A Time To Laugh: a Reflection on Christianity, Humor, and The Cosby Show

A Time To Laugh: a Reflection on Christianity, Humor, and The Cosby Show June 12, 2012

I love The Cosby Show. Watching a familiar episode now is like eating comfort food on a cold, sad day. It never fails to bring a subtle nostalgic yearning for childhood and Thursday night ritual, comparing notes the next day at school. I smile at the phrases and words that reshaped the vocabulary of my generation—zerbert, obey-kabey, “push him out, shove him out, way out!” I also mourn the loss of innocence. At the risk of sounding like a prude, I wonder why things had to become shocking, crude, and mean-spirited to make us laugh.

I totally get that the Cosby family is less than realistic. I never saw a maid scrubbing their house that was almost always clean and who could look like Claire after five children? I don’t really care, though. Wasn’t it nice for thirty minutes to visit a large family who genuinely loved each other? People who valued art, education, hard work, jazz, dancing, and good food; the kind of people who would spend time coordinating a lip-sync routine for their grandparents for their anniversary, twice.

I love to laugh. I like the feeling of losing control a little, unable to hold it in, tears coming to my eyes, the sigh that comes after. I wish I felt that more often. I’ve noticed it doesn’t come as easy with age, so I’ve been looking to my children for guidance. There is no sound more delicious to me than their sweet peals of laughter, especially the little jokes between them that I am too mature to understand.

This summer I bought popsicles with jokes on the sticks, mostly puns. Derek, who recently turned four, doesn’t get any of them, but he is learning the form of a joke: question, pause, answer. Most of his jokes are completely nonsensical: “why did the table hit the chair?” (pause) “because it was a kooky head!” Yet, on occasion, he will stumble on something that makes a little sense: “why was the ninja afraid of himself?”(pause) “because he was a ninja!” Dinner has turned into stand-up hour at our house with all three kids taking turns at the mike. None of the jokes are traditionally funny, but their giggling is infectious and I wish they could hold onto the gift of easy laughter forever.

I am reminded of Jesus, surrounded by children, taking the time to bless them. I wonder if those children had jokes and if they made Jesus laugh. Surely a teacher who was called out for interacting with children could not be as stoic as we so often portray him. I wonder why we want to shut God out of our humor. Surely, the creator of laughter, wit, and humor must be the funniest being in the universe. Are we ashamed of what our humor has become? I once heard a pastor say, “we laugh at the very things that put Christ on the cross.” In my lifetime I have heard racist jokes, jokes about child-abuse, jokes about starving children in Ethiopia, jokes about sexual perversion. Shouldn’t we be weeping about those things?

I’m not advocating a puritanical approach to humor. One has only to read Song of Solomon to realize God is not afraid to talk about sex. I think Cliff Huxtable’s attempts to seduce his wife and shut his kids out of his bedroom are both funny and sweet. The Bible might even contain some bathroom humor (Elijah while taunting the followers of Baal in 1 Kings and David cutting off the hem of Saul’s robe while he was relieving himself in a cave). I think redeeming humor, choosing to say no to the kind of humor that harms and yes to the humor that heals, is going to take discernment and hard work, but God has provided a lot to work with. Life is hard and sad, but it is also funny. I am clinging to the hope that laughter will come more easily as our hearts grow more pure.

We live in a world that so desperately needs space both to weep and to laugh. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the followers of Christ led the charge in providing that space? Instead of bemoaning the fact that we are too often the butt of jokes (and we do sometimes give the world some good material), why don’t we put our energy into bringing joy and laughter to this dark world? I pray our laughter would be holy, abundant, and contagious.

by Erika Castiglione, who normally blogs here.

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