Did You Hear the One About Humor in the Classroom?

Teachers want to succeed. They want their students to learn the material and apply it wisely. And thus, they want to be interesting and memorable.

There are lots of ways to do that. One way is intensity (and intensity, by the way, doesn’t have to be loud; it’s in the eyes as much as in the voice). Another way is variety; changing methods, for example, is something the students find refreshing, so long as it’s not done in a way that disorients.

Yet another way is to be funny. Humor makes material more memorable.1 And students especially like the fact that humor makes the time pass more quickly. But humor, like any tool, can be used well or used badly; and in a moral sense, it can be used for good or for evil. Humor can be part of what makes a teacher successful, but it can also make him pitiable. So what are some principles for making good use of this educational tool?

Definition

We should start by making sure we’re all talking about the same thing. What is humor? What is it that makes something funny? There are actually several elements that contribute to making us laugh. Here are the most obvious:

Cognitive Dissonance

Things are funny because they’re odd or out of place or mean more than they appear to mean on the surface. As a child I saw a "Dennis the Menace" cartoon in which the Mitchells are talking to a woman in their living room, and Dennis blurts out, "Hey, Dad, I don’t see any blue streak when she talks!"

Why is that funny? Because it’s inappropriate, and we laugh at Mr. Mitchell’s discomfort. It’s a truism that "comedy is tragedy that happens to somebody else."

One form of this type of humor is the "sight gag," the visual presentation of dissonant or inappropriate elements. A recent commercial for windows shows two women admiring a newly installed window in the house. Through the window, the viewers see (presumably) the man of the house setting up a grill in the back yard. As the women talk, describing the benefits of the window, the man struggles to get the grill lit while being distracted by the family dog. The grill eventually falls over, bursts into flame, and explodes, flying up out of the screen and falling to earth in the corner of the yard several seconds later. It’s hilarious. Why? Because it’s simply inconceivable that the women are so absorbed in a mere window that they don’t notice the chaos beyond it. In essence, the advertiser is making light of his own product. I suspect that the ad campaign was a success.

Another form is irony, a common literary device. Haman builds a gallows to kill Mordecai; Mordecai "accidentally" saves the king’s life; the king asks Haman what should be done to a man the king wants to honor; Haman thinks he’s the man; he then has to honor Mordecai—in a humiliating way that he himself has suggested—and is then hanged on his own gallows. Tragic, yes, but also funny in a dark sort of way.

Timing

Good humor is rhythmic. Most people who "just can’t tell a joke" have trouble with timing. They drag out the story with a bunch of unnecessary details to the point that when the punch line arrives, the hearer just isn’t interested any more. Or they leave out an important detail, and then just before the punch line they say, "Oh, wait; I forgot to tell you. . . ." And the joke dies a’bornin’.

The best way to sharpen your sense of timing is to listen to good storytellers. There are many of them, and the great majority aren’t famous. Chances are that somebody at your family reunion will be surrounded by relatives and regaling them with stories. It’s easy to find him—listen for the outbursts of laughter from somewhere in the house. Then go listen. Carefully. With enough exposure, comic timing becomes natural, like riding a bike.

Surprise

A key element in much, but not all, humor is surprise.2 Much successful comedy holds the revelation until the end, even the very last word: A man once heard that the way to live a long and healthy life was to eat a teaspoonful of gunpowder every day. So he did. And he lived well into his 80s. When he died, he left behind a wife, 8 children, 19 grandchildren, 6 greatgrandchildren, and a 12-foot hole in the wall of the crematorium.

What makes that story funny? It’s the surprise, which is literally the last word spoken. (Stylists call this a "periodic" sentence because the meaning is unclear until just before the period.) The storyteller just stops and waits a beat for the laughter to explode—once the hearers have "gotten" it. If the speaker were to keep talking, he would "step on" the laughter and thereby dampen it. Lead up to the surprise, and then get out of the way.

Proper Use of Humor

Now, then, back to the original question. How should a Christian teacher make good use of humor?

Diversity

First, like any tool, humor is only one of many in the toolbox. As a child, I was a great fan of jokes; I would devour joke magazines and entertain my friends (and pester my parents, and drive my sisters to distraction). Even as a young person, however, I realized that if all I did was tell jokes, people would conclude that that was all I was about. They wouldn’t take me seriously.3

Teachers need to be taken seriously. The jokes are not an end in themselves; they’re designed to make something important memorable. A good teacher uses humor occasionally and effectively, but he uses a lot of other tools as well, and his students do not view him as merely a jokester. My students have seen me entertain, sometimes even lapse into downright silliness. But they have also seen me cry, and they know that I see many things as important—for me and for them.

