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Comedy as commentary: What is truth?

By Erin Jean Warde

In Genesis 18, Sarah overhears that in her older age and menopause, she will supposedly have a child. After hearing this proclamation from a mysterious visitor, she laughs. Her laughter isn’t external, it isn’t raucous, it isn’t a moment of pure joy shared among her family. The proclamation of her future pregnancy is one she overhears from behind a tent; she hears it out of the periphery. Her laughter is internal, and it is subversive. Her laughter holds within it a moment of disbelief, a time when her doubt slips out of her head and into her shoulders as they lift in reaction. Her lips part, and her truth escapes without reflection. It is a reaction that comes from her life of barrenness. It is a moment in which she feels the ache of her womb, like a tug on the scab she has left untouched for years. It is laughter, but it is not funny.

In “Welcome to the Age of the Unfunny Joke” (The New York Times, Sep. 19, 2015), Lee Siegel details a recent phenomenon in the world of comedy: comedy has moved far past slapstick, and instead wishes to call forth something deeper within the mind, body, and soul. Within the comedic context, comedians are now, more than ever, freed to tell their story. Comedians are, in short, becoming truthtellers in a world that yearns to hear something to call truth.

Siegel specifically mentions Jon Stewart’s anti-comedy comedy routine on The Daily Show following Dylann Roof’s racially motivated hate crime at Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in South Carolina. Stewart self-deprecatingly explained how he writes jokes, makes noises, and makes money. But that day, he said, was different. He had no jokes to make.

With furrowed brow he remarked, “I’m confident though, that by acknowledging it” — what Siegel called the “gaping racial wound in America” — “by staring into that and seeing it for what it is, we still won’t do jack shit. Yeah, that’s us.”

What Stewart’s comment evoked in the audience is something akin to Sarah’s reaction to the idea of her pregnancy. The audience laughed, but it was not funny. Yes, this is comedy, but it is also about who we trust to tell us the truth. At its very core, the phenomenon of the unfunny joke concerns truthtelling, and those who are ready, willing, and able to testify to the truth — and be heard.

Our public figures are often so risible in their behavior, and so evasive for fear of any type of negative consequence, that serious public truthtelling has become the responsibility of comedians. (Siegel)

This isn’t a novel idea. Shakespeare’s fool always serves as the greatest voice of wisdom, though the fool takes on the subversive nature of Sarah. Fools refuse to pronounce dogma and edict, and instead Socratically draw out of their companions the truth that only they cannot manage to see.

Inside the tents, Sarah cannot see that the visitor standing on the other side of the curtain is divine, and that nothing is impossible with God. For us, we cannot see that the uncomfortable truth we are confronted with in a comedy club might first make us laugh, but then catch in our throats and beg us to ask Pilate’s question: “What is truth?” (John  18:38)

For Sarah, her act of laughter is an act of disbelief, of doubt, of distrust. She carries in her body the painful reality of her barrenness, an old wound newly opened by a stranger. Her laugh is pregnant, not only with the extravagance of God’s creative power, but also with despair, and the doubt that her despair has cultivated over time. A stranger from behind a curtain threatens to awaken a hope she carefully buried over the years. A stranger, met with hospitality, returns the favor by delivering a fear to her. He delivers the fear that God might be reopening the wound, reawakening the hope she long suffered to lose: the hope of having a child. She laughs, but it is not funny. It is, however, her truth.

Comedy today is no less pregnant with the complicated nature of belief, disbelief, doubt, and the hope that what is impossible might be possible. Societal disillusionment with public figures acting as truthtellers extends fully to the Christian faith. More and more people seek to find professed Christian values — faith, hope, love, and even joyful laughter — everywhere but within religion.

Comedy has become, and I believe will continue to be, a vessel through which we hear the subversive laugh from the periphery. The laugh we hear in the wake of the unfunny joke carries the truth that Christianity has long sought to muffle: the convicting truth of the pain that people have felt, sometimes inflicted upon them in the name of the Christian faith. And yet, if our faith were even to listen to that laugh, we would hear the pain in the womb of those who have been left barren by our silence. It can be one laugh, a chuckle, a simple moment in time, but also an act of the mind, body, and soul that carries the opportunity for reconciliation and change in the Church.

Fig head shotThe Rev. Erin Jean Warde is associate rector for Christian formation at Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration in Dallas. Erin is a native Alabamian who loves Texas. Her MDiv is from Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, and her undergraduate degree in English and creative writing was earned at Troy University in Alabama. She enjoys writing, reading, learning how to cook, and all things comedic.

Photo credit: Thinkstock


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