A man once asked a Carmelite priest if Masses could be said for the repose of the soul of P.G. Wodehouse. (Wodehouse was baptized an Anglican, lived an agnostic, and had his funeral at a Presbyterian church.) The priest responded, “Do you really think that a man who provided so much innocent laughter for so many needs to have a Mass said for him?”
It’s an interesting question, but perhaps a more pertinent one is—whatever happened to innocent laughter?
It has been said that nothing so lays bare a man’s character as his laugh. I believe that holds true for cultures as well as individuals. How we laugh, and what we will—or will not—laugh at, reflects our soul. It shows not only what we take seriously and what we take lightly, but also whom we take seriously and lightly. Innocent laughter—laughter at ourselves and with others—reveals humility and sympathy. Corrupt laughter—laughter at others and for ourselves—reveals pride and disdain.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
Innocent laughter, or mirth, is also related to innocence. As Josef Pieper said, “Only the pure of heart can laugh freely and liberatingly.” We see this in children, and this may be one meaning of our Lord’s warning that unless we become as children we cannot enter the kingdom of God. A child of four will laugh at a clown being hit in the face with a pie because he, too, having no dignity to stand upon, would like to get hit in the face with a pie. It is only as we grow older and assume our dignity that we want to hit the other person in the face with a pie.
Humor today (I’m thinking of films, television, college campuses, etc.) consists mainly of sarcasm and ridicule; caustic comments and derisive remarks at the expense of others. It relies much on “shock value,” mainly because the actual humor is thin, if there at all. The target of this humor is usually the outsider, which today means almost exclusively persons or ideas of traditional morality. It is the “inside joke” of how enlightened or sophisticated “we” are as opposed to how uncouth or stupid “they” are.
Because innocence and mirth are connected, it is no surprise that the demise of both innocence and mirth coincided with the rise of deviancy and ridicule. I speak, of course, of the ’60s. That was the twilight of traditional American comedy; the comedy of Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton, Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball, Andy Griffith, Dick Van Dyke, and others; comedies built around marriages and families that stayed together even when they were at loggerheads; comedies we could laugh with because we, too, were going through what they were going through—trying to pay bills, get along with our spouses, keep our jobs, and raise our kids.
It was a comedy where there were two sexes: men and women. These differences were celebrated and were the basis for laughter, not acrimony. This only makes sense because true laughter is found in contrast; the court jester wiser than the king, the hobo more content than the rich man. This was laughter devoid of rancor, cheap shots, and sarcasm, but often full of wisdom.
It was also the twilight of the great American musical; Hello Dolly, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, The King and I. These, too, had humor and were centered around romance and the delightful tension between the sexes. Take the song “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?” from My Fair Lady. It mocks the man who sings it as much as the woman it is sung about; yet singing it today would get you expelled from most colleges.
With the Sexual Revolution, both the romance and the laughter died, and the signature of that death was the change in meaning of the word “gay” from being an adjective meaning “light hearted” or “cheerful” to a euphemism for sexual perversion. There have been no great romantic musicals since. As a priest friend quipped, “When chastity becomes a joke, the music stops.”
The late ’60s were also an age of Great Seriousness. That generation (of which I am a member) was the most spoiled generation in history (up to that time) and really thought they knew. They knew—as no generation had ever known before—about sex, peace, religion, poverty, race relations; you name it. And our culture, like G.K. Chesterton’s Satan, fell by force of gravity.
Today, we see the lack of both innocence and mirth in almost everyone over the age of twelve. We are sunk in a swamp of self-seriousness that would make a Russian novel look like a Bugs Bunny cartoon. When was the last time you saw teenagers laughing innocently?
This is a serious problem because without innocent laughter, life becomes unbearable, which is pretty much the case for large segments of our society now. Whatever the current generation is called (X? Y? Z? Z+?), they have to be the largest group of navel-gazing misanthropes ever spawned.
It is not their fault, at least not entirely, for they are the children and grandchildren of The Great Seriousness. Today they stand, or, most often sit, with their phones in a solipsistic free fall of detailing their lives for all to see and wondering what everyone thinks of them. If they aren’t doing that, they are following—a most telling word—athletes, actors, entertainers, and politicians with messianic complexes. I cannot think of a better recipe for depression and alienation.
What young people need most right now is not so much understanding, compassion, antidepressants, or therapy; they need a good belly laugh, preferably at their own expense. A good start would be for them to watch the skit “Stop it” by Bob Newhart, one of the last of that tradition of great comedians. Check it out on YouTube; it’s a good laugh and good therapy.
Now, I am not advocating a sort of laissez-faire, everything’s-a-joke attitude. That is the mocking irreverence of a spoiled child, no matter how old, who doesn’t know what to take seriously. He soon loses his laugh, and often loses his soul. As Chesterton said,
Life is serious all the time; but living cannot be serious all the time…In anything that does cover the whole of your life—in your philosophy and your religion—you must have mirth. If you do not have mirth, you will certainly have madness.
Isn’t that where we are now?
You see, the nexus of these issues—innocence and mirth on the one hand, and crudeness and deviancy on the other—is how we see ourselves and others. Fulton Sheen said that if we take the soul seriously, we can take everything else lightly. Take the soul seriously and you will guard your innocence and that of others. Take the soul seriously and you can laugh at yourself and commiserate with others. Take the soul seriously and you won’t worry about what others think of you, but you will think about what you can do for others.
Again, I quote Chesterton: “If the whole world was suddenly stricken with a sense of humor it would find itself mechanically fulfilling the Sermon on the Mount.” And, who knows, we may even get some decent musicals again.