The Search for the Hysterical Jesus
Shaun B. Rafferty
Wyvern Club September 17, 2003
This paper starts with “The Search for the Historical Jesus,” a very interesting presentation at
Temple Sinai one night last fall. The speaker, John Dominic Crossan, is a prominent writer on the Historical
Jesus and the Usdin family sponsored his presentation. Katie and my mother were interested in the topic,
being faithful Christians and devout ecumenicists. I practice a somewhat less formal religion than they.
Nevertheless, I strongly believe in the First Amendment and deplore religious prejudice. While I
understood not much of the presentation, it intrigued me when Gene Usdin stood up and bluntly asked
Crossan whether the Jews killed Christ. This suggested that the Historical Jesus movement may have
something to do with reducing the historical prejudice by Christians against Jews. If so, I’m all for it.
However, this paper has little to do with such a weighty topic; as they say on Broadway, “weighty
affairs will just have to wait, . . .” Rather, it grew out an email I wrote to Steve Usdin the next day; I
wanted to thank the Usdins for their generosity. My note began with: “What’s this I hear about the
hysterical Jesus.” You all may remember that Gilda Radner used to have a comedy routine on Saturday
Night Live in which a hard-of-hearing little old lady, Emily Litella, would ask similar questions. “What is
all this fuss I hear about the Supreme Court decision on a ‘Deaf’ penalty. It’s terrible! Deaf people have
enough problems as it is.” She would proceed to discuss the subject at length, until corrected by the nearby
straight man. “Mrs. Litella, it’s the ‘death penalty.’” “Oh,” she would say. “That’s very different. Never
mind.” Her other topics included “Soviet Jewelry,” “Endangered Feces,” “Making Puerto Rico a Steak,”
“Presidential Erections,” - how prescient - “Pouring Money into Canker Research,” the “Eagle Rights
Amendment,” “Busting School Children” and “Violins on Television.”
Back then, we used to watch Saturday Night Live religiously. Typically we did so in a party
atmosphere. It did not take much to make the gathering around the dorm TV set erupt into uncontrollable
laughter. Radner cracked us up then, and I still think her routines were hilariously funny. Thus, I
congratulated myself generously on the cleverness of my note to Steve. The mere transposition of two
vowels had turned a ponderous concept into something truly (or mildly) amusing. Surely Steve had a
These events coincided with my own search for the Wyvern paper topic. It was that time we all
know in which almost everything one reads, sees and hears gets considered as a possible Wyvern paper.
For me, the search inevitably becomes hysterical in the “disturbed, crazed and panicked” sense of the
word. Its usage in this paper is intended to coincide with the popular usage, probably a misusage, as an
adjective meaning “very funny.”
So what about the hysterical Jesus? I married a deeply religious lady and have honored my vow
to assist her in raising our children in her religion. She has, in moments of un-Christian-like doubt, attributed
my zeal in complying with the vow to a desire for a bit of peace and quiet on Sunday morning. I have, in
equally weak moments, denied the charge. But I still believe I can claim to be respectful of others’ religious
beliefs although I am human and my respect is necessarily, subconsciously, imperfect. I also know I do
not have any appreciable body of theological knowledge. Thus, in taking on a topic bearing on religion,
I certainly fear that my ignorance or unconscious prejudices may cause me unwittingly to give offense. If
so, I apologize in advance.
Back to the topic. We all have attended - in some cases officiated at - countless baptisms,
confirmations, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, funerals, holiday services and regular religious services.
Certainly sermons often begin with a little joke. Eulogists often use amusing anecdotes about the deceased
to relieve the grief of the moment. For all I know, rabbis could be carrying on comedy monologues to well-
stifled laughter during the Hebrew portions of their services. Nevertheless, I can posit in good faith with
little fear of contradiction my belief that religious services are not generally intended to be funny. This paper
explores whether there might nevertheless be a connection between humor and religion that does not meet
the eye. It goes on briefly to describe an interesting debate over the subject in theological circles. Finally,
it discusses the subject from a “humorological” standpoint.
To begin, there may be humor in religious texts. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his book Jewish
Humor, What the Best Jewish Jokes Say About the Jews, finds humor in one Talmudic folk tale. Many
years ago, he recounts, the people in the story prayed for rain. God’s response was to send a drizzle.
