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This week’s Time magazine features its annual “Ideas Issue,” and the cover says “The Case for Mockery.” The story, written by the comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, is called “Make Fun of Everything.” The Ideas Issue asks “37 smart people how to make the world better.” In “Make Fun of Everything,” Key and Peele assert we’ll be a better people “the day we can make fun of a black lesbian dwarf with Down syndrome who’s in a wheelchair and someone who isn’t a black lesbian dwarf with Down syndrome is able to laugh.”
Their comments provide an interesting contrast to something I heard Kathleen Norris say last Thursday night. I’ve had the great fortune of hearing Ms. Norris on multiple occasions this past week, as she’s made a visit to my neck of the woods at both Western Theological Seminary and Central Reformed Church in Grand Rapids. I was particularly struck by this comment: “Liturgy is an irony-free zone.”
Key and Peele notwithstanding, I believe we already live in a make-fun-of-everything world. This is the age of “snark.” The urban dictionary says the etymology of snark is a combination of snide and sarcasm. Snark is accompanied by a smirk, and I feel compelled to confess that smirking snark (or is it snarking smirk?) is a way I often communicate. I’m a smart-ass.
I love a long, long list of snarky comedians. The person I’d most love to have a beer with some late night is Bill Murray. David Letterman, Stephen Colbert, Dave Chappelle, John Stewart, Will Ferrell, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Larry David – they all amuse me, along with old time snarkers like Johnny Carson and George Carlin. My appreciation of snark goes all the way back to the master and perhaps inventor of the craft: Groucho Marx. I love it when the smartest guy in the room is also the funniest guy in the room. And lest this sound sexist, I laugh at snarky women, too, from Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller to Sarah Silverman, Amy Poehler, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Kristen Wiig and Tina Fey.
I love to laugh. I go to church. But I don’t go to church for the laughs.
Kathleen Norris has experienced a lot of liturgy in monasteries. I learned from her this week that Saturday night is movie night at many monasteries and they’re as apt as you or me to have something from Netflix on hand. The point is monks are normal people. And I’m sure there are some snarky monks. But I still don’t think people are attracted to monasteries for the laughs.
We are drawn to the ancient practices and rhythms of liturgy and worship because everything there is straight forward. There is no ironic twist to “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ” or “For God so loved the world” or “If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation.”
We don’t need a world where comedians can tell black-lesbian-dwarf-with-Down-syndrome-in-a-wheelchair jokes without fear of offending anyone. Scorched earth comedy isn’t going to save us. There is a long tradition that probably started with Lenny Bruce of comics pushing the line. What’s left to push? Key and Peele ask, “Can we make them (an audience) laugh at a sketch about slavery? Terrorism? The Holocaust?” I believe they are on the wrong path. The problem with making fun of everything is not everything is funny.
Charlie Chaplin said something like “Comedy is easy. All you do is take your pain and play with it.” What Chaplin understood was that we need a sense of humor to deal with what Emil Cioran called “The Trouble with Being Born.” There is no other way to cope sometimes but to laugh through our tears. But that laughter has to come on the other side of the pain. Humor can be therapeutic, but sometimes it’s used as a wall to separate us from confronting pain. The emotionally immature don’t need more permission to make fun of everything. I have heard my share of gross humor that targets the helpless and uses mockery to maintain superiority over them. (By the way, watch Chaplin’s City Lights to see his Little Tramp as a Christ-figure. His humor was most often pathos, a combination of comedy and lament.)
Slavery, terrorism and the Holocaust call for lament. We have tools for that already at our disposal. We use them in liturgy and worship.