Joan Rivers made news recently when she walked off of a CNN set during an interview with Fredericka Whitfield.
When Whitfield suggested that Rivers could be “mean,” the latter informed the former that under no circumstances should she be interviewing someone, like Rivers, for whom comedy is a calling.
Whatever else may be said of Joan Rivers—I, for one, have never had much to say about her at all—this much seems certain: The woman knows that of which she speaks when it comes to her craft.
That is to say, she is acutely aware of the purpose, the invaluable purpose, served by humor. Far from being “mean,” the value of the joke lay precisely in its ability to neutralize life’s sting, to siphon off some of the tragedy of the circumstances into which Earthly existence seems hell-bent upon thrusting us.
Maybe, just maybe, this is the point.
As Jesus said of Hell, in it there will be constant “wailing and gnashing of teeth.” Hell is a laugh-free zone, a boiling cauldron of tears. Heaven, on the other hand, may also admit of tears. But the tears of Heaven are the fruits of joy, and the laughter that it calls forth promises to be as hearty as it is irresistible, for the inhabitants of Heaven will at long last recognize the seriousness with which we treated our lives on Earth for the folly—the joke—that is has always been.
And here we may be getting to the heart of comedy’s import.
This world of ours is an uneasy mix of dust and divinity, evil and good, suffering and delighting. In short, it is an endless supply of intimations of both Hell and Heaven. Humor, I believe, is a hint of Heaven, an emblem of eternity.
Humor is every bit as much of a divine gift as any other, and an even greater gift than some. The Joke permits us to come as close as possible, in this life, to arresting the relentless flow of time by transforming a situation that would otherwise paralyze those who are at its mercy into an object of ridicule. It permits us, in other words, to defang and declaw the demons that haunt us, and to do so effortlessly, with a laugh.
The Joke makes the humorous into caricaturists. But while caricaturists select for their portraits specific individuals, the humorous, in contrast, focus their attention not just on individuals, but upon whole sets of circumstances—including and especially that most peculiar set of circumstances that we know as the human condition itself.
Jack Kerwick received his doctoral degree in philosophy from Temple University. His area of specialization is ethics and political philosophy. He is a professor of philosophy at several colleges and universities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Jack blogs at Beliefnet.com: At the Intersection of Faith & Culture. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or friend him on facebook. You can also follow him on twitter.