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In the early morning of December 4, 2012, a phone rang in the hospital ward of London’s King Edward VII hospital, where Jacintha Saldanha worked. Saldanha, a 46-year-old nurse and mother of two, answered because no receptionist was on duty.
To Saldanha’s surprise, the caller identified herself as Queen Elizabeth II of England, and asked to talk to Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, who had been hospitalized due to a pregnancy-related illness. The startled nurse put the call through to the private nurse on duty, who gave the caller an update of the Duchess’ condition.
It was later discovered that the call was a hoax perpetrated by two Australian radio personalities, Mel Greig and Michael Christian, who had impersonated the Queen and her son, Prince Charles. After the recording of the conversation was broadcast, a hospital official stated, “This was a foolish prank call that we all deplore. We take patient confidentiality extremely seriously and we are now reviewing our telephone protocols.” The radio station issued an apology “for any inconvenience caused by the enquiry to Kate’s hospital, the radio segment was done with light-hearted intentions” (“Radio DJs pretend to be queen, make prank call to Catherine’s hospital,” CNN.com, December 7, 2012).
The incident could have ended there, as have so many other “segments with light-hearted intentions” involving radio personalities around the world. Sadly, however, three days after the DJs’ prank call, nurse Saldanha was found dead as a result of suicide. What started as a bit of “fun” became a tragedy, and a family has lost a wife and mother.
One lesson from the Australian DJs’ prank gone awry is that our careless or thoughtless attempts at humor can go too far. Scripture tells us, “Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death, is the man who deceives his neighbor, and says, ‘I was only joking!’” (Proverbs 26:18–19). Of course, no one anticipated the tragic consequences from what many had considered a harmless stunt, yet the damage was serious and permanent. “It was never meant to go that far. It was meant to be a silly little prank that so many people have done before,” Greig said. Christian added, “For the part we played, we’re incredibly sorry” (ibid.).
This tragic incident also reminds us of the public’s thirst for outrageous humor as “entertainment.” Many remember the good-natured pranks foisted on unsuspecting “average Americans” on the long-running television series Candid Camera. More recently, audiences have embraced the edgier celebrity-focused hidden camera series Punk’d on MTV. Indeed, entertainment that endeavors to use humor at another person’s expense has long been popular. In the competitive “shock jock” genre pioneered by hosts such as Howard Stern, radio personalities constantly attempt to outdo each other with more outrageous antics that fuel a laughs-at-all-costs culture.
Does it matter that so much of our popular entertainment involves humor directed toward making someone look foolish? Many people have no problem making others the butt of their jokes. But do they stop and ask themselves how they would feel if the tables were turned and they were on the receiving end, suffering the embarrassment of being duped? American humorist Will Rogers observed, “Everything is funny as long as it is happening to somebody else.” Perhaps fewer people would be hurt if pranksters carefully considered others’ reactions first.
I remember a time when, as a teen, I felt the sting of my own humor backfiring. A friend who had recently married came to church alone one day, and I jokingly asked him if his wife had left him. When he soberly replied that his wife had indeed left him, I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach.
My friend’s response made me realize that I had cultivated a careless attitude toward humor, and much of what I considered funny came at others’ expense. My teenage years had been influenced by the irreverent comedy of the recordings of Cheech & Chong, along with television programs such as Saturday Night Live—in which a primary thrust was the general lack of respect toward anyone and everyone. Seeing the hurt in my friend’s eyes because of my cruel attempt at humor caused me to understand that there is a price to pay for this type of levity; real people can be hurt by it. While the consequences were not as serious as the Australian DJs’ prank, my intent had been fundamentally the same as theirs—to get a laugh no matter what.
We can sometimes shield ourselves from the reality of the pain our humor causes, when the people we injure are several degrees of separation removed from our hurtful and callous barbs. However, it is always wise to remember that our careless and thoughtless attempts at humor have the potential to backfire with devastating results.
Does this mean that we should become humorless people in order to avoid any possibility of harm? Of course not! King Solomon of ancient Israel wrote, “To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven… a time to weep, and a time to laugh” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4). The key is to know what is appropriate to say in the right situation, as Solomon elsewhere observed: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver” (Proverbs 25:11).
Humor adds to our enjoyment of life, and can even help to make hardships more bearable. Used well, it is an appealing part of a well-rounded personality. What, then, is the difference between an acceptable sense of humor and one that has the potential to hurt? The Bible offers important principles to answer this question.
Jesus’ instruction that “just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise” is the best place to start (Luke 6:31). “How will others receive my humor?” is a question that should be considered from the start, not after the fact. Ask yourself, “Will I demean or embarrass someone with what I’m about to say or do to get a laugh?” If you would not appreciate someone else making you the subject of such humor, this is a good sign that you should not “go there” and risk hurting another person. This principle can be hard for us to remember when we are caught up in the midst of an enjoyable conversation, so it is important to make it a fundamental part of our overall approach—our way of life—so such consideration will come naturally when it is needed.
Consider, too, whether your humor is motivated by love. Even good-natured kidding among friends can be shared in a context of kindness and affection. Notice how the Apostle Paul described love: “Love… is kind… love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own” (1 Corinthians 13:4–5). Is your humor kind, or is it puffed up? Is it rude and self-serving? Much of what our society considers “humor” is in fact the opposite of love.
Finally, consider whether your humor builds up or tears down. All of our communication—including our humor—should be helpful. “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers” (Ephesians 4:29). If our humor is positive, uplifting and motivated by love, we will not experience regret like those who have to explain, “I was only joking!”