God is a comedian, playing to an audience too afraid to laugh. -- Voltaire
Is God playing it for laughs? You’d never know it listening to all the solemn asses who pontificate in his name. Actually, the solemn asses who pontificate in his name may be part of the joke – they’re just not in on it. You watch them parading around on ceremonial occasions in their ornate robes and funny hats, and you wonder what must be going through their minds. (At least I do.) How do you keep a straight face when you strut about looking like you belong in a Mummers Parade?
To suggest that God is a comedian is to invite angry protests from those who insist life is no joke. You certainly can’t deny that life is apt to deliver a swift kick in the pants from time to time – but then, isn’t that the soul of comedy? All the great comedians have understood the close connection between laughter and pain. This is why Mark Twain didn’t want to go to heaven. He figured if there were no sorrow in heaven, there would be no laughs there either.
If you go looking in the Bible, you may not find much to suggest that God is a comedian. The Old Testament deity, as usually portrayed, is too busy issuing threats and punishing people for their sins. The incarnated God of the New Testament is reputedly without sin but is punished anyway. There are not a lot of laughs in any of that – or maybe we’re just not reading it right.
Instead of being laugh-out-loud funny, the Bible mostly delivers its punch lines with a sly nod and a wink. Consider that obscure Old Testament prophet Balaam, who sets off on his ass to confer with the king of the Moabites. The ass begins behaving strangely, first veering off the road, then pressing against a wall, finally lying down on the ground. Each time Balaam strikes the animal to get it moving again. At this point the ass suddenly begins to speak. “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?" he protests. Unfazed by the fact that this beast is talking to him, the prophet wishes aloud that he had his sword in hand so he could slay him. Then suddenly he sees why the animal has been behaving so strangely. An angel of the Lord appears in his path, sword in hand. The angel informs Balaam that he would have slain him if the ass had not turned aside. So now who is the beast of burden? The comic possibilities of this scene become evident when you try to imagine how it might be filmed. Suddenly we are in the realm of Mr. Ed and Francis the Talking Mule.
God comes across as such a curmudgeon that we may look to the devil for comic relief, but that would be a big mistake. Satan is often portrayed as a pretty droll fellow, but that is mostly a pose. We should not confuse scorn with humor. Twain surmised there was no humor in heaven, but the only laughter in hell is the kind that rings hollow. There’s an old saying that if you laugh at the devil he will flee from you, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s not just that he is utterly humorless and doesn’t know when to laugh; he’s desperately afraid the joke’s on him.