Humor Us

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?


Macon said…
Oh, you can't fool me, you crafty ZimmerMan! I see how you trademarked "Postmodern Stand-Up Comedy" first, and only then do you try to pack it with meaning. And not only that, you want us to help you do it! Hmmmm. That's the neo-Tom-Sawyer approach: Wouldn't you like to whitewash my fence?

In short, supremely brilliant!

Some essentials (perhaps?) to shared humor:
Shared Language
Shared Experience
Shared Media Catalog
Shared Rubber Chicken

Maybe the problem with the pastor jokes is that your group takes your pastor too seriously, or esteems him too highly? Were they offended that you'd cast such aspersions upon him (or in his general direction)?

Or maybe they were too thoughtful/biblical and were thinking, "Moses? He's not dead. He appeared in the garden with Jesus."

Or, and I think this is the real issue, maybe they were waiting for the rim-shot that never came, which is the que to laugh, as everyone knows.
Rick said…

feel your pain. keep pressing on.
Pete Juvinall said…
I feel like I'm the king of self-deprecating humor sometimes. In that situation, you could have almost extract a laugh by punctuating just how lame (Sorry... :)) the joke was (or at least how lamely it went over...). I would have tried to kill the cricket I was hearing after the silence... :)

PoMo humor, if I were to guess, would deal alot with understanding your audience and not so much about how they understand you.

Craver Vii said…
I'm sorry, Bro, but if you crack a joke in a room full of people and no one laughs...the silence that follows is totally hilarious!

Professional comics create an atmosphere. First, the audience is served drinks, then they get things started by a mildly funny host, and then when the headliner appears, he has people hired to laugh out loud on his cue.

Myself, I wouldn't do that, since my thing is stand-up philosophy. It is a drier thing. Much, much drier.

If you can't serve drinks at your church, I recommend a monkey trained to do rimshots.

Macon is on to something with the rubber chicken. Pure comical genius. Here's how you use it. If a gag gets a low response, you say "(someone else's name) told me to say that!" Then throw the chicken at someone who will hang ont to it. I saw a video where Pope John Paul II did that in Latin and laughed so hard I had grape soda shooting out of my nose!
Anonymous said…
You made the statement, "Likewise authors, like Likewise books, are an eclectic mix. What links them together is the spirit in which they've written—a spirit of humility, a spirit of truth."

This places me in the company of the Likewise. Nevertheless, in the spirit of truth, I think you will find "The Gospel According to Jerry: Confessions of a Fool for Christ" a better read than "The Da Vinci Code." For a couple of reasons:

1. It is not fiction.

2. It sheds new and revealing light on a number of questions that most Christians find deeply disturbing or highly offensive or both, and are therefore seldom asked or dealt with in Christian circles even at the seminary level. Questions such as:

Why did Jesus' family think he was out of his mind and try to restrain him? (Mark 3:21)

Why did many of his contemporaries think he was raving mad? (John 10:20)

Why did Festus think Paul was going insane? (Acts 26:24)

How do you answer C.S. Lewis' challenge, that Christ must either be taken at his word---that he is the Son of God---or be dismissed as a madman? (Mere Christianity)

Was Plato's idea of "divine madness" (Phaedrus) fulfilled in the Christ; as were the Hebrew concepts of prophet, priest and king in the Messiah? (Matt.21:11; Heb. 5:7-10; Matt. 27:37)

How valid are Anton Boisen's insights into the mirror-image relationship of mental illness and religious experience? (The Exploration of the Inner World)

Was Freud right when he diagnosed believing Christians as victims of obsessional neurosis?
(The Future of an Illusion)

Is this why committed Christians are considered irrelevant---even dangerous---by so many educated people today?

Has the quest for the historical Jesus finally ended in a lunatic asylum? (Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, and The Psychiatric Study of Jesus)

If you think these questions deserve answers, check out "The Gospel According to Jerry", -- a much more serious book than "The Da Vinci Code", and because the subject is real not fictitious, ultimately more engaging.
David Zimmerman said…
Jerry kind of sidetracked our discussion a bit. And just for the record, his book isn't a Likewise publication--although I'm sure it's interesting reading. For more on Likewise go to

But back to Craver's comment: I used to think quite a lot about the parallels between stand up comedy and preaching--especially given that so many stand up comics build their material around their faith system. I was watching Last Comic Standing last night, and one guy said that if you're going to take the stage as a comic, you owe it to the audience to say something. I thought that was pretty interesting: that the bully pulpit, whether it's in a night club or a church, carries with it the responsibility to speak truth to the best of our ability. Same for philosophers, I reckon; same for bloggers, I daresay.

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