PostScript: Laughter and music
A reflection for Pentecost
Podcasting is a medium that is fairly new to me, both as a practitioner and a listener. It is a medium that is closely related to radio, with the advantage of being able to listen whenever you like. There is an intimacy in radio and podcast – emphasised when using headphones – which means that the listener feels that the speaker is addressing her and only her. This sense of intimacy requires a different style of preaching – less like Martin Luther King and more like Alistair Cooke – the broadcaster, not the former England cricket captain.
It is not only churches that have had to adapt to the pandemic – television and radio broadcasters have done so too. We have become used to the breakfast TV presenters looking like they have had a row as they sit at opposite ends of a sofa. Interviewees speak via video conference calls – sometimes forgetting to unmute. The television schedules are beginning to be filled with repeats as the supply of new shows runs dry. Even The Archers on BBC Radio 4 has been affected. For weeks Ambridge was virus-free as episodes recorded at the beginning of the year were broadcast. There was then a period of ‘best of’ episodes while the cast recorded new material at home. These began broadcasting this week and offer internal monologues as the characters share their thoughts.
One of the podcasts to which I have subscribed is 99% Invisible which looks broadly at design. An episode from early 2018 was about Charles Douglass, the man who invented the ‘audience response duplicator’, otherwise known as the ‘laff box’. It was therefore Douglass who was the man behind what is sometimes called ‘canned laughter’.
Charles Douglass’s machine was needed when shows began to be recorded in studios rather than theatres. He recorded various laughs – from titters to guffaws and timed them so that there were laughs that came slowly as if someone was getting a joke after everyone else.
While people have different senses of humour, laughter is often a shared experience, so that one person’s laughter sparks off another’s. I still cannot hear Charles Penrose’s ‘Laughing Policeman’ without laughing a little. To demonstrate the importance of third-person laughter in our finding something funny, the podcast plays a clip from Friends with the laughter track removed. It is hard to see why it was funny. We need the laughter to tell us. Is a pie in the face funny if no one laughs?
When I listened to this podcast my thoughts went to the way in which the Holy Spirit changed the lives of the women and men on whom it came. They knew Jesus had been raised. They knew he had been taken up to heaven. Yet there was something missing. The Spirit that would transform them from a group of people into the Body of Christ – the Church – had not yet come. It was this vital element that was missing. The Holy Spirit had yet to come, like fire, wind…and laughter.
A musical suggestion
A different, musical, analogy is the way in which the flowing, soaring saxophone of Jan Garbarek rises above the ordered harmonies of the Hilliard Ensemble on the album Officium. My favourite example is, Sanctus. I have found that the sound of the saxophone intertwined with the men’s voices a helpful picture of God’s Spirit working with God’s people – at times barely audible, while at other times soaring, as if riding the crest of a wave.
Come Holy Spirit!
Come fill our lives!
Come light us with fire!
Come stir us with wind!
Come shake us with holy laughter!
May your presence unite us when we are apart
and as we look forward to your presence filling us
as we meet together again.
Simon Carver is a Baptist Minister in St Albans and takes a particular interest in film, sport and US politics.
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