I'm giving an evangelistic talk on the above subject on Thursday. I have way too much material and I'm toying with tackling it from a totally different angle - but, well. Here's some stuff that I have at the moment and maybe you can help me. I'll lay out what I've got in installments and you can tell me what needs to stay on the cutting room floor. Any suggestions gratefully received...
Analysing comedy is a bit like dissecting a dolphin. Just leave the dolphin alone. We much prefered just watching the dolphin frolick around. The guy who steps forward with a scalpel saying "Let's see how it works!" - that guy's sick. SICK.
Well I'm the sick guy this afternoon. This is not about being funny, it's about analysing funny - and the saying "we kill to dissect" is never so true as with comedy. Hope you're not too disappointed.
But what I hope to do this lunchtime is to do what comedy itself does. This talk will be disappointingly unfunny, but I hope my talk does what comedy does. And what does comedy do?
It makes a shocking shift in perception. That's what comedy is - a shocking shift. It shifts our perceptions in a surprising or pointed way.
Now the Joke Proper gives us a short, sharp, shocking shift - that's what puts the punch in a punchline. But in general comedy creates a shocking shift in perception. It re-presents to us familiar people or situations in a subversive, surprising way.
Take for instance this cartoon mocking a well known Christian platitude:
Now there are several ways you could debunk this Christian platitude. You could preach a series of serrmons about how God might actually lead you into terrible suffering and it wouldn't disprove His love. You could write a whole history of martyrdom to challenge the glibness of such bumper-sticker Christianity. Next time you hear the saying you could yell back: "Try telling that to the martyrs, man!"
None of those options would be comedy. And to be honest - none of them would be as effective as this simple cartoon. And this is how comedy works. It provides a shocking shift in perceptions. And in this succinct form it is a short, sharp shocking shift.
Or think again about a recent example of comedy. Imagine that a Danish scholar had written a 15 000 word paper linking the life and teaching of Mohammed to modern terrorism. Would we have heard of this paper? Would the world have erupted around such an academic proposal? No.
But get a Danish cartoonist to draw Mohammed's turban as a bomb and then the world erupts. It is a shocking shift of perception to lay those ideas side by side and invite comparison. It's how comedy works - and it has the power to ignite fear and protest as well as debate and serious thought.
Which means comedy is a serious business. Don't ever think of comedy as simply ‘making light' of the world.
I mean, think about it. Has anyone's ever said to you these words: "Come on! I was only joking!"
If someone's said that to you I'll guarantee you had to suppress the urge to stab them in the throat with a biro. Because we all know that there's no such thing as "only joking". When we joke we are using words at their sharpest. And contrary to the popular saying: sticks and stones may break our bones, but words go even deeper. Which makes comedy a very serious business. It is using words at their sharpest.
Now a sharp knife can be used for good or ill. It can cut you a slice of cake - good. It can stab you through the heart - not so good. The knife itself is not good or bad. But the knife can be used for good or bad. Same with comedy. Comedy itself is a powerful tool. It is using words at their sharpest. But that tool can be used for tremendous good or tremendous evil.
A lot of people have been hurt by sharp words in the past and therefore write off comedy. I think that's a shame. There is a legitimate, joyful and serious use for comedy. Because sometimes words need to cut. Sometimes issues need to be dissected. Sometimes bubbles need to be burst. Sometimes people and institutions need to be cut down to size. Sometimes pride needs to be pricked. Sometimes side issues need to be cut through and the heart of the issue exposed. And comedy is uniquely placed to do that job.
And this is what I mean by saying I want this talk to do what comedy does - comedy shifts our perceptions. And I want to shift our perceptions not only about comedy itself but about Christianity. And here's the shift in perception: Generally we take comedy lightly and think of Christianity as serious, heavy, dull. I hope to show that:
Comedy is serious. And Christianity is comedic.