Comedy and Countering the Culture

May 18, 2018

What makes you laugh? What constitutes a joke? Do you find anything unfunny?


While such questions seem casual or even silly in themselves, the answers one gives reveal much. 


I do not claim the status of comedian. I like comedy, and I think God gave his Creation a terribly creative gift when he created laughter. 


In addition to the wonderfully wild cartoons of the 1980s and early 1990s, I grew up watching Nick at Nite and TBS when it used to air programs on the 5’s. You might not recall, but one could view Gilligan’s Island at 8:05 AM on weekdays. I had a steady diet of Gilligan’s Island, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Get Smart. Some shows I watched as a child certainly aged better than others, but for the most part, the humor had a lightness about it. 


We remember the whole age in which these shows reigned on TV as wholesome (though both Gilligan’s Island and Get Smart got a bit sketch at times). However, at the same time America sat down to watch these shows, the counter-culture movement began to emerge. We often recall the counter-culture movement for the hippies, the protests, and the music. It affected everything, comedy included. Two comedians who tower over all others in the counter-culture movement: Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. They did not marry comedy to social commentary first, but they certainly popularized the idea in the USA. The Dick Van Dyke Show aired the day before Lenny Bruce’s first arrest for obscenity. Bruce would die of a drug overdose just five years later, and he would do so before Carlin became the man known to Americans today. He would not come into his own until the 1970s.




These two men, Bruce and Carlin, introduced two things to popular comedy. I do not for one second think they invented these things; I maintain they did them more effectively than anyone before them. After all, The Preacher wrote he found nothing new under the sun before Alexander the Great conquered anything. Bruce and Carlin brought obscenity to America, and America belly laughed. They also hitched comedy to the most biting criticism around.




Recall, these men operated in the 1960s and 1970s (though Carlin continued to perform until his death in 2008). In 1972, George Carlin first introduced his famous “seven dirty words” routine, drawing on the vocabulary leading to Bruce’s 1966 arrest for obscenity. Carlin’s routine would eventually play a role in the Supreme Court case FCC v. Pacifica Foundation. Language characterizing prisons and battlefields became standardized in the only genre of entertainment based around laughter. Everything became common; nothing remained sacred. 


Along with the introduction of teenage locker room language to the common comedic vernacular, Bruce and Carlin leveraged their shows to become popular level philosophers. Bruce had a known track record as a critic of the Roman Catholic Church. His death prior to the pivotal year 1968 prevented him from further developing his criticism to the depth of Carlin. Carlin, however, continued in the vein of the pop philosopher, the critic. As he aged, Carlin’s comedy became increasingly vitriolic and resembled more of a rant than anything else. Out with the Hippy-Dippy Weatherman, and in with the mean-spirited ravings of an old man on his front porch. I would link quotes, but most of my readership will probably not appreciate his language. His perspective remains readily available on YouTube clips and websites dedicated to his quotes.


These two men loom over the whole counter-culture enterprise. To be sure, many others merit discussion, Richard Pryor in particular, but time and space do not permit such an exhaustive study. Bruce and Carlin produced as counter-culture became cultural standard. Truth be told, for young people, these men likely sit as old hats. Why play a Carlin routine when one can gather with people to play Cards Against Humanity? We now make our own obscene and salacious jokes. Seth MacFarlane made himself a veritable pile of money slipping as many off-color ridicules as he possibly could in his show Family Guy. American culture gave away its ability to make a joke without seeking someone else’s harm. The pioneered paths of Bruce and Carlin became well-traveled interstates by virtually every late night talk show host. The brand of comedy so indebted to the counter-culture counters nothing. It became commodity-culture to sell to the masses who eat and drink it and think themselves intellectual and edgy. 


The way of Christ should fill our bellies with laughter. Laughter expresses joy in a way nothing else can. We can poke fun at ourselves, and we should. We take Christ seriously, not ourselves for our own sakes. A chasm stands between good-natured humorous looks at ourselves and malicious evisceration of people to make others laugh. The expression of joy found in laughter cannot become tainted by our malignant attitudes as we seek to walk in the steps of Jesus. 


Christian, take care as you walk, live, and laugh. Comedy often reveals the truth of our hearts. It reveals our innermost leanings and inklings. Laugh loud and long with friends. Chuckle at good wit and guffaw at a well-executed slapstick moment. Remember though, people bear the image of God himself. Do we dare mock them in a way to cut to the quick? Should we encourage the comedians among us to throw barbs, darts, and arrows at God’s own creation? Yesteryear has yestered for quite some time now, we cannot retrieve it. We should not. Yesteryear had its own issues. As Christians, our solution always lies in the future, the return of the Lord Jesus. In the days following his return, do you not think we will laugh with joy at the Marriage Feast of the Lamb? In the meantime, take care. You constantly communicate to this world what you think of Christ, even in your laughter. Let your laughter glorify him, not the verbal tripe of embittered men.



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