Laughter as Theological Intimacy
One of the most powerful tools we have to foster connection—whether with friends, enemies, or even God—is a joke.
The following article is adapted from ch. 6 of Christianity: How Journeys along Jewish-Christian Borders Saved my Faith in God, Zondervan, 2016.
“It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.” ―G.K. Chesterton
A man was invited to meet his fiancée’s grandmother for the first time. It was to be a big family gathering and (so he was told) he could expect a warm welcome by all. He was warned, however, that the Grandma Hilda was known to police others on matters of proper grammar. Sure enough, the man was at dinner when he made a grammatical misstep. Grandma Hilda, as expected, interrupted him to point out the error. Those at the table paused for an awkward silence, worried about first impressions and the impropriety of regulating the grammar of a new guest. He broke the silence:
“Hilda, knock, knock.”
She played along, “Who’s there?”
By convention, of course, she answered. “To who?”
“Hilda, please, it’s to whom.”
It’s a joke. More specifically, it’s a joke that only certain people are going to find funny. And Hilda was such a person.
I am told (thank you, Janet) that this is a true story. Hilda is a real person who really hates poor grammar. She is out there ruining dinner parties and taming tohu vabohu one sentence at a time. But on this night, the joked worked. It worked in two ways: Hilda laughed and our man—in making Hilda laugh—endeared himself to her. And here we witness the odd truth that jokes, while masking themselves in triviality, have relational power.
Ted Cohen argues this point in his masterful little book on the philosophy of humour. Cohen says that jokes are most commonly vehicles for establishing and maintaining intimacy (or, at least, attempts to do so). Ted Cohen likens shared humour with a moment of beauty within nature or art that compels you to welcome a friend to witness it with you. Cohen asks why we feel compelled to share a joke we have found funny.
Why do you expect me to find it funny? And just what is it you want of me, in wanting to find it funny? . . .. I think what you want is to reach me, and therein to verify that you understand me, at least a little, which is to exhibit that we are, at least a little, alike. This is the establishment of felt intimacy between us.
So how does this work? What exactly is the joke teller doing to fortify the relationship? He writes, “When you offer your joke, you solicit their knowledge, you elicit it, in fact, virtually against their will, and they find themselves contributing the background that will make the joke work.” Cohen observes that the hearer becomes an active participant in a “shared set of beliefs, dispositions, prejudices, preferences. . . .” And then, if the joke works, the hearer amplifies her participation with a shared feeling. “This is what I call the intimacy of joking,” concludes Cohen.
I believe that Cohen has his finger on something important. Our desire to share humour is a yearning for felt intimacy. It is my yearning to see something of my humanity in you. I would also extend Cohen’s line of thought. Humour has the capacity to establish friendship and intensify friendship. If he’s right, this seems like something that Christians might want to study. Aren’t we seeking intimacy with each other, with “the Other,” and with our Creator? But before we go too far, a bit of caution is warranted.
Humour, or attempts at humour, can exhibit deconstructive force when they fail. If I reach out to you with something that has struck me funny and you do not laugh, I have alienated myself in a way. This sort of failure to connect can be superficial, or appear to be. But consider the destructive force in a racially charged joke that reveals a disconnection between the teller and the hearer. If you tell me a joke that assumes my amusement at Latino speech, for example, I will probably not laugh. And in absence of laughter, will you perceive a sense of my judgment? For my part, I might simply feel sorry for you. The failure to achieve laughter when it is sought can result in the opposite of intimacy.
All jokes are conditional and require the right people, timing, voice, etc. to have a chance to connect us. Henri Bergson puts it this way: “You would hardly appreciate the comic if you felt yourself isolated from others. Laughter appears to stand in need of an echo.”
Some jokes are ruined simply because the audience fails to connect with each other. In these cases the failure of a joke may have very little to do with its content or the delivery of the teller.
The joke on Hilda worked to both allay the awkward moment and establish a connection. But one can easily imagine a different outcome. Hilda might have taken the joke as an insult. Or what if she detested knock, knock jokes and refused to play along? Or consider this (very real) possibility: what if Hilda played along, was offended by the joke, but everyone else at the table laughed at her expense? In this case, the family members may have warmed to the new member because he dealt with the grammar police in a way that amused them. It is possible that certain kinds of laughter create intimacy with some at the expense of others.
It is not difficult to think of other kinds of laughter that alienate. Most of the humour I experienced at school in my pre-teen years was caustic. I either did not laugh or (worse) I laughed as a defense mechanism. Much of laughter derides, masks insecurity, or feigns intimacy for personal gain. Authentic intimacy is costly and difficult. It stands to reason that laughter that promotes intimacy is also sorely won.
If it is true that jokes are vehicles for relational power, it is also true that this power (like all forms of power) is tricky business. Consider the place of political comics within systems of power. In their most meaningful forms, jokes allow for the rewriting of dominant narratives. If the dominant cultural narrative leaves you out, or worse, paints you as a devil, rewriting that narrative can replace a negative social image with a positive one.
