A Slice of Comedic Genius

Over the last few days, the folks at the Ringer have been running a “greatest TV character of the century” poll.  While I didn’t take part, I was glad to see that Michael Scott from The Office took the top spot.  Even though he may not be my personal favorite, he is quite the creation (even if his character is rooted in the original British version).

The poll paired with what has been at least a soft-stop to most of the entertainment industry has had some nice side-effects, one being this interview with Mike Schur, who has done more to make me smile over the last few years than anyone in the industry.  A guiding force for The Office, Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn 99, and The Good Place, he’s also had a hand in creating (or maybe mid-wifing) a number of great characters.  The interview goes into some nice depth.  It also includes links to some classic NBC comedy moments both recent and classic.  Here’s a snippet from the interview:

Most comedies, I would say, are pretty lo-fi in terms of premise. They’re like a bunch of people hanging out somewhere in an office or in an apartment building in Manhattan. In that case, the discovery of the characters—you have some idea at the beginning. You can’t run a pilot without some idea of like, this is the funny one and this is the snarky one and this is the uptight one. But the characters are built brick by brick slowly by a large group of people over, hopefully, many, many years and hundreds of episodes. You have to know something about the world and something about the characters, it’s just what the ratio is at the beginning of the project.

And then:

The Office was being built off of the template from the British show, but there were only four characters who meant anything in the British show. There was David Brent and Gareth, Tim and Dawn, and everybody else was either a two-dimensional cipher or never got developed. When Greg [Daniels] brought the British version to America, he started with Michael Scott, Dwight Schrute, Jim Halpert, and Pam Beesly, and then filled that office with 20 other people. He had some idea of who Oscar was and who Phyllis was, but he very deliberately left them blank at the beginning because it was like, let’s do this organically. Let’s get a bunch of funny people in a room and pitch on, who are these people? What’s their personality trait? How do we learn about them?

At this point, Brooklyn 99 is the only show of Schur’s left airing currently.  I was a late-comer to that show, binging it in the months leading up to it’s move from Fox to NBC.  And I’m really glad I got on-board.  It hasn’t had some of the obvious character evolution that we got in The Office or Parks and Rec (and the whole point of The Good Place was character evolution, so it doesn’t really count).  But there’s just enough growth to feel like there’s some movement . . . and the jokes and running gags are some of the best out their (making it a little more like 30 Rock than anything else).

I enjoyed the article so much that it got me to watch the first episode of Cheers, a show I did not watch in its hey-day.  Great episode with a nice set of comic turns (all while having some appropriate gravitas.  It’s good to laugh, I think.  And it’s good to have a place where you know everybody’s name, even if you’re just in the audience.

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The Howling

A song to end the first week of the fourth quarter.  It’s a Rich Mullins classic that you don’t hear that often unless you look for it.  I love the sense of drive in the song.

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Attending to Tears

It’s been interesting to watch some of the theological reflection that’s been going on by the pastor-theologian branch of things in light of the coronavirus.  It is good to have people try and make sense of things.  I appreciated Wright’s look at lament from a few days ago.  I also appreciate today’s post by Hans Boersma about reflecting on the Passion of Jesus in the midst of our own struggles with Our Current Moment.  After acknowledging our culture’s intent to always avoid pain and suffering, he writes:

No, I am not calling for an inversion of the cultural ethos, suggesting that we maximize pain and minimize pleasure. The coronavirus is an evil. We rightly do what we can to stop its transmission, and we ought to plead with God for mercy. We should not take lightly the tears caused by suffering. I am not suggesting that we stop reflecting and deliberating on the virus that has taken hold of our lives. But in order to rightly understand our present sufferings, we must reflect upon Christ’s.

The Gospel reading for Passion Sunday includes the words, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). He is not the only one weeping at Lazarus’s death. Martha and Mary are weeping, as is the entire community that is trying to console them (11:31, 33). The story is full of people weeping in the pain of passion. The story of Lazarus is the story of our world—a world of sickness and death, along with the inevitable consequence of mourning and weeping.

And then he makes an interesting but necessary pivot, a pivot away from our contemporary understanding of the story of Lazarus and towards what the early church fathers thought about such a moment.  He continues:

We do well to attend to Jesus’s tears, for it is only by meditation upon his tears that we are able to process our own. Why does Jesus weep? The question is pressing because Jesus cannot possibly be weeping in the same way that Martha, Mary, and the bystanders are weeping. The narrative doesn’t allow us to think that Jesus is mourning the loss of his friend. He has travelled to Bethany with the precise aim of raising Lazarus from the dead (11:4, 11). Hippolytus of Rome adroitly observes: “He wept but did not mourn.”

Why, then, does Jesus weep? He weeps because he meditates upon our passion. Just as we are called to “weep with those who weep” (Rom.15:12), so Jesus weeps with those who weep. (In fact, Saint Augustine suggests that the reason Jesus weeps here is to teach us to weep; this must at least be part of the picture.) Jesus weeps with Martha and Mary, with the Jewish bystanders, and with a world struggling with illness, suffering, and death.