They promptly amended their prayer to ask for lots of rain. God responded by sending a deluge. Only
when they asked for rains of “benevolence, blessing and bounty” did God send a normal rainfall. Telushkin
says this tale suggests God was using literal humor, and in fact “is the primordial joker.” I guess you had
to be there.
Rev. Charles P. Henderson, once a chaplain at someplace called Princeton University, made the
following valiant effort to find humor in the Bible:
To begin with, I would point out that the Bible contains the story of the birth of laughter.
God promised Abraham that a son would be born to his wife Sarah, but Abraham, being
100 years old at the time, fell on his face and laughed. “What! Shall a child be born to man
who is 100 years old?” When three mysterious strangers repeated the promise to Sarah,
she laughed too. Theirs was a laughter born of scorn and derision. But when the baby was
actually delivered, Sarah said: “God has made laughter for me. Everyone who hears my
story will laugh with delight. Who would have said that Abraham and Sarah could have
children, yet I have born him a son in his old age.” And they named the child Isaac, the
Hebrew word for laughter. That was how laughter was born.
Other than this, I have not found any published suggestion that the Bible contains humor. Several able
students of the Bible I have consulted have likewise told me that humor will not be found in it.
Humor and our Western religions just do not seem to mix. Nor does one hear of Confucianism,
Buddhism, Islam or Hinduism embracing humor as a central part of their religious experience. As for the
jihadists and other fundamentalists, I have heard an interesting conjecture that humor could not possibly
exist in their religions. The theory goes that humor requires advanced powers of abstract thinking to see
and make fun of paradoxes. By definition, the fundamentalists reject paradox and certainly nuance.
Woody Allen, for his part, calls Yom Kippur “the sacred holiday commemorating God’s reneging on every
promise.” Suffice to say, the irreverence and paradoxical thinking present in such a statement do not
appear common in the Taliban or other fundamentalist religious movements.
Telushkin makes a similar argument in a chapter of his book called “Jewish Intelligence and the
Playful Logic of the Jewish Mind.” He starts the chapter with a joke:
In the early 1900s, an old Jew is traveling alone in his compartment on the Trans-
Siberian Railroad. The train stops and an officer in the czar’s army gets on. He and the
Jew travel for a while in silence. Suddenly the officer grabs the Jew by the lapels and
demands: “Tell me, why are you Jews so much brighter than everyone else?”
The Jew is silent for a moment and then responds: “It is because of the herring we
The officer quiets down and the trip continues. Soon the Jew takes out a piece of
herring and starts to eat it. The officer asks him: “How many more pieces of herring do
“How much do you want for them?”
“Twenty rubles,” a big sum of money.
The officer takes out the money and gives it to the Jew. The old man gives him the
herring, and the officer takes a bite. Suddenly he stops. “This is ridiculous,” he says. “In
Moscow I could have bought all this herring for a few kopecks.”
“You see,” says the Jew, “It’s working already.
Telushkin goes on to quote (not unfavorably) genetic theories of Jewish intellectual superiority - that in the
middle ages intelligent but impoverished Jewish youngsters were married by arrangement to daughters of
wealthy businessmen, while intelligent but impoverished Christian young men had only one chance at
upward mobility, the priesthood. Thus, Jewish intelligence passed through the generations and Christian
intelligence did not. So no wonder 80% of good comedians are Jewish, as Steve Allen once observed.
You see. It’s working already.
Paradoxical humor often relies on the reasoning that if x results in y, and z is more so than x, then
z should certainly result in y, a fortiori, but taken to an absurd extreme. If God is benevolent, then perhaps
he can give me a sign, like making a large deposit in my name in a Swiss bank account, again paraphrasing
Woody Allen. Modern Christian writers use the same reasoning, but not taken to an extreme, when they
suggest that God must appreciate humor. We have a sense of humor and we are created in God’s image.
Therefore God must have a sense of humor. I have heard it similarly stated that Christ must have used
humor. He was such a masterful communicator, and humor facilitates communication, therefore humor
must have been present in His teachings, albeit unrecorded for posterity. There even is an organization
called the “Fellowship of Merry Christians.” It proclaims: “Humor, like love, crosses denominational lines.
Our Fellowship is for everyone who believes it is possible to have faith and still have fun.”