Whether the power is political, social, or religious, humour is a way to negotiate the life of perceived (and often vulnerable) outsiders. This could take the form of the Marx Brothers playing with themes of immigrant assimilation. It might also take the form of remembering tragedies of the past and rewriting these stories subversively. Laughter has subversive power. There may be no better way to protest a bully than to render him laughable. There may be nothing more subversive than making a bully laugh at herself. Such was the case with Hilda.
Examples are everywhere. Charlie Chaplin writes and stars in The Great Dictator. “Moms” Mabley talks about her forced marriage to an old man. Lenny Bruce and Sarah Silverman address the accusation that Jews killed Christ. George Carlin shines a spotlight on institutional religion. Mel Brooks writes “The Producers” featuring the song “Springtime for Hitler.” Richard Prior exposes police brutality. Joan Rivers reveals the problems of aging. Bill Cosby confesses the chaos and powerlessness of parenthood. Amy Schumer explores the evils of rape by mocking Bill Cosby.
In each of these cases—and there are thousands more—the external power is simply too intractable or systematic to bring to justice. How do you counterbalance millennia of violence against women? How do you expect to get a reprieve from Father Time? How do you get revenge against Hitler? Jerry Seinfeld concedes to Mel Brooks on this point, “There’s no revenge.” Brooks replies to Seinfeld, “There’s no way that you’re going to match him tirade for tirade; he’s gonna beat you. You’ve got to find another way.”
Jokes from below can rally a people against a bully. Although it is debatable how often they unseat the powerful, a shared sense of intimacy among an oppressed people is necessary for any rewritten cultural narrative. Of course, the most obvious risk—especially if the bully is insecure and unable to laugh at himself—is that the person in power begins to hate all the more those who laugh at him. There is power in laughter. Therefore there it is easily corruptible.
I hope that by now I’ve communicated the risks. But the risk of alienation is not a problem with jokes, laughter, or even use of these for retribution. The risks that come with joking are the same risks that come with truth telling, artistic expression, and subversive creativity of all kinds. This, then, brings us back to Cohen’s thesis: jokes—when most pure—are a way to invite and enhance intimacy. And isn’t intimacy worth the risk?
C. S. Lewis noticed something similar in relationships spurred by erotic love. According to Lewis, erotic love says, “‘Let our hearts break provided they break together.’ If the voice within us does not say this, it is not the voice of Eros. This is the grandeur and terror of love. But notice, as before, side by side with this grandeur, the playfulness. Eros, as well as Venus [i.e., coitus], is the subject of countless jokes. . . . Nothing is falser than the idea that mockery is necessarily hostile. Until they have a baby to laugh at, lovers are always laughing at each other.”
Maybe love is too heavy a word for a subject synonymous with levity. Humour (like intimacy) shouldn’t be confused with love. It is, however, a bridge. I would argue that it is an important relational bridge.
If you have read this far and you’re open to a bit of theological tomfoolery, I will conclude with a lesson I’ve learned from another Cohen. Sarah Blacher Cohen writes, “By laughing at their dire circumstances, Jews have been able to liberate themselves from them. Their humour has been a balance to counter external adversity and internal sadness.” The problem of power is almost always the problem of relational asymmetry. This has been especially true for the long and varied history of Jews and Judaism. Sometimes the best humour comes from a place of insecurity or protest. Moreover, sometimes the feeling of asymmetry stems from the divine-human relationship. Isn’t God infinitely more powerful than God’s covenantal partner? And shouldn’t this count for something when one finds oneself in a Psalm 44 situation?
To put it bluntly, some Jews rightly blame God for inaction in the face of injustice. Others blame themselves for expecting anything from God in the first place. Still others think very little about God (I would not want to give the impression that these are the only theological options I hear from my Jewish friends). No doubt, Christians deal with the same dilemmas of theodicy. But I would like to avoid, for the moment, the Christian tendency to appropriate Jewish tradition. Rather, as Krister Stendahl once suggested, it might be better for both Christians and Jews if we Christians learned to appreciate the beauty of the other without mimicking it or appropriating it. So I offer this next insight as a distinctly Jewish approach to human-divine intimacy. Sarah Blacher Cohen claims that humour is not simply a coping mechanism for many Jews, “It has also been a principal source of salvation.”
Is humour a type of salvation? I’m not sure that Christian theology has room for this category. And maybe that’s okay. But I have found with my Jewish friends that humour is something sacred. More to the point, jokes at God’s expense can be an attempt to repair the divine-human relationship. If indeed jokes can invite and enhance intimacy, could laughing about the sacred bring us closer to the sacred? I hope so.
Want more reflections on the role of humour in Christian spirituality? Learn from the master, G. K. Chesterton, in "G. K. Chesterton on the Fool as Saviour of the Modern Soul."
 Ted Cohen, Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 29.
 Cohen, Jokes, 40.
 Henri Bergson, excerpt from “Laughter,” in The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor; (ed. John Morreall; Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987), 117-26, here 119.
 Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee; http://comediansincarsgettingcoffee.com/
 C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960), 107–8
 Sarah Blacher Cohen, “Introduction: The Varieties of Jewish Humor,” in Jewish Wry: Essays on Jewish Humor, ed. S. B. Cohen (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1987), 5.
 Blacher Cohen, “Varieties of Jewish Humor,” 5.