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What is the greatest line in all of sitcom history? Here’s one I’d like to see in the top ten. It’s the Twelve Angry Men episode of Hancock’s Half Hour in which our hapless hero attempts spin out a legal case by a moving speech when locked in a room with a jury:
“Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you?” Hancock cries. “Did she die in vain?”Galton & Simpson, Hancock’s Half Hour, 16 October 1959
For the joke to work, you need to know that Magna Carta is a document, not a person. Hancock, unperturbed by his own ignorance, goes on to explains who ‘she’ is: “A brave Hungarian peasant girl who forced King John to sign the pledge at Runnymede and close the boozers at half past ten!”
I realise there are few things less funny than someone explaining a joke, but that’s often my job. I’m a BBC Sitcom writer and script editor. I’ve also been spending a lot of time on joke mechanics and how they go wrong, especially in the realm of religion in a new book called The Sacred Art of Joking.
Alongside writing that book, I’ve been reading history books researching my new play about another famous but only half-remembered significant event in history: the murder of Thomas Becket. Some might hazily remember the King shouting ‘Who will rid me of this Turbulent Priest?’ (also cried by Brian Blessed in the first series of Blackadder (right)) You might recall this utterance leads to four nearby knights deciding to do the decent thing and murder Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral by cutting off the top of his head. But what does this event mean? Who is Thomas Becket? Did he die in vain?
As one learns more details of the story it becomes every more fascinating, not least because it’s one instalment of the great story of Church versus State. They often say history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. In fact, history repeats itself again and again. In a few hundred years, another King Henry would want to exercise supreme control over the Church and again a Thomas refuses. That time, it was King Henry VIII removing Thomas More’s head who, in turn, was canonised by the Church, albeit it in 1935. King Henry VIII then turned to erase the memory of Thomas Becket who had been canonised almost immediately. St Thomas of Canterbury was the epitome of the Church standing up to the King, and taking orders from Rome.
In Canterbury Cathedral, Becket was the prime attraction. He was Patron Saint of England in all but name. Pilgrims walked hundred of miles to pay their respects and their money for Indulgences (a reduction in their time in Purgatory). One of the most famous books in the English language, The Canterbury Tales, is about a bunch of pilgrims on their way to do just that. St Thomas was box office. Henry VIII had to scratch him out of history.
But he didn’t. He couldn’t. He did his best though. We don’t really know what Thomas looked like. Few images survive. The desecration of the tomb and the destruction of the cult is still sorely felt. Listen to the audio guide if you ever visit the cathedral. They are not over it. It’s understandable.
Now, the Reformed Protestant in me wants to agree that the veneration of saints is profoundly unbiblical. Isn’t it good that people were prevented from worshipping stone statues and the bones of dead men, rather than offering their prayers to Jesus Christ? Did Christ himself not upset tables and chase away money changers from the house of God?
The Appeal of Thomas Becket
I suspect I’m not alone among English Evangelicals in thinking like this. We tend to start our church history in the 1520s with Cranmer and Tyndale. Anything that predates the break with Rome, or the placing of English Bibles in Churches, is viewed with intense suspicion. So what value can there be in studying the life of a 12thCentury Archbishop of Canterbury who had to be made a priest the day before he was consecrated as Archbishop? Can we learn anything from a man clearly parachuted into the job?
Granted, Becket was no theologian, although he learnt fast on the job. But he was no great mind like Anselm. He was also pretty hopeless at Latin. When he had to give a speech to the Pope at the Council of Tours proposing the beatification of Anselm, he had to do so in Latin and it was a little bit embarrassing, by all accounts.
Becket’s legacy is not theological. It is personal. It is incarnational. Perhaps that’s why he became such a popular figure. Back then, as now, no-one can be bothered to read even the few thousand words that comprise Magna Carta. We don’t want to grapple with the concepts of kingship and governance. But we can get our heads around an act of heroism.
Acts Speak Louder Than Words
All Christians should know that actions speak louder than words, books and doctrinal statements. And that faith without deeds is dead. When the end came for Becket, he didn’t run and hide. He refused to close the Cathedrals doors to keep out the armed knights. He went to Vespers and stood his ground. And he paid the price.
Was he naïve? Did he deserve his fate? Could he not just admit that he was wrong? Did he have a Messianic complex? Did he just want to go down in history? All excellent questions. And you can only find out the answers if you engage with the story. I hope that my new show, A Turbulent Priest, a comedy (with songs by James Sherwood) helps you do to that.
