The Joke’s On You

We explore the mechanics of humor. How does it work? Why is it effective in political and social commentary? And how do some scholars see the same patterns at work in the Gospel?

Humor brings joys and levity to our lives. It lightens our load, helps us make sense of hardship, and it might even influence how we select the love of our lives. But humor can also be offensive, speak truth to power, and fall out of fashion. Let’s take a look at the mechanics behind humor, and see how they operate in society, politics, and –of all places– the Bible.

Definition and Etymology

Humor can refer to something being comic or amusing, or it can refer to someone’s mood. Here I’m using it in the former sense. Etymologically, the term connects to the ancient Greek theory of body fluids (humors) as the foundation of health and medicine. This immediately acknowledges its connection with our overall health and wellbeing. The word also made recent news when Wordle chose its American spelling as word of the day.

Theories and Underlying Mechanisms

How humor works, and why it’s important, has been extensively studied by psychologists and philosophers over centuries. This article by Christian author Bruce Ashford offers a good summary. I would say that all humor entails an element of surprise – a dissonance or incongruity with an expected situation or outcome. In turn, this usually brings two consequences. One is the shaming of a person or identity group – the butt of the joke – sometimes coupled with the elevation or smugness of someone else (typically the audience). Another surprise or plot twist in humor is irreverence – an allowance to break some societal, cultural or political norm, and to temporarily escape the consequences in the name of humor.

Naturally, these are thin lines to tread. Humor entails some level of immaturity, and tastes change as we age. Humor relies on a shared cultural context, but sometimes it transcends language and culture barriers. Conversely, what one culture finds humorous can be very offensive to another. In fact, even within the same culture, humor sometimes “doesn’t age well.” The popular American sitcom Friends comes to mind. Considered trailblazing and ubiquitous twenty five years ago, parts of it don’t sit well under the West’s current understanding of diversity and inclusion.

Social and Political Uses

The transgressive nature of humor has been exploited for political and social causes. Three examples come to mind: the jester, the political cartoon, and practical joke shows. In medieval times, jesters were a noble court’s official fools. This designation allowed them to get away with political tasks that others couldn’t undertake, such as delivering certain kinds of bad news to their masters. In this sense, jesters are an example of speaking truth to power. I’m reminded of Wamba, the jester of Cedric the Saxon in Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe.

In a similar vein, political cartoonists leverage a medium traditionally associated with humor to subvert the underlying mechanisms for political purposes. Satire, shame, national pride, cultural and social injustices – all these and more have been successfully exploited by political cartoonists. Again, because these are thin lines to tread, some of them have faced scorn, unemployment, and even death as a result of their work. Canadian cartoonist Michael de Adder comes to mind, as well as the 2015 shooting in the offices of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.

As for practical joke shows, on the surface they exploit our ability to laugh at someone else’s disgrace or perceived inferiority. But oftentimes, these shows serve as sharp commentary on their own audience. What we find funny or questionable in others may not seem too palatable when pointed out in ourselves, and I think that sometimes these shows take not-so-subtle digs at us in that sense.

Mechanics of Humor in the Gospel

What’s really interesting is that some scholars have found the same patterns underpinning humor being used to great effect in the Bible. It’s not that the Gospel is funny or trivial, but that its motifs of exposing our faults, uncovering hypocrisy, and critiquing spurious authority are remarkably similar to the ways in which political and social humor work.

In his book Fool’s Talk, Os Guinness draws parallels between the Old Testament prophets and the court jesters of Middle Ages Europe. He uses Micaiah’s prophecy against king Ahab, and Nathan’s rebuke of David’s adultery and murder, as examples of storytellers raising their unsuspecting audience, and suddenly dropping them and turning the tables on them. Guinness explicitly connects these techniques to the approaches of jesters, and more broadly to the patterns that underlie humor.

Likewise, Gordon Fee explains how Jesus’ parables are similar to jokes. They often center around a person that is deluded in some dimension. Maybe it’s their self-righteous perception; maybe it’s their perception of the kingdom of God. In the end, the parable springs an unexpected surprise on the character, questioning their motives and their worldview. By extension, the parable questions the attitudes of a very specific audience within Jesus’ earshot. And just like humor, parables were thinly veiled – just enough to precisely land their blow while buying Jesus a bit more time before His life ministry reached its supreme end.

Finally, Michael J. Gorman even sees parallels between the message of Revelation and political cartoons. Few Bible books are as contested and as diversely interpreted as Revelation. However, many scholars agree that in its immediate context the book questioned the increasing civic religion of the Roman Empire of its time. The book can be understood, at least partly, as a cyphered satire against Rome’s claims of emperor divinity and absolute authority in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

A New Look Behind the Scenes?

This can seem blasphemous to a certain type of believer, or exotic to a secular audience. But I think it makes a lot of sense. In the Christian worldview, God created everything. This includes our communication patterns: how do we convey ideas, and how do we react to them. Having an intimate knowledge of the human heart and mind, God leverages things like the underlying mechanics of humor to convey His utmost message to us in a way that ensures maximal effect.

In his letter to the Colossians, the apostle Paul explains how Jesus nailed to the cross the outstanding legal debt of our sins, and how in doing so he disarmed and ridiculed all evil authorities (Col 2:14-15). To accomplish His salvation plan, God sends His anointed king to die in a way considered embarrassing and demeaning like no other. Crucifixion was the Roman Empire’s ultimate show of force. Yet from this seemingly utter defeat, God mocks and dethrones not just Roman power, but the very powers that have stunned humanity forever – the deficient, counterfeit powers of evil and death. I can’t think of a finest example of comedy, in the classical Greek drama sense.

Try it on your own! If you are a believer, I encourage you to see if your favorite Bible passage makes sense through this lens. And if you’re not a believer, here’s a different way to approach the Bible. If you don’t care about the spiritual angle, read the story with an eye for the comedic effect – the incongruity and shock experienced by the characters, and the visceral reactions elicited in the audience. I guarantee you’ll be surprised.

Published: February 27, 2022