I wrote this in October 2003 for Strangely Dim. The ethics of humor have been on my mind lately, though, so I thought I'd resurface it.
Sometimes I’m so funny that I feel guilty about it. Other times I’m so unfunny that I feel the need to be forgiven.
I take humor seriously, perhaps too seriously. For example, how can I be funny without being mean-spirited? Is there a greater purpose to an off-hand humorous remark, or am I wasting my breath when I go for a quick laugh? Do we hide our true beliefs in humor, and if so, should we confront people when they are joking around?
But humor is necessarily fast-paced, action-packed. We prize the quick-witted, who draw humor out of a comment or situation without delay. How many of us have reflected on a conversation only to come up with a potentially classic but now-useless one-liner? One character on the television show Seinfeld spent an entire episode orchestrating events so that he could use his one-liner-come-lately on his rival, only to be one-upped barely a breath mark after he finally made his play. Timing is everything to humor; there’s no time to reflect on it.
Fundamentally, humor is a means to an end. “A cheerful heart has a continual feast,” says the writer of Proverbs 15:15, and what could be wrong about a continual feast? Only gluttony, perhaps, or maybe feasting while others are being starved. Oops—it seems even a cheerful heart is an ethical matter. A morally responsible person must come to terms with how humor can be used without being abused.
What strikes you as funny? What’s so funny about these things? We need to look deeper than “such-and-such makes me laugh” to understand what’s happening to us and around us when we pursue humor. Humor is prophetic in its own way; whether we want it to or not, our humor has an impact on our community that must be measured against our own self-interest. There is a time for laughter, most certainly, but there is a time for no laughter.
Humor properly understood gives us insight into who we are and who we ought to be, and points us to a middle ground between delusional arrogance and debilitating self-deprecation. When we can identify what is silly in and around us, we can begin to address such absurdities without defensiveness and continue to grow into the person and people God made us to be. Humor also makes us laugh, by the way, which makes for a nice side-effect.
I’ll close with my wife’s favorite joke. You’ll probably groan, but you’ll also probably grin.
Q: What should you say when the Statue of Liberty sneezes?
A: God bless America!