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A Note on Humour


Proverbs 15:15 ; 17:22-9      Genesis 11:1      Matthew 6:16 -18


I: — Early one morning a hotel guest took his seat in the hotel dining room and ordered breakfast. He told the waiter he wanted two boiled eggs, one so runny that it oozed all over the place, the other cooked so hard that it bounced like an India rubber ball; a piece of toast so dried out that it disintegrated when you tried to cut it; some bacon whose grease was congealing on the plate; lastly, lukewarm coffee, half in the cup and half sloshed into the saucer. “Your order is highly unusual,” replied the waiter; “I don’t know if we can manage it.” Well,” the hotel guest came back, “You had no trouble managing it yesterday.”

Robertson Davies speaks of “that saddest of all spectacles; the person of one joke.” The person of one joke is the saddest of all spectacles for two reasons. One, he’s boring; two, he’s – sad. The person of one joke has far too little joy in his life. The book of Proverbs tells us, “A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones….A cheerful heart has a continual feast.”

Humour, laughter, are gifts of God for which God is to be praised. Paul tells us that everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving. Humour is God’s gift; laughter is even God’s command. In the sermon on the mount Jesus says, “Don’t look dismal; whatever you do don’t look dismal. Looking dismal doesn’t honour God; neither does it help anyone else.” Still, we don’t avoid looking dismal by trying hard not to look dismal; trying hard will only make us look grim. Only by laughing can we avoid looking dismal, grim, gruesome even.

What’s more, I’m convinced that we have to laugh if we’re going to be life-affirming. I love the Hebrew toast, leChaim, “to life.” We can keep on affirming life only if we can laugh, just because there are so many contradictions and reversals and oddities everywhere in life. Laughter gets us through situations we can’t avoid and which would otherwise stress us frightfully.

Like hospitalization. My mother has always said that when we are hospitalized the first thing we lose is our modesty. She’s right. Now my mother and her offspring are unusual, perhaps, in that we Shepherds seem never to have had much modesty to lose. But if you have much modesty to lose, be sure to lose it laughing when you are hospitalized, because you are going to lose it anyway. In my various sojourns in hospital I’ve had roommates who were wound so tight, anxious and nervous and obsessed with saving face, their physical ailment seemed a trifle alongside their emotional distress.

Hospitalization is only one episode in life we’d like to avoid but can’t. Life is full of bizarre developments and incongruities. Humour helps us through them all. A year after our daughter Catherine was born in rural New Brunswick it was thought she might have water on the brain. The nearest paediatrician was in Moncton , 200 kilometres away over roads whose potholes resembled bomb craters. We set off. Catherine was strapped into an infant’s car seat between Maureen and me. My hat was on her feet. The rough road made her ill and she threw up on my hat. It was cold in Moncton that day, minus 20 degrees. Now I happen to be exceedingly prone to sinus infections, and I simply must wear a hat. I put my hat on my head. It was a red hat; it was now an odd-looking red hat, since it was adorned with yellow abstract art. Uptight now, in my mind I worked out a believable explanation I could offer quickly to anyone who saw me and wanted to put me in a strait jacket. Then I relaxed. If my hat was the occasion of laughter for someone who would otherwise look dismal, so much the better. Whereupon I wore my red-yellow hat proudly. Soon Maureen, Catherine and I were waiting for Dr. Paul Legere, no doubt the most popular people in his waiting room. Eventually Maureen took Catherine into his examining room where Maureen told him Catherine’s stomach had been upset. “No kidding,” was Dr. Legere’s only comment.

I know, life is a serious business. Only a fool thinks anything else. But “serious” doesn’t mean “grim” or “joyless” or “humourless.” Kierkegaard, a great philosopher, was surely correct when he said that genuinely serious people are those whose profundity is riddled with humour; serious people who lack humour, he added, are merely stupidly serious.

Humour allows us to be life-affirming in the midst of distresses that would otherwise submerge us. Jewish humour has been described as “tears dipped in honey.” It’s their humour that has allowed Jewish people to shout “LeChaim” despite their history of atrocious suffering. I love the humour that comes out of the Yiddish villages of Eastern Europe , especially the one-liners like, “When a poor Jew eats chicken, one of them is sick.”