So one wonders why humor and religion have not mixed more freely over the ages. Humor and
spiritual faith have a number of similarities that come to mind:
1. Both use “threes.” Obviously we know of Holy Trinity. In humor, “three is fascinating,”
says one humor theorist, “because, while suggesting a balance (one in the middle and one on either side),
it also suggests an instability or “unfinishedness.” More practically speaking, good jokes are typically built
on three examples because that is the minimum number needed to establish a pattern (the first two
examples) and the humorous deviation from the pattern (the third). Good jokes do not use more than three
examples because of the importance of extreme economy in comedy. More about that later.
2. Both good humor and good religion rely substantially on rhythm, timing and cadence. A
large measure of the comfort people derive from religious services comes from the familiar, timeless flow
of the liturgy. Obviously we all know that a good comedy routine is constructed substantially on its timing
We have on the bags - we have Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know’s on
That’s what I wanna find out.
I say Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know’s on third.
You know the fellows’ names?
Well then who’s on first?
I mean the fellow’s name!
The guy on first!
The first baseman!
The guy playing first!
Who is on first!
Now whaddya askin’ me for?
I’m telling you. Who is on first.
Well, I’m asking YOU who’s on first!
That’s the man’s name.
That’s who’s name?
3. Both religion and humor involve a teller and an audience creating a human communal
connection. I remember the famous line “War bonds are on sale in the lobby,” as if it were yesterday.
Johnny Carson was the host of the Academy Awards one night in the seventies. The show included an
overproduced and out of place patriotic production number. Carson’s line, as he came on stage
afterwards, literally stopped the show. In a few funny words, Carson articulated all of the discontent of
the era. The line received much comment afterwards. Mainstream America became united behind the
principle that our patriotism was not to be squandered in Viet Nam. Clearly a profound bit of
communication had occurred.
4. Both humor and religion can be used viciously. Historians have documented the misuse of
religion. In an interesting book called Cracking Jokes: Studies of Sick Humor Cycles and Stereotypes,
the anthropologist Alan Dundes documents the misuse of humor. Sick and vicious jokes, he says, are
socially acceptable outlets for aggression, as in ethnic jokes, and even self-hate, as in ethnic jokes told by
members of the ethnic group. Sick jokes that spread rapidly through a society always suggest the existence
of a societal illness. As an example, he cites Auschwitz jokes which became popular in Germany in the
Seventies. Few of them showed any remorse over the Holocaust, or sympathy with the victims. Dundes
participated in a movement seeking to eradicate such humor by exposing it to the light of day. He
nevertheless saw some hope in the mere existence of the jokes, suggesting that the sick jokes themselves
might signal the beginning of a process through which sick societies begin to come to terms with their own
negative, in this case horrific, behavior.
5. Both humor and religion deal with the painful imponderables of life, and help relieve pain.
They give us solace as we endure the paradox of hope and despair. Bob Hope’s last quoted line comes
to mind. He was asked what plans he wanted made for his funeral. His answer, “Surprise me,”
contemplated a happy afterlife and apparently gave his family a good measure of comfort. Woody Allen
was more direct on the subject of death: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to
achieve it by not dying.”
6. This leads to my final similarity between humor and religion: lying in the acts of confession,
forgiveness and cleansing. These concepts clearly appear in religious practices and true humor engages
them as well. One simply cannot laugh at things that make him truly angry. One cannot remain angry at
that which he finds humorous. The process of replacing anger with humor is similar to the process of
forgiveness. At least in my brief experience. I have just finished my second class in stand-up comedy at
UNO. Interestingly, our first assignment has required us to list our negative characteristics and things that
make us angry. It is amazing how the simple process of listing flows into seeing the humor in, which flows
into relief from the pain of the things on the list, whether major or minor. It sometimes requires hard work
to find humor, but I can tell you I have even found humor in a parking ticket.
Do a Google search of “humor and religion” and you’ll find a number of interesting sites. On the
Fellowship of Merry Christians, you’ll first see this unusual depiction of Christ.
How many portrayals of Christ show Him with a such toothy grin? You will also see a link to “Holy
Humor & Jokes, Reprintable in church newsletters.” They include the one about the minister who, when
he was still single, preached a sermon he entitled, “Rules for Raising Children.” After he got married and
had children of his own, he changed the title of the sermon to “Suggestions for Raising Children.” When
his children got to be teenagers, he stopped preaching on that subject altogether. The Fellowship
advocates the use of humor in religion, but in a rather tame form.
