Laughing Seriously

Why laughing about serious things is good

· Suffering,Humour

Good comedy is serious comedy. And serious comedy makes a point.

I make this argument not merely because I have thought about it and reasoned it out. I am also someone who has suffered profoundly and innocently with brain cancer and the treatment it took to get it under control. There have been many times when the only thing I could do was laugh at what was going on in my body and how it affected me as a whole person.

One of the jokes I found funny was delivered by Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop. Prior to my diagnosis, the only evidence that might have pointed to a tumour had been the chronic headaches I experienced.

Another joke I had a long love for struck me as very funny after I had brain surgery. Along with the Black Knight, I reasoned, ’tis but a flesh wound.

Of course, there are jokes that are superficial or designed simply to give the audience a brief escape from life. I can’t find anything morally wrong with that concept. The worst jokes, however, aim to mock people for the sole purpose of humiliating them. This is not what I think of as serious comedy. Still, what can seem superficial or mocking to one person can to another be deeply rooted in serious business. It’s why I didn’t expect every one of my family members or caregivers to laugh at what made me laugh while I was walking through the valley of the shadow of cancer.

It’s also why the Python Boys were so controversial in their day. Consider one of their most hailed comedic moments, which took place at the crucifixion of Brian (who is mistaken for Jesus):

Some believed the Python Boys were being superficial—making sport of the crucifixion for the sake of making sport of it. Others took great offense at the perceived mockery of both Jesus and (an event that shaped) the Christian faith.

But I grew up on Monty Python. My Christian parents allowed me to watch Monty Python's Flying Circus and the Monty Python movies (Monty Python and the Holy Grail being our family favourite). The more I took in Python humour, the more I learned it was undergirded with deeper meaning. While suffering through cancer treatment, this deeper meaning struck me in a fresh way. There was a point being made in the concluding crucifixion scene of Life of Brian: Optimism is not a cure for wounds we are not fully capable of healing.

Jon Stewart offers another example of controversial humour. Consistently, Stewart claimed The Daily Show was a comedy, not journalism. But those of us who watched it—whether we enjoyed or were offended by the show—knew better. After all, no one spends years making jokes about current events for the sake of spending years making jokes about current events. In every episode, a point was made.

Laughing at serious things is not simply a coping mechanism for what a person or a society suffers, though it can serve that purpose. God has created us as people who are capable both of thinking seriously and making and laughing at jokes. Humour is part of our nature, part of what it means to be joyful about what God gives us, and joyful about our own creation. A good laugh about one’s own suffering need not be made in a Sisyphean way, raising a fist against God when we discover the futility of our efforts. Novelist Flannery O’Connor, whose work always mixed gothic style and dark humour, affirmed,

The maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum amount of comedy. Only if we are secure in our beliefs can we see the comical side of the universe.

Laughing at our own profound, innocent suffering can reveal that we take it very seriously—seriously enough that we can afford to laugh at it.

There is more to be said about serious comedy. And I’ll keep thinking about it. Closing off for now, I leave the gift of laughter to those of you who hate groupwork.