit of most comedy. One implication of Buckley's moralistic explanation of humor is that every joke must somehow be deeply serious about changing some behavior. But most comedy doesn't really care about serious reform. It often pretends to care, but not really. For example, Paula Poundstone says, "The problem with cats is that they get the same exact look whether they see a moth or an ax murderer." On the surface, it looks like simple superiority, humans over cats. But does she really want to change cat behavior? Is she truly deriding a defect in cats? No, she's just playing; she's getting us to enjoy this weird world we live in. Similarly, Rita Rudner says, "Never play peekaboo with a child on a long plane trip. There's no end to the game. Finally, I grabbed him by the bib and said, `Look, it's always gonna be me.'" Seems like clear superiority again; we presumably find glee in being superior to kids, and we want them to drop their comic vices. No we don't. She's not urging us toward an ideal world where children don't obsess about peekaboo.
There are even jokes that explicitly sound moralistic but aren't, as when Steven Wright says, "I think it's wrong that only one company makes the game Monopoly." If Wright did really care about this and wanted to change the world this way, it wouldn't be funny. Buckley sometimes explains away counterexamples by suggesting that it's not always the joke that invokes superiority but the comic himself. We laugh, he says, because the comic is playing dumb, and we are superior enough to grasp the comic's true wit. But by that convolution in qualification, we've arrived at the odd consequence that the joke itself isn't even important for laughter. Real superiority isn't, as Buckley says, the "key that unlocks every door." He set superiority over play, when it's actually reversed. Play does all the real work, and most of the time, only a pseudo superiority helps out in the background. A pseudo superiority is an ironic superiority. It isn't serious; it's playing. Laughter itself is an irony.
We also have to ask why we would consider superiority itself to be funny. Why would delighting in power over something make us laugh? That sounds so tediously secular. Modern secularism is obsessed with power, power relations, fear of power, getting-in power, uncovering power, market power, sleeping with power, power lunches, power moves, empowering power, power tools, and power-ade. They have only this one key on their piano. Secularists force everything into power categories, oblivious to how tiresome that is.
The Trinitarian universe doesn't run on power but grace—a fundamental parting of the ways the Church is still learning to grasp. Much of Christ's ministry focused on poking fun at those who thought the world ran by power; He kept inverting things, using foolish things, just as the Godhead did with Abraham. That wonderful line from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings about the dullness of Sauron should frame the struggle for us: "That we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place is not a thought that occurs to his mind."
Buckley's whole understanding of superiority is alien to the Christian scheme of things, though Buckley is openly Christian in his discussion, calling laughter a special gift of heaven, the word made flesh, and likens it to the Holy Spirit. He wants to tie laughter to the very core of divine reality, but apparently, he supposes that core is primarily law, duty, and normativity rather than play or joy, with law flowing out of those. One chilling consequence of Buckley's superiority view is that there could be no laughter before creation within the fellowship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They could not joke because there would be no genuine superiority within the Trinity. This is a serious check. But, if play is the heart of laughter, then the Trinity can be the actual source of laughter, past, present, and future.
Sarah better shows us the meaning of laughter. It needn't always signal superior contempt for lesser things. "God has made me laugh, and all who hear will laugh with me." She laughs at the glorious foolishness of God. She doesn't have to stand above God to laugh or even get us to side with her hidden superiority in a self-deprecating way. She laughs from joy within the play of Jehovah; she laughs to be within wild grace. And we can laugh, too, at images of much lesser redemptive significance; we laugh to be within this fountain of life in the created order: "I have two stepchildren. They're half Swedish and half Norwegian. They're see through." (Cathy Ladman). "You ever notice whenever you're with someone and they taste something that tastes bad, they always want you to taste it immediately. `This is disgusting. Taste it'" (Ellen DeGeneres). "Why is it that with birthday cakes you can blow on them and spit on them and everyone rushes to get a piece?" (Bobby Kelton).
The problem, however, with understanding laughter generally as a sign of play is that it, too, is obviously false. Not everyone is a Sarah. There are many who fall into the realm of "those who hate Me love death" (Prov. 8:36). What this suggests is that within a Christian universe there can be no uniform explanation of what laughter points to. The theological antithesis which pervades all of life shows up in laughter, too. There are those who love the Trinitarian gift of life and those who hate it; laughter can signify different things for each—the laughter signaling joy vs. the laughter signaling resentment. We hear both kinds. The laughter of resentment genuinely hates life and truly complains against legitimate constraint and pain. In the realm of resentment, the comedy of petty superiority and power fits nicely. It complains against anything that limits that prime Enlightenment divinity: the individual will.
Like everything else, comedy is religious, and so doubly ironic. The laughter signaling play—Trinitarian laughter—can pretend, can be ironic, with all sorts of unimportant superiorities and even faux complaints out of a deep delight with the gift of creation (and Trinitarian satire doesn't have to play with superiority; it aims to show God's own glory). On the other hand, the laughter of resentment includes the irony of pretending to give joy to a crowd, but the deeper despair is genuine. What could be funny in a universe where the highest values are survival and domination, where play has no place to stand or at least lean? Darwin is only funny in a Christian universe.
As history progresses, the humor of resentment has to collapse on itself for want of joy, but the laughter of play will inherit the earth in history and "you shall laugh" (Lk. 6:21). So, now, where are the great comic traditions bursting forth from Christendom?

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