Considered one of the world’s greatest comedy writers, Molière’s Tartuffe had an interesting history. The comedy portrays Tartuffe (The Imposter or Hypocrite) who beguiles Orgon and his mother by pretending to be pious and to speak with divine authority. The play offers a critique of hypocrisy, religious or otherwise, as well as critiquing ambition, family loyalty, and a variety of other important themes. Despite being well received publicly, the play was eventually banned by Louis XIV. The king had been convinced of the dangers of the play by religious zealots frustrated by the supposed attack on religion represented by Tartuffe, the plays main character, who maintained a pious façade while scheming for his own gain. After Tartuffe was banned, Molière wrote three petitions to the king advocating for the play. In the first of these petitions, Molière notes, “The duty of comedy being to correct men while amusing them, I thought that, in the employ which I hold, I could not do better than attack with ridiculous scenes the vices of my epoch.” Comedy, or humor, can certainly be a powerful means of changing our perceptions of reality. Seeing and being able to laugh at the caricatures of ourselves can be more than cathartic. It can be a moment of clarity in which we see our misdirected desires and consider how we might change.
While it is an unlikely source of wisdom, even comedic wisdom, the 2006 Will Ferrell vehicle Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, offers a humorous criticism of Christians and prayer. Sitting around the table with his family, Will Ferrell’s character Ricky Bobby begins to say grace to “baby Jesus.” About halfway through the prayer, Ricky’s wife interrupts saying that it is “rather odd and off-putting to pray to a baby.” After a brief bit of banter, she tells Ricky that she wants him to “do this grace good, so that God will let us win tomorrow.” Ricky continues to pray to baby Jesus, prompting an outburst from his father-in-law who asserts “He [Jesus] was a man! He had a beard!” Ricky defends himself saying that he likes “Christmas Jesus” better than “grownup Jesus,” “teenage Jesus,” or “bearded Jesus.” Ricky finishes his prayer with a flourish thanking “eight-pound, six-ounce newborn baby Jesus” for his racing and endorsement earnings of “$21.2 million…love that money!” The scene also references Ricky Bobby’s contractual obligation to pray for Powerade, as well as Ricky’s best friend and racing team partner’s preference for seeing Jesus dressed in a Tuxedo t-shirt because “I like to party, so I like my Jesus to party.”
I have some difficulty believing Talladega Nights is attempting to be a friend to Christians, yet, as I’ve considered this humorous scene, I’ve come to realize that comedy really does correct through amusement. What is this scene really revealing about the way some people perceive Christians in the world? How true, for instance, is it that we tend to pick the Jesus we like best? While I would assume that most Christians aren’t trying to choose between “Christmas,” “teenage,” or “bearded” Jesus, the implicit critique of the scene highlights our tendency to make Jesus look more like we want him to and to set aside those aspects of Jesus we may be less interested in adopting. We don’t have to go as far back as Marcion or even the Slave Bible to find instances in which Christians have determined to choose the Jesus we prefer. We do it whenever we neglect the full counsel of God by fusing it with the values of our culture that make God look suspiciously like us rather than us being transformed to look more like him.
While it may be tempting to assume that Molière’s approach to comedy and humor is more altruistic than the writers of Talladega Nights, we should keep in mind that what it means to “correct men” doesn’t necessarily equate with biblical repentance. The general dynamic of correction may well be embedded within the comedic task, but the goal of such correction isn’t always readily apparent. Humor has the capacity to marginalize, humiliate, and diminish. For instance, it is unlikely that the “baby Jesus” prayer in Talladega Nights was intended to correct Christian attitudes and behaviors in such a way that Christians commit to living more faithfully. Within the context of the rest of the movie, it seems more likely that the prayer was a means of correcting Christians away from rather than towards Christ. In other words, the scene pokes fun at Christians in an effort to make foolish belief in God. While Christians wouldn’t set Ricky Bobby and his family up as shining examples of the Christian faith, the humor used in the “baby Jesus” prayer is a powerful vehicle to reinforce a particular perception about prayer and, by extension, those who pray. That perception: prayer is empty and those who pray are self-deluded.
Humor, then, is an interesting vehicle for the truth. Just how comedy is seeking to “correct” isn’t immediately clear because “correction” is strongly conditioned by the perspective and context of the comedian. If, as Johann Huizinga argues, “Every man renders account to himself of the past in accordance with the standards which his education and Weltanschauung [worldview] lead him to adopt,” it would seem reasonable to extend a similar understanding to comedy and humor. Those who make jokes do so with a particular understanding of “how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations.” In other words, comedic corrections are contextually conditioned. Humor corrects to a particular standard and that standard isn’t always (or often) the scriptures, which Christians affirm as the final authority for life and faith.
As we consider humor in a digital age, we need to think beyond film or stand-up comedy shows. Humor is now as ever-present as any other sort of communication and exists in a variety of forms. Short video clips, sarcastic memes, satiric publications, puns and a variety of other forms have become common in a digital age. Though the general forms of humor have not changed much with the growth of the digital age, there is surely a new opportunity to be immersed within comedy’s particular brand of correction without sufficient opportunities to reflect on or adjust to its critique. When we move from one satirical account to another, scroll through meme after meme, or stream endless numbers of the world’s “funniest videos,” we run the risk of losing opportunities for increased self-awareness and change. The purpose of comedy as described by Molière is not achieved because the sheer volume of humor and the filters through which we have it delivered to us make correction less likely. Not only do we see too much, but we often see too little of the content that would really challenge our belief systems. In other words, despite the volume of information we might receive on a daily basis, we may not see information that challenges our perspectives as opposed to reinforce them.
