Humor is a funny thing, isn’t it?
Sorry – couldn’t resist. But consider what has happened in this room. I began our service with some troubling news about our institution, with a seriousness about our denomination’s ability to walk the talk when it comes to anti-racism and anti-oppression work.
And then I told a funny story about finding peace in the midst of chaos. And you laughed. I laughed. And something shifted. The energy in here lightened up a little.
Some of you may have seen Steel Magnolias, either on the stage or on film. The story is of a group of southern women finding their strength in themselves and through their friendship. The main storyline is that of Malynn, and her daughter Shelby, whose diabetes is causing significant complications as she gets married, has a child, and eventually needs a kidney transplant. In the end, Shelby dies, far too young, and Malynn is quietly angry – angry at losing a child, angry at death, angry at God. Amongst these friends, in the cemetery, Malynn has space finally to drop her Southern propriety and let her anger out. She rants and raves, “I want to hit somebody so they can feel as bad as I do. I just wanna hit somebody!” – Clairee offers their friend Ouiser as a target. “Hit Ouiser! Hit her! Go ahead, Malynn, slap her!” The moment shakes all of them out of the moment, and they begin laughing. Hard. The energy is changed, the perspective is shifted.
That’s at the heart of a Buddhist philosophy called Crazy Wisdom. The term was first coined by the teacher Chög-yam Trung-pa, whose own explanations varied widely throughout his teachings – so it’s not always easy to pin down. In one sense, it’s about pure faith in the process. In another, it’s about exploring without looking for answers. Another would say it’s about letting go of guilt for making mistakes, instead seeing those moments as ‘something that could have been done better.’
Now to be clear, it’s not a ‘do whatever you want at any cost’ philosophy, but rather an engagement with the alternative, a subversion of expectation. Crazy wisdom suggests that you can learn more, grow personally, even reach enlightenment by turning the rules and doctrines and tenets and practices on their heads and examining what’s underneath. Crazy wisdom approaches through the back door, drops in with a parachute, bubbles up through the floor, and may even sidle in with a cream pie aimed for your face.
Or it may come in the form of a sketch from Saturday Night Live, or an editorial cartoon, or a stand-up comedy special. Time and time again, humorists, satirists, and comedians use humor to find and speak truth. We might think of modern examples, like John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, the Daily Show – people using humor – sometimes broad, sometimes subtle – to comment on society, politics, religion. But this has a long and honored history, going back from Stewart and Colbert to Mike Royko and Molly Ivins, to Bennett Cerf and Art Buchwald, to James Thurber and Dorothy Parker, to Will Rogers, to Mark Twain, to satirists during the American and French revolutions, to Moliere, to the Restoration comedies, to Shakespeare, to Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales, to court jesters, to the Norse epics, to the Christian gospels. Yes, even Jesus used humor in his parables and encounters to get people to think differently about society, politics, and religion.
And this doesn’t just work because we’ve learned that humor in its many forms works, it works because our brains are wired for humor.
In his book The Prehistory of the Mind, anthropologist Stephen Mithen talks about the development of the human brain as a process of cognitive fluidity – he theorizes that the primate mind has evolved into the modern human mind by combining different, distinct ways of processing knowledge and using tools to create a modern civilization. Where once our ‘archaic’ human ancestors had separate parts of our brain dedicated to technology, and society, and nature, Mithen suggests that those regions began to connect and thus we began to arrive at original thoughts that weren’t about food, shelter, and danger but rather are often highly creative and rely on metaphor and analogy.
Last month, we talked about narrative imagery and metaphor as ways for us to communicate our understanding of God – without the cognitive fluidity of our minds, we wouldn’t have metaphor, no less a sense of something that is intangible. And it’s this same fluidity that allows humor to exist. Let’s look at a simple joke:
A kangaroo walks into a bar and sits down.
The bartender comes over. “What can I get for you?”
“I’ll have a whisky sour.” The bartender fixes the drink, sets it in front of the kangaroo, and says “that’ll be $12.50.”
The kangaroo pulls a twenty from his pocket and lays it on the bar. He picks up his drink and takes a long quiet sip.
“Gee,” says the bartender, “we don’t get many kangaroos in here.”
“Well at these prices, it’s no wonder.”
So what happened here? First, we’ve taken a societal situation – someone walking into a bar – and added an unusual thing from the natural world, namely, a kangaroo. Already, we’ve engaged some fluidity, and we’re willing to apply human traits to this kangaroo – namely, speech, and the ability to sit on a bar stool.
