Blog Post

Should Comedy be a Religion?

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Flickr ( I )

Let's try a thought experiment. What if comedy were a religion?

Instantly theology would get a lot simpler. No need to defend the lifestyles of ancient desert-dwelling zealots, no need to imagine an afterlife or complicated cycles of rebirth, no need to evangelize with the sword when you could simply try to make your audience laugh. For a postmodern subject this idea is super-appealing. To take a potentially serious and tragic question like the meaning of human experience, and treat it lightly or irreverently: isn't this something we already do well? Our playful and silly works of art are already among our most valued: we defend The Interview against malicious hackers, and the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo against murderous terror. Aren't the terrorists themselves guilty of blasphemy?

The spiritual benefits of Comedyism seem as appealing as the political. Laughter cuts through every spiritual chain—depression, anxiety, isolation, fear. It feels free when you can laugh about something rather than being crushed by it. Laughter can build a community, a communion of the suddenly-surprised. It lights up the brain; it reverses the chain of command; it gives you sympathy with the outsider. Comedy works best when the oppressed mock their oppressors, when fixed gender roles are reversed, when lovers are reunited and the fool becomes a king. Everything wrong is made right for an hour, here in the green world of Arcadia.

But maybe it's too hasty to imagine that a religion of Comedy would be politically progressive, precisely suited to modern tastes. Satire can make fun of entrenched hierarchies, but it's just as easily turned to making fun of stupid weirdos who offend against some standard of taste, or mocking anybody with a new idea. And the cruelty! Maybe we are cheating death when we laugh at cruelty, folly, and humiliation—or maybe we just like dumping on losers. Thank Comedy those people aren't us! There but for the grace of Comedy! And ugh, the gross parts—the shit and the mud and the fart jokes. Lower than that, even—mockery of celebrities, the cheapest laugh.

Comedy may be liberatory, but it's not a democracy. There is no equality in comedy. There is a priestly caste: those who can make others laugh. It's a spiritual gift bestowed absolutely without merit. What is more existentially unfair than being born without a sense of humor? And like other kinds of communities, the Church of Comedy is built (at least a little) around exclusion. Laughter can hurt and divide, while it binds others together—the ones in on the joke. The pain of being laughed at; the pain when no one laughs at your jokes—these are a form of social death. Those who succeed though are briefly Nietzschean supermen: the brave and amazing, for at least ten seconds.

Comedy doesn't get the big movie awards—it's fleeting, it's low, it can't be sold abroad. It's hard to translate across cultures, and the contemporary references that create instant community can also decay quickly, leaving the joke pointless and uncool. Telling a joke is like playing with fire: one moment you've created a fountain of delight, the next you did something wrong and you're about to get ripped apart on twitter (or worse). You can spend your whole life devoted to it, but with each joke you have to start completely fresh. ("Dying is easy; comedy is hard.") Works and grace don't always do the trick, so maybe the theology isn't so simple after all. Fallible, stupid, and yet joyful, comedy is a very human magic.

Associate Professor of English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Eleanor Courtemanche teaches Victorian literature and economic thought at the University of Illinois, with occasional digressions into pop culture and media theory. Her book about Adam Smith's "invisible hand" and the construction of moral outcomes in complex Victorian novels was published in 2011. Here's her faculty webpage: http://www.english.illinois.edu/people/ecourtem.