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David Letterman and Carnival

By May 22, 2015 One Comment


A friend, who happens to be an excellent preacher, has said on numerous occasions that there’s an important connection between comedians and preachers. There’s timing—the right word at the right time evoking a specific response. There’s the use of language, words that mean something specific, but also words that blur meaning through metaphor and innuendo. There’s the use of silence—the pregnant pause, the meaningful facial expression or posture, drawing in the audience by disrupting the flow of sound. Ultimately, comedians and preachers—the good ones anyway— are self doubters. They are anxiety ridden, waking up in the middle of the night wondering if anyone will ever listen or find them funny again. Both can tell when things are going south… when something doesn’t take off…and there’s nothing you can do about it. You ride it out, hoping for the high note that leads to the “Goodnight everybody, you’ve been great! I’ll be here next week… same time!” Comedy and preaching are both an art form that involves so much more than it looks like on the surface. When it goes well, it’s euphoric. When it bombs it’s terrible…depressing…and exhausting.

Yes, I know, the Holy Spirit is involved in preaching—I didn’t forget. But I think the Holy Spirit’s involved in comedy too. There’s something about comedy that lifts us, casts the world in a different light, helping us forget ourselves if just for a moment. Comedy helps unify our identity as our self awareness slips into a fog and we laugh. With tears in our eyes and sometimes a pain in our gut—we laugh. Which is why it’s sad to say goodbye to David Letterman. Not just out of some romantic nostalgia for Time’s Square in the 1980’s, but because Dave understood the power of comedy. He didn’t take himself too seriously, which was on display during his last show. The best part of the night was when they showed his family—his wife and son, Harry. You see this squirrelly eleven year old kid not knowing what to do with himself. Finally Dave says something to the effect of, “My son wants me to give a shout out to his friend who is here with him tonight.” And so he does… and he laughs and laughs as the camera shows two dorking looking 5th graders grinning from ear to ear, waving like idiots.

In his mammoth book A Secular Age Charles Taylor talks about the importance of Carnival for medieval society. It was a time when social conventions were openly flaunted, where festivals tended to get out of hand, and all of the moral and ethical rules passed through some Seinfeld like bizarro world. All of this was necessary to sustain the social and cultural patterns; it infused new life into structures that were always at risk of becoming ossified and oppressive. Taylor discusses how the reformation did away with this practice, the Mardi Gras experience, for a more serious and practical piety. But I have to tell you, I’m thinking some of our communities could stand to reintroduce a smidgen of carnival into our day, just for a minute or two. Like the rent being “too damn high” we tend to take ourselves too damn seriously. As Christians we need to rediscover the joy and life giving nourishment of something so utterly silly and ridiculous we can’t stop laughing. God bless you David Letterman, and thank you for ending your show with the greatest rocker of our time, David Grohl and the esteemed Fighters of Foo!

Jason Lief

Jason Lief teaches Practical Theology at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. He served as editor of Reformed Journal for many years and was one of the original bloggers on the RJ blog. You can find more of his writing at

One Comment

  • Ed Kranepool says:

    Well said…well, all except for the Foo Fighters crap. Billy Joel would have been far better musically and as a NYer…

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