Taking humour seriously: a response to Elisha McIntyre

Dr. McIntyre’s interview is a good, brief argument for why you should take humour seriously if you study religion and popular culture. Hopefully The Religious Studies Project will interview her again when her work on evangelical and Latter-Day Saints (LDS) humour is published and more of her examples can be discussed with a broader audience. As such, McIntyre’s case in this interview is more exploratory than argumentative, so this response will put forth some of the arguments underlying the study of religion and humour so that people encountering this field for the first time can have a more detailed sense of why they should share McIntyre’s enthusiasm.

First, McIntyre focuses on in-group humour, specifically LDS and evangelical Christian humour in the United States. This is where her research focus is. In her dissertation (which she is currently turning into a book) she is the first researcher to bring us systematic explorations of evangelical standup and LDS film and print humour. Other scholars should follow her lead because religion researchers have been aware that people in religious groups laugh and tell jokes, but they have spent comparatively little time studying them. Those jokes are, however, based in shared moral standards and they are ways into everyday theologies and religious politics. What can and cannot be spoken of in a joke tells you a lot about the group. Read McIntyre’s work, especially on the ways that Christian comedians work to maintain the image of a “clean” comedian (which means they work without swearing and sexual or scatological jokes) to see how this kind of in-group identity work is negotiated within this subculture.[1]

Using humour to understand in-group dynamics is especially important in this case since McIntyre’s case studies (LDS and evangelicals) are tight-knit communities that can see themselves as set apart from the rest of the world. As such, their in-group solidarity is particularly important for understanding how they construct their popular culture, which in turn supports their religious worlds. McIntyre makes an astute observation that in-group religious comedy is similar to popular music within these subcultures. It may be ostensibly about evangelism, but in reality it is consumed by insiders. When she makes this observation, she ties her research to fundamental studies in the field of religion and popular culture (e.g., Colleen McDannell’s classic Material Christianity and Jay Howard and John Streck’s Apostles of Rock). Research like McIntyre’s is important for scholars who have not given much thought to the everyday lives of different religious subcultures, but wonder why those subcultures persist. It shows us how the sacred and the banal are deeply intertwined and when it comes time for things that are more widely considered “serious” to be debated (e.g., politics or charity work), the everyday worlds sustained by religious popular culture—including humour—can be put into action. Religion and popular culture studies are part of understanding how worldviews as a whole are intertwined and maintained.

Underlying McIntyre’s research is a body of work in contemporary humour studies. Without getting into too much technical detail, the field is built around three classical theories of why human beings laugh: Superiority (we laugh at others deemed inferior in some way), relief (we laugh to relieve psychological tension), and incongruity (we laugh because we resolve an incongruity presented to us). Most contemporary theorists of humour either combine all three theories in some way or they emphasize incongruity theory. For the purposes of understanding McIntyre and what she is discussing, all three theories are useful, but more needs to be said in this interview about how she mixes and matches voices from the past and present to explain what is going on in her data. Before jumping the gun and putting words in her mouth about what I think she has done well and where her efforts could be improved, I await the publication of her book and subsequent discussion of her work. That said, the ways in which these theories help us to understand the incongruity in jokes about religious others or humour directed at people within our social spheres makes them particularly useful for explaining why humour persists and is an important part of people’s religious lives. Reading John Morreall’s Taking Laughter Seriously (State University of New York Press 1982) and the essays in the Victor Raskin’s edited volume The Primer of Humor Research (Mouton de Gruyter 2008) is a good introduction to this material. There is a lot of potential in systematically applying the different theoretical frameworks that comprise modern humour studies to the study of religion—especially in projects like McIntyre’s that take fieldwork and content analysis as their methodologies.