Reverence

Some things shouldn’t be joked about. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a number of comedians commented that they had a hard time earning a living for the next few weeks. It didn’t seem right to laugh.4 The American culture benefited, even if only briefly, from realizing that the light-hearted cynicism of the comedian is not really a worthy lifestyle.

Don’t tell jokes, or otherwise be funny, about anything that is always to be taken seriously. Obviously, I would include God in this category. I have heard jokes about God; I have heard preachers tell jokes about God. They’re not funny. Yes, God is our friend; but He is also Lord of Hosts, Sovereign of the universe. Laughing about Him tells your students that He is to be laughed about. Laugh about something else.5

Relevance

Some teachers use humor that is irrelevant to the discussion, just to wake everybody up. I don’t suppose that’s entirely unacceptable, but it’s much more skillful to wake everybody up, if need be, with humor that is also directly relevant to the task of learning at hand. The best source of such humor is just to pay attention and file experiences away.

When one of my daughters was about 5, our family was driving across West Texas. In an effort to stave off complete boredom, I asked, "Well, kids, what do you think about the prairie?" No response. Trying to connect the subject with something they were interested in, I asked, "Kind of reminds you of Little House on the Prairie, doesn’t it?" No response. After a few seconds, the 5-year old asked, "Dad, was Little House on the Prairie in Texas?" Not having read the book, I answered, "I don’t think so; I think maybe it was Minnesota, or maybe Kansas. I don’t know." She responded immediately and confidently, "Well, it couldn’t have been in Kansas." Puzzled by her certainty, I asked, "Why not?" She replied authoritatively, "Because it’s in color!"

After I had regained control of the vehicle, I analyzed her thinking process. Little House on the Prairie (the TV show, anyway) is in color; according to The Wizard of Oz, Kansas is in black and white; ergo, the House is not in Kansas. Brilliant. And, as it turns out, a correct conclusion, though based on deeply flawed premises. On reflection I realized that her thinking was a perfect illustration of what Bloom’s taxonomy calls "synthesis"—creating new combinations of existing knowledge. I filed that one away, and whenever I’m illustrating synthesis, I haul it out. People remember.

Purpose

What’s humor for? To comedians, it’s to be entertaining and, thus, hired for future shows. To jokesters, it’s to be socially accepted and affirmed. But Christian teachers are not mere comedians or jokesters. We’re conducting serious business and as agents of a heavenly Master. It’s not about us.

So humor is not for making the students like you or flock to your classes. That’s not a worthy goal. Humor is a tool to make your material more interesting and thus more memorable. And that’s all. It’s a means, not an end. That’s why it needs to be relevant. That’s why it should not conflict with reverence. And that’s why it should be only one of many methods you use to succeed in your God—given task.


1When teaching a course in freshman English back in the 1970s, I announced that I was going to throw my keys "in" the wastebasket. I then stepped into the wastebasket and threw my keys across the room. More than 20 years later a former student reminded me of that occasion and said that he still says "into" in similar constructions.

2As a theologian, I have given some thought (reverently) to whether God has a sense of humor. One obstacle to that is His omniscience; He cannot be surprised by a punch line. But I do see evidence in Scripture that God appreciates ironic humor; the story of Haman referenced above is just one example. God even employs the humor of ridicule when he mocks the idolater who prays to the idol he has just carved from a tree that he himself has felled (Isa. 44:11–20). I also note that children were apparently attracted to Jesus, and I speculate that at least part of what made Him attractive to them was a sense of humor and enjoyment of life. I conclude, then, that humor is a reflection of the image of God in man and thus something to be appreciated and wisely used.

3Even today I notice people who feel as though they have to tell me a joke first thing every time they see me, and I find myself thinking, in spite of myself, that there’s not much to them.

4The first live broadcast of the TV show Saturday Night Live, which is broadcast from near the site of the attacks, after the terrorist attacks began with a sketch involving the show’s producer and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani encouraged the show to proceed; the producer asked him, "Is it OK to be funny?" Giuliani deadpanned, "Why start now?" The audience laugh that followed was later viewed as a key turning point in the public’s ability to move beyond the loss.

5Obviously, laughter can be a sign of joy as well as humor. Laughing in enjoyment—delight—about the works of God on our behalf can be worshipful (Job 8:21; Ps. 126:2; Luke 6:21). But we all know the difference between laughter that exalts and laughter that trivializes; the expression "laugh to scorn" or its equivalent occurs 11 times in the Scripture. In the 1930s Charlie Chaplin set out to undercut Hitler by demeaning him, creating a mustachioed stereotype that people could laugh at. It was a powerful weapon.

 by Dan Olinger. Updated October 21, 2015.

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