When Is It Okay to Joke?

The ability to laugh, we know, is vital. To do so in the midst of terror and anxiety is even more important. The following excerpt is from an essay titled "Joking With God in a Fragile World," by University of Chicago professor Wendy Doniger. It's published in Walking With God in a Fragile World, a collection of original pieces by spiritual writers and theologians reflecting on their relationship with God in these uncertain times.

We may make terror tolerable by looking it in the eye and joking about it. By joking we reframe the episode in our own terms, transforming it from a passive suffering thrust upon us into an active response to the world; we take possession of it by retelling it in terms that the perpetrator could not.... gallows humor is designed precisely to uncover the naked truth, however painful that flaying may be. Terry Southern reported a conversation he had with Stanley Kubrick about Dr. Strangelove, in which Kubrick told him that he was going to make a film about "our failure to understand the dangers of nuclear war." He said that he had thought of the story as a "straightforward melodrama" until one morning when he "woke up and realized that nuclear war was too outrageous, too fantastic, to be treated in any conventional manner." He said he could only see it now as "some kind of hideous joke."...

After September 11, many people whose initial, quite understandable disinclination was never to get into an airplane again, overcame that nervousness by saying, to themselves and others, "If we stop flying, they win." This formulaic statement became so common that Chicago's Second City comedy troupe developed a sketch in which a "clay arts" teacher insists to his depressed class, "If we don't glaze our pottery today, they win," while the producers of Fox's MADtv rejected a stronger version about "sleazy lawyers declaring that they should defy terrorists by living their lives normally and so it was their patriotic duty to sue their mothers." I want to say, if we stop laughing at our own tragedies, they win. But if we can laugh at ourselves in the face of the humorless bullies on both sides of the war, then, as the little boy rightly remarks at the end of Life is Beautiful, "We won." To do this is to say, "Your grim, humorless world is not going to destroy our fragile world of self-mockery. We can still mock ourselves, and you. You are not going to get us. We win." The situation is hopeless but not serious, and, if war is play, peace is all that is serious.

From Walking With God in a Fragile World, edited by James Langford and Leroy Rouner. © 2003. Reprinted with permission from Roman & Littlefield.

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