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[Chalice] Unfunny Remarks About Humor [Chalice]
Jokes and their Relation to Repression

Presented October 28, 2001, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

Opening words:

"The world likes humor, but it treats it patronizingly. It decorates its serious artists with laurel, and its wags with Brussels sprouts." E. B. White

There are many reasons why we all benefited from and enjoyed Jeff's discussion last week of humor. One thing it certainly did for me was remind me of how much I appreciate the people in my life who not only have a sense of humor, who appreciate a laugh, but who are actually witty and clever and make me laugh. Perhaps everyone, or nearly everyone, would say that they have a sense of humor. People will admit to crimes, bad teeth, wearing a hairpiece, but who will admit to not having a sense of humor?

Nearly everyone would say they have a sense of humor, but how many people are genuinely funny and make other people laugh? Jeff's talk reminded me of how important it is to have people in your life who make you laugh and it made me think about them and remember and appreciate them. Perhaps I simply consistently immature, but the older I get the more I want to have pleasure and enjoyment and fun and laughter in my life, all of which have been rather in short supply in the past few years and certainly in the past few months. This, of course, only makes those people who are able to make you laugh all the more valuable. At the Halloween party, Ian Taylor miraculously was reciting Anthony's funeral oration in Julius Caesar, and it reminded me that at some earlier point in that play Julius Caesar says: "Let me have people around me who are fat." How many of us would say, Let me have people around me not who are particularly good or virtuous or saintly but let me have people around me who make me laugh.

So I've been thinking about those people I know who make me laugh, and in my experience the people who make me laugh are not necessarily the life of the party, center of attention, spotlight is always on me type of person. The people I know who make me laugh don't do so really by telling jokes but make me laugh simply by being themselves. They are people who are able to put humor just in the middle of life's experiences. They don't slow time down and make it stop and say, "hey, pay attention: I've got a joke." No, the people who make me laugh just sort of slip humor into the flow of normal life. They have the ability through their own sense of humor and their wit and cleverness to make time more fecund, richer with fun and laughter.

For example, I was talking with a colleague of mine who is shy and never the center of attention but she also possesses a very quick wit. We were talking about her students this semester and I asked her if there were any bright, aspiring philosophers in her lower level classes. I asked her if there were any budding young minds and she said, "No, no buds. Rob, I don't even have bulbs this semester." Our conversation could have remained on the straight line, rather lifeless, just complaining, but she was able to infuse what could have been simply a lifeless and moaning session with the pleasure of laughter. And that's how my best friend does it all the time. Thinking about the importance of humor always makes me think about my best friend since fourth grade, my friend Jim from back home in Pennsylvania. I was back home briefly last month and I was trying to talk Jim into going to see a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game with me. You should know of course that the Pirates were concluding one of the worst seasons in their 100 year history and were the very worst team in baseball. I knew there was no way Jim wanted to go see this dreadful team. Now if you put, for example, my students in the same situation, with me asking them to go to a Pirates game, this the last thing in the world they would want to do, I bet you more than 90% of my students would respond in one of these two ways. The great majority of them would articulate their negative response within the confines of only two response. They would either say: "The Pirates stink" or "The Pirates suck." My friend Jim had his own way to put an end to my entreaties. He didn't say the Pirates stink or the Pirates suck, which is perfectly obvious. He didn't even say the at least slightly more humorous response that he would go see the Pirates if they were playing in his own backyard. He looked straight at me and he said, "Rob, if the Pirates were playing in my backyard I would close the drapes and call the Police!"

Now what makes a person able to do that? Certainly intelligence, but I think the person who is able to infuse ordinary life with wit and humor is able to do so out of something like a deep literacy. I don't mean deep literacy in the sense of knowing a lot of quotations from Cicero or Rousseau but a deep comfort level in language, a confidence to draw upon imagery and metaphor and hyperbole, an ability to live in language beyond the straight line of normal, literal conversation and its narrow confines of expression, an ability to put language to work for you in a variety of not only meaningful but funny and delightful ways.

I fear that this linguistic ability and this deep comfort level in language, this creativity in language, I fear this deep literacy in this sense is on the decline in our culture. We do have two late night comedians now and so many young comics out there and the comedy channel, but it could be that the linguistic ability, the deep literacy that is the fertile soil for the comic, is on the decline in our country. The average SAT verbal score has dropped in the past 25 years by 50 to 60 points. The linguist Ivan Illich has warned us that "a growing percentage of personal utterances has become predictable, not only in content but also in style" and he points out the spread and the dominance of what he calls "a commodity-like, taught uniquack."