A Turbulent Priest is on at The Mayfield Fringe on May 9, The Brighton Fringe on May 10/11th and touring the UK in Sept-Nov 2019. It is also available to be booked for your church. Contact James Cary here.
Here’s something that sounds like a joke but isn’t:
When is a joke not a joke?
When it’s an April fool.
I told you it wasn’t a joke. It’s not funny. But then again, neither is April Fool’s Day. You will detect a mild note of disapprobation in my tone here. I’m not a fan of April Fool’s Day, mainly because, as you have discovered, I’m boringly technical about comedy.
Practical jokes aren’t jokes. They are pranks. They are hoaxes. Not jokes. Here’s why:
If you read the first section of The Sacred Art of Joking, you’ll know why practical jokes are not really jokes. Jokes require shared information. But if you are being pranked, either by an individual or by a national newspaper, you don’t have all the information. If you’re being pranked by a schoolboy in a black-and-white Will Hay film, you don’t know he’s put a bucket of water above the door. You aren’t in on the joke. You are part of the joke. In fact, you are the joke.
The dynamic shifts when we scale this up to a full-blown hoax. This is the favoured April Fool gag of the moment. Newspapers, radio breakfast shows and large corporations love to tell a story that is on the edge of believability but is actually pure fiction. In 2017, Emirates airline announced its triple-decker plane, complete with swimming pool, games room and park. A year earlier, the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts tweeted that Texas would start to issue its own currency. In 2014, King’s College Choir in Cambridge announced that they were replacing boys singing soprano with older men using helium instead. They produced an amusing video illustrating this.
In these cases, an enormous bucket of water is being placed on a huge doorway in order to drench an entire nation. Only the perpetrator of the hoax has all the facts. The rest of us are not in on the joke. We are all the joke. Anyone who ‘falls for it’ is the joke. And rather than getting wet, you feel foolish. How is that a joyful comic experience? The hoax then is not a joke. It’s a prank.
This is why I’m not a fan of April Fool’s Day. Thank you for reading.
For more insights into comedy and how it so easily goes wrong, especially in the realm of religion, get hold of a copy of The Sacred Art of Joking, either directly from the author (UK Only) or via Amazon UK or Amazon US.
Last time you went to church, there’s a good chance someone read a part of the Bible out loud. How did that go? Were they sight reading it? Were they trying to put some feeling into it? The odds are they were on a rota and hadn’t given it much thought. This is to be expected. We don’t have a great tradition of reading the Bible well, which is a real shame.
I write about this in the Sacred Art of Joking, and have talked about it on my Sacred Art of Joking show, which is a YouTube Channel and Podcast. You can see that below. But first, here’s a snippet from the book:
Let us take a brief step sideways into music, something that many churches, large and small, take very seriously. Cathedrals have choristers’ schools set up to provide willing voices for their choirs, under the baton of choirmasters and directors of music. Small churches might expect to pay something for the services of a trained organist. Larger, more lively churches have enormous sound desks and miles of cables plugged into multiple instruments.
They may even employ a ‘worship leader’. Other churches will make do with the expertise around them. A lot of effort and care is taken to ensure that the music in churches is as good as it can be. There is an expectation this will cost money and require trained or experienced practitioners, if not full-time staff. No one expects someone with no experience of playing the organ, piano or guitar to step forward and lead the congregation in their singing.
This is not the case with the public reading of Scripture. Reading the lesson on a Sunday morning is normally put on a rota and thought of as a job to be done, like opening up the building before the service or making the coffee afterwards. It is certainly not on a par with musical worship. Sometimes, it is thought to be a good way of involving people in the service who might otherwise feel underused.
As long as the reading of Scripture remains an after-thought in most church services, the wider Church will never rediscover the literary richness of the Bible, especially the comic themes and moments. These become obvious when you hear Scripture read extremely well, having been rehearsed and memorized and then presented with confidence. On those occasions, something remarkable happens. People laugh.
p96 The Sacred Art of Joking published by SPCK Jan 2019. Order here.
I talk about this phenomenon and how to tackle scripture another way on YouTube and in the podcast. Using the story of The Man Born Blind in John 9, I show how you can read the Bible aloud and find the jokes.
