‘The Sacred Art of Joking’, by James Cary

‘There’s a good reason why it’s called a punchline: sometimes the impact hurts.’

At the Greenbelt Festival last year, I wrote and performed ‘Spot the Quaker’. Billed as ‘a cross between stand-up comedy and a history lecture’, I was commissioned to make people laugh while informing them about who Quakers really are. The thinking was that a Quaker doing stand-up is a good challenge to the stereotypes people have of us, at odds with that persistent puritan image on cereal boxes.

It’s an interesting concept, being funny in the faith community. The Sacred Art of Joking is about jokes, faith and how Christians (and others) might decide what kind of humour is acceptable. James Cary is a professional comedy writer, theologian and member of the Church of England’s General Synod. These are clearly matters close to his heart and this isn’t exactly a funny book – comedy is a serious business. In a world in which people have been killed for making jokes, and when storms of outrage can be brewed up in moments, there can be grave consequences to trying to be funny. Live gigs, in the smartphone era, are no longer just ‘in the moment’. In comedy, as James Cary says, context is everything. The complexity and cultural depth of enjoying comedy can drive people apart as well as bring them together.

There’s a good reason why it’s called a punchline: sometimes the impact hurts. When that happens is it fair to react, or better to rise above it? Is the responsibility with the speaker or the listener? In doing Quaker comedy I found myself striving to be funny, truthful and kind. Provocative perhaps but not hurtful. There is always a risk – I might find something funny while you might consider it offensive – but I think it’s one worth taking; laughter is a beautiful part of being human.

James Cary provides an in-depth analysis of these risks from a Christian perspective. His writing is steeped in cultural references and well grounded in biblical interpretation. He makes a plea, for example, for vicars to stop starting sermons with jokes, in order to make more room for the inherent humour in the Bible. As a Quaker I’m not unduly concerned about vicars’ quips but I take his suggestion that ‘offence is a poor measure of the appropriateness of a joke’ as good advice.

He is meticulous in his approach. He starts by setting out what a joke is, and carefully analyses what makes things funny. He looks at why jokes go wrong, and the resulting implications for law and society. When he says, ‘as you have discovered, I’m boringly technical about comedy,’ it’s funny because it’s true. But like any creative endeavour, the hidden development process is different to the outcome. I enjoyed his witty use of footnotes and the light touch to his well-informed reasoning. Comedy is about truth, James Cary reminds us. That’s what makes a joke funny. There’s a risk to truth-telling but humour can help us through a heap of trouble. People need to laugh. Like he says, the world needs jokes. n

The Sacred Art of Joking is out now from SPCK.

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