It was Saturday evening. I was set to perform a sketch at the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU) meeting straight after the visiting preacher had finished his talk—a talk which turned out to be the most intensely serious sermon ever inflicted on a living congregation. Weeks after, I learned, it had taken a fellowship of twelve students to destroy his notes in the fiery pits of Mordor. And yet I still had to go on and be funny. The sketch was about how not to give out a gospel to your friends during the upcoming mission week. I was wearing a fluorescent tracksuit and all I could think about was, ‘Top Ten Ways To Die: Number One – On stage, in a church, wearing a fluorescent tracksuit.”
And then, explosions of laughter burst out all around the room. Was I dead already? No. They loved it. The freezing cold warm-up act had bizarrely worked. The sense of relief in the church that evening was self-evident. I had pierced a freshly-inflated balloon of doctrinal doom with an unsuspecting needle of satire. Conclusion: when it all just gets too much, people NEED to laugh.
But I’m convinced there are two kinds of humour in life. There is that which has to do with celebration, and that to do with a hopeless cynicism. That to do with cynicism is like a resounding gong in a barren hall; although impressive at first, and perhaps carrying some shock value which may, at times, elicit a laughter-type reflex, ultimately it returns to the source empty and void. Celebratory humour, however, is like a melodic harp that resonates deep in the heart and overflows. So when we’re moved in some way by the humour around us – in our society, our conversations and thoughts – it is worth asking, ‘which kind are we really dealing with here?’ The kind of humour we create or respond to says a lot about our own hearts. Being a Christian, and having a new kind of heart, therefore, should make a big difference.
Comedians often make observations about life and people’s behaviour, which can be summed up as, ’there seems to be something fundamentally wrong with everything.’ Situations go from Hollywood Dream to Embarrassing Nightmare in an instant. Lids get stuck on things. Things get stuck on people (to name the more extreme examples). As well as being incredibly funny, this all sits well with the Christian worldview. We live in one world, a broken world, but belong in another, perfect world. Things go wrong and people aren’t who they so desperately try to be. However, Christians can celebrate this limited capacity to do and be all we imagine because it reminds us that there is a God who can—and we’re not Him.
But when the jokes fail to recognise these limitations as signposts and they’re used instead—even in highly-crafted or original ways—to mock, criticise and demoralize, we’re left in want of something. We have experienced something that has ultimately rejected the glory due to God for His creative work in humanity and, as a result, whether they know it at the time or not, the audience suffers for it.
On this planet, then, we’re stuck with one too many kinds of humour. One we all need, and one we don’t. And so the job—the call even—of the comedian, whose currency is laughter, is to grow the economy of celebration. The question, then, comes down to how one answers the call—with the harp or with the gong.
Toby Watts, BA (Hons) Cantab, is a writer and filmmaker based in Sheffield, UK. Toby writes and acts in mock documentary films and occasionally tries to be funny when standing up. He runs Far North Film (www.farnorthfilm.com) with his brother, Fionn.