Friday, October 25, 2013

Let Them All Laugh

Back in March of 2012 we had a three part series on The Mark of Excellence, and in the very last article I made the argument that for a book to be good, it must have humor. Humor gives hope, and any book without hope is neither very uplifting, nor very Christian.

Humor, whether or not the author is a Christian, or the character is a Christian, gives us a breath of assurance that someone can see the silver lining, the rainbow, the happy ending. In Christ, we Christians have a happy ending. And we should live in the hope of a happy ending, with a smile on our faces and a joyful word on our lips. Humor is essential in an excellent book because it gives us hope for the future.
It is only a godless man, and a godless story, that has no hope. ~The Mark of Excellence, Part 3
But a few paragraphs doesn't do justice to the beauty of humor in stories, and so today I wanted to delve a little more into the subject of comedy in books. The different types of comedy, the standards that we as Christians should have in reading comedic materials, and the purpose that the 'comic relief' serves in a story.

The Importance of Comedy

You see, every story in some form or another deals with darkness. There would be no conflict without sin, no character growth without lack of character in the first place, no victory if there were not something to fight against. And when we read of darkness, we are reminded of our separation from the Lord's perfect peace. If an author merely wrote of the darkness, we as the reader would be left in the hopeless consequences of the character's wrong choices, or the abuse that they received at the hands of others. And that's why we need humor throughout the plot.

For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning. ~Psalm 30:5

This is the principle humor illustrates. Though the characters are fighting against sin and sorrow, joy should always come in the morning. Humor gives us hope that joy is coming.

Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” Psalm 126:2

By the end of the story, whether or not the author is explicitly Christian, the reader should be able to draw the theme 'the Lord has done great things for them, to bring them out of their troubles'. With the end of trouble comes a return of joy and laughter.

In book form, the return of joy and laughter is often put in the hands of a certain character, that is responsible for giving life and joy to the characters during their darkness. So first let's explore the comedic character, and then we'll take a look at different types of humor.

The Comic Relief
A comic relief is the fancy writer's term for 'the person that makes everybody laugh'. As soon as they come in the room you have an expectant smile on your face, waiting for them to crack a joke. And generally everybody loves the comic relief. They make us smile, they lighten our spirits, and they lighten the spirits of the main character.

You don't kill your comic relief, some people claim. If you do, you kill your breath of fresh air, and your source of hope. Even in the darkness the characters are clinging to at least one person who can see the sun above the clouds. Whether or not authors should actually kill their comic relief is an arguable point, I suppose, but if they do, or if they kill the character's sense of humor, then they absolutely must create a new comic relief to lighten the mood.

It's only fair to us as readers. We can't be so emotionally distraught wrecks that we can barely get to the next chapter. For lack of a literary example, take the Kendrick brothers' film Courageous. When they were plotting out the scenes, they have one very tragic plot line. They marked the sad scenes with one color and the happy scenes with another, and realized that all the sad scenes were grouped together with no comedic relief. So they mixed them up a little more, by giving their comic relief characters a few more scenes. And you really get that balance when you watch the movie. When we're reading books, we can sense when the author cracks a joke to give us some relief from the tension, and we grasp at it, because if they can crack a joke, then obviously not everything is as bad as we thought it was. This is the vital role that the comic relief character plays.

Now if a book is out of balance in this area, it certainly isn't wrong from a biblical or principle standpoint. It's okay to read books that are bleak and tragic messes from midpoint to the final climax, if you so desire, though I would argue that such books don't present an accurate portrayal of hope and redemption as set forth in Scripture. But the ideal book that follows biblical story-telling format, inserts 'beats' or 'scenes' of hope. And these 'beats' of hope most likely come from a specific character.

But the comic relief isn't always the droll joke-cracker. Sometimes joking just doesn't fit with the story mood. So if an author can't use slapstick, does that mean there can't be any humor? Absolutely not. The comedic relief can use a couple of different types, and we're going to look at them below.

Types of Comedy
Obviously there are many different kinds of humor and we can't cover all of them, but we'll look at a few that most often appear in books.

Banter. This type of humor often takes a subject that two characters disagree on, and makes them go back and forth to the great amusement of the audience. See where the source of disagreement and darkness can be turned to a source of laughter? Often found among siblings in families, you'll find this type in a lot of children's lit, and in stories where two unlikely partners become good friends over the course of time.

Risqué is what most people think of when they see the work 'comedy', unless you're a period drama fan, in which case you think of irony. Risqué humor makes crude jokes and sex inferences, and you can't read a strictly comedic book without finding some of this kind.

Dry/Ironic/Sarcasm is generally a statement that means the exact opposite, and is intended to crush the person the character is talking to. Only to be used carefully, and sparingly, but it can be used to good effect.  Take Mr. Palmer in Sense and Sensibility. He's always saying crushing remarks to his wife (at least in the 90s movie) and the whole audience is howling. More on this kind of humor in a moment.

