Sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert, 10 January 2016
Humour is a very personal thing. What makes me laugh, may not make you laugh. When we have funny stories to tell, how often do we have to say, “You had to be there”? I would love to tell you the story of the time my mother arranged for our whole family to live on these ridiculous cement-bottomed houseboats for a week in the Florida Keys, and how we wreaked havoc everywhere we floated and crashed. Ask anyone in my family about my grandmother saying “I’ve seen red birds!” during the trip and they’ll roll on the floor laughing. But, well, you had to be there…
There are inside jokes that we share with each other, that let us know that we belong, and make others outsiders. If you’ve ever tried to learn a new language, (and in this community the majority of us have lived through that pain — or joy), you know that no matter how well you master a language, it is almost impossible to get the jokes.
When was the last time that you felt like a complete idiot while everyone else was laughing around you? For years, I’ve been telling jokes, and most of you have been laughing. Here’s a favourite pun:
“No matter how much you push the envelope, it'll still be stationery.”
Very funny, if English is your first language. But if French or some other language is your langue maternelle, I’m guessing that this play on words made no sense to you. Quoi ? you say. If I took the time to explain it to you, it wouldn’t be funny anymore.
In the name of égalité et fraternité, I found a series of jeux de mots pour les enfants. Ha! I thought, I know enough French to understand the jokes for children. No such luck! It took my brilliant and very fluent significant other and I a lot of time to figure out the jokes together — a lot of work for a meagre payoff of a few groans. Here’s one example.
Deux poules discutent :
- Comment vas-tu, ma cocotte?
- Pas très bien. Je crois que je couve quelque chose !
I don’t get it!
Some of it’s vocabulary, but in fact, it’s really the context we live in that enables us to get the jokes. Context is culture. You may claim you have no culture, that culture is something exotic and foreign. But culture is everything that defines our lives. How we eat, dress, celebrate the milestones, these are the visible parts of culture, the mere tip of the iceberg. But beneath the surface is so much more: How we work, form relationships, handle conflict, make decisions, take care of each other, what we consider logical, facial expressions and what makes us laugh — just to name a few things. These are the things that make up the culture that forms us from the moment we are born.
Interestingly, in the philosophical, anthropological and scientific fields of studying laughter, there’s a bit of a debate going on. What is nature and what is nurture when it comes to laughter? Do we control what makes us laugh or does it control us?
All humans laugh. Children who are born blind and deaf laugh, and babies begin laughing as early as 15 weeks of age- if not earlier by some accounts. People across cultures recognize the sound of laughter in each other, even when they can’t communicate in other ways. And we aren’t the only species that laughs. Chimpanzees, bonobos, and other primates laugh when they’re tickled, maybe even rats laugh. There’s a genetic basis to laughter that has been passed on to us through ages and ages of evolution.
The fact that we laugh is universal. But what makes us laugh is cultural. Think of the cultural references, the TV and radio programs we grew up with, the style of humour that our families enjoyed — or didn’t enjoy. If I mention Flipper or Lassie, or even the Simpsons, most of the Americans here and some anglo Canadians will know exactly what I’m talking about — and I don’t even have to set up the context to get you to laugh. But I haven’t got a clue what the Canadian and Quebecois equivalents of these childhood TV programs would be.
(Feel free to yell them out. Dites-moi si vous voulez ! Ou si je mentionne la chanson, “Ça fait rire les oiseaux” allez-vous rire ou grogner ? Avertissement ! On chantera cette chanson plus tarde ce mois.)
Consider this as well. Sandra’s music choices today are a series of musical jokes, but I’m guessing only those of us who are steeped in the culture of classical music would get the humour, even if all of us are enjoying what we’re hearing.
The thing about laughter is that it also enables us to define the group we belong to. It can be a way of excluding others. It can be a way to make ourselves feel more powerful when we are feeling threatened or weak. Some philosophers believe that laughter comes from the need to resolve the things that frighten or surprise us.
A couple of years ago I spoke about the book Righteous Minds, by Jonathan Haidt. He argued that humans only survive because we are tribal. Forget about survival of the fittest individuals. Historically, groups of humans that learned how to cooperate in times of stress survived, while groups of competing individuals died. Even religion has had a central, evolutionary purpose. People survive when they are bound together, and I would venture that we survive because we laugh together. But our laughter often belongs within the context of our tribes, our communities, our societies.
