Joseph R. Honescko

When We Laugh at Fools

Joseph R. Honescko
When We Laugh at Fools

American sitcoms often focus on a character or group of characters blind to their own shortcomings in some way. We see this executed in older shows like Frasierand Seinfeld, both of which act as forerunners to the contemporary sitcom, but popular sitcoms in the last decade carry this staple as well. Shows like The Office, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Community, Arrested Development, and many others highlight the shortcomings of their main characters to create humor. Simply put, the main characters are made fools for our own entertainment, and it works very well. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with us on the surface. Comedy is fun, and fools are funny. The error occurs when the viewers become so focused on the foolishness of the character that they become blind to their own shortcomings, effectively turning themselves into the same type of fool they are laughing at.

MICHAEL SCOTT

Perhaps the clearest example of this in contemporary sitcoms comes from the American adaptation of The Office. Time and time again, Michael Scott, the regional manager of Dunder Mifflin Scranton, plays the fool for the audience. His longing for acceptance and love manifests itself in desperate and hilarious attempts to make friends or build relationships or simply to stop people from disliking him. Likewise, his need to inspire his employees and be respected leads him into more comical situations.

An obvious example of this comes in the episode “Booze Cruise” when Michael tries to both earn the love and respect of his employees by taking them on a booze cruise that he tries to make a leadership conference. Instead of taking his team to a normal conference, he tries to do something fun however nonsensical it may be. This attempt to appeal to his employees highlights his need for acceptance, and his attempts to get the team to see him as a leader shows his need for respect.

One of the most comedic elements of this episode comes from Michael’s desperate and uncomfortable attempts to reconcile these two things. Often, he tries to appear as an equal to the ship captain by interrupting the captain’s speeches or adding to them. His desire for the authority becomes clear when he says things like, “In an office, when you are ranking people, manager is higher than captain. On a boat, who knows?” Any viewer can see the humor in this statement and recognize Michael’s foolishness, but his foolishness eventually gets so out of hand that he announces to everyone that the ship is sinking in order to try to make Captain Jack out to be the fool. Of course, the ship does not sink, and instead, Captain Jack ties Michael to a pole in captivity. While in this temporary prison, Michael tells his employee Jim he’s in this situation because “Captain Jack has a problem with authority.”

LAUGHING AT THE FOOL

Now clearly, this episode carries plenty of comedic weight with it. We find humor in foolishness because we know it is wrong. It is unexpected, a surprise. We expect a regional manager of a corporation to lead his employees well, not take them on a booze cruise and fight for authority with the captain. The comedy comes from the uncommon, the unpredictable. However, this creates an interesting, potentially dangerous, separation between viewer and subject. If the viewer is not careful, she may automatically put herself in the position of one who knows better than the foolish subject. Hearing Michael say, “Captain Jack has a problem with authority” while tied up because of his rebellion to authority is funny only because, in some way, the viewer thinks to herself, “I would never be in this situation.”

FOOLS OUTSIDE OF CHRIST

Christian’s have a unique view of this due to our understanding of human nature and the nature of God. All humans, in the Christian worldview, are fools outside of Christ. Throughout Proverbs, we see the dichotomy between righteousness, often equated with wisdom, and wickedness, often equated with foolishness. Since we know that we are not righteous outside of Christ, we should understand that apart from Christ, we always take the position of the fool. This reality should humble us when we see Michael’s foolishness. His shortcomings should remind us of our own, not give us an opportunity to elevate ourselves above him.

When this equality gets established, it changes the way we laugh. Instead of pointing at the fool and claiming that we are nothing like him, we wrap an arm around him and declare that we have been there too. To borrow terms from an old cliché, we begin to laugh with the fool instead of at him. When we do this, we better understand our own foolish nature, which pushes us further toward Christ. We are reminded that He is the only one who has the right to point to our foolishness and say, “I would never do that,” but instead, by taking on our sin, he took on our foolish so that he could wrap his arm around us and say, “I have been there, too, but I can get you out of it.” 

Joseph is a writer, editor, husband, and perpetual student. He is passionate about telling the world how the Gospel meets the needs of culture. He is the co-founder of Grounds and currently serves as the editorial director.