The Office and The Tragic Nature of Comedy

I love The Office–I have seen every episode and plan to watch every future episode until the show runs its course.  I love awkward humor and The Office supplies its fair share, but a recent episode was tragically awkward and not funny at all.  In the second to last episode of the season, it comes to the attention of Dunder Mifflin’s many employees that Michael (the boss) has been sleeping with a married woman–this results in a crusade by Andy to make Michael feel guilty for his adultery in which Andy introduces Michael to the woman’s unsuspecting husband.  The whole show was built around the awkwardness of such a situation and though I love the show it wasn’t funny, but tragic.  I didn’t regret watching this episode because this particular episode illustrated quite aptly the pain caused by adultery in a realistic way–in a way seldom illustrated in your average sitcom.  It was a rare moment moment in the show because it wasn’t funny and it seemed the writers didn’t intend for it to be.

The Office, unlike most comedies is willing to move in directions that are painfully real and not funny at all–I found this refreshingly appropriate.  Far more common is the comedic tactic of making light of sin.  I did not need to see The Hangover to tell you that the entire premise of the movie is to get us to laugh at the tragic decisions people make when they are drunk.  Perhaps this is funny to the Christian who is far removed from the “party” culture, but drunkenness is a real issue in the real world and it can cost people their lives.  The Hangover seems poised to get us to start thinking that drunkenness is funny.  Another example that comes to mind is Friends and the incessant jokes leveled at Ross’ failed marriages, Joey’s premarital sexual exploits, and the irrational decisions Rachel makes when drunk.

Is it ok to laugh at sin? We shouldn’t take TV too seriously right?  When is sin funny? Does Ephesians 5:4 prohibit laughing at sin?

Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.

I don’t think Paul is warning against potty humor here, I think he is saying, don’t make jokes about what is shameful, i.e. don’t make jokes about things that damn people.  “Foolish talk” is not a reference to silliness–the fool in scripture is one whose soul is danger because of his lack of wisdom (Psalm 14:1; 53:1; Proverbs 10:8-23; 12:15-16; 13:16).

When media makes light of lust, pride, and greed and our response is to laugh, I fear we reveal that we are deceived by sin in our hearts (Jer. 17:9).  Simply put, sin is no laughing matter–it is destructive, at best it damages people’s earthly lives and at worst damns them for eternity.  When media mocks sin–and show its destructive nature, perhaps it is appropriate for us to laugh and to say along with the media–that is foolishness!  But to laugh at sin as if it is silly is dangerous.

That is the difference in what I saw in the aforementioned episode of The Office–the show mocked adultery and brought out very clearly the pain that it causes.  We see this in Scripture–Elijah mocks the prophets of Baal when their gods fail to light their sacrifice, he even uses “potty humor” by asking if perhaps their gods were “relieving themselves” (1 Kings 18:27).  In the account of the Tower of Babel–God mocks the pride of the builders when the text tells us that God “went down” in order to see the tower that had supposedly been built to reach up to heaven.

My goal here is not to tell you not to watch shows that make light of sin, but rather to beware of making light of sin along with media which does so.  In the rare instance that what we watch, play, or read serves to mock sin, I suppose it’s appropriate for us to laugh, but in either instance the goal is the same to glorify God by what we eat, drink, read and watch (1 Corinthians 10:31).

About Drew Dixon

Drew is an editor at Christ and Pop Culture and editor-in-chief of Gamechurch.com. He is also a pastor, soccer coach, and writer. Drew also regularly writes for Think Christian, Bit Creature, and Paste Magazine. He has also written for Relevant Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @drewdixon82

  • Alan Noble

    Good thoughts. I believe that if you really analyze the humor in the Office you’ll find that nearly every single joke involves sin of some kind at its core: selfishness, lust, hate, lying, sloth, etc. I think it would be hard to find an example of Michael being funny that does not involve him hurting someone else out of selfishness. So the question is, is it sin to laugh at these funny parts?

    For myself, and I have thought quite a bit about this, humor and sin is a very complicated issue, and I really have to search my heart to determine what it is that I am laughing at. Generally, with shows like the Office, I’m laughing at the absurdity of Michael’s selfishness, not the sin itself. I know that sounds like a fine line, but it is an extremely important and valid one, and one that I believe I tend to discern automatically due to my spiritual level of maturity (that sounds like bragging, but all I’m trying to say there is that when I was younger, I was not able to quickly discern what was appropriate and what was inappropriate to laugh at, and although I still have to question that occasionally, in general I feel that I am able to discern that fairly quickly now).

    All that to say, I agree that we need to be willing to examine what we laugh at, but I also believe that it is a challenging wisdom issue to determine what we should and should not laugh at. I’d write more, but there is a wiggling baby in my lap.

  • http://scott-schultz.blogspot.com/ Scott

    I’m not yet convinced that the purpose of The Hangover was to make light of drunkenness. In fact, strictly speaking, the title is a misnomer, as the pretext for the entire story is one character’s accidental drugging of himself and his friends with roofies. And it’s worth pointing out that that’s the primary role of inebriation in the story – pretext – which is something significantly different than aiming to get people to laugh at the hilarity of drunkeness. It’s this very fact that allows The Hangover to triumph as an actually respectable comedy, being more a tale of three (“very best”) friends on a journey to find their missing friend in order to get him to his wedding on time. It’s the adventure of attempting to piece together all the clues, and the ridiculous circumstances they find themselves in along the way, that allow the movie to transcend what could have been an incredibly base piece of film.

    I know that you only referenced The Hangover in passing, but I was so pleasantly surprised by the film that I couldn’t help but get at least a little bit defensive.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Scott–I probably should not have cited The Hangover as an example when I have not seen it. Your comment is fair, I would say that the title and the trailers would lead you to believe that the movie makes light of drunkenness and that is what I was referencing–it was as you say mentioned in passing and doesn’t really change the main point of my post.

    @Alan, thanks for the feedback, I think you are making a worthwhile distinction and one worth thinking about. In one sense everything we do is affected/influenced by sin because even as Christians we are simultaneously both a saint and a sinner.

    As I thought about it more, your distinction, I think, fits with what I have proposed about it being appropriate to laugh when sin is being mocked. Take Michael Scott for example–so much of what he does is blatantly selfish–that is what makes him such a funny character–his selfishness is blatantly obvious to everyone except for himself. Typically, when I laugh at things that Michael does, I am laughing at the absurdity or the obviousness of his selfish decisions.

    Not that we need to be hyper-introspective, but I think what Michael does blatantly we all do inwardly and in far less obvious ways. I guess I just think if we are going to spend the amount of time it takes to watch shows like The Office, its worth learning something about ourselves from–and when I watch Michael, I often think about how selfish I am rather than just pointing the finger at Michael because what Michael does outwardly, I do in more cunning ways.

    Anyway, excellent point.

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    Humor is difficult, and I think some good points have been made here. I also think there is something to the idea that “begin removed” from particular vices, such as the hurt that comes from the party culture, might make it easier to laugh at the horror of sin.

    Having said that, to a married man, there is nothing funny about adultery. Nothing funny at all.


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