I mentioned an interesting theological debate on humor. On the web, you also will see an article
in April 1975 issue of Theology Today, entitled “Not Like They Used To.” The author was Hugh T. Kerr,
and I cannot tell you I know much about him or his philosophy. I am somewhat self-satisfied with simply
having read an article in Theology Today. The article presents the “To everything there is a season
argument” of religion and humor. Humor has many uses in religious contexts, Kerr argues, not the least of
which is to puncture the “empty-headedness, intellectual vacuity, and fuzziness” (his words) of modern
theology. Humor also “allows us to laugh at the vicissitudes of our immediate human existence.” However,
humor cannot replace “faith (where the ultimate riddles of life must finally be referred). Humor can cope
with the local incongruities and save us from our too-solemn selves; but only faith can cope with the
absolute paradoxes of existence. ‘That is why,’ [Kerr quotes another theologian whom I know by name
only, Reinhold Neibuhr], ‘there is laughter in the vestibule of the temple, the echo of laughter in the temple
itself, but only faith and prayer, and no laughter, in the holy of holies.’” In another article, Frederica
Mathewes-Green makes the point more bluntly, “[H]umor can be an honest attempt to make sense of a
puzzling and tragic world; scratch a cynic and find a romantic. For people who don’t have a coherent
worldview with a loving God at the center, it may be the best they can do.” “Get It; You’re Not Alone if
You Don’t,” Christianity Today, May 22, 2000.
On the other hand, you will read the aforementioned Rev. Henderson. He has a somewhat less
absolutist view and suggests that true faith and true humor may in fact merge at some point:
There is a sacred humor that is equal to the wisdom of the wise because it sees
how silly we human beings can be. There is a sacred humor which pokes holes in our
posturing, pretension and pride. There is a sacred humor that is equal to the courage of
the brave because it knows that even death does not spoil the dance or kill the drama of
life. There is a sacred humor that equals the love of the saints because it sees that all
people are one in their folly and in their dignity. The tragedy is that far too few of us live
with that kind of humor. Rather than living with a buoyancy of spirit that would free us
from fear, we instead follow the dull and deadly habits that have far too often replaced
genuine faith. Instead of living the divine comedy, too often we make of our religion a silly
farce. Therefore let us learn to laugh at our own faults, instead of condemning the faults
in others. O God, grant us a deepening sense of humor, that the tragedy of this world may
be swallowed up in the joy of a graceful and godly life.
Obviously we’ll all decide for ourselves between the Kerr view and the Henderson view. However,
I would like to make one final point on the subject: that if any population lives “with a buoyancy of spirit
that would free us from fear,” it is the one indigenous to this City, for which religion and humor easily mix.
It is out of this population that you will find people such as the nice lady on the boat in Epcot Center whom
I met on the day after Mardi Gras one year. We heard the clearly New Orleans accent and naturally asked
if she and her companions were from the City. Yes, they replied. “Well are you escaping Mardi Gras?”
I asked. “No, Dawlin, we’re excaping Lent,” she replied. In this context, I commend to you a very funny
comedy monologue on faith called Undercover Catholic by a local comedienne named Char Vance.
You’ll also note, if you see Late Night Catechism, that there are passages at which the Catholics in the
audience laugh and laugh, while the non-Catholics quietly wonder what’s so funny.
Mr. Kerr and Ms. Mathewes-Green believe that humor is not an easy shortcut. I cannot say that
they are wrong, but I can say humor is hard, nevertheless. Johnny Carson’s heartbeat always rose above
normal right before his nightly monologue, even after years and years of performing. Jay Leno, every night,
before every show, rigorously tests and refines his routine at a local comedy club. They say it took Jim
Carrey fifteen years to become an overnight success.
This leads to “humorology,” because indeed, there is a science of humor. Aristotle and Freud both
famously wrote on the subject. As an aside, I am going to self-forgive with a brief mildly humorous note:
I love the Wyvern Club, and want dearly to contribute a paper worthy of your prior ones. But I have not
tackled Aristotle and Freud on your account.
