Over the past few years, really since the election of one Orange Man, it has been a pretty common refrain that late night comedy is simply not funny. Technically, jokes are made, an audience laughs on cue, but it’s joyless. The jokes hit the right pattern of a joke, the delivery is perfectly timed and yet it is all a little clinical. I am going to point to two major things that cause this outcome.
The first is the technical prowess. We live in an age that has perfected the skills of comedy. In Terry Lindvall’s book, God Mocks it is striking how frankly unfunny comedy has historically been. Jokes don’t really get to be, “laugh out loud” until the reformation. Before that, there is a lot of scatological humor, a little wordplay, but not much that is truly intentionally hysterical. And a large part of it is humans just didn’t really understand, or have time to, understand the finer details of what makes for a great joke. There was a lot more of a sort of, gallows style wit, you have to laugh to keep from crying, kind of thing. But now we know comedy. To the point where Harold Nicolson can in his essay, The English Sense of Humour can give, beat by beat, all of the exact physiological responses to different kinds of jokes. The great comedian Jack Benny’s daughter would recall sitting in the writers room with her father and someone would write a joke that would kill the next night and all of the writers would sagely nod and one would pronounce, “That’s funny.” We live in a world where the nuts and bolts of humor are laid bare for us to assemble at will to produce, a joke. We have done what E.B. White cautioned was not wise, we have dissected the frog of humor.
“Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.” – E.B. White
The second is that we live in a highly pharisaical age. A new Victorianism* has arisen with all the absurd and high demands of its pearl clutching moralism. There is very little not silly between deciding that a man could be aroused by the sight of a curvaceous table leg so a dress must be draped over the table (table cloths) and now demanding that a man must be aroused by that whale of a hippity hoppity lass thunder thighing her way around a stage in nearly nothing. It is merely opposite ends of the silly spectrum, as overseen by a chap going by the moniker, M. Python. And yet as inherently, and obviously ridiculous those things are, here we stand with the blue haired Pharisees demanding that we take them seriously; Gob Bluth and the Magicians Alliance Style. (See Image Above)
And yet, we have in interesting intersection of these two points in the late night comedy scene. The result being a joyless, un original, preachy, and lazy comedy scene. I have lost track of how many times these “entertainers” have devoted their time to being outraged or tearful over the latest person running afoul of the new orthodoxy, instead of maybe… being funny and entertaining. Likewise, how often, have we had to endure an emotional apology from that time they said the wrong thing, usually the exceptional time that they were actually funny, but it offended group X. I may just be too young but I can’t remember a time when young Letterman issued an apology for making a joke, or when he did, he obviously didn’t mean it. in 2019 he had to apologize after being accused of being sexist to one of his writers, and Lord knows he hasn’t been allowed to stop groveling since. This intersection of new secular pietism and the academics of comedy has lead to humor that is discouraging to any but the pure liberal mind.
It is becoming apparent to many that it is high time that Christians, and in particular, we Calvinists, have not only the opportunity, but actually the ability, to fill this market opportunity. The current purveyors of comedy are producing subpar work that is over priced. But more than that Christians are commanded to be joyful, and as I pointed out near the top, we are largely responsible for making the world in which comedy flourished. If it was a tool of the reformation why can’t it be a tool today? Even more that that there is nothing a pharisee, and by extension the devil who motivates him, hates more than to be mocked:
“The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” – Martin Luther
This is why the lads over a The Babylon Bee have been met with such success and banning. And in my estimation they are not even that funny or as bold theologically as they should be! But at least they are off to a good start. Really though we should be pursuing the kind of joy Lewis highlights, and Screwtape abhors.
“Fun is closely related to Joy—a sort of emotional froth arising from the play instinct. It is very little use to us. It can sometimes be used, of course, to divert humans from something else which the Enemy would like them to be feeling or doing: but in itself it has wholly undesirable tendencies; it promotes charity, courage, contentment, and many other evils.” – C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters; Letter XI
“Laugh and fear not, creatures. Now that you are no longer dumb and witless, you need not always be grave. For jokes as well as justice come in with speech.” – C.S. Lewis (Aslan), The Magicians Nephew
The censorious can abide no such thing as fun (lockdowns for your good in summertime anyone?). They wish all to be drawn and grave, like the Pharisees of old because religion is a serious business. We have an opportunity to fight back and our handiest weapon is an enormous guffaw, a right and proper horse laugh. At the very least we should be having joyful fun. For God made fun, it was his idea. It is one of his good gifts to us. Jesus had fun, it’s why little children came to him again and again. But then we should go further we should master humor. And frankly it has never been easier. One of its principals is reductio ad absurdum, reduce an idea to its absurd conclusions. Comedy works on surprise, we have been told how we are allowed to speak, the law has been carefully fenced, it’s time for some gleeful Christ-esque trespassing and frolicking in those gated communities of language. But things do not even have to be “topical,” “political,” or “culture war-ish” it just needs to be fun.
Might I suggest that turning the other cheek can mean to make the joke, get smacked, and then make the followup punch line? I have heard time after weary time that, turning the other cheek, “does not mean being a doormat.” I agree. It can mean showing grace, being firm, and getting the last hysterical word in.
*I refuse to concede the word Puritanical. The Puritans were incredibly joyful people. The third generation American descendants fit the caricature from Hawthorne and Miller. But the Victorians were genuinely obnoxious.