When our students all say the same thing, "The Pirates suck! Or "dude!" that's the commodity-like, taught uniquack. One of the sad things is that some of this lifeless uniquack derives from the TV show The Simpsons. This show is itself not only very funny but intelligent, mocking, parodic. It's a deeply literate show, but unfortunately for the most part the way it has affected our culture is not to make us more witty, more sarcastic, more clever, more resourceful in using imagery and irony. The affect of the show is much more simply in the words that are taught by it and echoed, like "that sucks" or "dude," much more on the uniquack level. Even a show like The Simpsons that is deeply literate and constantly meanders in and out of many different time periods and cultural references ends up making our conversation more lifeless and flatter, more of a straight line. That's the way the uniquack is. It doesn't meander into creativity, into imagery, metaphor, shades of color. The uniquack remains a shade of gray, and is straight, literal, lifeless, a straight line. The uniquack as straight lines reminds me of that medieval legend that says that the devil has the power to move but it's a limited power so the devil can only move in a straight line. Now The Simpsons takes me directly to something else I wanted to say in relation to humor, which concerns humor or jokes about Unitarians. My friend Jim sent me a tape of a little clip from an episode of that show. In this particular scene a great crowd is gathered when all of a sudden the crowd gets quiet and everyone is focused on one particular person in the crowd and grandpa Simpson shouts out: "What is it, a Unitarian?"

I think we all like jokes about Unitarians. I've heard us tell them and we obviously can laugh at ourselves. I think jokes about us can tell us important things about how we are perceived by others. Even more importantly, they can act as a warning to us that we should not become a mockery or the mocking version of who we really are. People joke all the time about us UUs that our symbol is the question mark, and perhaps sometimes we do risk acting as though our true symbol of the chalice light of truth has been eclipsed by the symbol of the question mark. Some times we may even come close to the agnostics Nietschze discussed with derision who, he said, worship the question mark as a God. Or consider, as another example, the light bulb joke. You know, how many Episcopalians does it take to screw in a lightbulb? One to call the electrician and seven to say how much better they liked the old light bulb. So how many Unitarians does it take to change a light bulb? Well, the answer for us is certainly the longest and most complicated one. According to the version Jeff sent to me, the answer is: "We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the light bulb. However, if you have found in your own journey that light bulbs work for you, that is fine. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your personal relationship with your light bulb and present it next month at our annual Sunday service in which we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including incandescent, fluorescent, three-way, long-life, and tinted, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence."

Like it or not, we might actually recognize something like a Tartuffian version of some of our own Unitarian tendencies in this joke, and we might even feel that sometimes we can come rather too close to the Tartuffian version. Some of our Unitarian tendencies might even cause us to roll our own eyes at ourselves every once in a while. Or maybe it is just me. I got thrown out of a high school class once for rolling my eyes at something the teacher had said.

I confess as much as I like jokes about Unitarians, they sometimes make me uneasy, and this takes me to what really was the topic of the talk originally, jokes as a means whereby a dominant group represses a minority group. Now doesn't that sound humorous! Listening to Jeff last week, I thought to myself: Rob, not only are your talks too heavy and serious, but you are going to give a heavy and serious talk about humor. But the fact of the matter is, as anyone knows, and any Holocaust scholar knows perhaps more painfully than others, humor is one of the vehicles through which a dominant group represses a minority group and makes sure they stay a minority group. Jokes about Unitarians are fine and funny, but the fact of the matter is that if jokes reinforce the view that we Unitarians are so weird that we would do a performative dance about light bulbs or that we do worship a question mark or would burn a question mark on someone's front lawn, then that just makes it less likely that people would come to try out our church or take us seriously as a religious and spiritual and ethical option.

And if that is so, then that's serious business, especially when you feel that the option you have to offer is one that many people need and would benefit from. I was talking recently with a friend who used to be a priest and someone brought up the joke about why Unitarians aren't good at singing hymns together? Because they have to read ahead to see if they agree with the words or not. My friend, the former priest, he didn't laugh much and he was quick to say: "You know, I would have loved to have a congregation of people who cared that much that they actually thought about the words in the hymns." At a recent church member's funeral, I got the sense that her family members only had the superficial, sort of joking, mocking view of Unitarianism. They really, I think, were blown away when they understood all that Caroline got from her lifelong involvement in this church and with how much of what they loved and appreciated about her was mysteriously tied into who we are and what this place is about. I was explaining to one of her relatives that in our church we do not all agree even about the most ultimate questions but we believe in being accepting of other's views and in being up front about our beliefs and our doubts about things, and she said to me: "I've been going to the Episcopalian church for 50 years and I don't know if I really believe what we say, but I've never told anyone that." We are as a spiritual, religious and ethical community a really different option in this community and one that many, many people would like and even in some profound ways need, and we are still in spite of all that one of the smallest congregations in town. It is easier for people to have a joking, mocking version of Unitarians in their heads than to really grapple with what they don't get in their own tradition or they don't get by having no tradition at all and just sleeping in on Sunday. That's why I think there is something serious to think about in jokes about Unitarians, even as we laugh at them and at ourselves.

Closing words:

An Italian proverb: "He that jokes confesses."

©2001 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Robert J. S. 2001. Unfunny Remarks About Humor, (accessed July 9, 2020).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.
More Sermons from the Rev. Dr. Rob Manning.