Peter’s second epistle finds people crying, “Where is the promise of the Messiah’s coming? For how much longer do we have to suffer like this?” If we stare at the world’s grief and anguish we can be undone by it, for the Day of the Lord, with its resolution of distress and its alleviation of heartbreak; the Day of the Lord appears to tarry, doesn’t it? One day a schlemiel (“schlemiel” is Yiddish for a fellow who is an utter social misfit and is always a nuisance, always underfoot, someone whom everyone wishes would disappear); one day a schlemiel begged the village authorities to give him a job. He was put to doing many little things, but messed up at them all. Someone had a brain wave: send him up on the highest roof to watch for the Messiah. When he saw the Messiah he was to scamper down and inform the villagers. The villagers could then prepare themselves for welcoming the one they had awaited for centuries as their suffering cried out for relief. Week after week, month after month, the schlemiel climbed up onto the roof and watched. Eventually someone asked him how he liked his job. “To tell you the truth,” he said, “watching for the Messiah doesn’t pay very well, but it looks like steady work.” Tears dipped in honey.

Humour allows us to see and admit truths about humankind that we are otherwise prone to overlook. One day a vehement capitalist and a vehement socialist were arguing as to which system was better. A bystander jumped into the fray and settled the argument instantly. “Under capitalism,” he said, “people devour people. Under socialism it’s the other way around.”

Surely one of the most important features of humour is this: in laughing at ourselves we can laugh at our deficiencies and defects. The former treasurer of my congregation in Streetsville used to drop into my office frequently (every day, in fact) and only a little less frequently remind me that while it was easy to bring a minister to a church, it was very difficult to unload a minister. I never did figure why he mentioned this to me as often as he did. Nevertheless, his reminder always brought to mind the story of the rabbi in Montreal who was a terrible rabbi. The congregation wanted to unload him, yet knew that another congregation would take him off their hands only if they “hyped” him. And so the Montreal congregation told everyone they could that this fellow was a terrific rabbi. Why, he was like Moses; he was like Socrates; he was even like God. In no time a Toronto congregation called him. Within six months the Toronto people were enraged, and accused the Montreal people of false advertising. “There was nothing false about our advertising,” the Montreal people replied; “we told you the truth. We said he was like Moses. Moses stuttered; this man stutters. We said he was like Socrates. Socrates knew no Hebrew; this man knows no Hebrew. We said he was like God. God isn’t human, and neither is he.”


II: — At the same time not all laughter is born of humour; some laughter is born of cruelty. Think of the racist joke. Racist jokes are ‘funny’ for one reason only: deep down it is believed that black people or Asian people or aboriginal people are inferior or stupid or bumbling or silly or naïve or socially clueless. A joke about aboriginal people which substituted the Japanese wouldn’t be funny at all.

Sarcasm is another form of humour not funny at all. Sarcasm is saying one thing, meaning the exact opposite, and doing all of this with the intention of wounding someone. The committee member is scheduled to bring forward her report. Everyone knows that her reports aren’t the most detailed or the most accurate or the most helpful. Still she does her best, and shouldn’t be put down or humiliated in any way. The committee chairperson, however, priding himself on his malicious cleverness, thinks it’s smart to amuse himself and entertain everyone else at the expense of this woman. With a flowery, flattering introduction he announces that Mrs. Jones’ report will now be heard, “prepared, no doubt, with that matchless thoroughness we have all come to expect.” People titter or smile or smirk or even laugh uproariously. The chairperson said one thing, meant the exact opposite, and did it all with the deliberate aim of wounding. Sarcasm.

My psychiatrist-friends tell me that sarcasm destroys children. The child upsets his milk accidentally. Because it was an accident he’s not expecting any rebuke. His mother, fatigued and frazzled by 6:00 p.m. , has “lost it.” Beside herself, not knowing what to do next, she does what comes easiest: deal with the child by tormenting him verbally. “Isn’t that wonderful,” she remarks; “just wonderful. You spilled your milk. You should be commended. I suppose you’ll even want an extra dollar in your allowance on account of your grand achievement.” The child isn’t certain if his mother means what she says, but in any case he’s not going to pass up a dollar. He asks for his dollar – and gets cuffed in the head. Now he’s utterly confused; the breakdown in communication couldn’t be worse; and the pain of it all, inflicted deliberately, will prove destructive in the child’s mind and heart.

Sarcasm, however, clever, is never funny. Worse than non-funny, it’s lethal.


III: — Then what about God’s sense of humour? In several places in scripture God is said to laugh. I used to be bothered by the occasions of God’s laughter, since God’s laughter seemed to be mocking, contemptuous, derisive. Psalm 2 is a case in point. “Why do the nations conspire?…. The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and his anointed….He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision.” I used to think that God was sneering at the puffed up politicians in Israel who fanned the flames of nationalism. I realize now, however, that there is no contempt. God is simply amused at the laughable spectacle of grown-up men and women making pompous speeches and strutting about pretentiously when in fact they reflect the same wild exaggerations of children at play, the same naiveness, the same silly pride and petulance and preposterousness of children at play who imagine themselves to be magnificent. Don’t you and I smile in amusement at the three year old who tells us he’s all grown up now and who fancies himself the world’s leading whatever?