When we see humor, even humor from non-Christian sources, as a source of potential insight into who we are and/or how others see us, we allow ourselves the opportunity to benefit from humor without being offended. Surely there is benefit in our social media age of developing a posture of curiosity and care that isn’t defensive, but open to and interested in hearing what others have to say. It isn’t that we should take to heart every criticism whether couched in comedy or not. Yet, it would seem flippant to reject potential sources of wisdom out of hand. As such, comedy and humor represent a particular sort of speech that has a unique capacity to highlight moments of complacency or remind us of our individual and collective blind spots.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of humor is its growing intimacy with the news. In the introduction to the twentieth anniversary edition of Amusing Ourselves to Death, Andrew Postman, Neil Postman’s son, writes, “Network news an entertainment divisions are far more entwined…When Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, went on CNN’s Crossfire to make this very point—that serious news and show business out to be distinguishable, for the sake of public discourse and the republic—the hosts seemed incapable of even understanding the words coming out of his mouth.” He goes on to remind readers that his father was not against all television noting that Neil Postman did not “fear TV across the board (as some thought). Junk television was fine. ‘The A-Team and Cheers are no threat to our public health,’ he wrote. ‘60 minutes, Eyewitness News, and Sesame Street are.’” We would do well to consider the implications of Neil Postman’s concerns in an age of social media, particularly if, to paraphrase Postman, “it may fairly be said that we have yet to learn what social media is.”
Humor and comedy as forms are not the issue though I do share Andrew Postman’s concern related to the merger of news with entertainment. While Real Time with Bill Maher or The Daily Show offer more humorous slants (and rants) than say Wolf Blitzer or Don Lemon, it would not be correct to say that what Bill Maher does should be seen as wholly separate from what appears on CNN, Fox News Network, or the various offshoots of established news networks that appear online. When the audience and environment for “serious news” changed, “serious news” found itself in competition with not only the entertainment industry, but with a new breed of amateur journalism powered by the internet and social media. The news isn’t particularly comedic, but in the words of Carl Bernstein, “In this culture of journalistic titillation we teach our readers and our viewers that the trivial is significant, that the lurid and the loopy are more important than real news. We do not serve our readers and viewers, we pander to them. And we condescend to them, giving them what we think they want and what we calculate will sell and boost ratings and readership.” Whether or not we accept Postman’s thesis that we are realizing Huxley’s fears that “the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance” and “we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy,” we can surely agree that “the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.’”
What does all of this have to do with humor? First, humor is a relatively natural distraction. Its lightheartedness and the ease with which it is delivered allows us to mistake it for a trivial, mindless pursuit (as the arguing cat meme of 2019 and 2020 demonstrates well). While it is a mistake to view all comedy and humor as trivial, much of it, particularly given the volume of memes and humor produced and published on the internet nowadays, isn’t exactly substantive. As such, it becomes a rather comforting distraction that allows us a moment of levity and, unlike the comedy of Molière has a tendency to reinforce rather than correct.
Second, while it is certainly not inappropriate for humor to reinforce our understandings of the world, we should also allow humor to fulfill the purpose Molière describes. Some within the Christian community may well dismiss the whole of this article simply because it uses a secular movie to illustrate a point. Hopefully, however, more readers will recognize the benefits of reflecting on comedic expression that comes at our expense. Humor and comedy, like other forms of language, have great potential to challenge us. Humor in particular has a way of helping us let down our guard so that we realize things about ourselves we might not otherwise have seen.
Third, Postman’s work points us toward a rather important idea related to how we interact with media in its various forms. Humor is, among other things, intended to entertain. Yet, as has been argued here, we can also learn a great deal from humor. In some cases, we can learn more from a joke than we might from an essay. Being entertained is not a bad thing but being entertained all the time leaves little room to delight in God’s word or to engage in “pure and undefiled” religion that involves visiting orphans and widows in their affliction and keeping oneself unstained form the world (James 1:27). Herein lies the challenge of comedy’s increasing intimacy with other forms of media, such as the news. It is not so much that comedy has become more “newsy” as it is that the news has been recast to entertain. Humor and comedy now compete for mindshare with an endless cycle of what has come to count as news, which too often amounts to little more than what someone tweeted. Recapturing the corrective value of comedy may well be an important step toward freeing ourselves from the trivialities reported on the news.
Finally, while we should not deny the value of comedy and humor, we should not exaggerate it either. Christians cannot become a people whose overriding aim is to be entertained. If our primary means of being Christian in the world boils down to sharing the latest Jesus meme or forwarding Babylon Bee’s most recent piece of satire, we have surely made what it means to be Christian less compelling. Comedy offers an important means by which Christians can reflect on the world around them. At the same time, we do not “love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18). Humor and comedy should not be an end, but a means by which we are moved to active, truthful love for one another in the world.
Humor, particularly in our age, can overwhelm our senses and, as such, create a situation in which our sense of humor becomes numb. It is possible, in the midst of our distractions and our quest for stimulation, that we will lose the ability to laugh. Comedy is as much about timing as it is about content. The subtle pauses, the intonation, and the general cadence of a stand-up comic, for instance, are all part of the act. As far as that goes, the audience also contributes to the show because it is often simply more pleasurable to laugh with others than it is to laugh alone. As we consider what it means to pay attention to comedy and the truths it conveys, we would also do well to consider how much comedy we can handle without becoming fools whose sole purpose is laughter. As with so many things in life, humor requires moderation so that we have the time to reflect on why what we heard was funny and how it should unsettle us. Too often we laugh without that reflection and in so doing we miss so much of what a joke has to offer. Let us learn to laugh, to think, and to disarm those around us with our wit, our wisdom, and our humor.