I like podcasting. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I have a big mouth, talk a lot and want people to know how clever I am. All the while I cling on to the idea that I’m an introvert. And humble. Ah well.
Maybe I like podcasting because I can’t be seen. Except now I can, because the podcast isn’t just an audio experience but a visual one. I’m doing YouTube videos that you can hear as podcasts. This is partly because podcasts are increasingly popular, but YouTube is where the debates are really happening, so I’m looking to be part of that in the future.
And what a future The Sacred Art of Joking has. There is so much to talk about. Comedy is in the news all the time. Barely a day passes without someone making a joke that goes horribly wrong, and the press react as if they don’t know what jokes are (as Jonathan Pie vigorously points out here) They should really read my book rather than the press release. If they read it, they will find a few paragraphs which I explicitly say are for journalists to read, so do look out for those.
The first brief episode is up on YouTube and is working its way through the iTunes Podcast system and will hopefully appear out the other end sooner or later. But for now, at least, the YouTube video and the podcast are identical.
In the opening show, I talk about how this book came to be, and how my interview with Ben Elton became an international news story a decade ago. I ended up on Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman. It was very exciting. I also took part in a global phone-in show on the BBC World Service called World Have Your Say along with Anjem Choudray, who argued that he had a great sense of humour. He was subsequently jailed for recruiting young people to banned radical groups, so there’s a bit of context for you there.
And that’s what it’s all about: context.
And that’s what everyone seems so determined to ignore when it comes to jokes that cause offence. But that’s arguably even more important than the joke itself, as I argue in the first part of the book. We’ll get to that material in good time. The first episode, running at a bite-sized seven minutes or so is up now. Have a look. Or a listen:
Our august parliamentarians leave the majestic home of democracy with the phrase ‘Stupid Woman’ ringing in our ears. Is it a vicious sexist slur, revealing the dark misogynistic heart of the Leader of the Opposition? Is it a Tory fabrication, mendaciously smearing the character of their political foe? Or is it merely a statement of fact?
As a voter, I don’t really care. But as a sitcom writer, I am interested.
In many ways, this tawdry political storm in a teacup is wonderfully apt end-of-act scene which neatly encapsulates so much about the last year in Westminster. As season finales go, it’s unexpected, bizarre and entirely in keeping with previous episodes.
For sitcom geeks like me, the phrases has another resonance. The chosen insult of the day is a catchphrase from another well-known and scarcely believable farce about European politics gone badly wrong, Allo Allo. The only difference is the addition of the word ‘You’.
Never a show to shy away from repetition, this phrases feature in one of those moments that was almost guaranteed to happen every week. (Computers are now intelligent enough that they could probably write an episode of Allo Allo with an algorithm) The hero of the show, Rene would be propositioned by one of his waitresses who were bafflingly in love with this overweight, aging café proprietor. Here is one such incident:
Others have probably noticed this link between Corbyn’s words and Rene’s, but have probably not been as geeky about it as I am going to be here. Why is it funny when Rene Artois says it?
On reading those very words, some may cry out that it wasn’t funny either then or now. That’s often a knee-jerk response that one has to deal with when talking about jokes. Comedy is a bit of a confidence trick and some people like to defend themselves against all such tricks by folding their arms and not playing that game. If that’s you, you can stop reading now and have a nice life. (It won’t be all that nice).
Have the killjoys now left the room? Good. We continue.
When Rene Artois says ‘You stupid woman’ it is funny. You can hear lots of people laughing. That laughter isn’t fake or canned. They thought it was funny. They did the joke week after week, so it was clearly effective and worth revisiting, which in turn made it even funnier. And up and down the UK (and Germany, I’m told), millions of people laughed along.
But why is it funny? It has good basic rhythm. That’s a start. What’s more, Edith, whose intellect is being impugned, isn’t the sharpest tool in the box. But then, in Allo Allo, no-one is. It’s a panto filled with buffoons and clowns. But that’s not really why the line is funny.
The line is funny because of the situation. Rene is trying to defend the indefensible. He is obviously making a pass at a sexy French waitress and been caught red-handed. He is about to cover his tracks with a scarcely plausible cock and bull story. The line ‘You stupid woman’ was often followed by another line like ‘Isn’t it perfectly obviously what I was doing?’ A lie is then spun, and Edith believes it. Because she is stupid. And a woman.
