That’s Funny: Using Humor in Catholic Journalism

Humor is a nearly impossible topic to write about, and I am perhaps the worst person to even attempt it. I am not a professional writer. I am a one-man communications team for a small university academic center, and my center’s particular mission does not involve regularly telling jokes. We also need to acknowledge the elephant in the room: there is nothing that kills a laugh faster than having to explain a joke. When a joke falls flat, the presenter begins to reel, trying to unpack and re-present what was said in order to make the joke clearer to an uncomprehending audience, and that only leaves everyone in the room uncomfortable and looking for the exit.

There are challenges to using humor in reporting, whether faith-based or secular. The first obvious fact is that not everyone agrees about what is funny. To one person, something is wildly hilarious, while to another, that same thing or situation is just sad. As Mel Brooks once quipped, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” Or perhaps you have heard that Jerry Lewis films are (or at least were) wildly popular in France. But when is the last time anyone laughed at them here in America? On matters of taste, as the saying goes, there can be no dispute.

We also should recognize that humor or levity is not always appropriate. In straight reporting on a story, for example, it might be considered in bad taste to insert a wry observation or attempt to add levity. In fact, doing so may be seen as disrespectful to the story itself, to the persons involved, or even demeaning to the Church or host institution. This is where good editorial judgment comes in. We will come back to this idea later.

Then there is the question of whether official communications channels of the Church ought to be using humor at all, given the fraught nature of humor. If many different interpretations can be taken from a single sentence, why even try to walk that tightrope? Is it not better and safer to simply report the facts as they are and let others do the interpretation? It is hard to fault any editor or publisher who follows this path.

Finally, St. Paul has something to say about humor that we should keep in mind. In his Letter to the Ephesians, we read, “Let there be no filthiness, nor silly talk, nor levity, which are not fitting; but instead let there be thanksgiving” (5:4). The concept of “levity which is not fitting” is a good warning about the limits of humor, a reminder to consider the situation and the audience, and a deeper call to reflect on why we use humor at all. And for that, we turn to part two, the payoff. If humor can be a minefield, why should we even be interested in plotting a path over that dangerous ground?

In a word, it is because we, the Church, are called to be people of joy. We are urged by the Holy Spirit to share with all creation the love that we ourselves have received and to invite everyone we encounter to discover the hope that we have found in Christ Jesus. Pope Francis has made this theme of joy a central idea of his papal ministry, writing in his first encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium:

The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew. . . . In this Exhortation I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come (§1).

He builds upon this theme of joy in his 2016 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, which begins: “The Joy of Love experienced by families is also the joy of the Church” (§1). The Holy Father calls us to be evangelists who share the joy of the Gospel in a world that is increasingly divided. Of course, there has been division in the world since our first parents decided to enjoy the forbidden fruit, and it was to heal this division that Christ became incarnate.

A story from the seventh chapter of the Gospel of Mark illustrates how Jesus worked across the lines of division:

Soon a woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him. She came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth, and she begged him to drive the demon out of her daughter. Jesus said to her, “Let the children be fed first. For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She replied and said to him, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.” Then he said to her, “For saying this, you may go. The demon has gone out of your daughter” (Mark 7:24–29).

How can we read this as a story of humor or joy? Jesus sounds a bit cruel after all, calling the woman a “dog” just because she was not Jewish. But in his book Discovering Humor in the Bible, theologian Howard R. Macy suggests that if we envision ourselves as wallflowers in the scene, and we focus on the faces of Jesus and the woman during their interaction, we might discover something different:

The text doesn’t give us facial expressions or vocal inflections; we bring those to it. Imagining Jesus smiling and even being a bit coy rather than being cranky makes a lot of sense, particularly when we remember Jesus’ response in so many other stories.

Macy continues, “My colleague Ron also tells me that this passage is very important to missiologists. They see this as one of the ways Jesus was teaching the disciples the wide range of the gospel. The sneaky gentleness of humor, as they watched, could well have had an enduring, powerful effect” (Macy, 116).

