If you tell a joke in an empty hallway, and no one laughs, is it still funny?
What if you tell a joke in a room full of people and no one laughs--is it funny then?
I've been MC-ing the Alpha Course at my church, which has been an ongoing lesson in humility. I occasionally indulge the fantasy of hosting a late-night talk show a la Carson Daley (if he can do it . . .), and I fancy myself a pretty funny guy, but this crowd of Jesus-loving churchgoers started heckling me before I even stepped up to the microphone on the first day, and they haven't yet stopped.
I've felt pretty uncomfortable with the formality of the role, to tell the truth; to prove that Alpha is an opportunity to have fun at church, we have to have one official, formal "joke" as part of each night's festivities. The gag is part of the liturgy, you might say. I'm generally much more comfortable with off-the-cuff, give-and-take banter with the audience, out of which humor generally emerges. So I've actually enjoyed the heckling, for the most part: it's like postmodern stand-up comedy(TM).
What I've not been prepared for is the stunned silence that follows what I expected would at least get a chuckle. Last night I gave a top ten list of signs that your pastor is in need of a vacation. (I got it off the Internet, so it must be funny.) My number one reason was "He's starting to look a lot like Moses--and Moses has been dead for four thousand years." No laughs, no groans, no mutterings, nothing. You could have heard a tree fall in the woods from the comfort of your own living room, that's how dead silent this group was.
In fairness to me, our group was half its normal size, due to the Memorial Day weekend. I like to think that all the really sophisticated senses of humor left town. But it makes me wonder: what's essential to shared humor? What should postmodern stand-up comedy(TM) look like?