I Can Has Comewnuty?
Humor is a funny thing (no pun intended). It seems to be a universal part of human lives—even the notoriously dry St. Augustine cracks a joke from time to time—yet varies not just from culture to culture, but from family to family, friend group to friend group. Humor can, as Lance so ably argued, help to relieve the tensions of a community, yet it can also be a source of furious division, as one person’s joke is greatly offensive to the next person.
Humor is also a bit elusive. You can try to make rules about what makes a good joke or a bad one, but at the end of the day the real question is whether or not it made people laugh. What rule could have predicted the wild popularity of cute kittens with bad spelling? That said, I’m going to try and give one rule for humor—what makes a joke funny is community.
This past weekend, I, and most of the other students at Regent College, went down to a retreat at Warm Beach, Washington (affectionately called Cold Swamp because it’s neither warm nor a beach). One of the staples of the Regent Retreat is a talent show. It’s a very good talent show at that, Regent is full of talented people, and it’s also very funny. Almost all of the jokes in the show are either jokes at the expense of Regent, or of theological studies, or even Christianity in general. One of our teachers, the venerable Dr. Iain Provan, this year performed a riff on Prairie Home Companion, replacing Garrison Keillor’s jokes with ones about Scottish Presbyterians and other communities closer to the Regent life than Lake Wobegon, Minnesota.
Full disclosure – I’m not a fan of Prairie Home Companion. I know many people who love it, but for some reason I could never get into it. The jokes just didn’t jive with me. Provan’s presentation, though, was uproariously funny. The jokes were barely changed, but here I was with my fellow Regent students, together in on the joke about Presbyterians, and some of us even more amused because we understood the Garrison Keillor connection.
I think it was precisely that sense of being in on the joke that made the joke funny. That’s why friendship groups develop inside jokes, and why internet memes are so hilarious to those who follow them. Quite appropriately, it’s also a big part of what made the show Community so funny for three seasons with its ever-building joke of self-reference.
Jokes are not only born in community, they help to foster it. As we laugh together around our in jokes, our community grows closer. I think the close tie between humor and community identity also helps to explain the rage that critics of a given joke are invariably met with. Indeed, even the role of humor in relieving tension that Lance discussed is very much a part of this. Humor is often a means for a community to open up the areas of their life that otherwise seem difficult or impossible to talk about. One of the acts at the talent show this weekend was a song humorously lamenting the woes of the Regent grad student. It was funny, but much of that humor came from that moment of “yep, I know that feeling” and the further sense that all those around you knew the feeling too. Christian graduate school is full of promise, you’ll learn great things, encounter God, but sometimes at the end of a day of eight hours of studying, all you want is a beer. Tumblrs like “EV’RY DAY I’M PASTORIN’” and “Mary is my homegirl” run off this sort of thing.
The flip side to this, however, is the danger of cliquishness. Humor is born in, and helps to foster, community, but that very fact also functions to exclude. I don’t think all exclusion is bad, but there’s a threshold where things move from mere exclusion to active oppression (jokes about dumb women, lazy Mexicans, and the like), because they reinforce a community identity that is founded on the one community thinking itself inherently superior to others.
It is necessary, therefore, that the Church, a community of humans seeking to engage all of the communities of the world, proceed both with joy and with care as it engages humor. To shun humor would be inhuman and would kill community, yet we do not want our humor to become a fence that shuts the people of the world out.
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