Appropriated Humor

“If I may have your attention for just a few moments, my ex-husband, my new boyfriend, and their divorce attorney will demonstrate the safety features on this flight.”

That’s how Southwest Flight attendant Marty Cobb began her stand-up comedy/flight instruction presentation to a plane crammed with weary commuters. In barely three minutes, she turned the drudgery of budget air travel into a genuinely funny experience. Her efforts won her a round of applause, and likely would have netted her a standing ovation, had the passengers not been secured with their “seatbelts pulled snug across your lap, the way my grandma wears her support bra.”

The routine also earned her more than just a little fame. In April, while I was busy flying to job interviews on decidedly boring Delta flights, Cobb’s video was gathering more than two million hits on YouTube. She even did the talk show circuit, including her personal favorite, Ellen.

But don’t get too caught up in the stardom or even humor itself, wonderful though it is. Realize for a moment what Marty Cobb is doing. She isn’t just making people laugh. She’s doing her job. She’s getting the passengers on her side before they can get cranky and demanding. She’s making the safety procedures that many fliers have heard a hundred dreary times come alive. She has created an emotional imprint tied to the procedures. If an emergency occurs, people are more likely to remember what to do.

Turns out that a lot of Southwest flight attendants have routines similar to this one, whether in comedy or song or rap. The company complies with TSA standards and tests their employees for competence. But they also allow them the freedom to both enjoy their work and bring others into that circle of fun.

Why don’t more of us do this? Why don’t we incorporate humor as a way of making our message stick? Why can’t we laugh at ourselves and the occasional absurdity of our jobs, and why can’t our employers let us poke fun at them if it accomplishes our organizational goal?

I don’t have a good answer for that, except that maybe we take ourselves too seriously. Or, better said, that we spend too much time on ourselves, period.

I can see where I’ve fallen into this in recent months, perhaps not without reason. When you’re fighting to keep your head above water, it’s hard to pay attention to anything else.

But often the “anything else” turns out to be the most important thing. It’s only by learning to look around that we find things that surprise us or inspire us or make us laugh.

A writing instructor once told me that a good writer doesn’t hand an idea to the reader. Rather, he or she grabs the reader by the wrist and says, “Come on! You gotta see this for yourself.” Marty Cobb did this for her passengers, and in turn for millions of social media users. She made us laugh, and in so doing reminded us to pay attention.

Humor taken to heart just might save our lives.

A Funny Thing about a Great Divide

Last Friday marked the beginning of an American institution. On October 11, 1975, Saturday Night Live debuted. And within forty seconds, host George Carlin was already cutting away at one of the great American divides: football versus baseball.

(The video of that opening monologue is here. For those of you reading in the classroom or office who don’t want to get busted watching videos at work, you can find a transcripted version of Carlin’s routine here.)

As I watch the baseball-football monologue, I’m struck by how these brief comparisons between America’s two most popular sports so easily widen into larger cultural divides. That was true in 1975, when the country was still reeling from Watergate and Cambodia and Vietnam. And it’s true in 2013, when we are often too blinded by political ideologies to even talk about caring for our neighbors. Every issue, it seems, has two sides and multiple voices, but no room for compromise.

Football is a game of aggression, played under the pressure of an expiring clock, based on quick reaction and brute force. Baseball, on the other hand, is a game of courtesy, governed by tradition and unwritten codes of conduct, based on anticipation and highly specialized skills.

The two games don’t just differ in rules or vocabulary. They represent completely different ideas of competition. Both baseball and football fans love sports, use them to teach their children, care about sportsmanship and fair play. But both sides can get so entrenched in their perspective that neither can see the common ground on which they stand.

Which is why Carlin’s routine works so beautifully. He uses humor to disarm the combatants. His jokes are not rhetorical in nature, meant to ridicule one side and fire up another. They are merely observations that tell the truth without accusation. And because they are funny, they provide commonality.

I’m not so naïve as to think that our latest national spat over the budget, healthcare, and the debt ceiling can be solved by a comedic routine. Some tensions require long-term work from both sides. Some may end up being irresolvable.

But I am naïve enough to think that we need humor to shed light on things we could not otherwise admit to ourselves. We may not be able to laugh at some of the crises we’re dealing with; there’s nothing funny about the struggle to survive for many of our poorest citizens. But we can laugh at ourselves when our battles for justice devolve into petty or ridiculous fueds. And maybe by laughing we can see that we don’t have the market cornered on wisdom, that common ground may exist if we can build a bridge to it, and that no ideology is more important than providing real help to real people.

Working with Chalk

When I drive to work this time of year, I start looking for the plume of smoke two miles before I reach campus. It’s not that I want the two ancient buildings that house Wesley Foundation to go up in flames. As much as I’ve complained about them, the insurance company would never believe I’m innocent of arson. Besides, when a catastrophic fire tops your wish list, you’re setting yourself up for a disappointing day.

Nonetheless, I look for the smoke. It’s a pessimist’s habit. Somewhere along the way, I’ve convinced myself that the likelihood of disaster grows according to the amount of effort I put into a given endeavor. The girl I loved in junior high? Destined to break my heart. The car I’ve just paid off? Prime for a crash. The great American novel I’m writing? Doomed to fry along with my hard drive just before the last keystroke.

Ergo the more work I do on the Wesley buildings, the more confident I become that some disaster will befall us. And lately, I’ve been doing a lot of work—painting, cleaning, repairing, resetting, and trying to move our facilities one step closer to respectability.

Not I alone, of course. Brookland UMC came in to replace light fixtures and paint two rooms. A few Cornerstone UMC friends helped put primer up on the worship room and start resurfacing the deck. Blake and Muriel have done what staff always do: the tedious jobs no one else wants to do, but that must be done if the project is to get finished.

And what do we have to show for our work? So far, mostly chaos. As our Delta PRIDE camp approaches, we’re neck deep in drop cloths and electric sanders, frantically trying to finish the work, and—for my part—half convinced the whole thing will go up in flames tomorrow.

To me, this fear seems to be the human condition in microcosm. We work and fret, hoping that what we create will last, if not forever, then at least longer than we do. No one wants to be around to watch their castles crumble.

But we know the truth, however loathe we may be to admit it. No matter how creative or substantive our efforts, our work will eventually pass into nothingness. Today’s Coliseum is tomorrow’s pile of stone.

All of which brings me some comfort. Like many pastors (and many people in general), I spend a great deal of time trying to preserve the status quo. We invest in stability, or at least the illusion of stability. We are enslaved by that which we fear to lose.

Yet an honest reflection on the temporary nature of our work sets us free. Our task is not to build and preserve, but to create something worthy of God’s gifts to us in our time. Our lives are performance art, a beautiful moment that can never quite be repeated.

Eugene Peterson once wrote of the Songs of Ascent that they are not monuments, but footprints. A monument, he writes, says, “At least I made it this far.” A footprint says, “This is where I was when I moved again.”

So back to work it is, albeit with less fear and worry. We walk through the sand, even as the waves wash away traces of our journey. We paint the sidewalk with chalk, knowing the if the rains wash away our work, heaven will hold that moment for us and gently say, “That was terrific! What’s next?”