Derived from a 2014 article in the E-Block.
Is slapstick comedy unbiblical or immoral? Is it a sin to laugh when Bugs Bunny blasts Elmer Fudd with his own shotgun? And more broadly, is it wrong to enjoy it when other people suffer, even if (we might say) they "deserve" it?
These seem like odd questions, but they were raised of late in the context of some of my YouTube videos, in which I freely make use of outrageous physical humor which resembles that found in the classic Warner Brothers cartoons. And closer to home, my local ministry partner Carey and I have discussed the enjoyment of reality television programs like Survivor, in which contestants are frequently subjected to public humiliation. According to some, the sin here concerns what some term schadenfreude -- a German word that refers to pleasure felt at someone else's troubles. According to my YouTube critic, we enjoy seeing Elmer Fudd get shot because he is suffering.
To answer this point, I relied on my own (admittedly layman's) knowledge of the animation industry, and then discussed the matter with a longtime reader of Tekton who is a Hollywood insider with professional credentials in animation. The results of this are that the basis for our enjoyment of this form of humor, which I too have employed, is not the suffering of others but rather that it is comic precisely because it lacks suffering. But TV shows like American Idol do raise some serious questions for the Christian.
As we know from news stories, a real shotgun blast causes serious damage to flesh and bone. Elmer Fudd comes away from such a blast with nothing worse than torn clothes and gray skin. He does not cry out in pain, and nor does any blood spurt. The intrinsic immortality of cartoon performers, and their ability to walk away from such scenes and return in the next one fresh and unharmed (or at worst, encased in bandages that they can immediately shake off and come out of whole, like some sort of revivified Pharaoh!) are the true source of this type of humor.
Of course, there is a certain matter of degree involved here. "Slapstick," a related genre, can refer to Moe poking Curly in the eyes; but it also can refer to humor such as depicted in America's Funniest Home Videos, where the pain can be real. And, it is fair to say, that the lower the pain the greater the laughs. Under such circumstances, we are not laughing at misfortune, as schadenfreude would have it; rather, we are laughing at misfortune not ending up worse than it could have been, which really renders the laughter a sign of relief and not joy at pain.
What, then, is true schadenfreude? For an answer to this I picked up the highly recommended Joy of Pain by Richard Smith (Oxford University Press), which is regarded as a respectable and leading treatment of the topic. It comes as no surprise that Smith does not use either Stooge-like slapstick or cartoons as examples of schadenfreude -- except to the extent that certain cartoon characters (like members of the Simpson clan) engage it in their treatment of each other, but not in terms of what the audience experiences and not in terms of what would be regarded as unique to the cartoon genre. The classic examples of schadenfreude from television are rather to be found in programs like American Idol, as when a contestant falls flat on his face. And how would this tie in, if at all, to the sort of cartoonish antics used by Bugs Bunny or Popeye, and what does it say to the Christian about enjoying such things as that, or slapstick comedy, or even American Idol?
Misfortune or humiliation happening to others can make us feel superior, and lead to schadenfreude. This sort of experience may indeed be ripe for sin; however, it would rather strain credulity to suppose that anyone gains any sense of "superiority" from watching cartoon characters bash each other with mallets, or even the Three Stooges poking one another in the eyes. I would regard any such claim as a strained effort at psychology; and we would be told, by those who prefer to argue about it, that we are harboring "secret" schadenfreude and not realizing our doing so. At such points the matter becomes akin to history as written by Dan Brown: The conspiracy covered up the evidence, then covered itself up to make sure we wouldn't know what it did, so, it is little more than a begged question.
The bottom line is that it is difficult to argue that a person can feel "inferior" or "superior" to a fictional character. The most that could be said, perhaps, is that one imagines one's despised neighbor to be much like said character, and what we really want to feel superior to is the real-life person who has (whether in reality or not) the same traits. In other words, the fictional character becomes a proxy for schadenfreude, not it's true or actual object.
In contrast, it is quite possible for this experience to legitimately emerge on a showing of a program like American Idol, and encourage sinful thoughts. It is readily conceivable that one might envy, and feel inferior to, someone who performs well on the program, and then delight in their failure to perform at a critical moment. What this suggests, then, is that (as is often the case) it is not the object that is the problem, but the person who makes use of the object. It is akin to Paul's attempt to sort out the question of who should eat idol meat. If you watch American Idol to see people humiliated - you probably shouldn't watch it. (If you watch Popeye cartoons to see Bluto humiliated...there is probably something much deeper wrong with you than schadenfreude!)
Smith also refers to a "superiority theory" of humor, in which it is maintained that "humor has social comparison at its core." A related theory is that some things are funny because they make us feel superior.
Here again, it is impossible to dovetail our subject into the issue in any realistic way. Elmer Fudd, and Moe Howard, are not "safe" targets; they are phantom targets. They are not members of any group "disliked" by anyone. (Again, if someone thinks so, their problems are much more deep-rooted than anything we can discuss here.)
So then: Is there indeed anything in the Bible relevant to this emotion? No, not directly, but we do know that the Bible speaks of justice being a "joy to the righteous," (Prov. 21:15) and also says that those who rebuke the wicked will have delight (Prov. 24:24-25). This is probably as close as we will come to what we call schadenfreude in a good sense. (In contrast, the "bad" sort of schedenfreude might be covered by 1 Corinthians 13:6, which warns us to not rejoice in iniquity.)
How then does, or can, this relate to our subject at hand - fiction? Again, I would say only in a vicarious sense, at best. A bad guy like Yosemite Sam, we may say, gets what he deserves when his own rifle goes off in his face, but these are not only phantom targets, they are phantom injustices. At most, these gags may remind us that we would like to see justice done in real life.
This is especially the case because, as Smith points out, this sort of schadenfreude emerges most often when our target is convicted of hypocrisy, as was the case with Jimmy Swaggart. Yosemite Sam is a roughneck, but he is not a hypocrite: He doesn't condemn others who shoot varmints! It is also at its height when the subject is someone evil, as is the case with the reality TV program To Catch a Predator. Yosemite Sam is a "bad guy," sure, but it would be excessive in the extreme to apply the term "evil" to him.
We will close this examination with a comment from my friend in the animation industry. As a response to the criticisms I encountered from the objector I referred to above, he told me about one of the older (black and white!) Popeye cartoons which seemed to be a response to those who thought that the point of cartoon violence was to enjoy schadenfreude. The title of the episode was It's the Natural Thing to Do, and it begins with viewers of the cartoon requesting by telegram that the characters stop fighting and act more refined. The bulk of the story thereafter shows the threesome of Popeye, Olive, and Bluto clumsily trying to act more "refined" by wearing tuxedos, engaging in small talk, and consuming sophisticated appetizers. The threesome end up bored and unable to cope with refined behavior, and Popeye and Bluto quickly return to fighting each other...and enjoying such behavior. It can hardly be said that we could take pleasure in this sort of "pain"!
The pleasure in this genre, then, cannot come from schadenfreude, least of all from what Smith describes as its "dark" side; rather, it comes from absurdity, and from reversal of expectations, and surprise. As noted, it is certainly possible that someone uses the sufferings of a character like Daffy Duck as a proxy for their desire for someone they know, who is like Daffy, to suffer ("He sure reminds me of my boss"), but this is clearly a case of an innocent surrogate taking the blame for the guilty party. There is nothing sinful about laughing at gross physical comedy.