What I have tackled are an interesting article in the New Yorker last fall - you may have read it -
called “What’s So Funny? A Scientific Attempt to Discover Why We Laugh” and a book called Zen and
the Art of Stand Up Comedy by Jay Sankey. From these, in no particular order, you will learn the
following scientific facts:
1. Comedians relish a laugh of 2 seconds, 4 seconds is golden.
2. I mentioned the rule of three. A good joke consists of two straight examples to establish
a pattern and a third to shatter the pattern. The first two examples form the “setup.” The last will be the
“punchline.” There may also be a “tagline” that plays off the punchline.
3. There is also a rule of seven, called comedy torture. This occurs when a comedian repeats
individual elements of a pattern more than three times. The elements lose their humorological intensity in
the fourth, fifth and sixths repetitions, but then become funny again after seven repetitions.
4. Setups should be specific but not too specific: an “apple” as opposed, on one hand to
“fruit,” or, on the other, to a “shiny red apple.” “Fruit” lets the audience’s imagination run too much. “Shiny
red apple” violates the rule of comedic economy.
5. For some reason, words having a “k” sound are funniest. Optimally, one’s “reveal word,”
the word that reveals the joke, should come as the last word of the punchline and should contain a “k.”
6. Echoing the theory of why fundamentalist religions cannot possibly have humor, truly
complete humor engages the entire brain. The left side of the brain sets up a joke and the right side “gets
it.” Those who have more well-developed flexible thinking (involving the frontal lobe of the brain) like
conceptually more difficult jokes.
7. There is a clear rule of comedic economy: jokes should be short and sweet. Excessive
verbiage in the setup, called “frosting the flake,” increases expectations and thus dilutes the humorous effect
of the punchline. This concept is expressed in the formula:
j't = f
where j is joke, t is time and f is funniness.
As an aside, the other axiomatic formula for funniness is:
B' ( = f ²
A pie in the face is really funny.
All seriousness aside, scientific theories on humor include an evolutionary theory of laughter: that
laughter initially constituted a mechanism to allay fear of a potential danger. A cave man would detect an
anomalous situation in the environment. If he determined that the situation did not pose a threat, he would
laugh, thus signaling to his tribe that there was no reason to worry.
Freud believed that humor releases repressed unconscious sources of pleasure. Sankey thinks that
this release, a shock to the system, actually shuts down certain brain functions such as memory. He says
magicians often do their sleight of hand while the audience is laughing. It might explain why it is hard to
remember good jokes you have heard. You were laughing.
However, for all these scientific facts and theories of humor, The New Yorker article gives one the
sense that attempts to explain humor using the scientific method have not yet satisfactorily done so, or even
come close. Thus, it is not surprising that writers such as Sankey turn to spiritualism to explain humor. His
spiritualism is pop Zen Buddhism which leads him to talk about water being stronger than rock, snatching
a pebble out of the teacher’s hand and “not trying” as a means of achieving. He goes on to describe the
perfect comedy monologue as simply “being there, on stage, naturally offering to the audience whatever
it is you are, in that moment. No sense of division between how you feel and what you do. No sense of
division between your character and your material. No sense of division between you and the audience.”
“I believe that too is Zen,” he says, and that is as far as he ventures into the connection between humor and
So if his book signals a spiritualization of humor, we are only in the initial stages of it. I think such
a process would be positive, however. For one thing, it would address the Achilles heel of humor, namely
the use of humor to show one’s superiority, that every good joke has to have a “victim,” or someone or
thing that is ridiculed. More advanced humor would evolve based on the concepts of confession,
forgiveness and cleansing. These concepts necessarily focus on our inner characteristics, rather than
external objects. Humor would become a means of mastering ourselves rather than proving one’s
If Rev. Henderson is right, we may also be in the initial stages of a humorization of religion. It
stands to reason. Humor follows intelligence, and humans, we hope, are gradually becoming more
intelligent. As they do, they will see greater levels of paradox, even in their religious lives. Some may
choose to use humor negatively toward their religion, as Woody Allen did with his Yom Kippur line.
However, I believe others will use humor to enhance their spiritual journey as Rev. Henderson suggests
This brings me around to the beginning of my search and perhaps a B in the sky hope. If humor
finds its way into religion, religious intolerance, anger and prejudice will necessarily decrease. They
obviously are the central problems of our age and all prior ages. But they cannot survive in the presence
of humor. As I mentioned, one simply cannot remain angry at that in which he has found - in some cases
worked hard to find - humor.