It does sound a bit sexist now, doesn’t it? No point in pretending otherwise, but times change. It didn’t seem quite so bad in the 1980s which was a more sexist time. And let us also bear in mind this is a 1980s depiction of France in the 1940s during wartime, which was more sexist again.
Complicated, isn’t it?
In some ways, it isn’t that complicated. You just need to understand the importance of context.
That’s the point I make in my forthcoming book, The Sacred Art of Joking. Context is crucial. It’s such an obvious point that it seems hardly worth making and yet jokes are now in the news virtually every week. Someone has said a word that is deemed unsayable ‘in any context’. They must be hounded from office or have their honorary professorship taken away. Someone did a comedy routine ten years ago and are not sufficiently ashamed of it. They must be prevented from hosting an awards ceremony. So perhaps this is a truth that is so obvious, we’ve forgotten that we actually know it.
In The Sacred Art of Joking, I make the point that the words used in a joke tell you virtually nothing about whether or not those words should have been said or not. We cannot isolate phrases and words. It just isn’t good enough.
I go on to discuss some examples in more detail, especially in the realm of religion since God-fearing can be especially humourless and prone to lose their minds at the use of certain words. Hopefully, readers will find them to be sane words, in a world that’s lost its mind.
Everyone loves a collective noun: a murmuration of starlings, a murder of crows and a parliament of owls. A group of ravens is an ‘unkindness’ or ‘conspiracy’. Why birds merit such elaborate collective nouns is beyond me.
I was reflecting on this with my dad many years ago. We were in a car and in quick succession saw two learner drivers. I wondered what a collective noun for learner drivers. My dad suggested ‘a clutch’. Nice one, dad.
You can tell I’m a writer and that I’ve been involved in the Writers Guild of Great Britain for a couple of years because I’ve gone out of my way to credit my dad for that joke. I could easily have passed that joke off as my own, but that would be wrong.
I spend a lot of time with other writers, and occasionally we wonder what a collective noun for writers should be. We usually end up with things like ‘a disappointment’ or ‘a moan’. Writers tend to be fairly nervous and shy types. Maybe it should be ‘a quiver’. (I know, Dad’s joke is better)
I’m not just a writer, but a comedy writer. (I clearly get it from my dad.) I realise that saying I’m a comedy writer is a bold claim. My writing is intended to amuse. I write mostly situation comedies (Bluestone 42 or Hut 33), along with the odd play.
When comedy writers get together, the vibe is different. The collective noun should reflect that. I would suggest the collective noun for comedy writers should be ‘a deconstruction’. After all, that’s what comedy writers do. In order to amuse, parody or satirise, we look for ways of getting our hooks into the subject matter. Pretty soon, one hook presents itself, which is to deconstruct the genre or the form.
Getting To The Point
Writers have been doing this for longer than one might think. One of the first works of fiction in modern English is The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemanby Laurence Sterne in 1759. One could call it a novel, but it’s more of a spoof memoir in which Tristram, the narrator, is clearly unable to tell the story of his own life clearly, demonstrated by the fact that the work runs to nine volumes, and he doesn’t even get to his own birth until volume 3. That’s the joke.
If you’re hungry for yet further deconstruction, watch Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in the movie version of this book called A Cock and Bull Story, about a failed attempt to turn Tristram Shandy into a movie. It’s deconstructive, self-referential heaven. Or hell, depending on your point of view.
Visual Art is just the same. For hundreds of years, and especially in the last century, artists have been asking the question ‘what even is art?’ This is the question at the heart of the long-running West End play Art by Yasmina Reza. A man called Serge buys a painting for a considerable sum. It’s white lines on a white background. It looks like a blank canvas. Serge’s friend, Marc, is furious that Serge has wasted his money on it. But he is happy with the art. Why can’t Marc be? Who says what art is anyway?
In The Sacred Art of Joking, I write about how comedy works and why it so easily goes horribly wrong. There is a myth that we all like to believe is that jokes must have rules. There has to some explanation for why Things Are Funny. But I’m not so sure.
Grand Unified Comedy
The idea of some Grand Unified Theory of comedy is an attractive idea. Our physicists persuaded tax-payers to spend billions of pounds on a Large Hadron Collider so that they could join up the laws of physics into one law that explains everything. It’s too early to tell if they’ll succeed. Some of them seem pretty confident, but then they’d have to be after coaxing all that money out of us.
Comedy doesn’t work like laws of physics and here’s why: jokes are inherently anarchic.
