What’s So Funny? (Or: Christianity and Comedy are Not Exclusive)

An ex-con, striving to change his ways and serve as a good husband, steals a newborn baby for his barren, broken-hearted wife.

Are you laughing?

A band of disciples pursues a man named Brian, who they’ve mistaken for the Messiah. When he disappoints them, they crucify him. And he shrugs, whistling a tune and singing “Always look on the bright side of life!”

Are you laughing?

A rabbi, lifting a heavy scroll of the Torah before a congregation, loses his balance and takes the name of Christ in vain.

Are you laughing?

Let’s talk about this.

Image hosts an online conversation about the arts called Arts and Faith. The discussion about movies, music, literature, and other art forms has been running for many years — more than a decade — and it has drawn a large crowd of participating minds. Among them are some devoted film enthusiasts who have taken to voting, about once a year, on a list of highly recommended titles on a particular subject. First, we voted on The Top 100 Films that we considered “spiritually significant.” Then we voted on our favorite horror films, our favorite road movies, and our favorite films about marriage.

This year, we published a list of our favorite “divine comedies.”

This stirred up discussion in several places. Groundhog Day? The best? Really? Do so many Pixar films belong on a list of the richest comedies of all time?

If I’d drawn up a list of my own favorite comedies, it would have been somewhat different. (My list would have included Raising Arizona, The Muppet Movie, Midnight Run, A Room With a View, The Station Agent, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, for starters.) I think all of the voters would admit that some of their favorites missed the list.

But the result is an interesting variety, and each voter would cheer to see some of their favorites included. (The Truman Show! The Life of Brian! Dr. Strangelove!)

Pick up your copy of Through a Screen Darkly.

That got me thinking about questions that I wrestled as I wrote Through a Screen Darkly, my memoir of “dangerous moviegoing.”

I used to feel guilty about many of my favorite comedies. They seemed irreverent, disrespectful, even dirty.

But the more I’ve thought about comedy, and the more I’ve read about it, the more I’ve come to understand what it’s really doing to me. And the more I’ve come to recognize the difference between destructive comedy and healthy comedy.

To help celebrate the occasion of Image’s Top 25 Divine Comedies, I’ve gone back to the book and updated it with a few more contemporary details.

And now, with the permission of my publishers at Regal Books, I offer it to you in a two-part post. (Part Two will be posted later this week.)

Think it over. Let me know what it provokes you to think about.

Have you ever come to appreciate a comedy that offended you the first time? What comedies are, for you, inexcusable?

The following text is a revised version of a chapter from Through a Screen Darkly, © 2007 by Jeffrey Overstreet. Published by Regal Books, www.regalbooks.com. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Laughing at My Reflection

[Humanity] has unquestionably one really effective weapon—laughter. … Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand. – Mark Twain

The opposite of “funny” is not “serious.” The opposite of “funny” is “not funny.” – G. K. Chesteron

A Scene from Brian Dannelly’s Saved!

Hilary Faye is the crown jewel of The Christian Jewels, a Christian singing group that calls Eagle Mountain Christian High School home.

This young woman is so artificially virtuous, so plastically pleasing to the eye, that she’s bound to succeed in her dream of becoming a Christian pop star someday. She walks the hallways of Eagle Mountain with the pomp and severity of a cruel queen among underlings, devoting herself to convincing everyone that she is the most righteous Christian on the block. So zealous is she about protecting her purity that she spends her spare time at the Emmanuel Shooting Range — slogan: “an eye for an eye” — blasting away at cardboard cutout assailants who represent potential rapists.

So when Pastor Skip, the school principal, calls Hilary Faye and her backup singers aside to ask them for a favor, the girls are more than ready to respond. Together, The Christian Jewels are not just a band — they’re a gang.

“Listen, I’m concerned about Mary,” says Skip, referring to the one Jewel who’s missing from the scene. “Something’s going on.” The girls agree. Mary’s been acting strangely lately. They’re convinced that she is being lured into some secret sin.

Hypocritical Christian teens. Funny?

“Well, she’s part of your posse,” says Skip, employing any lingo he can in order to sound hip, “and I think that you could help her. I’m gonna need you to be a warrior out there on the front lines for Jesus.”

“You mean, like… shoot her!” says one of the Jewels.

No, says Skip, that’s not quite what he has in mind. But the girls resolve to intervene with force anyway. So when Mary is dragged kicking and screaming from the sidewalk and into Hilary Faye’s van — license plate, “JC GRL” — you know it’s not for a prayer meeting. No, The Christian Jewels have come to perform an exorcism.

