“If it bends, it’s funny. If it breaks, it’s not funny.”
I saw Woody Allen’s 1989 film “Crimes and Misdemeanors” while I was in college, some years after it was released. The movie was required viewing for a drama class I took to fill an arts requirement, attended with little interest but likely with a hangover.
Alan Alda’s film producer character sits on a New York City park bench and explains comedy — how the crowds and stress and suffering of urban life will drive anyone crazy, but that’s where all the humor begins — the whole bending/breaking idea. You just need to get some space from all the madness in order to find the funny. Then there was the line: “Comedy is tragedy plus time.”
Something snapped in my foggy freshman brain. Hawkeye had a point. While comedy is not quite as cut-and-dry (or insensitive) as the simple “tragedy plus time” equation, there is something there. I let out a loud guffaw at this scene, and noticed my professor wheel his head around, a satisfied smirk on his bearded face.
That professor, an erudite and quirky Dominican friar who wore a cape and a beret over his white habit, wanted us to take note of this scene. This was the lesson. What is comedy? What makes something funny? Beyond events occurring when or where they are not expected (take that beret and cape, for instance), there is another piece.
And who knows suffering better than anyone?
(Well, I think Jews might have a run at this one, Buddhists too, but I’m neither Jewish nor Buddhist so I can’t speak with any authority to that point.)
I know what you’re thinking, “What is funny about suffering?” On its face, nothing. But time, in addition to wrinkles and incontinence, doles out a hefty dose of perspective, and with the perspective comes detachment — the gateway to humorville. Here is an admittedly facile example: vomiting in the middle of fifth grade social studies class — mortifying in the moment, but hilarious some years later.
Tragedy plus time — bada-bing, bada-boom.
So why are Catholics more susceptible to suffering? Well, if you grew up Catholic, you probably don’t need me to answer that. It’s not so much a susceptibility but a willing participation in its inevitability, a preparedness or an expectation that through suffering comes clarity, experiential wisdom and a closeness with God — a been-there-done-that sort of authoritative boo-hooing. It also helps that Catholicism happens to have an extensive “to do” and “not to do” list in regard to sin. The “not to do’s” tend to be sort of fun, easy and enticing, and the “to do’s” are considerably harder and more joyless (initially). So if you’re good at honoring the list, you’re probably not doing much of the fun stuff, ipso facto you’re suffering. Yes, I know, just in the here and now.
I recently learned of St. Lawrence. He is known and revered as a particularly quick-witted and funny man, a nice foil to his piety as a steward to the poor and needy and a martyr of the early Church. As the story goes, the greedy prefect of Rome demanded that St. Lawrence, a deacon, hand over all the treasures of the Church. St. Lawrence, bearing a shrewd sense of irony, presented to the prefect a mass of the city’s sick and poor. Zing. The prefect was not amused and sentenced St. Lawrence to death — a particularly slow and cruel method of roasting him over a fire.
As St. Lawrence burned, he joked: “Turn me over, I’m done on this side.” And at the moment before he died, he said, “I’m cooked enough now.”
Now that’s funny. Sad, yes, but pretty funny.
He’s not alone among funny saints, and there are extensive studies into humor laced throughout the Bible. St. Lawrence experienced the tragedy-plus-time theory at warp speed, with the ecstasy of martyrdom and the promise of Heaven enough of a consolation prize to keep him cracking jokes. This guy got it.
He was also no slouch in the brain department. Consider it — Catholicism is confusing. It demands a great deal of research, reading, questioning, reflecting, thinking in tandem with faith. It demands that we “discern,” a word that always scared me a little because it sounds so much like “concern.” To discern is to recognize, to realize, to make a decision based upon some hand-wringing, head-banging, lofty precepts and ideas. Catholicism doesn’t let us off easy, ever. It forces us to do some serious noggin using. And honest-to-God funny people are always smart, well read and analytical. So if you do a lot of smart people stuff, there is a greater chance of being funny. This is philosophical syllogism at work: not all smart people are funny, but all funny people are smart.
So many great comedy writers, actors, storytellers and impersonators are either Catholic or fallen away Catholics (they count, too), and that is not a coincidence. In order to be that funny, one must have keen powers of perception and mimicry, an ability to relay events and details in a way that trump that of mere observation. There’s a certain intimacy with the human condition that one must possess in order to harness that skill, and such intimacy is gleaned through experience. Suffering is often the byproduct of that experience — be it a mild inconvenience or out-and-out bad news.
But it’s not all fasting and hairshirts. Catholicism doesn’t break us, it bends us, contorting our minds and bodies in a way that is difficult and painful, but ultimately yielding an enlightened perspective — a higher perch where we can view the goings on of the world. Beyond the tragedy and the ascetes’ pursuit of knowledge is something even more unique to Catholicism: joy. Humor, as St. Lawrence taught us, is born through having that bird’s eye view of humanity from which we can see the end to the suffering. We may hurt now but we know there’s an end to it, and for that we are joyful. And what do joyful people do?