Surreal or absurdist humour works by violating the logic of causal reasoning. Think of Lear and Lewis Carroll, in Victorian England, inventing events and behaviours that were obviously illogical, involving bizarre juxtapositions, non-sequiturs, irrational or absurd situations.
The humour arises from an upset of what the audience expects – a sneaky subversion- so that amusement is founded on unpredictability, separate from a logical analysis of the situation. Think of the dark comedy of Franz Kafka, or the stream of consciousness writings of James Joyce, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Hunter S. Thompson, or the poetry of Dylan Thomas and E. E. Cummings.
Surrealist humour has played an important role in popular UK culture, especially since The Goon Show. In the 1960s, surreal humour was combined with counter-culture in the work of psychedelic musicians such as The Beatles, Syd Barrett, Frank Zappa, The Residents, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and Captain Beefheart.
Another significant influence on popular culture was the TV series, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and more recently, The Mighty Boosh which exploited the sitcom format for distinctly surreal purposes.
A distinctly Python-esque strand of surrealism is prevalent in the work of stand-up Eddie Izzard who often uses anthropomorphic constructs in order to tell a running joke; often splicing several jokes together throughout a two hour show.
The connecting link with the teaching of Jesus, is the way in which absurdist conversation can be used to shock and surprise the listener, to attack particular norms and preconceptions. In a sense, he used language to create a new perception: a funny way of looking at the usual and the customary.
Jesus created many tiny word-pictures which are so familiar to us that we often find it difficult to recreate their original punch. Yet, once we reconsider them afresh, we see at once the level of absurdity with which Jesus was operating, in order to make a point.
For example, the phrase “blind guide,” though now proverbial, is an intensely powerful insight into the absurdity of pretentious religious leaders who don’t have a relationship with God. Imagine a comedy sketch where a blind realtor is showing a prospective client around the condo, bumping into furniture, pretending to admire the view, explaining the kitchen layout… it’s hysterical.
Consider the absurd visual quality of this phrase “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” It is memorable, visual and absolutely unforgettable. It is also, purely absurdist. It conjures up the rather ridiculous image of someone fastidiously picking at a gnat in his cup of tea and not noticing this huge hairy orange lump…
Similarly, imagine the scene where a man is labouring up the street with a telegraph pole stuck into one eye. He pauses to greet a friend coming up to him, but is concerned to see that his friend has a grain of dust in his eye. “Please let me help you! How on earth can you manage in that terrible situation?”
The instances can be multiplied: “But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matt 6:3). Of course, it’s not possible for a left hand to “know” anything. The thought is absurd because it rests on an obvious impossibility. The hearer has to figure out what he means, and so is brought into the game of kingdom possibilities. Here is another example: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mk 10:25). OK: It is not possible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle! The thought is absurd because it rests on an obvious impossibility. He is exaggerating for effect, and it gets the point across very well, which is that it is not at all easy for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. It is very, very hard! The absurdist humor indicates a quickfire, irrepressible sense of the daft which is very engaging.
Think now of the stories he told.You are sitting at a table in a pub. Around you are four or five friends, all struggling to make ends meet. You start to tell a story: “Here’s a man who owes fifty million dollars…. but he is eaten up with fury because his neighbor owes him five dollars.” Here’s another money-story: “Imagine you are trusted with twenty million dollars: what are you going to do with it? Some day the one who gave you the money will want to see what you’ve done…what will you say and do?” These are a few of the slightly crazy stories that Jesus told. They spark response, interest and engagement. Very few people would be able to resist a “What would you do with a whole bunch of money?” story.
One element of this absurdist humor is labelled “hyperbole” by the scholars. A hyperbole is a figure of speech that uses an exaggerated or extravagant statement to create a strong emotional response. Some familiar examples of hyperbolic statements would include:
“He’s got tons of money.”
“He is older than the hills.”
“I’m so hungry I can eat a horse.”
“His brain is the size of a pea.”
“My feet are killing me.”
These examples have their absurdist elements, but they demonstrate the same playful over-exaggeration that Jesus seemed fond of.
So is this the way to understand some of the darker elements in the teaching of Jesus? “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; if you eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.” Clearly Jesus is teaching on the awful and serious effects of sin in a human life, and making a serious word-picture to match it. The same thing is going on when he speaks about the fate of Judas, saying “It would have been better if he hadn’t been born.” And when Jesus considered those who would abuse small children, he suggested a huge boulder tied around their neck and their being thrown in the sea.
We’re not suggesting that these lines are remotely funny, but they are very much of a piece with the way Jesus spoke. The difference being that there are some things that you just do not joke about. He shows wit, sure, but he also indicates quite clearly that the subject under discussion is nothing to be playful about. I’ve heard jokes by contemporary comedians on subjects that –in my opinion- were better off left alone.
What does absurdist humour do? It is playful, it knocks you out of the processes of normal analysis. It cheers you up. It surprises you. In the context of the preaching of Jesus, it created kingdom readiness. It was as if Jesus was saying: “I’m not here to offer a patch on something old: I’m totally new.” It’s like shock therapy. The surprising twists in the parables work to relativize the order of this world which we regard as unchangeable and natural and suggest a new perspective on reality.
And so it is not the good boy who is given a feast, but the black sheep of the family who has run for it, tossing away every religious and moral code. It is not the proud goody-goody Pharisee who goes home justified, but the bad tax-collector, stumbling for words.
Jesus is a living parable, witty and unpredictable. He is always ready with his answers and yet they spiral off into new possibilities. Anyone who has ears to hear can see that laughter that bubbles behind every conversation with those obsessed with order and control.
Don’t you just love that funny way of looking at things?