Parody. Parody takes something and basically makes fun of it, by creating a ridiculous or exaggerated picture of the object under discussion. One rising young authoress recently took the opening scene of Pride and Prejudice and successfully created a homeschool version of the conversation, which illustrates the principles of parody in a brilliant manner. You can find that parody here.

Slapstick makes a huge joke out of mock, exaggerated violence, or people getting hurt. I can't think of any books at present that illustrate this, but most of the Goblin town scenes in Peter Jackson's new adaptation of The Hobbit could safely be called slapstick. Slapstick is also highly evident in most Disney films. If my readers can think of any books, I would love to know! Since slapstick is my least favorite type of comedy besides risqué, I'm sure that explains my lack of examples, as I generally avoid that sort of thing.

If you want to study many more types of humor, the articles here and here can further your researches. :)

Humor in Scripture
You find a lot of humor in Scripture. Actually, Scripture is full of irony and sarcasm, and the more you read it, the more you find it. Specifically in the book of Job. When I read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation one year, I got to read the whole book of Job at once, and I wondered what was wrong with me. Every day I found myself laughing again and again. The sarcasm is rich and plentiful. And this illustrates a concept we were talking about earlier. The darkness of struggle and suffering must be counterbalanced by humor, for humor gives hope.
Job illustrates that the greatest pain and the greatest humor often go hand in hand. He lost everything: his children, his servants, his possessions, his health. He has done nothing to deserve this, and what's more, he's been dubiously blessed with three self-righteous friends to show him what he did wrong. He's wrestling with his theological knowledge about God, and trying to make it reconcile with his sufferings. But throughout the story of Job you'll find humor, specifically in irony. In chapter 11 Zophar gives a harsh tirade on Job's wickedness, and finally offers a sop of comfort, saying that if he puts it away then he'll regain the life he lost. And Job's response in 12:1? No doubt you are the people, and wisdom will die with you." What a one-liner! And there are plenty more where that came from. Several times in the Scriptures where a person or nation is at their darkest moment, there will be someone to give a breath of laughter. Most often this happens in irony and sarcasm.

People hope when they laugh. Somehow, no matter what we are going through, we recognize that laughter is meant to be a good thing, and a gift from God.

Safeguards of Comedy
When we're evaluating humor in the books we read, we have to set standards based on Scripture. Granted, we don't have to be a bunch of strait-laced dolefuls, but when it comes down to it, if we take seriously the mandate in Scripture to hate what the Lord hates, than we must be very careful not to excuse inappropriate or hurtful humor just because "it's funny". Ephesians 5:3-4 says "But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving." And though filthy humor and sexy jokes can be funny, they are humorous to our flesh, and not the kind of humor we should be indulging in as Christians. Humor should not use questionable things to make people laugh. It must be appropriate, and as Ephesians says, 'sexual immorality and all impurity must not even be named among you.' Instead of laughing, we should be grieved when things that God calls sin are mocked, or good gifts He has given us are trampled and made light of.

Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. ~Ephesians 5:7-11

The goal of biblical humor in all books is not to gratify the lusts of the flesh, but to give hope. Hope of happy endings, hope of victory, and hope of Christ. When humor follows correct guidelines in the books we read, then we are given an accurate portrayal of the way the Lord works. He never leaves us to despair, but restores joy and laughter after the night of darkness.  That should be the type of humor we look for in the books we read.

What are your favorite books to make you laugh?

Lady Bibliophile


  1. I love humor in books! It brought to mind Nehusta in Pearl Maiden. Very dry sarcasm. ;)
    The Silver Chair is a good example of banter. They were just going around and around through the whole book. :P
    I agree, Job has some of the best one-liners!

    1. Oo! Nehushta! I loved her humor so much, even though I did gasp once or twice. And The Silver Chair, another good example. And they married each other so they could go on arguing with more convenience...

      Good additions, Sister!

      Love and cuddles,

  2. I don't know how I managed it, but somehow I missed this whole article when you posted it.
    This: "If they kill the character's sense of humor, then they absolutely must create a new comic relief to lighten the mood. It's only fair to us as readers. We can't be so emotionally distraught wrecks that we can barely get to the next chapter."
    Words of wisdom. ; )
    I also think that restoring the said character's sense of humor is a wonderful idea, in the event that the damage is not irreparable.

    ~The Philologist

    P.S. If you read between the lines you may find traces of a broken heart....

    1. Words of wisdom. ;) And I like to practice what I preach, never fear.

      Restoration is wonderful, whenever possible....

      Is that a hint? ;)

      My heart is broken, too.... It still makes me give a little shivery gasp every time I think about it.



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