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Taking Humor Seriously

The Heights and books go together. The works we require and suggest our boys to read range from antiquity to modernity, embrace fiction and nonfiction, and include history, biography, philosophy, and science. One genre, though, seems to be missing, especially in the upper school: humor. By this I mean books such as the works of P. G. Wodehouse, Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, or even a collection of columns by Dave Barry. I hesitate to put such books on the reading list because that would assuredly deter the boys from them, but I do think it a good idea to supplement their (and our) literary diet with such reading. In this essay I discuss some objections to this and then give reasons for its importance. 

First, comedic writing is serious writing. If you don’t think so, try doing it. We know how difficult it is to tell a joke properly. Comedy depends most of all on timing; but when you tell a joke in person, you have your audience before you and can judge their attentiveness. You can control your timing, your pitch, your cadence, your facial expressions and gestures to fit their mood. If any of those elements are off, the joke falls flat. The comedic writer, however, must do all this by his prose alone. He must create the tension and establish the rhythm only with his words. He must choose exactly the right words and put them in exactly the right order. His writing alone must make you laugh. That’s tough to do. 

It requires almost perfect literary pitch, and, indeed, a writer who can write humorously is, in my mind, a good writer—period. Hilaire Belloc, an excellent writer in his own right, expounded on this when praising P. G. Wodehouse: “Writing is a craft, like any other: playing the violin, skating, batting at cricket, billiards, wood carving … ; and mastership in any craft is attainment of the end to which that craft is devoted. … The end of writing is the production of a certain image and a certain emotion. And the means towards that end are the use of words in any particular language; and the complete use of that medium is the choosing of the right words and the putting of them into the right order. It is this which Mr. Wodehouse does better, in the English language, than anyone else alive.” (Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, declared Wodehouse “the greatest musician of the English language.”) 

Humorous writing is also difficult because it requires the writer to make the reader “suspend his belief” even more than in “serious writing.” Because of original sin, we are accustomed to take ourselves and our world seriously. We are “hardwired,” so to speak, for serious reading. It doesn’t require much imagination to grit our teeth and bemoan the misunderstood adolescent, prejudice, difficult family life, war, and poverty. To have the reader see humor in these situations demands an almost 180-turn from our normal way of seeing things, and for a writer to get you to do that calls for a masterly touch. 

In that respect, comedic writing is serious in that, by definition, it requires something serious to be laughed about. As C. S. Lewis said of Jane Austen, “The hard core of morality and even of religion seems to me to be just what makes good comedy possible. ‘Principles’ or ‘seriousness’ are essential to [her] art. Where there is no norm, nothing can be ridiculous.” This explains why there is so little good comedic writing, and even just plain old-fashioned laughter, today; we have fewer and fewer standards which to parody and we don’t have circumstances so absurd that someone doesn’t take them as vehemently serious. Comedic writing is a sort of “photographic negative” which helps to see what is serious by using it as a foil. 

Also, it seems to be that humorous writing requires a greater sense of humility. As Chesterton said, “It is so easy to be solemn, it is so hard to be frivolous.” To be frivolous, we must let our guard down. We must let the world make fun of us. Even when the writing has us laughing at the characters, we laugh at them because we sympathize with them, and so, in a way, we are laughing at ourselves. Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers is a good example of this. 

Where there is no norm, nothing can be ridiculous. —C.S. Lewis

Comedic writing is also serious in that we need it. Aquinas calls it the virtue of eutrapelia, or playfulness and pleasantness. As the body needs rest, so does the soul. (And what soul doesn’t need rest these days?) Chesterton called mirth the great secret of God and said that a sense of humor is the next best thing to the grace of God. The late “queen mother,” Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, Queen of England from 1936 to 1952, said she always read Wodehouse upon retiring because “I want to go to bed with a smile.” The fact that she lived through the entire twentieth century and then some (dying in 2002 at the age of 102) shows her wisdom. Proper laughter is an expression of humility: seeing and accepting ourselves as we are, warts and all. 

This need for humor and laughter is especially true for middle and upper schoolers. To live in a world, as many do, of social media and 24/7 “news” is almost to guarantee depression and anxiety. Just when puberty is kicking in and causing confusion, our culture doubles down and has them navel gazing even more. Now everything about their existence is scrutinized. If your every pimple—facial or psychological—were put under a microscope, how could you not become anxious? 

I went to Amazon and entered “bestselling young adult books” in the search. Without exception, the books listed all had the protagonists dealing with some inner angst: some “dark secret” or obsession. Granted, adolescence, especially today, is a time of insecurity and apprehension, and I’m sure the authors are well intentioned and want to meet teenagers “where they are.” There is some merit in that. I wonder, though, if this sort of reading doesn’t just make young people into psychological hypochondriacs. Besides the questionable behaviors many of these books portray as “normal” for teenagers, these books can suggest problems and issues that may not be there for the reader. He may start to wonder if he should feel or act in a certain way, especially if prompted by a teacher. (Many of these books are recommended for class.) The “young adult” may become, if I may use the phrase, too self-conscious conscious. In my mind, this is the worst state for anyone, let alone a teenager, to be in. 

I’m not saying there aren’t situations we shouldn’t take seriously. I am saying that we often need to be pulled out of ourselves. Adolescence should not be a world unto itself; it should be a time of preparation for adulthood. And one of the best gifts you can have in that crazy world of marriage, family, work, and, yes, even the spiritual life, is a sense of humor. When you read, for example, of the contretemps of James Herriot in All Creatures Great and Small or the diversions of the Gilbreth family in Cheaper by the Dozen, you realize that we all have “issues,” that we all fall flat on our faces at times, and that the best and healthiest thing to do in such situations can be to laugh. 

Samuel Johnson, whom no one would call frivolous, had this to say in response to a man who disparaged such literature: “Nay, Sir, harmless pleasure is the highest praise. Pleasure is a word of dubious import; pleasure is in general dangerous, and pernicious to virtue; to be able therefore to furnish pleasure that is harmless, pleasure pure and unalloyed, is as great a power as man can possess.” 

So find some books to make you—and your children—laugh. It is good writing and we all need it. 

About the Author

Robert Greving

Latin, English

Robert Greving has been a member of the faculty at The Heights since 1999. Mr. Greving served five years in the U.S. Army J.A.G. Corps.  Originally from North Dakota, Mr. Greving earned a B.A. in history at Louisiana State University.

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