This idea of joy is the first payoff that I see in using humor in our writing and publications. The second payoff is that humor respects the reader’s intelligence. It acknowledges the reader as taking part in a dialogue with the writer, one that in its best moments can lead the reader to discover a connection or an understanding that they had not made before. As I mentioned in my disclaimer, there is nothing that ruins a joke like explaining it, so instead I present three different theories about how humor and laughter work. For this, I am indebted to the English writer Terry Eagleton and his 2019 book Humour (spelled with an unnecessary extra “u,” which is itself funny).

The first theory of humor is the so-called “Release Theory.” In this idea, laughter or mirth arises from “a gush of agreeable feeling which follows the cessation of unpleasant mental strain” (Eagleton, 10). Sigmund Freud, in his book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, posits that jokes “represent a release of the psychic energy we normally invest in maintaining certain socially essential inhibitions” (Eagleton, 11). Freud’s interpretation helps explain perhaps why we laugh uproariously at funerals or other moments when it is considered inappropriate. We are not supposed to laugh, and so when we actually do, it snowballs and grows on itself. Eagleton continues, “In Plato’s Republic, Socrates, himself a kind of philosophical buffoon, points out that we relish the spectacle of others indulging in the preposterous antics we would secretly like to engage in ourselves” (Eagleton, 57). This theory and form of humor lends itself well to longer fiction, for the most part, as it requires a lengthy setup, unless you are writing for an audience that already shares a common set of cultural understandings or stock characters, as in the traditional British “Punch and Judy” shows or the Italian Commedia dell’Arte, or the generic clueless dad in a sitcom.

The second theory is the “Superiority Theory.” This particular form of humor “springs from a gratifying sense of the frailty, obtuseness, or absurdity of one’s fellow beings” (Eagleton, 36). This is a very common form of humor in contemporary culture. It drives much of the feigned or sometimes very real outrage that often plagues our social media timelines. It is sarcasm taken to a high degree. “My view is so obviously correct, where does this clown get the nerve?” The German word schadenfreude, defined as “taking joy at another’s misfortune,” is the quintessential example of the Superiority Theory. Much of meme culture on the internet is a form of Superiority Theory.

In his book, Eagleton points out that the Superiority Theory can play an effective role in social reform when used well. “If men and women cannot be scolded into virtue,” he writes, “they might always be satirized into it” (Eagleton, 41). He cites Evelyn Waugh as a particularly effective modern writer employing this form. One could illustrate the Superiority Theory with the proverb, “There but for the Grace of God go I,” but this form of humor is a dangerous tool for practitioners of Catholic writing to employ, as it usually does not exhibit the virtue of charity, but rather cuts one’s opponent to the ground. Eagleton notes that the word “sarcasm” comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “to tear the flesh” (42). If anything, the Superiority Theory of humor should provoke a response of compassion, inviting us to recognize that it is indeed by the grace of God that we are saved from misfortune, and at the same time, that grace of God impels us to bind the wounded, to feed the hungry, and to give drink to the thirsty.

The final theory of humor is my particular favorite, the “Incongruity Theory.” An illustration:

A pirate walks into a bar. At the end of one of his arms he has a ship’s wheel attached to his wrist. He walks up to the bar and says to the bartender, “Barrrtender, can ye pour me a shot of rum?” The bartender pours a shot of rum, hands it over to the pirate, and asks, “Mr. Pirate, do you know you have a ship’s wheel attached to the end of your arm?” The pirate responds, “Yarrr, it’s very handy!”

Another pirate walks into a bar, and he has a paper towel on his head. He asks the bartender, “Barrrrtender, can you make me a Dirty Marrrrtini?” Now if you know anything about dirty martinis, you know that it contains a little bit of olive brine, so it’s appropriate that a pirate would order such a drink, as he makes his living on the briny sea. The bartender shakes up the drink, strains it into a martini glass, garnishes it with an olive on a toothpick, and hands it over the bar. As he does so, he asks, “Mr. Pirate, did you know you have a paper towel on your head?” “Yarrr, there’s a Bounty on me head!”

