Do you remember when humor was funny – because it was funny – and not disparaging and degrading? When comedians gave us a perspective on everyday life that tickled our funny bones, even brought to our eyes tears of laughter?
I love to watch old videos of comics like Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Carole Burnett and her entourage of Tim Conway, Vicki Lawrence, Harvey Corman and others. Humorists like Jerry Lewis, Jerry Seinfeld, George Carlin (at times) and others gave side-splitting routines. We could laugh because they could shine a spotlight on humorous circumstances we shared in common.
Not so much these days. Most modern-day comedians seem to confuse legitimate humor with ridicule, sarcasm and condescending arrogance. On top of that, they don’t think they can be “funny” without liberally lacing their monologues or skits with crudeness and profanity.
I was reminded of this difference when a young comedian did a stand-up routine at our church. His name was Andrew Stanley, which sounded strangely familiar. And it was, because his father, Andy Stanley, and grandfather, Charles Stanley, are both respected pastors. We would expect a G-rated comedy act from the son and grandson of pastors, and that it was. Very funny. Hilariously so.
Andrew poked fun at himself, as well as the silly stuff of daily living. He served belly laughs on a platter, and his audience had a happy feast. There wasn’t a mean, ill-spirited moment in his entire performance, and it provided a delightful diversion from the angst and antagonism that pervade much of our world today.
We often hear the cliché, “what the world needs is love.” Maybe what we need just as much is a good laugh. Back in the mid-1960s, journalist and author Norman Cousins contracted a crippling disease. Physicians gave him a grim prognosis, but Cousins embarked on a unique treatment regimen: massive doses of vitamin C coupled with self-induced bouts of laughter as he watched an assortment of comedic films.
"I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep," Cousins reported. He overcame that sickness and other maladies, which he recounted in his book, Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient.
The Bible would never be confused with a jokebook, but there’s much more humor in it than we might think. Without using the word “laughter,” several passages in the wisdom book of Proverbs affirm the power of a positive, uplifted spirit: “A joyful heart makes a cheerful face, but when the heart is sad, the spirit is broken” (Proverbs 15:13). Another translation terms it a “happy heart.”
I don’t know if Cousins ever considered the Bible as a resource, but it speaks to his conviction that laughter can have marvelous healing properties. Proverbs 17:22 declares, “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” Similarly, Proverbs 16:24 states, “Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.”
When the Israelites returned from exile back to the holy city of Jerusalem, it was as if a stand-up comedian were leading the way. In one of the “psalms of ascent,” it recounts, “Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with joyful shouting; then they said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them’” (Psalm 126:2).
Two other passages address the way laughter can burst forth once painful trials have ended. At the age of 90, having endured the humiliation of childlessness, Sarah gave birth to her son, Isaac. Almost immediately she declared, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me” (Genesis 21:6).
Job is definitely not a book we’d associate with frivolity as the lead figure suffers a series of tragedies. Nevertheless, Job’s friend, Bildad, prophetically said of God, “He will yet fill your mouth with laughter and your lips with shouts of joy” (Job 8:21). At the end of the book, that’s exactly what happened.