They tweak your nose; they ring your doorbell and run; they drop ice cubes down your back; and on some occasions, like a blinded Samson with his last gasp of supernatural strength, they bring the whole edifice crashing down around our ears. Jokes can do that. Ask the people who work at Charlie Hedbo.
Establish a joke format with some rules, and immediately a comedy writer will start doing jokes about the format, thereby undermining it and making all future jokes in that style seem rather naïve.
It’s a pity that there aren’t any comedy laws, as the media and governments seem desperate to find some way of navigating the choppy waters of jokes and offence. Every week or so, a prominent person’s Twitter feed is ransacked for any light-hearted comment that could be wilfully misunderstood before it is presented at someone who could conceivably take offence. The pointing and shrieking can then begin, until the celeb or politician in question grovels for forgiveness. (See the story of Professor Tim Hunt) We are witnessing an arms race of offence, where each victim must sound more devastated and humiliated than the last. Where will it end?
Flicking Matches in St Paul’s Cathedral
The Church should have something to offer here. Jesus made people laugh. He also deliberately caused offence. I look at numerous examples in the book. Sadly, over the centuries, the Church generally has turned the sense of humour failure into an art form, and there are various reasons for that.
A key reason is the desire of order and control. Church is serious. The Bible is serious (it isn’t, entirely, but it seems so). If people start laughing, ecclesiastical authority is apparently undermined. Telling jokes in church would be like flicking matches around in the old wooden St Paul’s Cathedral: very high risk, and entirely pointless.
The Church needs to recover Her sense of humour, and be quick to laugh, rather than scowl or burst into tears. After all, Christians regularly confess their sins. We should know our own failings and have the humility to laugh at ourselves. Only then can we be the beacons of bonhomie that our society so desperately needs.
The Sacred Art of Joking by James Cary is published by SPCK in January 2019. More information and pre-ordering options here.
Imagine you’re a Nobel prize-winning scientist.
You’re really good at science. So good, you were knighted and made a fellow of the prestigious Royal Society. You’d think you’d be most known for your big breakthrough, wouldn’t you?
In your case, you discovered a family of proteins called cyclins. Nice one! (You called them ‘cyclins’ as a joke, because you were into cycling at the time. Ha ha.)
You might hope that the vast majority of your Wikipedia page would contain a lengthy explanation of your discovery and how it teaches us a lot about the mysteries of cell division.
But no. You made a joke.
And it wasn’t a joke about cycling. It was a joke in 2015. About girls. In an improvised speech at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, you said that the trouble with having girls in the lab is that “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.”
People decided that it wasn’t funny. They either didn’t know about the context, in which you framed your comments by saying self-effacing things like “It’s strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists” and that “Science needs women, and you should do science, despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.” Or, more likely, they didn’t care.
The next day, it was decided that what you said wasn’t just unfunny but grossly offensive to anyone who wasn’t there and isn’t interested in the context. And that’s pretty much everyone.
So you were forced to resign from your position as an honorary professor with the University College London’s Faculty of Life Sciences and from the Royal Society’s Biological Sciences Awards Committee. You were reinstated to that committee a while later, but let’s face facts. You won’t be known as Sir Tim Hunt FRS, FRSE, FMedSci, MAE but ‘that guy who made that sexist joke’ for a long time.
And here’s the real kicker, and perhaps why it was so offensive. What you said is factually and scientifically true. People do fall in love with each other in the workplace, and women are much more likely to cry at criticism than men. You might think scientists and science journalists would be able to process those facts rationally and understand the joke. Apparently, they can’t.
None of this should be a surprise. It is possible to set fire to your career and reputation in the blink of an eye, or the refresh of an app. It just takes a few words and a hitting ‘send’. Roseanne Barr’s tweet about Barack Obama’s adviser Valerie Jarrett caused her successful comeback sitcom to be cancelled. That one lousy joke might have cost her tens of millions of dollars.
You don’t even have to be famous to be disembowelled by the twitchfork mob. Justine Stacco only had 170 followers when she tweeted a very dubious AIDS joke before getting on a plane to Cape Town. She thought she was among friends, but apparently not. Unaware, high in the air, she became a global sensation. Nothing could have prepared her for the whirlwind of rage that greeted her when she landed. There was even a hashtag for that moment: #HasJustineLandedYet Jon Ronson wrote about her in his book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.
