A Serious Look at Humor


Since ancient times it has been recognized that “a merry heart doeth good like a medicine.” (Prov. 17:22.) Humor is used in many situations, and anyone who has ever laughed should be able to recognize the intrinsic worth of mirth. Sharing witty remarks or humorous experiences can ease tense, uncomfortable situations and can create a subtle bond of fellowship between strangers. This may grow into the special kind of private joke that friends share.

The suffering, the discouraged, and those who mourn can be cheered through humor. Thus, it becomes a means of fulfilling our commitment to “comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” (Mosiah 18:9.)

Puns, exaggeration, understatement, irony, and clever twists on common situations teach profound lessons on life, stimulate the imagination, school the emotions, and reveal hidden relationships.

The fact that these good effects flow from wise use of humor argues for the Lord’s acceptance of this medium of communication.

As with all gifts, however, humor can be misused and abused, and the Lord has seen fit to caution us in its use. We are counseled to live with “cheerful hearts and countenances,” but to avoid “much laughter, for this is sin.” (D&C 59: 15.)

Again, we are told to “cease from all … light speeches, from all laughter … and light-mindedness” (D&C 88:121) and to “cast away … your excess of laughter far from you” (D&C 88:69). It would not be wise to attempt to define “excess of laughter” or “much laughter” in terms of decibel levels or time limits. It would also be presumptuous to define the line between the sublime and the ridiculous. However, we may profitably consider types of humor that may detract from spirituality.

Loud laughter, light-mindedness, and flippancy often betray a state of mind that is lacking in seriousness. “Empty levity,” as Brigham Young called it, detracts from the dignity of those who indulge in it to excess. Such people “have little sense, and know not the difference between a happy smile of satisfaction to cheer the countenance of a friend, or a contemptuous sneer that brings the curses of man upon man.” (Journal of Discourses 9:290.) A person given to such frivolity would find it difficult to follow the Lord’s counsel to “look unto me in every thought” (D&C 6:36) or to “let the solemnities of eternity rest upon your minds” (D&C 43:34). He would be impaired in receiving revelation and would be weakened in the hour of temptation. C. S. Lewis has written that “if prolonged, the habit of flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour plating against [God] that I know. It is a thousand miles from joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it.” (Screwtape Letters [New York: The MacMillan Co., 1962], p. 52.)

A key in judging the propriety of humor is given by Brigham Young, who seemed to approve of “joy and gladness that is full of meat and marrow, or, in other words, full of meaning and sense” as opposed to “vain” or meaningless laughter. (JD 9:290.)

Closely akin to flippancy is irreverence. Making light of sacred things indicates a lack of affection for and faith in God. President McKay had much to say about reverence and often quoted John Ruskin, who said:

“Reverence is the noblest state in which a man can live in the world. Reverence is one of the signs of strength; irreverence, one of the surest indications of weakness. No man will rise high who jeers at sacred things. The fine loyalties of life must be reverenced or they will be foresworn in the day of trial.” (John Ruskin in David O. McKay, Man May Know for Himself [Deseret Book Co., 1967], p. 18.)

Irreverence differs from profanity and taking the name of the Lord in vain only in degree, not in quality. Carried to the extreme, this form of humor is manifest among those hardhearted people who speak contemptuously against the prophets of the Lord, who revile, persecute, and reject them. This nature was demonstrated among the mourners who laughed Christ to scorn when he stated that Jairus’ daughter was not dead, but sleeping. (Luke 8:53.) Such a faithless spirit spews forth as sneers, jeers, revilings, and ridicule. This can hardly be considered humor but is instead a cruel form of berating.

The weakening aspect of humor in the time of temptation is illustrated best in the area of dirty jokes, which relate to irreverence in that they make light of the sanctity of the body and the holy relationship of marriage. Humor hides a multitude of sins. Lust and perversion, for example, are normally shameful, but under the guise of humor, many people can laugh without blushing. Off-color stories are an effective tool in weakening a persons’s resistance to temptation, for virtue is one of those “fine loyalties of life” that “must be reverenced or they will be foresworn in the day of trial.” Even pure minds, when exposed to such filthiness, must struggle to avoid its recurring memory, and he who tempts another by exposing him to unclean stories must share in the guilt if the victim falls.

As with lust, cruelty becomes acceptable to the world when cloaked as a practical joke. Practical jokes are commonplace and are usually well received by the victim. Caution must be exercised, however, that the victim is not injured emotionally, spiritually, or physically. The effects of practical jokes have ranged from embarrassment to actual death in some instances. Pranks and malicious mischief are merely extensions of this same spirit. It would be well to consider the Golden Rule when planning such jokes.

A most damaging form of humor is sarcasm, or cutting, hostile, or contemptuous remarks. Such humor is usually based on inordinate pride and is usually aimed at some person or group thought to be inferior, such as minority races, ethnic groups, and the physically handicapped. Occasionally some good comes from these jokes when taken in good humor by the object of the joke—tense race relations have been relaxed and physical handicaps have been placed in proper perspective. But this occurs only when the feelings of all concerned are considered.

Though often meant to be harmless, sarcasm denotes insensitivity to the feelings of others, stemming either from thoughtlessness or maliciousness. Recall the perverted brand of humor of the soldiers who mocked our Savior by putting a crown of thorns on his head, clothing him in a purple robe, and saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” (John 19:2–3.) It is interesting to note that in prophesying of his death, the Lord included the mental torture of mocking with the physical tortures of scourging and crucifixion. (Mark 10:34.) How does a “humorous” remark designed to degrade or hurt another person differ from this? Remember, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matt. 25:40.)

To avoid using humor as a dangerous weapon, we must be compassionately considerate of all that is frail, and humbly mindful of all that is sublime. Would it not be better to “lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees” (D&C 81:5) than to humiliate and disgrace one of our neighbors? When humor is such a powerful tool in building subtle bonds of brotherhood, in cheering those who suffer, and in teaching profound and memorable lessons, why should it be used to belittle and discourage? Those who profess belief in Christ should shape their humor in the light of Christ’s teachings. Being rejected from His kingdom because of a warped sense of humor would not be funny.

[photo] Photo by Michael Keogh