This pair of jokes is how I like to explain the incongruity theory. The basic concept of the theory is that the setup portion of a joke works to get the listener on a particular track of logic, one that goes straight down the line. All of the setup is aimed at getting the listener to think in one direction, perhaps even to anticipate where the punchline is going. But when that punchline comes, it is not on the logical track that the listener has been traveling. Instead, it comes in at a ninety-degree angle and T-bones the listener at full speed. For a moment, there is the experience of cognitive dissonance, defined as “the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values” (Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance).

Laughter results when the listener has processed the new information (the punchline) and discovers how it also logically fits with the same joke setup, thus releasing the psychological stress of cognitive dissonance. Rest assured, that because merely listening to a joke is non-threatening (it was an artificial situation induced by the comedian), the actual psychological stress is relatively low. Note that the moment of comprehension allows for a release of stress, which places this theory in relation to the “Release Theory” discussed earlier. And that moment of comprehension may take a bit of time as the listener’s brain unravels the logical conundrum, which is why we have the phrase, “She who laughs last finally got the joke.”

But why include the details about the olive brine in the dirty martini? That is easy: because I wanted to get you off of the logical train track that you were already riding from the first joke. Both jokes employ exactly the same setup and payoff—a groan-inducing pun. By distracting with unnecessary data, I doubled the return from the same setup structure, while at the same time anticipating that you, an intelligent reader, might see the payoff coming. And, Q.E.D., we are back to the idea of humor being a form of respect for the intelligence of one’s audience.

This brief digression into humor theory has illustrated that to do humor well requires that the writer have enough familiarity with her intended audience to anticipate what they share in common so that they can employ their intelligence as an aid to building a connection. Humor is a two-way form of communication that can bridge the gaps in a normally one-way medium, like print or radio. It even works this way on social media, where so many conversations begin via a single post, tweet, gram, or Tik Tok.

The third payoff of humor is that it helps to personalize the writer and publication. Readers and listeners want to know the writer behind the column, the voice behind the microphone. This is why fan communities build up around TV shows, why people go to author’s readings at bookstores, and why things like live podcast recordings are a real thing. A personal connection is an invaluable form of communion—as the COVID years made painfully clear.

Finally, the fourth payoff of using humor: it helps establish a common culture among writers, publications, and readers. Of course, Catholics already share many common symbols and experiences in the sacraments, doctrines, and even the hierarchical structure of the Church. Humor can help highlight those things that help us identify one another beyond the doors of the Church, to connect our daily lives with our faith lives.

An example of this common culture: comedian John Mulaney talks about being raised Catholic, though he no longer practices. Here is how his bit goes:

I grew up Catholic. I don’t go to church anymore. But I went on Christmas Eve with my parents, because you know how you lie to your parents. So . . . we go into the church and I was like, “I got this under control.”

And then I got schooled because they introduced a bunch of new [stuff]. I was going through Mass and I was batting, like, .400. And then in the middle of Mass, the priest said, “Peace be with you.” And everyone said, “And with your spirit.” And I was the one pre-Y2K [guy] going, “And also with you. What? Huh? What? Huh? What? When? When?”

They changed it to “And with your spirit.” Because that’s what needed revamping in the Catholic Church. That was the squeaky wheel that needed the grease.

This common Catholic culture is something that we can celebrate and share and invite people to join because it reinforces our experience as members of the Body of Christ. And we can even joke about it (within the bounds that St. Paul recommended, that is, avoiding levity which is not fitting), because even Jesus had a sense of humor. Imagine Jesus walking with his disciples along the dusty roads of Galilee, as Jude the less eagerly squirms his way to the front of the pack:

“Hey, Lord, have you heard the one about...”

“Uh, yeah, I created that.”

“Oh yeah, I forgot.” [slinks to the back of the crowd]

Now some practical process advice for employing humor, things that can help both writers and editors.

Step 1: Know the punchline. Like all good writing, know where you are taking the reader, then sharpen everything to point in that direction.

