In Woody Allen’s film, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Alan Alda’s character, Lester, a rather crass but very successful television producer, defines comedy in an equation: comedy is tragedy plus time. He says, “If it bends, its comedy. If it breaks it isn’t.”
In last Sunday’s sermon, which I titled Lighten Up, about the need for humor, I described an incident that happened to me two days earlier, on Friday, when I went to the fridge in the church kitchen to fix a sandwich for my weekly lunch meeting with my colleagues. I reached for the big plastic jar of Dijon mustard, holding it by the top, which was not screwed on properly, and the jar slipped from my hand, crashed to the floor at my feet and splashed upward showering me from head to toe with huge globs of brownish-yellowish mustard. Spicy!
Standing there in disbelief I said a bad word, slowly taking in the enormity of the situation. I was covered with mustard from head to foot – literally. I felt like a walking hot dog. Mustard was splattered on my suit jacket, shirt, pants, shoes, beard, eye glasses and hair.
Bobby came by – bless him – and helped me deal with the mess, working with me to wash the mustard off my clothing. Then I went to the bath room to wash it from my beard, hair and face. What I really needed was a shower and shampoo!
I was late for my lunch meeting, explained what happened, and my good clergy friends broke out in laughter. (Humor is what happens to someone else!) They thought it was very funny – even more so since I told them I had been working on a sermon about humor. “It’s a perfect sermon illustration!” they exclaimed, as if I had been given a gift!
I’m glad no one was there to catch it on film, though it would have qualified for America’s Funniest Home Videos.
Some things are funny only in retrospect! It wasn’t until I was telling the story from the pulpit on Sunday that it actually became funny to me, and I was able to laugh at it. That’s when I thought of the line from Woody Allen’s film: comedy is tragedy plus time. It took two days for tragedy to turn into comedy!
The shirt and pants have been washed, the jacket is at the cleaners, and I’ve had the shower and shampoo I needed. It bends. It didn’t break.
Life is serious business, of course, which is why the gods invented humor. Robert Frost wrote a little poem,which I ponder from time to time:
Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee,
and I’ll forgive Thy great big joke on me.
The secret of living a good life has a lot to do with being able to laugh at ourselves. We gain humility, put things in perspective, and avoid the danger of taking ourselves too seriously. Keep smiling,