I have to tell you that I did a tremendous amount of research to bring you the perfect comic interlude this morning. I spent hours listening to audio clips and watching YouTube videos of Têtes-a-claques (Le Willy Waller 2000, which you just saw: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hJgQCbRsq-I), Yvon Deschamps (a hysterical piece about the French language in which he expounds on the logic of numbers and gender in French —- spoiler alert, there is no logic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o7CdnPkdXII), Sugar Sammy, Eddie Izzard (how to slip into conversation the earliest phrases he learned in French — le souris est dessous la table: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1hJQsvoY6VU&app=desktop), and more — not to mention Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd performing a Wagnerian opera. If we’d had more time, and I had the editing capabilities to bleep some things, I would have shown them all to you.
As I looked at local Quebecois humour, I realized that there is so much I just don’t get. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch Just pour rire and get the majority fo the jokes. But the things that do make me laugh draw upon some point of connection. Make fun of learning French or parody late night TV commercials, and I know I’m part of the tribe. As I said, it’s all about context. Consider one example from a long list that proves you live in Quebec:
Si dans ta voiture tu as déjà passé du chauffage, à air climatisé , et revenu au chauffage dans la même journée : Tu vis au Québec! (If you’ve had to turn off the heat in your car, turn on the AC and then turn the heat back on in the same day, you live in Québec!)
In the process of my research, I also found myself reading some fascinating academic papers about laughter and humour. One that stood out especially was an article by a Dutch academic (Dr Gert Jan Hofstede: http://www.dialogin.com/fileadmin/Files/User_uploads/Humour.pdf, who specializes in the dynamics of human social behaviour. His paper dates back to 2005, just as there were the first extreme reactions to the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in the Danish press.
Western culture, the article says, is very individualistic. Humour in individualistic cultures is more about joke telling, with set up and punch lines. The British, Americans and Israelis are the world’s biggest joke tellers. While societies like Japan, that put more emphasis on the collective rather than the individual, are more likely to focus on word play and witty sayings. It’s not that they laugh less, they simply find entirely different things funny. Societies that are dominated by autocratic regimes, such as Saudi Arabia, tend to be more cautious in their use of humour. Humour is private not public, because what is funny — often the critique of authority — can also be life threatening.
In 2005, the Danish simply saw the cartoon portrayals of the Prophet as harmless, after all they lived in a world where everyone has individual freedom to be funny. They couldn’t understand the reaction in the Arab world. But, Hofstede pointed out, a cultural collective sense of honour was being trampled upon by the West with its invasions of Arab countries. It should have come as no surprise that people would react in violent ways. It was the ultimate example of the clash of cultural differences when it comes to understanding humour.
Ten years later, we’ve just passed the one-year anniversary of the horrific massacre of the cartoonists and staff at Charlie Hebdo in Paris. In defiant response, the front page of this month’s Charlie Hebdo features a stereotype of a monotheistic God dressed as a stereotypical terrorist. The headline says, “The assassin is still out there.”
This is the great elephant in the room today. How can we talk about cultural differences and humour without addressing this? It was a lot easier for Hofstede to respond ten years ago when, at that particular moment, the only damage had been the burning of Danish flags. I don’t think he was off the mark in his analysis, but anything I say now would be to step into an emotional land mine. I believe in the freedom of expression and I also believe that we are called to build bridges between cultures. I will never be comfortable with Charlie Hebdo’s brand of humour. But when violence is thrown into the equation, I can’t help but understand the magazine’s defiant response, even though I don’t like it and it does not make me laugh.
Last year I went to see the musical, The Book of Mormon, when it was playing here in Montreal. Written by the creators of the very in-your-face cartoon TV series, South Park, The Book of Mormon made blatant fun of Mormons, Uganda, African culture, victims of AIDS, you name it. It was as inappropriate as you can possibly imagine. The audience, mostly in their 20s and 30s, loved it for its total irreverence and lack of respect for anyone — and of course, underneath it all, it was really your typical sweet Broadway love story. I sat there the whole time wondering how I would have felt if it had been a play making fun of Jews.
But I have to hand it to the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints of Jesus Christ, the Mormons, who responded to the attack on their culture with tremendous class. They paid for glossy ads in the theatre program, featuring pictures of attractive young people with the tagline, “Now that you’ve seen the play, read the book.” They managed to hold onto their self-respect and their sense of humour.
If I can’t understand your jokes, if laughter and humour are so culturally bound, how do we build bridges across our differences? I think the first step is to recognize that we do approach the world in very different ways, and what makes us laugh tells us just how deeply ingrained this is. The good news is that our capacity for laughter is universal. Perhaps we can learn how to laugh our way back to wholeness, by finding humour that connects us rather than divides us. For something as basic and as essential as a laugh, that’s no easy task.
But as Victor Borge once said, “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.”
« Le rire est la distance la plus courte entre deux personnes. »
May we find ways to reach across the divide and laugh with humanity.
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