The Taser's Edge


Smart Humor and Good Preaching

Last Friday night, thinking at first that it actually was Second City TV, I started streaming the The Second City: The First Family of Comedy, a three-part documentary on that comedy empire. It’s not a great documentary in terms of its production and it’s glaringly clear that they couldn’t get Bill Murray to have anything to do with it, but it has me enthralled. I’ve been studying comedy writing (meaning, watching a lot of TV) lately, and to see this doc and to learn where so much of the contemporary comedy landscape came from is captivating.

At about 22 minutes into the first segment, one bit really caught my attention. Harold Ramis is talking about how the second generation of Second City (many of whom became the first season casts of SNL and SCTV and then went on to define 1980s-and-beyond comedy) came into its own.

Ramis explains the difference between this second class and that original class (which, wow, included Alan freakin’ Arkin, who I am now convinced needs to be asked to host SNL, in a thoroughly non-ironic way). Here’s my own transcript from the documentary:

Harold Ramis: “Bernie Sahlins had a motto which was, ‘Always work from the top of your intelligence.’”

Joe Flaherty: “You have to assume that the audience is at least as smart as you are. When you play down to an audience, you know, when you start doing comedy that you think, ‘Well I wouldn’t like it, I don’t think it’s funny, it’s, you know, stupid, but they’ll like it,’ it doesn’t work. It just falls flat on its face.”

And now comes the 4G turn…this is how I think about the church and specifically about the state of preaching in American churches. One central temptation to the pastor or preacher or teacher or Christian writer (popular or academic) is to not work from the top of our intelligence.

In comedy, the reasons for working from the top of your intelligence are that if you don’t, (a) your comedy won’t be as high quality and (b) you will be actively insulting your audience by treating them as if they are stupid.

Likewise, in preaching and pastoral work, if you don’t work from the top of your intelligence, (a) your work won’t be as high quality and (b) you will be actively insulting your hearers, readers, or congregation. (If you’re wondering, insulting your congregation is worse than insulting your audience at a comedy club. Lowest common denominator preaching is a devaluing of people who we supposedly believe are created in the image of God.)

Worst of all, if you’re not preaching from the top of your intelligence, (c.) you are failing to help your fellow disciples to grow and mature. Life experience, the Christian tradition, and Scripture are clear: we don’t grow unless we are stretched and asked to push further. Ask any athlete, any good comic, any saint.

So far so good, perhaps, but the question which this all begs is what “smart” preaching is. I happen to have an intellectual bent, but intellectual or academic preaching is not what I’m talking about. At all.

To explain, I go back to good comedy. There are comics out there today and in history who have been inarguably smart and who love the dumb joke. The Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, the writers of the best Cary Grant films, Woody Allen, and on down to Futurama, 30 Rock, and Louis CK, have all recognized that being smart in their humor includes being dumb in their humor. Somehow the best comics have not just been about being smart, but they choose to be smart in service of being good.

That’s all I’m asking of preachers. Be smart, because that’s part of pursuing the Good in what you do.

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2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Good post, Nick.

It’s clear that history’s great preachers (e.g., Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, John Chrystostom, Andrewes, Edwards, Brooks, Fosdick, Bonhoeffer, Temple, Gomes) preached from the top of their intelligence.

Comment by Todd Granger

4Gs!

Comment by Fishy Joe




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