Don Miller was speechless.
Just before Blue Like Jazz opened, I interviewed Don. I knew he and director Steve Taylor wanted to make people laugh. I’d seen the film, and I thought they did a pretty good job.
“So Don, why aren’t Christians funny? Why isn’t the church known for being a place of laughter?” I asked.
“That is a great question…I don’t know,” Don said slowly. And so my quest began…
The Dark Side of Laughter
Mike Sacks has found a striking pattern in is 2009 book And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on their Craft. He interviewed comedy writers from just after World War II through SNL and The Onion to Arrested Development and David Sedaris.
These funny people confessed consistent struggle and dysfunction.
Paul Feig, creator of Freaks and Geeks, told Sacks, “(The reason) why a lot of these people go into humor in the first place (is) the only thing you have to hide behind is comedy. I did stand-up for a few years, and a good number of comics I met were extremely angry people. They were not pleasant…And I noticed one thing: comics love to be laughed with, but if people laugh at them, they fucking lose their shit…there’s a real insecurity that comes with being funny. You’re on a razor’s edge. Comedy is an attempt to control things, and it just so happens that you’re trying to control people through laughter. But laughter can go off the rails at any given point.”
So maybe Christians have moved beyond hiding behind their jokes. Perhaps Christians find a solace and security that draws them off that razor’s edge. Or maybe Christians aren’t that funny because we’re learning to let go of control in another way. It could be that we’re dealing just a smidge better with our own issues—we know we’re broken, and we know cracking jokes won’t protect or fix us.
Sacks quotes humor columnist Dave Barry who once wrote, “Humor is really closely related to fear and despair…We live in an extremely dangerous, scary world, run by all kinds of forces over which we have not control. And we’re all gonna get sick and die.”
Christians have some antidote to fear and despair. We deal with theology, thoughts of eternity, of heaven and hell. At our best we don’t need to escape this “extremely dangerous, scary world,” but face it with some answers. But maybe the weight of all this crushes our jokes, breaks our funny bones. We have important work to do with tremendous implications—there’s temporal and eternal suffering on our minds every day. That makes it hard to goof off.
The Lighter Side
When Marshall Brickman, the Oscar-winning writer of Annie Hall with Woody Allen, talked with Sacks, he said, “Tom Stoppard has said that laughter is the sound of comprehension. So when an audience laughs, it means they really understand, and, by implication, identify with the material…Woody used to say that comedy sits at the children’s table. But I don’t agree, and I don’t think Woody really believes that, either. I think humor is a way to an essential truth. If you get an audience to laugh together, it does a whole lot of great things. It solidifies them; it gives them a mystical experience of being in a crowd. It socializes people.
Here we start to see some of the upside of humor. And at least some preachers have taken this to heart and have reaped the advantages of humor bringing their congregations together. But let’s get real—a lot of the sermon jokes are lame. I wonder if that’s because Christians have found something that “solidifies” and “socializes people” and “offers a mystical experience” better (and even more truthfully) than comedy.
The Hard Questions
Here I have to pause. If Wilmore and Rosenthal have it right, humor arises from our real, lived-out lives. If Christians are not funny, I think it’s appropriate for Christians to ask ourselves a hard question.
Are we living enough?
Maybe Christians aren’t funny because we’re too wrapped up in eternity, potlucks, outreaches, liturgy, debates about spiritual gifts, and the crisis du jour.
And to return to Dave Barry, he told Sacks, “A sense of humor is a measurement of the extent to which we realize that we are trapped in a world almost totally devoid of reason. Laughter is how we express the anxiety we feel at this knowledge…I don’t know that you can explain why we, as a species, laugh. Maybe it’s just that there’s a disconnect in our brains when we realize that obviously we’re going to die but we can laugh anyway. There has to be a release. For me, it’s either you laugh or you become religious.”
Why can’t we do both?