Hitler ranted about his kingdom of purebred Aryans. It was to last a thousand years and model the kind of human superiority that only his Teutonic people could achieve and exemplify. A thousand years? The Third Reich lasted twelve. All it ever modelled was something people can’t mention to this day without loathing. God laughs at the spectacle of human pretence and puffiness, for it’s as silly as the six year old announcing that he’s leaving home and never coming back – as long as it doesn’t rain.

I was amused when the CN tower was erected in Toronto . It was publicized as the “tallest free-standing structure in the world.” It was going to put Toronto on the map. Immediately I thought of the Tower of Babel and its builders who said, “Let us build a city, a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.” (Genesis 11:4) Word of this pride-soaked project reaches God. Whereupon God says to his assistants, “Let us go down and see this thing that they have made.” The tower is so small, such a pipsqueak, that God has to get down on his knees and get out his magnifying glass to see – see what? – the tallest free-standing structure in the world with its top in the heavens, by which people have made a name for themselves. Before God the tower is no taller than a toothpick, and the puffed up people who strut are laughable, for they resemble the child who has just learned to ride his tricycle and now tells the world he can pilot a jumbo jet.

I understand why God is amused at the ranting of the nations. “Barring catastrophe, shocking to think of, Canada will one day be ruled by the French-speaking people,” said a nineteenth Century political spouter. The French-speaking people constitute 20% of the Canadian populace (down from 55% at Confederation), and shrinking every year. “The sun never sets on the Union Jack.” I heard this repeatedly when I was a youngster. “The sun never sets on the Union Jack.”   Plainly it was a declaration of the superiority of the British Empire . Superiority? Today Britain ’s per capita wealth is the same as Italy ’s; economically the nation is three steps from sinking into the North Sea . Napoleon took France off the seven-day week (it was too biblical, he said) and put it on a ten-day week. This arrangement lasted one month.

The posturing of the nations, the puffed up pretences of the nations’ leaders; these are the occasion of God’s laughter, not because God is contemptuous but because God is amused at the unreality of it all, in the same way that we are amused at the unreality of the child’s fantasies.


IV: — Humour is wonderful inasmuch as it lets you and me admit how puffed up we are and how silly our posturing appears to others. The visiting preacher was taken to the farmer’s home for supper before the evening service. The farmer’s wife had gone to great pains with the dinner. The visiting preacher declined the fine meal, informing her, with more than a touch of arrogance, that he simply could not preach on a full stomach, any more than a world-class opera singer could sing a full stomach. Disappointed, the wife stayed home to put the food away and wash up the dishes. Her husband drove the preacher to the church. When her husband returned homes she asked him how the preacher had done. “He could have et,” the farmer opined.

Charlotte Whitton, the former mayor of Ottawa – feisty, formidable – was introduced to the mayor of London , England . He was bedecked in all the medals and chains of his office, while she had only a flower in her lapel. There was something fitting, about this, wasn’t there, the London mayor asked. After all, what was Ottawa , a city of 600,000, compared to London , twelve million? Whereupon he leaned forward and said most haughtily, “If I sniff your rose, will you blush?” Charlotte replied, “And if I pull your chain, will you flush?”

Humour does more than expose our ridiculous self-importance and let us see it. Humour also lets us admit our secret shame; humour lets us admit our secret shame without being crushed by it. Jesus came upon a woman beside a well in a village in Samaria . They began fencing with each other and kept it up for a while. Finally Jesus decided the fencing had gone on long enough and determined to end it. Right out of the blue (someone must have whispered something to him beforehand); right out of the blue, apparently, he said, “Go call your husband.” Not missing a beat the woman tossed back, “I don’t have a husband. With a twinkle in his eye and a grin on his face, I’m sure, Jesus said to her, “You are telling the truth; you don’t have a husband. You’ve had five husbands, and the man you’re living with now isn’t your husband. It’s always good to hear people tell the truth.” Why am I sure he said all this with a twinkle in his eye and a grin on his face? Because the woman didn’t flee him; she stayed with Jesus, kept talking with him, got serious, came to believe on him and loved him ever after. If Jesus had simply denounced her, simply berated her, she would have stormed away, cursing him for his nosiness and insensitivity, furious with him at the way he had humiliated her. It was our Lord’s gentle humour that both allowed her to admit her secret shame and drew her to him at the same time.

Because humour is a gift of God, it’s true that a merry heart does good; more profoundly still, the more loudly I laugh – especially at myself – the more I shall be aware of my need of my saviour, and the more dear my saviour will ever become to me.


                                                                                                      Victor Shepherd    

April 2005