Dear Easter People,
Think about the last time you laughed heartily at a joke, a story, or something you witnessed. What made it funny? Was it the timing? The surprise? The absurdity? And do you think that what you found funny was equally hysterical to others?
Those are the kinds of questions addressed in a wonderful book titled The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner. They are researchers and journalists who traveled 91,000 miles, across five continents, conducting experiments to answer this basic question:
What is humor?
Essentially, their theory for defining humor is called “benign violation.” Something is humorous when it
1) violates an expectation,
2) does so in a benign way, and
3) does so simultaneously.
In other words, we find something funny when it is wrong, unsettling, or threatening, but at the same time seems safe and harmless.
Consider these examples:
- Someone tells you a joke: “Why don’t you ever see elephants hiding in trees? Because they’re really good at it.” (A violation, because it tricks you with a twist. But it’s benign, because it deals with an absurd scenario.)
- Or this joke: “Why did the monkey fall out of the tree?” (A violation to the monkey) Answer: “Because it was dead.” (Benign, because no actual monkeys were harmed in the telling of this joke.)
I decided to put McGraw and Warner’s theory to the test with a clergy colleague, who recently told me this joke:
Did you hear the one about the cannibal that ate a Jewish Rabbi, a Baptist Preacher, and a Methodist Pastor? Later, he had an ecumenical movement.
I laughed at that one for days. It was a violation, of course, because the idea of a cannibal eating anyone is pretty horrifying, and the topic of excretion is fairly unsettling. But it was also benign because it is a fictitious story, and because the new association with ecumenicalism makes the unsavory ideas of cannibalism and bodily function safer to consider.
This Sunday, we get to put the theory of “benign violation” to full use. It is our second annual Holy Humor Sunday, when we join with a growing number of churches around the world who use the Sunday after Easter to celebrate how God got the last laugh on the devil when Jesus was raised from the dead. It is an observance that started five hundred years ago, when a Bavarian priest inserted into his post-Easter sermon a bunch of funny stories about how the devil tried to keep the doors of hell locked against a Christ who was descending into it. His stories were both violations (discussions about Satan and Hell) and were benign (Christ was ultimately triumphant).
The priest’s congregation erupted into uproarious laughter, and the tradition of Risus Paschalis (or, “Easter Laughter”) was born.
In the Sanctuary, the Chancel Choir and Joyful Praise Ensemble will combine to provide spirit-lifting, smile-inducing, toe-tapping music. We’ll be observing it in the 11Magnolia and Portico services as well. We’ll have jokes, gags, and tons of other surprises, in a family-friendly “Sit-Together Sunday” so that all our kids can experience the joy of laughter in the church. And the sermon will be in rhyme!
In addition, we’ll be observing a “Noisy Change Offering” throughout the morning, in which, in addition to your regular tithes and offerings, you will be encouraged to plunk your coins into metal bowls to support our Children and Youth ministries.
And if you have a favorite joke, send it to me via email at email@example.com. I will be sharing jokes from the congregation throughout the morning!
So, go ahead and laugh!
See you Sunday!
The Rev. Magrey deVega
Senior Pastor, Hyde Park United Methodist