f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: You're So Funny I Almost Forgot to Laugh

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Friday, March 19, 2004

You're So Funny I Almost Forgot to Laugh

Humor and pain are two sides of the same coin. Always have been. For whatever reason, we often laugh at something that is causing another person physical or emotional “pain.” I think that’s another reason why a lot of Christians tend not to find things funny. Mocking is arrogant and ignoring pain is unsympathetic. We’re obviously not called to either of these virtues.

This takes away a lot of opportunity for laughs, though. There’s only so many puns and clean jokes one can put in a book. How do we write the humor without being accused of either arrogance of lack of sympathy? A very quick and easy answer is to write from the inside.

I’ve mentioned this before—Freaks and Geeks is the best television show that was ever produced. It lasted a year, but is now coming out on DVD and is worth your money. Three of the main characters are bona-fide, thick-glasses, uncoordinated geeks. Sam, Bill, and Neil go through constant degradation, harassment, and worse. Most of it is riotous. And yet these are wonderfully sympathetic characters, vividly drawn, and deeply three-dimensional. How did the writers do it? Short answer—most of them were geeks growing up and therefore the show is written with heartfelt love.

If you’re going to write a Christian humor story (one that will be published in the CBA at least) one quick way to make it successful is to actually like Christians. They can go through awful things and all sorts of absurdities, but they need to be liked.

(An aside. Have you seen the Christopher Guest “mockumentaries” Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind? These, I think, mark the invisible borderline between love and mocking. You’re essentially focusing in on “defenseless” groups—small-town theater, dog lovers, and folk singers—and poking fun at their passions. The question is whether Guest and his actors fully appreciate these passions or look down on them. I think you could argue both sides. It’s important to be aware of that line, though.)

A second way to approach humor in Christian novels is to pull out the pedestal from under someone. This treatment goes back to About a Boy by Nick Hornby. I think there’s the possibility for setting up a fictional Christian who is worth mocking. Create a “monstrous Christian” who is so over-the-top that we actually cheer as they come to learn the “true” meaning of the faith. Hornby does this with his character Will Freeman who is a womanizer, a cad, vain, and more. He’s also not very self-aware and doesn’t admit or see the gaping need in his life for love. This is a tricky bit of characterization, however, because taking things too far over-the-top will create an unlikable character. Will gets by because he’s charming and funny. I could see CBA accepting such a novel, though.

The third approach to a humorous Christian novel is the clash-of-cultures/fish-out-of-water. Look at Christianity from an outsiders perspective. Or throw Christian characters and their diametric opposites into humorous rather than dramatic confrontations. I think Rene Gutteridge’s Boo! takes this tact.

A fourth approach is to simply write a Christian novel that has humor completely unrelated to faith and or religion. Make the humor about parenthood or something else. It’s not impossible.

The final approach is to go guns-a-blazing into full-scale satire. Trust me when I say that I think there are a million-and-one things worth satirizing in Christian culture. There’s probably a million-and-one things worth mocking. This begins to be a very tricky ground, however. I can guarantee you’re going to piss somebody off. And that’s fine. That’s probably what you’re going for. You just can’t annoy 85% of CBA readership because that means your book probably won’t get published. I think what’s more probable is that you include one or two satirical threads in an otherwise normal novel and see what comes of it. If you want to (and can) write the Catch-22 of 21st-century Christian culture, please go ahead. Somebody will publish it. I’ll certainly read it. But don’t expect it to win fans among Christians. We’re just not ready to laugh at ourselves yet. And that’s not funny, it’s just sad.

So that's it for Lamb and humor. I really, really, really would love to see some funny manuscripts. Give it some thought. Or if you've got an idea and a few chapters, send them in and I'll let you know what I think.

Next week I think we're going to go 180 degrees and talk about Jesus' death and resurrection, especially as they are seen in fiction/literature. Seems timely, what with all the furor over The Passion of the Christ.

The week after that we're going to discuss Diary of a Country Priest by George Bernanos. You can find cheap copies lots of places or get it from your library. Join me for this one. It's of less controversial ilk than Jesus Saves and Lamb.