SummaryCould sanity be judged by what you laugh at? Today, can we really laugh at anything? John Clark states that our humor shows us who we really are.
Marcus: Now is a time to storm; why art thou still?
Titus: Ha, ha, ha!
Marcus: Why dost thou laugh? it fits not with this hour.
Titus: Why, I have not another tear to shed…”
William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus
As Shakespeare’s protagonist, Titus Andronicus, observed many years ago, men in troubled times and troubled ages are faced with two seemingly opposing reactions: laughing or crying.
That might strike us as strange since these responses seem to be emotional antonyms.
However, both reactions are philosophical (albeit reflexive) responses to an underlying observation: something is amiss; something is out of place; something is wrong. Psychologists refer to this as the “incongruity theory” of laughter; that is, we laugh at those things we find incongruous.
But contrary to the age in which Andronicus was allowed to laugh, our society increasingly discourages the practice—because we are no longer allowed to view certain things as incongruous. P.G. Wodehouse recognized this.
In Over Seventy, Wodehouse writes, “In order to be a humorist, you must see the world out of focus, and today, when the world is really out of focus, people insist that you see it straight.” If that were true six decades ago when Wodehouse penned those words, how much truer is it today?
Americans are expected to give credence and approval to every bizarre viewpoint: atheism, Marxism, every possible gender theory (except, of course, the now-quaint “two-gender theory”), and so forth. We must give quarter to every two-bit philosophy under the sun and moon.
We’re not supposed to consider anything incongruous, even if it flies in the face of our Catholic Faith and any semblance of the natural law. And if you find incongruity where you’re not supposed to—if you laugh at the wrong thing—you get in trouble.
“Humorists have been scared out of the business by the touchiness now prevailing in every section of the community. Wherever you look, on every shoulder there is a chip, in every eye a cold glitter warning you, if you know what is good for you, not to start anything.”
Six decades later, comic Jerry Seinfeld echoed this observation of Wodehouse, commenting that there is no shortage of people who will reprimand you for telling politically-incorrect jokes, whatever those are deemed to be at that particular moment.
“I mean, there’s a creepy PC thing out there that really bothers me.”
More than bothering, I’m guessing that it confuses Mr. Seinfeld, too. No one has any idea what to joke about any more. Perhaps, as a society, we have decided that the best course of action is not to joke at all. Just stop laughing, and maybe you will be OK.
In a sense, the laugh police are right—there are, indeed, some things that we should not laugh at, but they are terribly wrong about what those things are.
For instance, to the laugh police, any jokes about the athlete formerly known as Bruce Jenner are off limits, but mean-spirited jokes and jabs at Christianity are just fine.
Case in point: the ABC show The Real O’Neals. The show’s raison d’etre is to mock Christianity, Christians, and for that matter, Christ Himself. Despite lousy ratings, ABC executives have decided to stick by the show waiting until it garners an audience. This makes them cultural icons and heroes.
But the support of this show—and the similar actions of the cultural media elites—raises another important point, namely, that one can tell a lot about a person by seeing what he laughs at. Man’s laughter is a window to his concept of congruity and harmony.
As Sirach 19:30 teaches us, a man’s laughter shows “what he is.”
For this reason, Saint Thomas Aquinas posits that some laughter is inappropriate, writing,
“If laughter escapes a man when he is so disposed that he thinks he ought to weep, he is sorry for it, as having done something unbecoming to him.” (ST I-II Q38)
In other words, man ought to be laughing at some forms of incongruity—but laughing at harmony illustrates a disharmony from within.
Which means, very simply, that some men are laughing at the wrong things. As C.S. Lewis put it:
“We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” (The Abolition of Man)
More broadly, we snicker at monogamy and find divorce; we mock fatherhood and find fatherless households; we taunt Christianity and find the atrocities of the Middle East.
That man needs to laugh is a proposition that hardly needs to be defended.
As Saint Thomas writes, the “faculty of laughing is natural to man.” (ST I-II Q51) More telling, however, is what makes a man laugh, or not laugh.
It is said that a return to sanity in Western culture will include a comeback for legitimate humor. But it would be fairer to say that our culture should be judged in large part by what we are laughing at. And what we aren’t.