And here’s the kicker for Justine Stacco. Her joke wasn’t nice, but it was considerably nicer than similar AIDS jokes in the award-winning, critically-acclaimed, Broadway smash-hit show, The Book of Mormon. But that was written by the creators of South Park and Team America: World Police, so everyone was expecting jokes in poor taste. So that makes it okay, right?
The Book of Mormon is an interesting case of how to take a joke well. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints could have had a serious sense of humour failure over this commercially-successful broadside attack on their faith. Instead, they smiled (Mormons are good at that), took it on the chin and suggested people read the real book for themselves. That was the suggestion in the adverts the church took out in the official show programme. Nice move.
This pragmatic and gracious reaction of the Mormon church is surprising because it’s so rare. Religious people are not known for their sense of humour. One immediately thinks of Mary Whitehouse counting swear words in TV sitcoms, or the painful discussion between John Cleese and Michael Palin with Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark about The Life of Brian in 1979.
More recently, consider the reaction of mainstream Christians to Jerry Springer: the Opera, which attracted over 50,000 complaints for its BBC broadcast in January 2005. Most of these were received by the Corporation before the performance was even transmitted. There was legal action and a private prosecution for blasphemy. This is not a surprise. Christians often fail to see the funny side.
All of the above is nothing compared to the reaction to cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo. The deaths of 12 people and the injury of 11 others in broad daylight on 7th January 2015 was a distressing reminder that jokes can have very serious consequences.
The Sacred Art of Joking
I’m a comedy writer. And a Christian. And I love jokes. What’s more, I think Jesus was funny. The Bible is full of comic moments, images, stories as well as a talking donkeys and bushes. Christians should be laughing more, both at themselves and the idiocy of the world around them. After all, God laughs at us (Psalm 2:4), so we might as well join in and see the funny side. (It’s pretty basic advice: When the boss laughs, you laugh.)
All this is why I’ve written a book called The Sacred Art of Joking. In it, I explain how jokes work, how they can go horribly wrong, especially in the realm of religion, and what Christians can do about it. You can pre-order a signed copy from me HERE (UK Only), or Amazon if you’d rather.
But this is the internet, so I have to write a list.
Here’s one about extreme measures you can take when navigating the potentially fatal waters of making a joke anywhere other than inside your head.
Five Rules for Making Jokes In Public
- Before you make any joke on Facebook or Twitter, assume everything you write publicly online will be available to all people across the universe for all of eternity. Seriously.
- Before you send a mean-spirited joke on a private message or email, read it back to yourself. And then imagine how it would sound when read aloud in court.
- When making an off-the-cuff speech, remember it might be recorded on someone’s phone. So think about what you’re saying and imagine how it will sound when a Newsnight presenter reads a transcript back to you in the least funny way possible, in front of a member of a lobby group who is professionally offended. How’s that speech looking now?
- If you go ahead with the joke, and it causes wide-spread offence, and your motives were good, consider not apologising. An apology will never be enough for the twitchfork mob. They don’t really care about the joke. They are lonely keyboard warriors looking for someone to bully. And the pundits are using you to virtue-signal for their own ends. It’s not about you. It never was.
- If you’re a celeb or a politician and you torch your career with a joke, there’s always I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.
This list sounds drastic. But it’s actually excellent advice.
But you won’t follow it. And nor will I, because we instinctively know how important jokes are. They are too precious to be handed to the shrieking mob and the Thought Police. We were made for jokes. We were made for joy. We were made for laughter by the God who laughs. So Keep Joking, Carry On and Buy My Book.
I will also be performing part of the one-man show based on the book at The Museum of Comedy in Bloomsbury, alongside Paul Kerensa and Simon Jenkins, on 19th October at 6.30pm. Come on down! You can hear a sample of The Sacred Art of Joking show here.
Did you hear the one about the preacher who wanted to be funny? James Cary looks at the downsides of starting sermons with jokes.
A basic rule of preaching seems to be that no matter how long your sermon is, you’re allowed to take up a minute or two at the start telling a joke.
Sometimes it’s an anecdote snipped from a local newspaper, or a personal story about a humorous calamity. Maybe it’s a holiday disaster, or a funeral that went hilariously wrong. Ideally, that joke should, in some way be linked to the text or topic of the sermon. But the overall intention of that comic introduction is to do one thing: get a laugh.
This is a problem.
