Humor, especially in the pulpit, can be tricky, but often worth the risk in order to connect with your congregation. You can buy books that have all the variations of humor, but there are three broad categories that make something funny.
1. It’s just plain true. Someone has defined humor this way: “Humor is a gentle way to acknowledge human frailty.” That’s the way we ought to use it. That’s when humor is done properly. It can also be a way to try and destroy people, but then it ceases to be humor.
Show me people who take themselves too seriously and I’ll show you people who don’t have a sense of humor — every single time — because they’re trying to perpetuate the perception of perfection. Nothing destroys families, corporate teamwork, or creativity more than trying to pretend you are perfect. You will never take risks, ever. You might fail. We are not perfect.
My sweet wife … she wakes me in the middle of the night. “Listen!” (How many of you are married? Does this sound familiar?) “Listen.” Now, I’m in a sound sleep. You could light a match on me. I said, “ What?”
She said, “Shhh, shhh. There it is again.”
Now my body is not touching the bed any more. Only the hairs on my body are touching the bed. I’m waiting for the axe to fall, for a bullet to come. I know someone’s going to kill us right now. She says, “It’s in the garage. Oh, no, what if he’s escaped? What if he has a chain saw?” Then she grabs me and says, “Go see.”
If there’s a guy in my garage who has escaped from somewhere with a chainsaw, I am not going to confront him in a pair of Fruit of the Looms, although my wife said, “I’ve seen your shorts. It will probably scare him away.”
How many of you have heard Bill Cosby tell a joke? He’s the wealthiest entertainer on the face of the earth, but I’ve never heard him tell a joke. He talks about truth. To My Brother Russell, with Whom I Slept is one of the most hilarious albums ever produced. It is about two little kids sharing a bed, drawing a line, and saying, “You stay over there.” This is the least risky kind of humor.
I come in the house. My 4-year-old daughter has a fishing line tied around her tooth and the other end tied to a doorknob. She’s violently trying to slam the door. Her little head is jerking, spit is flying out. I’m horrified and ask, “What are you doing?”
She said, “I’m pulling my toof.”
I said, “Let me feel it.”
She said, “I can’t. I’m tied to the door.”
So I went over to where she was, felt her tooth, and said, “It’s not loose.”
She said, “It will be.”
I said, “Quit it.”
She said, “Leave me alone. I need money.”
2. It contains an element of surprise. Almost all jokes depend on surprise. One of the best books on comedy and humor is Comedy Writing Secrets (by Melvin Helitzer, Writer’s Digest Books, 1992). (It was not written by Christians, so don’t expect to read through it without seeing a bad word or two.)
3. It uses exaggeration. One of my favorite comedians is Steven Wright, who has the dryest delivery I’ve ever heard. I watched him live one night and couldn’t even stand up afterwards.
He said: “I used to make birds levitate. Nobody cared.
“I had to take my dog to the mental hospital. Something happened to him. We named him Stay. ‘Come, Stay. Stay, come.’
“I spilled spot remover on my dog. He’s gone.
“I bought a humidifier and a dehumidifier, put them in the same room, and let them fight it out.”
Steven Wright’s humor is intelligent humor. It’s not slapstick, nor at anyone’s expense except his own. The kind of joke I love best is the one that makes me laugh for five minutes and think for five days.
Start with low risk humor. Low risk humor is telling what your daughter did last night. Low risk humor is telling about the little boy in the foyer of our church. His mom took him back there. He was just a little child, could barely talk, and had messed his britches. Everybody in the room knew he had messed his britches. When Mom unpinned him and pulled down his little britches, the little boy looked down and said, “Oh, who did that?”
If you were to use that in an appropriate situation to point out that we live in a nation of victims, that we are never willing to take responsibility for our messes — if people don’t laugh, have you died? No. It still works as an illustration — the truthful kind of illustration. Work with that.