Austen, Python and Regaining Humour

Portrait by Cassandra Austen (1773–1845) ca. 1810 (

Why are things funny? Humour has eluded philosophers, and even more so scientists – and we are living in an increasingly humourless world, with jokes verboten, and everything reduced to a literalistic present tense. Late-night ‘comedians’ no longer tell ‘jokes’ – so I have heard – but instead offer boilerplate social commentary, a mirror held up to a narcissistic society, and people laugh at their own complaisance and obeisance.

Peter Leithart makes the invaluable point, using Jane Austen, that humour is only possible if we first have a fixed moral law, along with expected customs that flow from that law. We find it funny when that law is broken – not in too vivid a way, which would be a tragedy – but in some less serious way, if you will, that offers a vivid juxtaposition between what we see, and what we should expect to see. Leithart recounts the unwittingly humorous pomposity of the the toothpick-case buyer from Sense and Sensibility – It’s often funniest when the comedian doesn’t even know he’s being funny.

But if the unexpected and ridiculous become the expected and ‘normal’, then where’s the joke? Benny Hill and the Monty Python guys got laughs dressing up as women, for it was weird and shocking. Here’s a clip from one of the latter’s films – yes, I know, the quasi-blasphemous Life of Brian, and I am not recommending a viewing – but this clip is ironically prescient, the joke here now taught in the curricula of major universities. We’ve come a long way from the subtlety of Jane Austen, and I’m surprised it’s survived in the scorched joke-less earth of YouTube:

When men do for real what Eric Idle’s fictional character pines for, even mutilating themselves – one shudders to think how far they have gone – to ‘be’ women, we know not whether to cry or laugh, as the comedic becomes the tragic. The faintest of snickers would bring on the police hate-squad. I wonder how long before they contemplate uterus transplants for transgenders?

As we unhinge from the moral law, and all we are left with is a drab, incoherent moralism, not only do things cease to be funny, but nothing is allowed to be funny. In a deadpan culture of death, everything becomes so sadly and deadly serious.

The solution? Humour can only be rediscovered with humility, recognizing our dependence upon God and His natural and moral law – then everything becomes weirdly wonderful simply being what God made and intended them to be, from the duck-billed platypus to the spindly giraffe, all the way to the amusing awkwardness of incipient romance, and our own gangly bodies, soon to be resurrected in glory.

To paraphrase Chesterton, angels can fly – and we might add, laugh – because they know who they are before their Creator God, and hence take themselves so lightly.