Jesus & Observational Comedy

 I wonder if you’ve noticed how popular observational comedy is?

According to Wikpedia –in its customary po-faced style,- “Observational comedy is a form of humor based on the commonplace aspects of everyday life… The humor is based on the premise of “It’s funny because it’s true.”

The more interesting of our comedians -in my opinion- are those who do not merely observe the follies of our everyday life but challenge our perceptions. Lenny Bruce, and later George Carlin,  developed the idea of the stand-up comic as a social commentator, rebel and truth teller, who challenge conventional wisdom and tweak the hypocrisies of their audience: mostly white middle-class America. Here’s Carlin:  “I think it’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.”

This is a good area to explore in the terms of thinking about how Jesus spoke because it’s pretty endemic to his whole conversation. There’s nothing theoretical or conceptual: the style is visual, memorable, quick-witted, sharp and occasionally caustic. Jesus was not merely pointing out the foibles of the self-important big-shots around him, or taking pot-shots at “Society.”  Rather, he was describing the possibility of a whole new vision of life itself. He compared the perspective of those that were from “below” with an earth-centred point of view, with his own perspective, which was “from above.” The “above…below” terminology that is highlighted in John’s gospel (Chapters 3 and 8 and elsewhere) is really shorthand for  seeing things from God’s point of view. “You have heard it said… but I say” operates much the same way in the Synoptic gospels. His “comedy”, if it can be really called that, was that of offering a new set of lenses for the same situation. What would life look like, if you looked at  it this way?

One category of this “above… below” polarization could be termed “Who do you think you are?” Jesus frequently noticed those who were trying to appear other than who they were. It’s a common trait in comedy. Thinking of Mrs Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances, or –way back- the pretensions of the younger rag & bone man in Steptoe & Son, or the entire career of Tony Hancock. And, almost half way between modern comedy and the comic insights of Jesus, Geoffrey Chaucer’s character of the Reeve, in Canterbury Tales is used to mock the pretensions of the would-be intellectual.

In his dialogue Philebus, Plato describes this human weakness as a vice involving the opposite of the condition mentioned in the inscription at Delphi, which was to “know thyself”. At a fancy dress party you might grin at a grocer dressed up as Napoleon or some scrawny teenager acting out as Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Greek word for “hypocrite” has a theatrical background, meaning “playing the part under a disguise”.

Jesus pictured a guest at a wedding ostentatiously taking his place at the top table. Later, when the Best Man arrives, say, the host is forced to ask the first guest to vacate his place of honor. Others would undoubtedly laugh under their breath as-  in cringing embarrassment- he was forced to slide into a less important chair. Don’t you see it? says Jesus.  If you puff yourself up, you’ll be sorry for it. If you want to step up, then step down (Luke 14).

Jesus’ audience must have grinned at His take‑off of a Pharisee going up to the temple to pray, “ “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector.. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess” (Luke 18).  How easy to think highly about ourselves.  Wouldn’t we smile at a Sunday school teacher who after teaching a lesson on the Pharisee and the Tax Collector said, “Now, class, let’s thank God that we are not like this Pharisee!”

An aspect of this element of Jesus’s humor sparks with an enjoyment at the discomfiture of those in authority. When Jesus scorched the scribes and Pharisees , his hearers doubtless reacted with smiles and possibly laughs, at his descriptions of their inconsistencies. Inwardly, and even likely outwardly, they laughed at these self‑righteous pretenders. Imagine someone polishing away at the outside of the dish, but leaving all the grime and grease on the inside and setting the table for the next meal with dishes dirty on the inside (Matthew 23).

There is an element of humor as well as pathos in Jesus’s description of the religious leaders of his day as “blind leaders of the blind”, with both guide and follower blindly falling into a hole in the ground (Matthew 15).  How arrogant, to think that you can help someone else on a journey when you are blind yourself. How inconsistent for those same leaders to be able to tell the weather but to miss the signs of the time! They could exhibit shrewd powers of observation in the natural sphere but were just plain thick in the spiritual (Matthew 16). It’s the “above…below” polarization again.

There’s an old saying: “You don’t have to be in Who’s Who to know what’s what.” Yet Jesus expressed the same thought when He said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children”(Luke 10).

The simple followers of Jesus had more wisdom than the know-it-all Pharisees.


This entry was posted in Christianity, Church Planting, Contemporism, Evangelism, Faith, God, Jesus, life, Listening, Morning Devotions, New Testament, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Jesus & Observational Comedy

  1. Fran says:

    I like your articles on this subject.

  2. kenbaker says:

    Thanks Fran,
    Congratulations on your book, by the way!
    Not quite sure where I’m going with this series. In a sense it’s just a way of looking anew at the sayings of Jesus and if it became a book it would probably be over-limited by its theme. I mean: how can you discuss the sayings alone, when those words have to be interpreted against cross and resurrection? What do you think?

  3. Pingback: Jesus’s use of Sight-gags & Props | Dr Ken Baker

  4. Pingback: Acid Drops: Jesus’s use of Caustic Comments | Dr Ken Baker

  5. Pingback: Did Jesus roll his eyes? | Dr Ken Baker

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