Mary tries to break free, but Hilary, dressed in a powder-blue track suit, is holding a Bible and shouting, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you, leave the body of this servant of God!” Desperate, Mary dives out of the van and hits the ground running. The Jewels come after her.

“We have got to get rid of the evil in you!” Hilary Faye declares as the Jewels follow her. One of them is holding a large, framed picture of Jesus. Together, they unleash the heavy-duty vocabulary of Christian condemnation: “backsliding,” “flames of hell,” “magnet for sin.” Hilary Faye raises a hand to the sky and says to Mary, “Jesus loves you.” Mary argues that Hilary Faye doesn’t know the meaning of the word and turns to walk away. Infuriated, the self-righteous Hilary turns her Bible into a projectile. Throwing it hard at Mary’s back, she screams, “I am filled with Christ’s love!”

The Laugh of Love

That is a painful scene for many reasons. We see the arrogance of the pious high school students and sense the betrayal Mary feels when her friends behave judgmentally. And yet, the audience is laughing.

So am I. I’m feeling severe discomfort, but I’m laughing anyway.

Having attended a Christian high school, I am familiar with such acts of hypocrisy, judgment, and arrogance among teenagers. I have seen Christians, young and old, behave this way. And — Lord, have mercy — I’ve participated in even more disgraceful exchanges.

Some in the audience may be laughing because they find Christians to be ridiculous. But I suspect that most of them, even those who have never been religious, relate to this scene in some way. Many of us are laughing because we recognize the errors on display as errors, and because we are admitting our own culpability in such folly, without despairing from the shame of it. The laughter is a release: I’ve been there, I recognize that, I acknowledge the folly of human behavior, and I know there’s a better way.

* * *

If we didn’t sin, stumble and make mistakes, we wouldn’t have comedy. Bloopers. Practical jokes. Parody. Satire. Slapstick. In each of these, something has been jarred from its appropriate place, baited or shoved into error.

But just as there are many kinds of comedy, there are many kinds of laughter. When bullies laugh to condemn and to ridicule, such mean-spirited laughter serves to make them feel superior. But the laughter of recognition is different — it allows us to nod at familiar errors and misbehavior, acknowledging that this is a distortion and that we can see the distance between this display and what is right.

Distortions are disturbing, sometimes terrifying. When we suffer the changes of adolescence, we don’t think it’s funny at all.

But in a comedy, we laugh in pained recognition at the awkward antics of high schoolers as they suffer from hormones, peer pressure, and trends. We understand the horror they’re going through. We’ve been there. We know there’s hope for them.

Laughter cushions the pain and acts as an expression of hope and sympathy.

Funny? Or disturbing? Or both?

That is the great gift of laughter in all of its forms. It is a mark of recognition that rejects despair. Laughter allows us to approach indirectly, with a healthy distance and perspective, things that are too dismaying to approach head-on. And the laughter of joy comes from the delight we feel in recognizing that nothing is ever so bad as to be beyond hope.

Charlie Chaplin gets caught in the gears of a machine, and the audience roars at the exaggerated predicament — even though it would be excruciating and frightful to be a human being stuck in a machine. We all fear being pulled into something where we have no control, whether it’s a literal machine or some dehumanizing, bureaucratic process. That spectacle works on so many levels.

I love watching Wile E. Coyote’s outlandish Road Runner traps backfire on him because real-world endeavors have backfired on me rather painfully a time or two (or twenty). I’ve seen the collapse of vain ambitions. I recognize that they were sometimes rather misguided to begin with.

When Derek Zoolander’s boneheaded buddies get into a playful fight, spraying each other with gasoline at the service station in Zoolander, we laugh in dismay when someone on the edge of the scene lights a cigarette. Of course, a real-world explosion brought on by foolishness would be no laughing matter at all.

Is this guy funny?

And when Vitruvius, the blind prophet and wizard of The LEGO Movie, listens to the hero’s inspired idea for a double-decker couch, we laugh when he sighs, exasperated, and says, “That idea is just… the worst.” Why do we laugh? Well, we know that bearded archetypal gurus are supposed to patiently encourage the hero, not discourage them. We are also unaccustomed to hearing such casual expressions voiced by the authoritative Morgan Freeman. And what’s more — we feel relief that the guru has voiced our own feelings: What could be more spectacularly foolish than a double-decker couch?