Why? Am I just being too hard on jokes? I’m a professional comedy writer and have been since, well, I failed to get any other job. Normally in a church context, aversity to jokes isn’t associated with professional pride or comedy snobbery. It’s normally down to an over-inflated sense of holiness. Being down on jokes in church makes one sound like Jorge, from Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose.He was a monk who (NB: spoilers) was prepared to murder and set fire to a whole precious library in order to suppress laughter, given that nowhere in the Bible does it say that Christ laughed.
Jorge may be misguided, but his point cannot be denied. In the gospels we see Christ being angry, hostile, sad and enigmatic. But laughing? No. Is it that comedy has no place in the pulpit? Is it un-Christlike to tell jokes?
By no means! True, there is no ‘Jesus laughed’ verse, there are many verses in which Jesus says things which can only really be described as jokes. The most obvious examples would be his use of hyperbole with specks and planks in the eye, and swallowing camels. This is undoubtedly intentionally comic.
The Comedy of Jesus
From there, is not much of a leap to imagine Jesus impersonating the Pharisees who twist their faces with hunger in their public show of fasting. One can also imagine gasps and sniggers as Jesus called his powerful haters ‘vipers’ and ‘whitewashed tombs’.
Was Jesus a comedian? Perhaps, in the sense that he didn’t laugh at his own jokes. That’s bad form. But no, Jesus wasn’t a comedian. But he used comedy. And he was funny. His very incarnation as the God-Man is inherently comic, for reasons I go into in my forthcoming book and hint at here. But to present Jesus as a comedian would be going too far.
Even so, the pulpit should not be a laughter-free zone. So what’s the problem with starting sermons with jokes? After all, if you want to reach your audience, you have to show you have a sense of humour, right? We Brits think it’s important not to take ourselves too seriously. Comedy is now a common currency on television, radio and even the realm of politics. Boris Johnson, for example, has side-stepped numerous political storms thanks to well-turned comic turns of phrase. And a willingness to look like an ass.
Comedy is regularly used in teaching, to make it more fun and memorable. My children now know an awful lot about history because it’s presented in comic form in Horrible Histories books and TV shows. Comedy is the lingua franca.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that the sermon is a culturally very odd phenomenon. When does one listen to one person speaking uninterrupted for 15-30 minutes? For most people, the only other time they would do that would be watching a stand-up comedy set, either live or on TV. Isn’t it helpful to nod towards that in sermon, making it more palatable for the average Joe in the pew?
Given that comedy is everywhere, it should be no surprise then, that lots of people don’t enjoy speaking in public, including gifted preachers. It’s because they feel that they have to be funny. That’s what the people want, and that’s what they mostly get from the culture. The pressure is on. (This is why there is a secret speechwriting industry.)
Getting a Laugh
The desire to start a sermon with a joke and get a laugh, then, is entirely understandable. But it is misplaced. A congregation who spend their whole week listening to secular radio and watching secular television are hungry for God’s word. Surely, every second of the sermon should be trying to give them just that? Why waste time on indulging in jokes?
Many preachers long to preach for more than their allotted time, bemoaning the attention span of the average Christian. What preacher doesn’t long to share the riches of the scriptures with the assembled faithful for longer? So why do the same people cheerfully give away a couple of minutes of their limited time for a bit of Songs-of-Praise-meets-Live At The Apollo? Is this time well spent?
In a few cases, it might be. A joke at the start of the sermon may be entirely pertinent to the sermon, and lines up exactly with the main point being made. But. Any preacher with their hand on their heart will know that is rarely the case. They might find themselves telling a joke about a disastrous wedding, and then say ‘Well, the wedding in our passage in John 2 went wrong, but in a very different way.’ The gulf between the anecdote and the passage of scripture has been made, and mostly people didn’t spot the join, or even see the need for one. But we should be able to do better than that.
The desire to use comedy in a sermon is not a bad one. All techniques and forms of rhetoric should be employed in the preaching of the Word, as the text or the topic demands. The preacher should use humour as well as changes of pace and pitch, dramatic pauses, emotional appeals and stark warnings. Some of these techniques fit better with different personality types. A naturally serious preacher probably will not tell jokes well, but used sparingly and carefully jokes can be very surprising and effective. Likewise, a naturally comic speaker can make good use of silence and seriousness as a counterpoint.
