It has often been said that humor depends upon surprise for its effect. But this cannot be humor’s only criterion. If it were, then everyone who caught his wife with the plumber or who had a flat tire on the freeway would double-over in uncontrollable mirth.
Rather, humor seems to be a species of surprise, with the distinction that it is a surprise at the unlikely and ingenious connection made between two seemingly unrelated phenomena in the imagination of another – something like Knights-move thinking, with an underlying unifying rationale comprehending apparently discrete phenomena.
The effect of humor upon men and women is the spontaneous appreciatory response of laughter. Like the reflex action of the leg following the doctor’s application of a rubber hammer to the space below the knee, the laughter comes completely unbidden. Unlike the reflex action of the leg, it is impossible to call forth laughter voluntarily in the way that a man can cause his leg to kick at will. One might protest that a person can produce a laugh, even if he is not tickled, but this expression can hardly be called a laugh, for it lacks the essential characteristic of laughter, mirth.
Humor in its cruder aspect can appear naturally, independent of human agents, but dependent still on human auditors – for no non-human has ever laughed and meant it. For instance, if one is in a silent church hall and a fellow enters the solemn precincts of that temple with excessively squeaky shoes, it might be impossible for some to stifle their laughter. In this case the laughter still originates with an ingenious connection, though that connection seems wholly accidental. And it reveals a truth about life – and all humor depends upon truth for its force: the man’s squeaky shoes proclaim that in spite of our aims at holiness, we all fall short, and much of our pretended goodness is revealed as mere pretense in the light of the total glory of God.
The cliché that “laughter is the best medicine” developed the way that most clichés do: something is uttered of such profundity and truth that it cannot be kept a secret by anyone. Nevertheless, it remains true that laughter is a great cure for much of life’s ills. Anyone ruminating on his own failings, tragedies, or mortality is still subject to break into a fit of laughter under the right circumstances. Indeed humor is often life’s gift to a person who has had a particularly difficult go of things.
Laughter humbles us, elevates us, unifies us, warms us, and soothes us. And inasmuch as it springs from truth, it is a gift from God. Genuine, hearty laughter, not of the derisive or dismissive kind, is a good sign that his spirit still moves in us.