Blooper programs show us actors flubbing their lines and losing their composure, and we laugh to see glorified talents exposed as fallible. We laugh because we can see what should have happened. There was a right way to do that scene. But we laugh, at last, because we can relate to embarrassment, and we know that such mistakes are not tragedies. Life goes on, and these stumbles will not have permanent significance.

In one of my favorite Saturday Night Live routines, the teleprompters malfunction during a news program and the anchorman, anchorwoman, weatherman, and sports reporter are left stammering nonsense. Their professionalism and good humor quickly devolve into terror and panic. It doesn’t stop there. They descend into irrational, barbaric behavior. Blood sprays across the news desk. The sketch is funny not because reporters are barbarians, of course. Most are quite talented at improvising during technical difficulties. It is funny because it highlights the illusion that newscasters are actually reporting these things based on their own knowledge and eloquence. It reminds us that this is scripted and that broadcast is a performance. Much of the comedy in Will Ferrell’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is drawn from the same well.

In darker comedies like Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and Joel and Ethan Coen’s Barton Fink, outrageous characterizations draw attention to troubling realities.

Is this funny?

George C. Scott, as Dr. Strangelove’s war-making general, argues with other military strategists: “Gentlemen, we can’t fight here! This is the War Room!” I shake my head as Barton Fink, having written a brilliant play about social issues, is brought to Hollywood to compose a formulaic, crowd-pleasing movie about wrestling. Sometimes, we recognize what we see onscreen as absurd, but the discomfort comes from realizing that these things happen. There’s nothing implausible about them.

Great comedy writing is a rare and wonderful gift. The Coens, in their beloved comedy O Brother Where Art Thou, paid tribute to the whip-smart writing in comedies such as Preston Sturgis’ Sullivan’s Travels. Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco), Hal Hartley (The Unbelievable Truth), Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel), Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and Jim Jarmusch (Down by Law, Broken Flowers) write dry, sophisticated comedy of differing flavors.

Woody Allen’s screenplays have given us a whole library of brilliantly funny moments, exploring the folly of lust, romance, infidelity and the lighter side of philosophy. In Love and Death, Sonia declares, “Judgment of any system, or a prior relationship or phenomenon, exists in an irrational or metaphysical or at least epistemological contradiction to an abstract empirical concept such as being, or to be or to occur in the thing itself or of the thing itself.” And Boris replies, “Yes, I’ve said that many times.”

Allen also carries on the tradition of great physical comedy pioneered by Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Whether we’re watching the frantic flight of a time-traveler from futuristic police in Sleeper, or the way a strange chameleonic man in Zelig transforms to look and behave like Jewish rabbis while conversing with them, or the desperate attempt of guitarist Emmet Ray to keep his balance on a crescent-moon stage prop while it raises him up off the platform in Sweet and Lowdown, Allen shows he can choreograph memorably hilarious spectacles with the best comedians on film. In every case, we laugh either because of the distortion of something proper or with dismay that it reflects the way real life can easily tip off balance.

A drug-dealing moralist. Funny?

I’ve heard many people tell me that I shouldn’t laugh at Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction or Django Unchained because violence isn’t funny.

But it’s not the violence that gets me laughing. The various criminals and gangsters in Tarantino’s trigger-happy world are laughably egotistical, buffoonish with their excessive bad language, and blind to their own grossly inappropriate behavior.

As Vincent Vega purchases heroin from a dealer, he complains about the kid who scratched his car door with a key. The dealer declares that such hoodlums should get “No trial, no jury, straight to execution.” Vega agrees, “It’s against the rules.” And then he completes the drug purchase. Irony doesn’t get any thicker than that.

Even so, we must not laugh in mere contempt but with the realization that we, too, sometimes contradict ourselves. We too respond to accidents with childish complaints and brash shows of ego. We too sometimes take things into our own hands and suffer disastrous consequences.

* * *

Healthy laughter can occur in the middle of trouble — as comic relief or as an expression of defiance. When Jackie Chan is cornered and the villains grin in triumph, we laugh because he may be stuck for the moment, but we know what’s going to happen later. We laugh because we know that all is right, or will be right, with the world — even though Tom Hanks and Shelley Long are watching their house fall apart in The Money Pit and even though two old women are poisoning the visitors in their home in Arsenic and Old Lace.

