Comedy is a human tradition as old as art. The earliest practitioners of theatre, the Athenians, had many famous tragedies, but they also entered comedies in their competitions. Some of us devote half an hour a week for the space of a decade for shows like Cheers and Friends (okay, I’m exaggerating there, but you get the idea). Comedy is extremely varied, but much of it involves sinful actions. A character makes an underhanded scheme that blows up in his face. Someone lies and gets found out. Some shows devote most of their airtime to sexual jokes, obscenities, and profanities.
Several pastors I know of have said that it is wrong for Christians to laugh at sinful situations. I can understand their concern. Sin is a deadly serious matter. One way or another, every sin is going to result in a curse, whether it’s Christ becoming accursed for us on the Cross or that person becoming accursed forever in Hell. What could possibly be funny about that?
Well, despite the prevalence of comedy in our culture, the Bible says fairly little about it. One admonition it does give is that obscenity, foolish talking, and crude joking are not fitting for saints (Ephesians 5:4). While this does not quite answer the question of if we can laugh at those things as long as they’re not coming out of our own mouths, it does indicate to me that we should steer clear of shows where that’s the common fare. So, a whole bunch of current shows are out. Back when television standards were more tight-laced, however, there were still plenty of hilarious, albeit more refined, shows. And I don’t suppose an instance or two of those things means we can’t ever watch an episode of the show ever again. Can we avoid those things in their entirety without going out of the world?
But, let’s say the humor isn’t dirty, but otherwise sinful. The underhanded scheme gone wrong, the lie that gets found out, the lazy person trying to get out of a commitment, etc. I don’t think we’re laughing because we approve of those things or even because we wouldn’t think they were a big deal in reality. I think what makes them funny is the irony when the guilty party admits what they’re doing openly to or tries some weak excuse- in other words, it’s funny because, while we might think such things, none of us would dare to state our underhanded purpose so blatantly. The British comedies Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister make fun of the bureaucratic mentality. When Sir Humphrey or one of the civil servants says what they’re up to or what their reasoning is, it’s funny because we know bureaucrats really think that way but a real one would never admit it in such plain language. Or it’s funny because the person gets themselves in a tight, awkward position through their scheming- we don’t approve of it, and it’s amusing to see them get their just desserts, usually in a broadly predictable pattern with a slightly ironic nuance.
One sin I think we should avoid as much as possible is blasphemy. In most shows today, there will be multiple “OMG”s and other taking of the Lord’s name in vain. Frankly, it would be best for us if we were as reticent about taking God’s name in vain as we are in using the N-word. The Bible is extremely reticent about this sin. I can’t think of a single time someone blasphemes and the Bible actually reports their words. It says, “The person blasphemed,” or, “On it were written blasphemous names.” If the Biblical writers are so determined not to expose their readers to blasphemy, I think we should do our best to avoid it although, again, the only way to avoid that completely is to never associate with a non-Christian again, and obviously that’s not what we’re supposed to do.
As a general rule, though, I think laughing at such sins, as long as we’re not tempted to do them ourselves, is okay. My chief evidence for this is Psalm 2. The whole world is arraying itself against God and Christ, and God’s first reaction is, “He that sitteth in the Heavens shall laugh. The Lord shall have them in derision.” Humor is largely based on irony, and what could be more ironic than utterly dependent creatures openly resisting the omnipotent God?
So, I think we need to understand what’s making us laugh in these comedy shows. Laughter doesn’t always mean that it’s not a big deal in reality. What we usually laugh at are carefully contrived fictional scenarios that bring out ironic words from the characters’ mouths. Were someone really doing these things to us, we wouldn’t be laughing. That said, there are things the Bible fairly clearly states we should do our best not to expose ourselves to. As always, we have to keep the glory of God foremost in our mind.