Never Preach Like Your Heroes
When preachers aspire to preach like their heroes, they are in danger of becoming clones of that hero. Perhaps it might not seem so bad to have 500 cloned Spurgeons or Whitefields, or even a dozen Evangelical Frank Skinners. But preachers are to preach using the gifts and abilities they have been given, not to seek to ape the gifts of others. Moreover, every preacher has been placed in a specific pastoral situation. There’s no point trying to preach like much-renowned Manhattan church planter, Tim Keller, in a rural Devon parish or the Highlands of Scotland. In fact, it would be wrong to do so. This would be either misusing your gifts or disrespecting your congregation by speaking in a language that’s broadly alien to them – for your own satisfaction.
Telling jokes is a little bit like importing someone else’s rhetorical style. A joke works for the comedian who wrote it, and for his or her audience in a secular setting on a Saturday night, but it is likely to be inappropriate when copied, pasted and then retold in church on a Sunday morning in a sermon about the Wedding at Cana. It’s not that it’s not funny. Lots of jokes are funny in many contexts. It’s that it’s inauthentic. It’s fake. The preacher is not giving of themselves and their gifts in pointing their congregation in their care towards Jesus Christ. The preacher is telling a joke. Why?
Why not? Maybe the odd joke here or there is fine, but here’s what happens when you do it a lot. If one consistently imports comedy one will eventually persuade the congregation that God’s word is not surprising, vibrant and comic, when it is all of those things. The Bible is not a dull book that needs to be jazzed up with some jokes.
Why tell a passable wedding joke you found on the internet when the story in John 2 is already inherently comic? Because John 2 probably won’t seem so in your Sunday service. This is for a variety of reasons. One is that your congregation might be very familiar with the story, and therefore any kind of comic surprise evaporated years ago. The bizarre events of that wedding could be re-presented much more humorously if the passage is read aloud with feeling and empathy.
The Public Reading of Scripture
The chances are, however, the lesson was read at best mechanically or audibly by someone with no desire, training or encouragement to do the task well. Reading from the lectern is often seen as a way of ‘involving people in the service’. You wouldn’t let anyone lead the music on this basis. It seems odd to allow God’s word to be treated in this way.
Bear in mind that scripture is a script. For most people in history, scripture was not something they absorbed in private study, but was read aloud, even on one’s own. The Bible doesn’t need rewriting to be dramatised. It is already dramatic, as well as inspired by God. Beat that. Scripture just needs reading properly. This takes time, preparation and effort. But reading scripture aloud well will often surprise a congregation. What always strikes people when this happens is how funny the Bible is.
Meanwhile, In Cana
Read the wedding story in John Chapter 2 with fresh eyes. Jesus’s mother drags him into this embarrassing situation. He says that his time has not yet come. Mary completely ignores this and tells the servants to do whatever he says. Thanks, mum. They fill the jars with water as instructed even though they must have thought Jesus was mad. Only in recent times has water been fit for human consumption. And since when did water just become wine? That’s not how it works. And to make matters worse, some poor fellow has to take some of this water to the master of the banquet. In a cup. To drink. He would be cringing as it is tasted. At best, he will have the water spat into his face. Why is Jesus asking him to do this? It’s insane, surely? Imagine the sigh of relief and euphoria when it is revealed that the water has become wine.
Why not talk about this in a sermon, rather than scrabbling around for jokes written by someone else about weddings that look nothing like the one in John 2? Even stories about your own wedding, or weddings you’ve attended, are of limited value. Why not marvel at the true events of the wedding in Cana, which point to the great wedding feast of Christ and his bride, the church?
If we take the text of the Bible seriously, we will find all kinds of humourous, incongruous and bizarre moments. Expectations are confounded. Down is up. Black is white. The blind are given their sight and forced to explain themselves to the spiritually blind religious people. Jesus proves his power over death by calling Lazarus from the tomb, and the priests and scribes decide it would be best to kill him. Why replace all this with a joke about a life-long golfer at the pearly gates or what happens when three men walk into bar? The Bible contains stories about the Supreme Being walking into a world. Why not start with that one?
James Cary has written a book about comedy and religion for SPCK called The Sacred Art of Joking. You can buy a signed copy of the book directly from the author here here. (UK Only). Or via Amazon UK HERE and Amazon USA here.
You can listen to James talk to Barry Cooper and Glen Scrivener about this on the Cooper and Cary Have Words podcast.