This is, for those paying attention, where Wright didn’t go in his piece earlier in the week, at least not as clearly as Boersma does here:

The church fathers were fond of saying that whatever our Lord did in his incarnation, he did “for our sake.” His weeping is no exception. Jesus weeps “on account of the people standing round” (11:42). That doesn’t mean his tears are fake. Quite the contrary, as we have seen. But it does mean that Jesus’s tears are infinitely dissimilar to ours. They are not tears of impotence. They are the tears of God. And when God weeps, we may be sure our passion is about to yield to resurrection.

The whole piece is worth a read.  It’s also a nice re-directing for those observing Lent or simply preparing in their own way for the celebration of Easter in the context of disconnect and sadness.  It’s a welcome challenge to some of our presuppositions about things.

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Lucy’s Tricking You, Charlie Brown

I think most of us hope that the tone of this April Fool’s Day will be a little more somber than most over these last few years.  We’re still trying to calibrate a sense of what is appropriate and inappropriate in Our Current Moment.  But this week’s classic Peanuts strip had Lucy back in the game of being mean to Charlie Brown in a way that reminds you of how desperately hopeful good old Chuck really is.  It’s a good reminder to be aware of those likely to fool you, to misuse your hope, to keep our gullibility in check.

Peanuts April 1(image from gocomics.com)

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Walking without an Umbrella

Tonight was the first time in a while that I went out for a walk without an umbrella.  We had a beautiful sunset, which was a nice way to wrap things up before classes start.  The rest of the day was a balance of meetings, recording lectures and devotionals, and doing other last-minute things to get ready for tomorrow.  It was a good way to end break, though.  And it was fine to go for a long walk without an umbrella.

The last half of the walk I played some Switchfoot.  It’s odd to think that the band is not part of my students’ musical background.  Turns out that switched happened three or four years ago.  I still play one of their songs, “The Blues,” for class.  The other song, that I’ve loved since hearing it at a Donald Miller conference many years ago, is “Restless.”  At the time I didn’t know of its roots in the vocabulary of Augustine.  Now it’s a song that taps into a couple of different streams of thought and feeling.

Here’s Jon Foreman, the band’s lead singer, doing a live version of the song a few days ago as a kind of encouragement during Our Current Moment.

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TIME Magazine recently published a short piece by N. T. Wright about Our Current Moment.  The title says it so well:  Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To.  “That’s not supposed to be true,” you might found yourself saying, as Christianity is supposed to have the answer for everything.  And it does, but not in the way that we often think.  Wright begins with context:

For many Christians, the coronavirus-induced limitations on life have arrived at the same time as Lent, the traditional season of doing without. But the sharp new regulations—no theater, schools shutting, virtual house arrest for us over-70s—make a mockery of our little Lenten disciplines. Doing without whiskey, or chocolate, is child’s play compared with not seeing friends or grandchildren, or going to the pub, the library or church.

There is a reason we normally try to meet in the flesh. There is a reason solitary confinement is such a severe punishment. And this Lent has no fixed Easter to look forward to. We can’t tick off the days. This is a stillness, not of rest, but of poised, anxious sorrow.

All of that, for most of us now, is confounded.  And it leaves us asking questions, questions we should always be asking but that get brushed to the side when life hums right along,  Wright continues:

Rationalists (including Christian rationalists) want explanations; Romantics (including Christian romantics) want to be given a sigh of relief. But perhaps what we need more than either is to recover the biblical tradition of lament. Lament is what happens when people ask, “Why?” and don’t get an answer. It’s where we get to when we move beyond our self-centered worry about our sins and failings and look more broadly at the suffering of the world.

There’s the word: lament.  We don’t use it often, and definitely don’t regularly visit the slender Old Testament book that shares its name.  But it’s there, a deep tradition rooted in history because it is rooted in the human experience.   And it’s not something we’re comfortable with, not sure about because we use those muscles rarely if ever.  And yet it’s right there in front of us.

At this point the Psalms, the Bible’s own hymnbook, come back into their own, just when some churches seem to have given them up. “Be gracious to me, Lord,” prays the sixth Psalm, “for I am languishing; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.” “Why do you stand far off, O Lord?” asks the 10th Psalm plaintively. “Why do you hide yourself in time of trouble?” And so it goes on: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?” (Psalm 13). And, all the more terrifying because Jesus himself quoted it in his agony on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22).

Wright ultimately points to moments in the biblical story where God is grieved and Jesus weeps and the Spirit groans, suggesting that “[t]he ancient doctrine of the Trinity teaches us to recognize the One God in the tears of Jesus and the anguish of the Spirit.”  Wright concludes:

It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead. As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell. And out of that there can emerge new possibilities, new acts of kindness, new scientific understanding, new hope. New wisdom for our leaders? Now there’s a thought.

Lament can be difficult, particularly for those who lead.  Even this morning, as our faculty and staff gathered to prepare for a month of online learning, it was easier to nudge towards the positive side of things.  That’s probably a big draw for how these last two Sunday mornings have gone in living-room churches across the country.  Lament, though, might ultimately be a doorway to humility, which should always be a welcome virtue and a step in the right direction.

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Sunday’s Best: Inventionality

There were a couple of good Sunday comics today, but one of them is April Fool’s Day-specific, so it will have to wait a bit.  The other is today’s Frazz strip by Jef Mallett.  Once again, Mallett has fun with the visuals while employing the imagination of at least one person in the strip.  It’s also a reminder of the joy of being creative, of putting things together in an inventive way.

Frazz Creative(image from gocomics.com)

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