But sometimes the laughter comes after the moment of tension and dismay, when hopes are fulfilled unexpectedly. We learn this kind of laughter as early as infancy, playing peek-a-boo with our parents. “Where’s Mama?” The child’s brow wrinkles in worry. She doesn’t see her mother. Then, boom! The blanket falls, or the hands open, and . . . “There she is!” The child erupts in peals of glee.

When Darth Vader’s warship closes in on Luke Skywalker at the end of Star Wars, and all seems lost, we laugh when Han Solo arrives out of nowhere to save the day — not only because our fears have been blown away, but also because this moment represents the correction of a distortion. Han Solo has finally acted out of selflessness and responsibility. The distance between wrong and right has been exposed in a galaxy far, far away… and we laugh in favor of rightness.

Those who deny the existence of absolutes must have a difficult time explaining away the universality of comedy. Comedy confirms that something has gone very “wrong.” In doing so, it also affirms that “right” does exist.

Can a walk be silly?

When we watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus and see John Cleese on his way to work for the Ministry of Silly Walks, his feet meandering in all directions and carrying him on a circuitous route to the office, we laugh at the silliness of it all. We know there is a “normal” way to walk.

In Four Lions — the only comedy I’ve seen about terrorism and Muslim extremism —an amateur terrorist, auditioning to become an agent for Al-Qaeda, teaches his co-conspirators to rapidly shake their heads in public so that their faces appear blurry on security camera footage. It’s a ridiculous, impossible behavior. That’s why we laugh. But some of us laugh because it occurs to us that fundamentalist extremism of any kind — Muslim, Christian, or otherwise — tends to demand irrational behavior of its adherents.

Similarly, when Hilary Faye throws the Bible at Mary in Saved! we laugh because we can see the presumptions and condescension in her behavior. We know there is a better way for her to behave. And we sense the contradiction between her idea of “righteousness” and the teachings of the Christ in whose name she boasts.

The healthiest laughter is that which recognizes our shared fallibility. We are human, made from dust and prone to error. I like to believe that God laughs with affection when I stumble, much the way parents laugh if their child stumbles while learning to walk. Can I be so patient, so forgiving, so willing to laugh at the stumbles of others, mirroring that grace? I hope so, because I hope others will be so gracious with me.

Of course, sometimes comedy dares to address subjects we hold dear, and in our pride and defensiveness, we take offense.

Perhaps that is why some of the Christians in the audience at Saved! are not laughing at all.

In the next post, I’ll look more closely at Saved! And we’ll consider if it is “blasphemous,” as some have claimed, or if it glorifies the truth by highlighting error. Proceed to Part Two.

 

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  • PeggyH1951

    This is an important topic. Looking forward to Part 2. I found Saved! hilarious. Brian on the cross makes me cringe. I want to explore more deeply why I react so differently to the two. Thanks for the opportunity to look more closely.

  • Evan

    I’m reminded of a few comedies. When you mention the laugh of discomfort in recognition of our own past mistakes, the best example for me is FRANCES HA, which is one reason it was my favorite film of 2013. I’ve done more things depicted in that film than I care to admit.

    I love the absurd exaggeration of old screwball comedies like BRINGING UP BABY. Stealing cars and releasing a leopard from a zoo are not funny, but
    Hepburn’s oblivion to the havoc she’s causing, as well as Grant’s elaborate efforts to help her while protecting his reputation, have me in tears every time I watch it.

    For darker comedies, I love the satire of NETWORK, which highlights the tragedy and absurdity of valuing TV ratings over people: “I’m gonna blow my brains out right on the air, right in the middle of the 7 o’clock news.” “You’ll get a hell of a rating, I guarantee you that. 50 share easy.”

    The first time I saw THE PRODUCERS I was kind of offended by the opening scene when Max makes out with the old ladies to embezzle their money. A few years later when I rewatched it, I realized Brooks had written the scene to be over-the-top to highlight the absurdity of Max’s insatiable greed.

    One recent example of very dark humor that had me laughing was the scene in WOLF OF WALL STREET when Margot Robbie walks out completely naked. Not because nudity or fornication is funny, but DiCaprio’s voiceover explained that he was doing everything he could to take seduce her and take charge of the situation, when he was really just standing about awkwardly as she did all the work to seduce him. I thought it was a brilliant (and very funny) critique of Belfort’s arrogance and lust. Of course, the lemons scene as the camera cuts between Belfort’s POV and reality was another hilarious critique of Belfort’s staggering arrogance.

  • KarlUdy

    One of the principles of good comedy is that it subverts stereotypes.


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