Off the Pulpit

Serious or Funny?

“Mr. McCabe thinks that I am not serious but only funny, because Mr. McCabe thinks that funny is the opposite of serious. Funny is the opposite of not funny, and of nothing else.” So wrote G.K. Chesterton, reminding us that some of the most penetrating observations about life are made through humor. You do not have to be somber to be serious.

Jewish humor has not only enabled an often oppressed people to cope with the world, but taught a great deal about that world. When Henny Youngman tells us that Jews don’t drink because it interferes with their suffering, he swirls up several stereotypes to make a point. It is kin to the concise observation by Joseph Epstein — a sad Jew is a happy Jew.

We even have a joke for a Jew who doesn’t want to feel pain: An Eastern European Jew was reading the Nazi paper. His friend was aghast, but he explained: “In the Yiddish paper all I read is how we are suffering. But here I’m reading how we control the world!”

There are sermons in stones, wrote the poet. But there are also sermons in jokes. Except the jokes are shorter.