Christianity and the Triumph of Humor: From Dante to David Javerbaum, by Bernard Schweizer. (New York: Routledge, 2020, ISBN 9780367785338). 254 pp. Softcover, $48.95.
In 2001, psychologist Richard Wiseman set out to identify the world’s funniest joke. To that end, he created a website where people could submit and rate jokes. He eventually conceded that the world’s funniest joke doesn’t exist or at least cannot be identified, a point the experiment’s lackluster winner all but underscored:
Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says, “Calm down. I can help. First let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says, “Okay, now what?”
Far funnier was humor writer Dave Barry’s contribution to the experiment. “In the interest of improving the overall joke quality,” he wrote, “I urge everybody reading this column to submit a joke incorporating some variation of the phrase: ‘There’s a weasel chomping on my privates.’” Within a few days, more than 1,500 Barry fans had deluged Wiseman’s website with jokes bearing privates-chomping weasels.
If there’s a moral to the story, it is that analyzing humor is not for the faint. “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can,” wrote E. B. and Katharine S. White in the October 18, 1941, edition of The Saturday Review of Literature, “but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.”
Happily, Bernard Schweizer does not number among the faint. His Christianity and the Triumph of Humor: From Dante to David Javerbaum leaves the frog not just intact but better off.
Do not wade into Schweizer’s book expecting belly laughs. The occasional smile-inducing moment aside, it is a scholarly work. Yet—even though my alleged mind falls well short of “purely” anything at all, much less scientific—it held me rapt.
No self-respecting scholarly work proceeds without definitions, and Schweizer does not disappoint. He dispatches facile labels such as positive, negative, and offensive for the more useful liminal and entrenchment. Liminal rhetoric, he explains, tends to be more progressive, whereas entrenchment humor tends to be more reactionary:
Liminal rhetoric playfully reevaluates and critically questions and inspects borders, whether they are separate authorities, opinion makers, traditions, creeds or psychological needs … however, humor can also have the opposite of the liminal effect, when it serves to bolster hierarchical power and strengthen boundaries of exclusion … I call this type of humor entrenchment humor …
Comedy bears defining as well. Nowadays the word suggests farces, but when applied to classical literature it refers to what today we might call a “happy ending.” (Not in the illicit massage-parlor sense. Mind out of the gutter, please.) This matters because, as the book’s title suggests, Schweizer’s opening example of literary religious humor is Dante’s Divine Comedy, a work that ends happily in heaven but is not known for inducing hysterics.
After conducting his own survey in which people rated jokes, Schweizer was surprised—as was I—that liberal versus conservative ideology did not predict what respondents found funny. On the other hand, religious affiliation was quite the predictor. No surprise there. “The fact that official Christianity was for the most part of its 2000-year-old history opposed to laughter,” observes Schweizer, “is quite uncontested and historically documented.”
Like any rule-making institution, religion begs to be made the butt of jokes. “[O]ne common denominator that everybody should be able to agree on is that principally humorous laughter is attracted to boundaries of all sorts,” Schweizer writes. “Authority of any kind sets up boundaries of the permitted and approved, and humor breezes past those limits revealing them as limits and exposing to cognitive inspection the underlying rationale.”
Those who take humor for activism may be in for disappointment. Early in the book, Schweizer suggests that “subversive humor is more a symptom of an oppressed people’s mood and a means of coping with adverse conditions rather than an actual strategy of political agency.” He reprises the thought in the conclusion:
While comedians tend to stretch and modify our sense of what are legitimate topics to make fun of, the public perception of comic material operates as a feedback mechanism, sending the signal to the comedian just about how far he or she can stretch her material, and what boundaries are in play. This understanding of comedy affirms the idea that in most cases humor is not a change agent. In the words of Christie Davies, “jokes are a thermometer, not a thermostat.”
If you like book reviews, you’ll enjoy Schweizer’s lengthiest chapter, “A chronicle of triumph.” (If you don’t like book reviews, why on earth are you still here?) A suite of eleven reviews, it is the book’s crux. Here “satire” might have been a more apt word in the book’s title than “humor,” for few of the cited works contain laugh-out-loud material. Besides Divine Comedy, Schweizer tackles Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, Voltaire’s Candide, Anatole France’s The Revolt of the Angels, Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Šoldier Svejk, and others, culminating with (also as the title suggests) David Javerbaum’s wonderful The Last Testament. Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger lands squarely at the midpoint of Schweizer’s list. I suspect this is no accident. Mysterious is the first of the listed works that hits all Schweizer’s “religious targets”—raillery, anti-cleric, anti-ecclesiast, sacrilege, blasphemy, and anti-theism—and as such represents a transition point.
The reviews are compelling. Those of books I’d already read were thought-provoking in ways I had never considered. As for those I hadn’t read, thanks to Schweizer they are now on my reading list.
Following the literary reviews, a considerably shorter chapter touches on Christian standup comics Mark Lowry, Brad Stein, and Anthony Griffith; Monty Python’s Life of Brian; the TV show South Park; the internet show DarkMatter2525; and comics Rowan Atkinson, Robin Williams, Stephen Colbert, and Steve Carell. (What? No George Carlin? I hear you.) Only here does Schweizer, who otherwise remains even-handed, tip his secular-humanist hand, taking on—in fact, taking umbrage at—Lowry’s and Stein’s glib mischaracterizations of atheism. Finally, a brief epilogue discusses humor in non-Christian religions.
Delve into Christianity and the Triumph of Humor prepared not so much to laugh as to think. If you happen to be a secular humanist, you might also help yourself to a bit of gloating at the expense of the more dour forms of Christianity.