Humor: Engaging with Mirrors

Sue Browning
Minister, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Easton


When I was young my family moved often. Entering a new school, I’d need to find my place and I wanted to be around kids who made me laugh. To have a chance, and for me it was never about entry into the cool group, (as measured by, you know, the standard for cool groups) I needed a few back-pocket jokes. I had three.

How do you get 4 elephants into a Volkswagen?

2 in the front and 2 in the back

Why do elephants have trunks?

Because they would look silly with glove compartments.

How can you tell that an elephant has been in your fridge?

By the footprints in the butter.

I’d throw them into the mix of conversation when timing seemed about right. With luck I could then hang back and laugh with others who also liked corny sitcoms and telling funny stories about their day or family.

Humor can be about entrée and welcome. In his book “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life” author Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest, (and grounded voice in today’s times) finds, “Perhaps the easiest way to get people to feel at home is to make them laugh. You know a social gathering is successful, and people feel at home, when laughter breaks out.”

We laugh and release stress. It’s a biological and emotional release – right down to blood vessels letting more blood flow – a rush.

To feel whole, laughter and humor need a place in our lives.

Good humor can help us look at ourselves, imperfections and all, and offer back a reflection that is both gentle and honest; a reflection we want to smile back at. Humor is a mirror of sorts.

And like mirrors, humor needs to be used with care.

Our need for actual glass mirrors is low. We need to check for spinach or seeds between our teeth before we leave the house. Not going here for catalog perfect, but a basic grooming check. We need car mirrors help us check traffic behind and around us. And dentists need those little ones.

At times mirrors have other roles. We talk to ourselves at the mirror. “What am I going to focus on today?” … “Am I ready for the world?” Pep talks. Reality checks. Like mirrors, humor can help us filter reality, keep us stay alert and remind us of our need for joy.

At times mirrors can amplify what we don’t want to focus on. Mirrors can be overdone, say too many of them placed at all the wrong angles. Like mirrors, humor can be tricky. We don’t all laugh at the same things. Humor is nuanced with inner codes and risk. From puns and riddles, to satire and sarcasm, to irony and caricature, interpretation is required.

In college my formula for making friends was about the same as my childhood approach, though I’d branched out from dependable elephant jokes. I’d laugh at Polish jokes, and would tell them. I’d laugh at ‘Your Mama’ jokes and had a few to tell.  In order to fit in, this seemed to work.

A few years out of college I learned (much to my embarrassment) that Polish jokes were wrong. Unlike elephant jokes, they played on stereotypes, sustained hierarchies, were not welcoming, or enlightening. As I learned how offensive these jokes were, I remember initially pushing back – surely these were just funny jokes? Then I got it.

There are lines that need to be drawn in humor.

There are lines that need to be drawn in our lives.

These last weeks as an American have been unsettling. I say ‘unsettling’ not as partisan commentary, and not as an ‘anything-not-done-my-way is wrong’ kind of reaction.

My observation is a spiritual and emotional one. This sense of feeling unsettled seems shared by many – and it seems in the rare with so many are unsettled at one time.

Reflect on your body, your thoughts. How has your soul been these last few weeks?

I’ve heard folks say they are distressed, at-a-loss, confused, angry, and even resigned. I’ve heard from those (at both ends of the spectrum) who energized and determined. Some are elated. It’s a time of high emotion that I sense will go down as a pivotal time in the history of this nation.

If ‘unsettled’ is a word that fits for you, what have you noticed about yourself? Anything you are doing more of? Less of? Any changes in course?

(If unsettled isn’t the word for you, what would be a word to describe your state of being these las weeks?)

For me, a unique reaction has been to late night comedy talk shows. I’m a regular watcher – a 40 year watcher of SNL, and the Tonight Show and others.

I’ve laughed some, but find myself more frequently turning shows off. The stand-up and sketches are no longer to just be teasing out a few funny strands about the personalities and actions of more-or-less earnest, fumbling public figures and their imperfections –  like the Hillary Clinton skits, or jokes about George Bush, or even Dick Cheney.

Familiar comedians are still doing what they’ve always done: naming current events of the day, finding succinct words to summarize issues, and pointing out absurdities, inconsistencies and creating caricatures of public figures. For them, the material is there. I’m just not.

In the past, it’s been easy to feel ‘in’ with the jokes, even brave. In front of TV, at home on the couch, was sort of like having made it at the lunch table. Some mirrors held up to myself as a white, middle-class woman – funny and true. Some relaxation before bed, and a few new ideas.

Of late, political humor feels less relaxing. It’s tapping deeper into real fears. When the humor is about the realities of exclusion, torture, and access to the most basic of services AND when the underlying systems we trust for debating complex issues feel askew, somewhere between being disregarded and abused, it’s humor that leaves folks nervously laughing with fears heightened, and hope curtailed. It just isn’t as funny.