Step 2: Attend to timing. If the setup drags or is too thin, your reader will not be in position to receive the payoff—they will have gotten bogged down in the details. Timing is better detected by ear, so read your piece out loud to someone to see what lands and what does not.

Step 3: What can you omit? Humor often relies on strategic holes so that the reader is forced to take leaps. Related to timing, you should work for concision and edit ruthlessly. Spare is better.

Step 4: Give it time. The funny insight will come in a flash. Get it down on paper or keyboard as fast as you can, but then invest time in honing it. Walk away from the piece for several weeks if you have the ability, and you will have fresh eyes when you return. Distance also enhances judgment. If you do not laugh at it upon return, you have more work to do.

Step 5: Be real. As the saying goes: “Comedy is tragedy happening to someone else.” So be that person for your readers. Do not be afraid to be vulnerable or humble.

And finally, Step 6: Avoid denigrating others, especially your enemies, real or perceived—you know, those people Jesus told us to love.

A brief word about those times when humor or levity is not appropriate. As mentioned earlier when discussing the challenges of humor, sometimes it might be considered in bad taste or even demeaning to employ levity or humor in a piece. It would be out of bounds, for example, to shoehorn a joke into a story about a parish closing. This is a case where “caution is preferable to rash bravery,” in the words of Shakespeare’s Falstaff in Henry IV, Part 1.

When faced with a preponderance of heavier topics, one option is to look at the overall story balance in a given issue, and pepper in a column or freelance piece with a lighter tone to provide a sort of palate cleanser or antacid, as it may be. Not every piece needs a punchline or has to read like the script to an Adam Sandler film. As Gaudium et Spes teaches, it is not just “the joys and the hopes,” but also “the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted” that are “the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ” (§1). We need to let that soak in.

A few types of writing and presentation are particularly suited to humor:

Lists are awesome because they do not require backstory or character or setting—only internal cohesion. Once you start writing a list, it carries a certain momentum and can help generate further items. Plus, they are clickbait-city: the headlines are easy, and they always manage to draw me in.

Open letters have a jovial, familiar tone that gives freedom to write colloquially. An open letter can make leaps of logic that otherwise would have to be spelled out in a more formal piece. My favorite kind of open letters are those in which a lighthearted topic is made out to be much more important than it is, and then taken to its absurdist extreme. Parody op-eds are the same, like Gilda Radner’s “Emily Litella” sketches on early seasons of Saturday Night Live, where she would encourage people to conserve our “natural race horses,” only to lose all interest when it was pointed out to her that it was our “natural resources” that were endangered.

Miscommunications are the bread and butter of sitcoms, and they can be employed in your writing as well. Combining forms works well here. For example, a list of “What the youth minister said versus what the teenagers heard.”

There are also some specifically Catholic forms of writing that are ripe for application in a different context or even gentle parody. As an example, for years there has been a bit making the rounds about questionable bulletin announcements that include items like:

“Barbara remains in the hospital and requests your prayers. She is also having trouble sleeping and requests tapes of Father Nelson’s homilies.”

“The parish office will be closed on Easter Monday. Alleluia. Alleluia.”

“Next Thursday, there will be tryouts for the choir. They need all the help they can get.”

And my personal favorite:

“Please remember in prayer the many who are sick of our parish.”

The shortest verse in the Bible tells us that “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). But I have a sneaking suspicion that he laughed a bit as well. Let us look for opportunities to bring joy and humor to our world, to reflect the hope that we have been given in Christ Jesus.

Editorial Note: This essay was originally presented as a live workshop for journalists, editors, and Catholic communications professionals at the 2022 Catholic Media Conference in Portland, Oregon.

Featured Image: Life-size figures for the Good Friday procession in Lohr am Main in Bavaria, Germany, photo taken by Maulaff; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.


Ken Hallenius

Ken Hallenius is the communications specialist for the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture. In addition to his work at Notre Dame, he co-hosts Living Stones, a nationally-syndicated weekly radio conversation about the Catholic faith produced by Mater Dei Radio in Portland, Oregon. 

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