Divine Comedy


The humorist is one who is still partly a child in that he processes childlike quality but is not possessed by it. Soren Kierkegaard

I have a certain rule when it comes to comedy shows or movies. If I do not laugh within the first 10 minutes, I turn it off. And I am not a big fan of the Pavlovian laugh track that tries to convince me that I am the problem because "listen to all these fake people who are laughing." There is a lot of humorless humor.

Comedy is contextual, both individually and culturally -try telling a joke through a translator-or trust me don't. So I get that others find things funny that I don't. But I think great comedy can transcend both time and place if it taps into something approaching if a not a universal, at least something that points to our shared humanity. Most great comedy comes from very bright individuals with deep inner shadows. (e.g. Charlie Chaplin, Sid Caesar, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryer, Steve Martin, David Chappell, etc.) But broken vessels can turn light into a rainbow or at least throw a pie in someone's face.

I think comedy can also come from as SK states "a childlike quality." Laurel and Hardy had both. In theaters now is Jon S. Baird’s Stan & Ollie, set during the 1953 comeback (and final) tour of arguably the greatest movie duo of all time, I have always loved Laurel and Hardy, even though the majority of their work was made before my parents were born. My appreciation and exposure to their work was born out of only having three and half TV stations as a young child (the half was seemingly dependent on weather conditions) that ran lots of reruns. Though some of their bits do not hold up over time, their influence is present in nearly every "buddy movie" made since. From a hospital visit gone wrong to a piano move gone even worse, their timing, expressions, and chemistry are unmatched.

So I was excited when I saw that the movie was playing locally. I don't go to the movies that often and never alone, but I did both this past Sunday afternoon. The morning worship services had been good. We had particularly moving ordination of a grandson filling the unexpired elder term of his grandmother, a beloved leader in our church who died suddenly last Fall. In a strange way, going to the movie seemed an extension of what already had happened that day. I sat down with my popcorn and Junior Mints (the perichoresis of flavors is nearly mystical) and felt like I was preparing to see old friends.

It was a beautiful film-Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly were brilliant and uncanny in their performances. Jason Zinoman in his review of the movie observes "Replace flirtation and sex with pratfalls and comic repartee (and the movie) is a heartstrings-yanking Hollywood romance" (NY Times, 12/27/18). He goes on to state "...the tightly focused narrative finds these comedians past their prime, not just in their career but also in their relationship. (They are on a theater tour to raise money for a film comeback.) Like a married couple that stopped fighting long ago, their exchanges hint at buried resentments, muffled irritations and an abiding love." And I would add the movie portrayed the power of what Aquinas saw as the greatest human love of all-friendship.

The movie reminded of my bond with my oldest friend in ministry Don Baker. Though we only worked together for two years, our friendship has been a kind of North Star in the many ups and downs of our professional and personal lives. I sent him a text after the movie saying that though we have not actually ever worked together again like we had always hoped, a part of those two years is in everything right I have done in ministry. There are some bonds that do not break. Oliver Hardy died in 1957 and Stan Laurel refused to perform without him. It is said that he kept writing material until his death in 1965 for Laurel and Hardy.

As I left the movie deeply moved, I was reminded of the summer of my junior year in high school. Things were pretty tense between my dad and me. We only argued about certain things- politics, religion, race, everything else, and my curfew. One night not quite ready to sleep, I discovered that the local public tv station played Laurel & Hardy every night at 11:00. It was like finding a long lost childhood friend.

As I was watching, my laughing must of been a little loud. My dad came out from his bedroom, in a fairly irritated state.

"What the hell are you laughing at"

"Laurel & Hardy"

Without making eye contact, he sat down and pretty soon we were laughing like hell-together. And for the rest of the summer, regardless of what had happened between us that day, we ended it laughing together. It is one of my favorite memories of our relationship. Some how Laurel and Hardy were a means of grace that reminded My Dad and me that our love for each other was greater than the walls we had erected to separate us. "It was another fine mess..." they actually got us out of.

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