When we start applying these theories, however, what we will find is a range of intersecting dynamics at play in religious subcultures. Religious identity is shaped by race, class, and gendered identities and it is too bad that McIntyre did not go into more detail about how Chonda Pierce plays her identity as a suburban Southern Christian woman for churches (where her identity is far more acceptable than in comedy clubs). The humorous presentation of religious selves is part of the preservation of the religious worlds in which people dwell and this interview would have benefitted from probing the ways that a person’s social identity is located within multiple intersecting identities in a given culture. As somebody who lives in the southern United States near both Nashville and Atlanta (the “home bases” of numerous evangelical comedians), my everyday world is intimately shaped by the local rules and roles ascribed to people by race, class, gender, religion, and ancestry. When I observe Chonda Pierce or Anita Renfroe I hear people who know enough about the commonalities of American evangelical subculture to make jokes that they can reasonably assume will work for their audiences, but which are incomprehensible outside these worlds. They also convey a whole host of Southern cultural practices that are tightly intertwined with evangelical religion that differ from evangelicals in other parts of the country. These regional “flavours” to their comedy are part of their humour. The same particularities about different aspects of insider culture go for LDS humour, which I have to admit I find less humorous because I am not as familiar with the LDS than I am with evangelicals.

I will end on a critical point which helps us to address some of the dividing lines in the study of religion and that is with McIntyre’s use of the term “popular culture.” All successful studies in the academy make the case for the significance of their argument. In McIntyre’s interview, she argues for humour’s importance as a topic of study. She is making a case for the value of certain data to specific groups of people—religious people in select groups who make and consume their own brand of humour and the scholars who study those religious people. But why frame this as the study of “religion and popular culture” instead of just “religion and culture?” I am equally guilty of framing my own work in such terms when trying to establish its significance and importance, but McIntyre’s interview hints at some of the reasons why we might want to argue for humorous data’s place in broader data sets. “Religion and culture” implies a much broader field, one that is possibly too broad since it encompasses everything from jokes to political ideologies. This reframing, however, draws attention to the ways that scholars use implicit standards of significance to frame which data is important which is frivolous. “Popular culture” has a long history of being treated as unimportant data. While it started becoming a recognized subfield in the study of religion at the twentieth century’s conclusion, religion and popular culture remains a field that needs to justify itself to other scholars in ways that say, the study of theologians is not (even obscure ones that nobody reads or preaches from). Humour and other forms of culture which are considered “of the people” and not treated as the property of elites continue to need justification within the longer and established webs of power within scholarly fields to merit their inclusion and study. McIntyre’s work circles around some of the issues which scholars use to give significance to topics in popular culture, specifically the political importance of using humour to circulate specific ideas and moral positions and the economics of religious humour. Economics and politics are used as justifications for further study, they are given tacit approval as significance which justifies studying certain data. My own work uses the same foundations to justify its relevance for the skeptical. When money and power are at stake, there is an inclination among scholars to see something’s relevance. It is ironic (and, I would argue, humorous) to note that humour is undervalued in research, but is often one of the most succinct ways of accessing a people’s morals and values, politics and economics.

But is this the best way to justify studying religion and humour? What are the other reasons for studying this connection? What is at stake for us in the study of religion and humour? Is this “just” popular culture, or is it a way of accessing something more? Arguably we will not be able to answer that question without more people seriously engaging where, when, and who can tell specific jokes; cataloguing the kinds of jokes they tell; analyzing the contexts, contents, and reasons jokes are told; and bridging the meaningful worlds in which those jokes are told with the scholarly need to understand human lives and assess the larger webs of significance which makes such studies meaningful. McIntyre is engaging in this kind of research in religion and culture, which makes her research relevant to all of us, not just specialists in religion and popular culture and if we do not start taking humour seriously, then the joke could end up on all of us.

[1] In the interests of full disclosure, I was an external reviewer for McIntyre’s dissertation “God’s Comics: Religious Humour in Contemporary Evangelical Christian and Mormon Comedy.” University of Sydney, Department of Religious Studies, 2014. She has made a copy available on academia.edu for those interested in reading her work: https://www.academia.edu/6035668/Gods_Comics_Religious_Humour_in_Contemporary_Evangelical_Christian_and_Mormon_Comedy.

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