The chance to laugh is still there, with a big ‘BUT’ following. The balance feels off.

How many here watch Big Bang Theory? It’s a comedy where young scientists are negotiating the real world of relationships. Lately I’m connecting with Sheldon. Sheldon knows he’s incapable of reliability ‘getting’ humor, so when he’s ribbed by loving friends he asks, “That was sarcasm, right?” And from there he spells out the direct meaning of the comment or joke.

I’m finding direct communication rather than political humor is more helpful to describe our unsettledness. Frank, non-hyperbolic discussion feels more useful. Hearing individuals views articulated in the first person feels helpful. It’s not a time for ‘Others are saying” or “others may be offended by …” but rather a time for owning our views: “I’m offended by …” … “I’m actually ok with…” … “Yesterday I felt ….”

We’re called to honesty and direct communication, even in our unsettled-ness. Not all views in this, or in other communities, will match. And we need to share.

Humor can be a convenient a place to duck under the covers, when we’re in a time when anything but ducking under the covers is warranted. Author Parker Palmer considers this dilemma,

“Afraid that our inner light will be extinguished or our inner darkness exposed, we hide our true identities from each other. In the process, we become separated from our own souls. We end up living divided lives, so far removed from the truth we hold within that we cannot know the “integrity that comes from being what you are.” ”

When humor affirms our integrity it may be helpful in our national discourse.

What is helping you? As we adjust our filters for unsettled times, what is helpful? What is shifting?

A recent New York Times article (The Smothers Brothers: Laughing at Hard Truths, Feb. 3, 2017, David Banculli) reflected upon ways the Smothers Brothers used humor to challenge leadership and to impact the national conversation in the late 1960s.

At the time, critical issues, particularly regarding the war in Viet Nam, were not being raised in accessible ways to the public. The Smothers Brothers used humor as an entrée to engagement.

Even running against Bonanza on Sunday nights, ratings for the Smothers Brothers soared. With Pat Paulsen and Steve Martin appearing, younger viewers watched. Censors panicked. A pioneering format of humor took hold.

Yet, even the turmoil from late 1960s was different that circumstances today. Consider this dynamic described in the NYT article,

“Lyndon Johnson, too, had been enraged by the [Smother Brother’s] barbs. But when he announced on March 31, 1968, that he would not seek re-election, the dynamic between the president and the brothers shifted substantially.

Tom Smothers recalled being so stunned by Johnson’s TV address that he wrote him a letter, saying that he disagreed with him on the Vietnam War, but was impressed by his other accomplishments and wanted to thank him.

Johnson responded with a letter that Dick read on the last episode.

“It is part of the price of leadership of this great and free nation,” Johnson wrote, “to be the target of clever satirists. You have given the gift of laughter to our people. May we never grow so somber or self-important that we fail to appreciate the humor in our lives.” ”

Life and death issues were at stake then. Humor was serving as a mirror to a nation, and somehow opened doors. Johnson was a leader, who at times had thin skin. Yet, we as Americans likely sensed (sensed well before he penned this letter) that he was a person operating within a system – pushing the limits of the system to achieve his plan to be sure, but operating within the system. He did self-reflect, and had at least considered the impact (and price) of self-importance.

We are in different times. Our filters will need to shift and reposition to find our footing in unsettled times.

What mirrors are needed? What helps us be a loving, caring, mind-opening, open-minded, justice-bearing spiritual community in unsettled times?

Together we will work through this.

Part of the work will be to remind one another that there is joy at the foundation of life. Joy at times is not laugh-out-loud humor, but a sense of appreciation for the essence of life. Joy that is grounded in that which makes us smile, and laugh, and that claims gratitude and a future belief that good is possible.

We come together to connect to the world, to each other, and to our deepest selves. Serious topics are around us, yet in that search for a sense of wholeness at the foundation there needs to be joy.

If for you humor is a tool that helps ground you in an unsettled world, ask, Is it humor that keeps us humble? Is it humor that gives us courage (they can both be true)? Is it humor that encourages direct communication? Is it humor that opens our minds?

If a few elephant jokes (or sitcoms) help remind us of joy and laughter, great. If we take down a few judgmental mirrors in our redecorating and feel more settled, great.

Here’s where I sense humor is at its best: When humor points toward the possible. Father James Martin finds “good humor is always informed by love.” Humor that mocks, or brings sadness or excludes carries a heavy price. Ask when humor is used to denigrate or offer indirect dissent, would direct communication be better? Ask how might humor and direct communication be woven together to create a more loving and joyful world?

In these next weeks and months as we find grounding and purpose in unsettled times, may we hone all tools – including humor – that lift up our values: Tools that sharpen compassion for ourselves and one another. Tools that amplify our belief in generosity and welcome. Tools which strengthen our commitment to open processes for decision making, even the most difficult of issues.

In it all, may we laugh often; may we care deeply; and may we act with conviction, always in the name of love.

May It Be So


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