Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Gospel as Comedy

cartoon by John Guido

What makes this funny? (If you don't think it's funny, just pretend.) A chastened spirit is the last thing you expect from a Viking. Yet Haldor, who is clearly just coming off a rampage or an outburst of Nordic wrath, is looking all sheepish and so-very-sorry. My eleventh grade teacher told us that humor is the juxtaposition of the incongruous. Think of Monty Python's Flying Circus and Airplane.

But for that reason, Haldor illustrates the gospel. That transformation, that new nature, that unnatural kindness and, on the other hand, that brokenness over the evil that lurks within and bursts forth, is what Jesus does with sinners.

Christianity, in that respect, is comedy, not tragedy. My wife, a Grove City College educated English teacher, tells me that comedies and tragedies are distinguished by how they end. Comedies end in weddings, whereas tragedies end in funerals. Consider Shakespeare. Much Ado About Nothing ends in a wedding; Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet end in funerals. The Bible ends with the hope and promise of a wedding. "The Spirit and the bride say, 'Come!'" Christ, the bridegroom, responds, "Yes, I am coming soon" (Revelation 22:17, 20).

I recall Patrick Downey (assoc. prof. of philosophy, St Mary's College, CA) saying something like that when I knew him at Boston College fifteen years ago. You will find something of interest along those lines in his book, Serious Comedy: The Philosophical and Theological Significance of Tragic and Comic Writing in the Western Tradition (Lexington, 2001).

Back to humor--cartoon humor in particular--if you are interested in this subject, you need to read The Naked Cartoonist by Robert Mankoff, the cartoon editor for The New Yorker. He knows what's funny, and he explains why what works works and why what doesn't doesn't. On pp. 21-22 his advice is "just a little more inking--and a lot more thinking." He shows the magic of layering an idea over what otherwise is an ordinary picture, perhaps just by a caption. I always found that this is what separated Bizzaro from The Far Side (aside from off-putting pointy characters versus attractive round ones).

You can read this 2006 HuffPost interview with him.

For example, "If you're watching America's Funniest Home Videos you never say, "I don't get it." You're not saying, "Ok, a guy fell off a chair. Can someone explain that to me again?" But if you're looking at a Danny Shanahan cartoon in which there's two praying mantises -one male and one female and the male is missing his head and the female is saying "You slept with her, didn't you?" There's something to piece together. There's a slight delay where these different sort of competing ideas come together - mesh and produce laughter."


Anonymous said...

I like the conclusions that can be drawn from these. It's interesting when the audience can get something completely different from what the author intended.

-John G

David C. Innes said...

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They neither toil nor spin, nor intend to be a suitable illustration for our Lord's lesson. In this case, the kingdom of God is like John Guido's cartoon.

The glory of God is sewn throughout the creation and throughout the ordinary thoughts of men. Even when you think you're being arbitrary and bizarre, you have not left the confines of God's purposeful universe. And all of his purposes converge in Christ. "For of him and through him and to him are all things," Romans 11:36.

Anonymous said...

Wow, heavy stuff.