We Laugh. We Cry. But Why?

I have encountered a new species of humor. Take any famous line from a movie, song, poem, book or play, then replace a key word with pants. It makes everything funny. Examples:

Star Wars: “I find your lack of pants disturbing.” It’s a Wonderful Life: “Every time a bell rings an angel gets his pants.” The Lord of the Rings: “Gondor has no pants. Gondor needs no pants.” Pop music: “What the world needs now is pants, sweet pants.” Hamlet: “To pants or not to pants, that is the question.” Braveheart: “PAAAAAAAAAANTS!”

“Pants” is a funny word. But that’s not why we laugh. We laugh because we perceive the dissonance between something serious and something silly. That’s why it’s futile for scolds to say “Serious things are not a matter for humor.” On the contrary, serious things are the only matter for humor.

As G.K. Chesterton pointed out, the opposite of “funny” is not “serious.” The opposite of funny is “not funny.” It is not, in fact, possible to be funny about things that don’t really matter. It is only possible to be funny about things that do. So, for instance, what makes the above lines funny is not so much the word “pants” as the fact that the trivial subject of trousers is being overlaid on the desperately important matters of faith, angels, kingship, love, suicide and freedom.

By themselves, pants aren’t funny. Walk into your local Kmart and stand contemplating a rack of jeans for an hour, and, chances are, they will not elicit the smallest chuckle. But juxtapose those pants with something serious, like honor, and cry, “With great pants comes great responsibility!” Comedy gold.

The point is this: Both comedy and tragedy depend on the seriousness of the human condition. Comedy is funny because we are serious. And comedy is funny precisely because there is something wrong with us — and we know it. C.S. Lewis once remarked that much of Christian theology could be deduced from two facts. One, we laugh at coarse jokes. Two, we feel the dead to be unearthly.

These facts of human nature reflect something at the root of both comedy and tragedy: namely our sense that there is something deeply unnatural about the present (fallen) relationship between body and soul. Our soul is related to our appetite-driven body as a rodeo rider is related to his bronco. We find ourselves half-terrified and half-tickled to death with this absurd, out-of-control bag of bones that St. Francis nicknamed “Brother Ass.”

Dogs don’t see anything funny about being dogs and reproducing as dogs do. They are entirely businesslike. But many people find endless amusement and amazement at sex and make jokes about it constantly. It’s as if we are not at home in our bodies, as if we fell and lost control of them.

The same thing is seen in our fear of the dead (surely, says Lewis, the least dangerous of all our dangerous species). What do we fear? We fear the mere fact of them, because the dead show us something that ought not to be: that the dislocation and estrangement of body and soul is headed for total dissolution into the corpse and ghost seen in tragedy.

In comedy, we see the crazy jalopy of the body being badly driven by the hapless motorist of the soul. In tragedy, we see the jalopy and the driver finally destroy each other in a fiery crash that expels the soul from the body completely.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ says that comedy and tragedy are right: Human beings are desperately important. Otherwise we would be neither comic nor tragic. But the Gospel goes further and insists that, in the Resurrection, body and soul will be knit back together and rightly ordered again. Thanks be to God!

Mark Shea blogs at NCRegister.com.