As someone who has attempted stand up comedy and is always looking at the intersections of faith and culture, Stephen Colbert’s response to Dua Lipa is a beautiful example of how our faith should be woven into the textures of life. Lipa inquired as to how comedy and faith overlap to which Colbert responded, “So, if there’s some relationship between my faith and my comedy, it’s that no matter what happens, you are never defeated. You must understand and see this in the light of eternity and find some way to love and laugh with each other.”
If laughter is indeed the best medicine, then God is a superlative apothecary. I find this to be the grand idea in Anthony J. Petrotta’s book God at the Improv: Humor and the Holy in Scripture. Petrotta suggests, “With humor we stand between the play of two worlds, one straightforward and one catawampus. We have to make some sense of it.” Making sense of Scripture is often a challenging task given the multiple interpretations and perspectives our various experiences and traditions –traditions that often pigeonhole us to readings devoid of laughter. But Petrotta invites us to read the Scriptures with fresh eyes that are wide open to the humor woven throughout familiar passages that are intentionally designed by the Holy Spirit to teach us that we shouldn’t take life nor ourselves all that seriously. Petrotta opens by making the point, “Humor, if funny, aims to bring about awareness and change, not merely entertain us. It has an implicit invitation to examine our assumptions, thoughts, and behaviors. Finally, it is a call to engage in thoughts and actions whose aims are to reconcile, not condemn…If any of it rings true, then God has been at the improv long before it was cool.”
While the idea of God employing improvisational humor may offend our notions of Providence, it remains that offending our sensibilities is at the heart of the most effective comedy. To that end, Petrotta points out, God doesn’t bomb. Skillfully, Petrotta invites readers to consider the unusual details of foundational stories in the Bible, and by doing so gain a new appreciation for the ways in which God leverages humor to make those stories even more memorable and applicable to our daily struggles. For instance, in referencing the biblical narrative surrounding the events of the improbable conception and birth of the Old Testament patriarch Isaac, Petrotta writes “God is inviting Abraham and Sarah to improvise…in the face of the inevitability and propriety of laws in nature and in society, the Bible displays stories and actions that suggest it all could be otherwise.”
The story of a child born to barren and aged parents, who are well past even the desire to engage in the mechanics of producing a child is a perennial trope that continues to serve as comedic fodder in many a beloved sitcom. Further, as the original languages of the narrative make clear, the comedic content isn’t lost on Sarah who laughs to herself while asking “shall I have pleasure…shall a withered garment become moist?” Whereas Sarah laughs at herself, Petrotta points out that Abraham laughs in “sober realism…an almost horrible laugh, deadly earnest, not in fun.” One can imagine the studio audience erupting in laughter as both Sarah and Abraham simultaneously laugh in response to God’s promise, with the comedic timing of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, one can almost hear them saying in tandem “Oh dear God!” in very different tones.
God at the Improv doesn’t avoid the tabooer portions of the Bible but dedicates an entire chapter to subjects of “Sex and Scatology” as these reveal that often what we find the funniest is also what we consider to be the most embarrassing aspects of our existence. Petrotta writes, “To suppose that the Bible has no bodily or sexual references or humor is inconceivable. Body parts and functions make plain our embeddedness in creation. Circumventing the ‘bawdy’ in Scripture necessarily has the unintended consequences, not the least of which is the sheer amusement we can experience…Sex and scatology, however, do more than entertain. They often show up in literature to undercut taboos, reverse expectations, and knock a person ‘off his/her game.’ They are a handy tool for humorist since we work so hard as humans to disguise many of these more personal activities and foibles.”
The wonderful gift of God at the Improv is that the biblical narratives and vignettes, as narrated by Petrotta instruct the readers ability to identify humor in Scripture. As Petrotta wonderfully and carefully unpacks each passage, the reader gains the ability to more readily identify humor in all its covert forms as it is delivered in the pages of the Bible. Petrotta leaves no stone unturned, and no banana unpeeled in setting up his readers to fully appreciate the lengths to which God has gone to provide truth for humanity in all its forms.
I highly recommend Anthony Petrotta’s God at the Improv as a wonderful resource to those of us who increasingly find the world a challenging place. It is good to know that amid all our sorrow that God is still dispensing the good medicine of laughter, providing some comic relief and hope along with it to all of us who have fallen ill.
Or in the words of Stephen Colbert, “Ultimately, us all being mortal, the faith will win out in the end. But I certainly hope when I get to heaven, Jesus has a sense of humor.” I believe Jesus does and laughter will be the language of heaven.