Second, during the center of the joke, our brains accept this as a new normal.
And then, the joke challenges that new normal – the set up, “we don’t get many kangaroos at this bar” by its very necessity leads us to think “oh right, a kangaroo at a bar may not be normal”… and then the punchline flips the entire thing on its head, gives us an unexpected connection, and sparks a reaction – in our case, laughter.
Yes. The joke is funny because our brains love the unexpected. Even more, our emotions love the unexpected. Just as Malynn and her friends found relief in the unexpected “hit her” moment in the cemetery, we often find a sense of relief when we laugh.
In the days after the election, I felt sad and angry and honestly, I dwelled in those emotions even as I was attempting to minister to those around who were also feeling it. But eventually, I turned on the tv to find an episode of M*A*S*H – and the slightest giggle emerged because of one of Klinger’s antics. Soon, I was able to turn on the Daily Show again, and watch clips from Saturday Night Live; even though those shows were commenting on the state of the world, I was able to shift my emotions and break the seemingly unending despair – and gain a different perspective on the days’ events.
I remember hearing Jon Stewart talk about the days after 9/11, wondering when to come back on the air to help America laugh again. It was a delicate and deliberate choice, but it helped to shake us out of our shock and remind us that this one moment did not end our lives but simply informed it. The murmuring laugh, the sudden guffaw, the internal giggle, all a response to humor’s power to break into our brains’ ability to hold onto the commonplace with something unexpected.
And in the unexpected often lies truth. Sometimes, that truth emerges in the normalization of an unexpected situation: this is the genius of Monty Python. In their sketches and movies, unusual things are commonplace – the government has a ministry of silly walks, coconut shells are horses, there is a philosophers’ football league, and of course, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition. When the unexpected is treated as commonplace, we get to examine what the norms of society might actually be.
Now sometimes the truth emerges in the highlighting of the unexpected: this is the genius of American sketch comedy, from Nichols and May, to Saturday Night Live, to Key & Peele. In these forms, commonplace situations like phone calls between a mother and daughter, a tv commercial, sports announcers, and a diner, suddenly take an unexpected turn. The call is a wrong number, the commercial advertises a floor wax AND a dessert topping, the sports announcers are celebrating top schoolteachers, the diner only serves cheeseburgers and chips – and no coke, Pepsi. The commonplace is turned on its head and becomes a commentary on what we accept as commonplace.
This matters. For millennia, we have used, loved, and frankly needed humor – a crazy wisdom – to change our perspective, to lift the lid off what might be hidden under the commonplace, to challenge our expectations of how we think the world works, and excite us to think about what the world could be.
I want to go back to that sports sketch from Key & Peele. It begins just like any Sport Center-like show would start, but instead of praising athletes with their terrific plays and insanely high salaries, it’s the teachers who get the highlight reels and the multi-million dollar deals. It’s funny, to be sure. But it also leads us to think: what if we valued our educators the way we value quarterbacks and point guards?
Now I do want to say just a quick thing about when humor goes wrong: at its worst, humor is not meant to make us laugh or make us think but simply to make us hurt. This is why some things, like Michael Richard’s racist joke, or Dave Chapelle’s homophobic humor hits such a sour note. It’s why the bully’s “It’s just a joke” defense falls on deaf ears. So when I talk about humor, I am most assuredly not talking about that. Humor, in all its forms, should invite us to see the world differently, challenge our assumptions, risk thinking in new ways.
These kinds of risks – the mental ones – are sometimes harder to take than going skydiving, or selling the house and living in an RV, or bungee jumping off a high bridge. It’s much harder to shift our beliefs and opinions, to think that the path we’re on might not always be the path we should follow. It’s hard to shift our understanding that what we’ve been doing might not have been the right thing, or that it’s no longer the right thing. To be able to say “oh, I was wrong about this” feels terrible, because it shakes the comfortable assumptions we have made commonplace – assumptions about religion, behavior, race, class, gender, orientation, ability.
But if we can look at those things with a light heart, not with a sense of guilt but rather a sense of ‘well, okay, now we’ll do this better’, then maybe we can change not just how we see the world but also how we act in the world.
Crazy wisdom calls us to this moment: it calls us to the fullness of life, to challenge ourselves, to shift our focus, to see the world in new ways, to act boldly, to risk. And to laugh.