Rolling With the Punch(line)

by the Very Rev Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s

David ison 2

‘My wife complained that her feet hurt. I said: “You’ve got your shoes on the wrong feet.” She said: “But these are the only feet I’ve got.”’

Tommy Cooper was a great comedian. He knew how to use the punchline of a joke to get a laugh. And the laugh usually comes because the punchline is unexpected. In the example above, it’s the collision of two different ways of seeing things.  One direction of thinking collides with another, and we suddenly see something which is incongruous or ridiculous, something we hadn’t noticed or hadn’t acknowledged before which a comedian, like a court jester, calls to our attention: the emperor has no clothes, a word has two meanings, the action you think obvious appears to others absurd… and so we laugh.

For religious people, laughter can be rather threatening. Umberto Eco’s book ‘The Name of the Rose’ has a story that revolves around the determination of some monks to be serious and never to laugh because it’s disrespectful to God, who has no unresolved discontinuity and is never ridiculous. But of course, we’re laughing at ourselves and not at God, and ridiculous is often what we are. Especially when we think we’re not. And serious religious people, like serious politicians or anyone else with power, are still in need of a sense of the ridiculous and can end up being cruel and un-integrated because they take themselves too seriously.

Laughter discharges tension and helps us understand or live with the discontinuity which humour has unmasked. And sometimes that can be very helpful: to be able to laugh rather than take the whole of life very seriously is often a saving grace that helps us endure difficult things. But humour can be satirical too, drawing attention to the failures, abuses and cruelties of those with power: and when the audience laughs then, they may also be thinking about how they could change their vote, or stop supporting a party or group, or start a campaign for change. In that context, when humour exposes injustice or unkindness, simply to laugh and go away feeling better is not enough. We need to turn our perception of the ridiculous into a determination to make things better.

A way of self-defence against satire used by those with power is to be like a boxer who rolls a punch, i.e. moves their body away from a blow in order to lessen its force. So, when laughed at, the powerful may smile and admit there’s a bit of truth in what’s said, but it’s really about others and not about them, and anyway reform is around the corner and things will change. Some time. Perhaps. And religious people with power do this too. Because it’s hard to face our own need to repent and change; easier to laugh and deflect the criticism, and leave things as they are.

The Church (not just Anglican) has done, and still does, a lot of good in caring for those on the margins of society and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. But it’s also faced a large amount of criticism from wider society over the centuries for its misuse of wealth and its hypocrisy. As society has moved on, the focus has shifted to its impact on vulnerable people, whether in safeguarding failures or insensitivity to minorities of all kinds. The collision of different ways of thinking about safeguarding or good disagreement can be laughable indeed, though it isn’t often funny – it’s too serious for that; but the Church at large is still too prone to rolling with the punchlines, unwilling to hear the sharp points being made and to change as a result.

Part of the irony – the jest – in this is that God is very good at punchlines. The Scriptures are full of them. Jesus uses them a lot.* God uses punchlines to point to our ridiculous self-importance and our obsessions with control and status as being more important than love for God and neighbour. And when we read or hear Scripture, we need to be careful to be still and to listen: not to roll with the punchline, not to soften the blow and evade the word of God to us by clever argument or by obsession with the detail rather than the big picture.

Tommy Cooper and other comedians help us to be open to being surprised and challenged. And we need to respond to the incongruity and confrontation between different perspectives by enlarging our understanding. Not by refusing to listen and insisting on our own rightness. Which others as well as God will find ridiculous.

‘This little old lady was frightened. She looked at me, she said ‘Do something religious’.

So I took a collection.’

* For an example of how we can reflect on this see my sermon at

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