I recently read Steve Martin's autobiography Born Standing Up. I first heard of the book while listening to an interview of Steve Martin on NPR. While reading his book, I discovered some interesting history about Mr. Martin like how he honed his skills while working as a youngster in the magic shops of the newly opened Disneyland.
Steve's stand-up career was a little before my time. Growing up, I always thought he was part of the original Saturday Night Live cast. It was only later that I came to appreciate the number of times he instead hosted the show using his own form of anti-comedy comedy. King Tut was always one of my favorites.
But reading Steve's analysis of the evolution of his stand-up career got me to thinking about the use of humor from the pulpit. I still firmly believe that humor is one of the greatest gifts God has ever given us. Why else would God have given us the platypus or gefilte fish? The ability to laugh at the absurd and unexpected is one of life's great coping mechanisms.
In some ways I view humor from the pulpit in a way akin to that of the stand-up comedian. We are both on a stage in front of a mostly welcoming audience. Now of course the goal of the stand-up comedian is to make the audience laugh and maybe even think, whereas the goal of the rabbi is to help uplift the congregation, and maybe get them to think about things in a new by using stories, interpretations, history, and the use of the occassional joke or really bad rabbinic pun.
The trick with humor in either case, I have found, is all about timing. For example: sometimes I use humor too much with the result being all the congregants remember are the jokes rather than the subject or lesson. Sometimes I use humor too little, so that by the time the punchline arrives, the laughs are sparse because no one saw the joke being set up. But on those rare occasions, I have exactly the right mixture of humor and levity, with one leading subtly into the other.
I admire great stand-up comedians like the late great George Carlin, Steve Martin, both of whose books I have read, Robin Williams, Richard Pryor, the anti-comedian Andy Kaufman, Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Sarah Silverman, and one of my personal favorites Steven Wright. Of course I would be remiss if I did not mention all of those great Jewish comedians of the borscht belt and vaudeville who laid the path for many of today's comedians as well like Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Grouco Marx and the Marx Brothers, Henry Youngman, Woody Allen, and the list goes on an on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Jewish_comedians.
But in the end, I think a really good comedian, like a good sermon, in between the laughs helps give the listener real insight into the human condition. Now if only I could find a way to turn down the lights in the sanctuary, pass out drinks and hors d'oeuvres for my one man juggling, guitar playing, drashing show. All I need now is to a good dummy for my ventriloquist act. Maybe I'll start with a talking gefilte fish.