Thomas Aquinas Walks into a Bar: Vocation and (the Virtue of) Humor

Living out any calling in the midst of community requires a sense of humor. Laughter, after all, is about relationship: the corniest joke will succeed, and the cleverest fail, depending on how well the teller reads their audience. Laughter can invite people into shared community, and it can shut people out.

For teachers, then, laughter can be a gift, but it’s never without risk. So it’s good for us to think about how humor might shape our approach to our teaching, our students, and the way we see vocation. After all, Jason D. Stevens is right when he writes, “College, career, and calling are too often matters of pressure and panic. Laughter is something the world, and our students, could use more of. And so, perhaps, could vocational studies.”

Thomas Aquinas walks into a bar… : Humor as a virtue

Vocational studies often notes the importance of virtue, and there’s a virtue of humor that has just as illustrious a pedigree as stalwarts like prudence and loyalty. Eutrapelia literally means “well-turning,” and it’s often translated as ready-wittedness or playfulness. Aristotle and Aquinas were both fans, agreeing not only that amusement provides needed rest from work but also, crucially, that it contributes to communities. They even agreed that those who don’t use humor well are guilty of vice. Try to raise a laugh all the time, and you’re a buffoon; if you’re utterly lacking in humor, you’re a boor.

The most (and probably only) famous joke about Aquinas appeared in the series Madam Secretary, where it took several episodes for the joke-teller to get to the punchline. It isn’t a hilarious joke, but that’s part of the point: the joke-teller lets its corniness, and his persistence in telling it, create a community around him. By the time he gets the whole joke out (at a wedding, naturally), his audience joins happily in their laughter and groans. It’s a fine example of eutrapelia: a professor using humor to build relationships, not just display his cleverness.

How many surrealists does it take to change a lightbulb?: Humor and the value of education

There are just a few lines students consistently remember from my courses, and one is this: attending college can’t guarantee you a better job—nothing can—but it will help you get more jokes. Jokes, after all, rely on shared background knowledge. With a little math, you’ve got “There are 10 kinds of people in this world: those who understand binary, and those who don’t.” If you know something about art history, you can appreciate “How many surrealists does it take to change a lightbulb?” (The official answer is “Fish,” but this is one of those rare jokes that people can answer pretty creatively).

To see eutrapelia as a virtue is to insist that well-used humor has value as part of a rich, full life. That’s a worthy observation for those of us who are trying to encourage students to grow as flourishing human beings and not just resumés on legs.

This gorilla looks like he decided to have his undergraduate philosophy lecture outside since it’s a nice day.

(Talking gorilla meme from June 2017)

How about those french fries?: Humor about vocations

Like any virtue, eutrapelia requires practice. We can train our senses of humor to better fit our values and serve our communities. A good start is not to make jokes about people’s vocations. I know, who would do that? Well, me.

It’s probably obvious that jokes about students’ vocations are rarely virtuous; there aren’t many situations in which a teacher could tell the chestnut Hannah Schell had to put up with from her father (“What did the philosophy major say to the engineering major?” “Do you want fries with that?”) But, on hearing that someone is moving into full-time administration, have I ever started breathing like Darth Vader? Yes, I have. Should I have? No, I should not. Vocations evolve; discernment takes hard work. Thanks, NetVUE, for helping me figure this out and be a little less of a jerk.

What do you deduce?: Self-deprecating humor

Laughing at ourselves, as Homayra Ziad (in Hearing Vocation Differently) and Jason D. Stevens have noted, can be a good antidote to taking ourselves too seriously. And there are many good jokes about a stereotype some of us actually identify with: nerds who sometimes struggle to function in the real world. In fact, one of those jokes was voted the second-funniest joke in the world a few years ago:

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are on a camping trip.

In the middle of the night, Holmes nudges Watson awake, and says, “Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.”

“I see millions of stars, my dear Holmes.”

“And what do you infer from these stars?”

“Well, a number of things,” he says, lighting his pipe. “Astronomically, I observe that there are millions of galaxies and billions of stars and planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three.

Meteorologically, I expect that the weather will be fine and clear. Theologically, I see that God is all-powerful, and man, his creation, small and insignificant. What about you, Holmes?”

“Watson, you fool. Someone has stolen our tent!”

That said, there’s reason for caution. As Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix show Nanette demonstrated a few years ago, self-deprecatory humor, especially for those who have been marginalized, may model not humility but humiliation. Even for those with power, self-deprecation may not be as effective as we thought. A few years ago, I asked 86 students and 9 faculty at 9 different institutions whether they agreed that “teachers making fun of themselves” was helpful in the classroom. All the professors thought so; only half the students did.

Should we never joke at our own expense? That might well put us in the realm of Aristotle’s boors. But, as with all laughter, we should consider the relational context. What are we mocking in ourselves? Are we laughing gently or dismissively? If we’re laughing at ourselves, perhaps we need to do it in the enthusiastic spirit that educator Jennifer Gonzalez describes: “Share your obsessions. Geek out on the things students think are uncool. Show them that it’s possible to fall in love with a forest, a perfect pizza crust, the moment when a song changes key.”

“It was nice meeting you, too”: Laughter in the teaching relationship

If “Thomas Aquinas Walks into a Bar” isn’t a great joke, “It was nice meeting you, too” isn’t a joke at all. But it was one of the top laugh-getting lines (technically, “prelaugh comments”) in Robert Provine’s humor research. Provine found that 80-90% of laughs aren’t inspired by explicit attempts at humor, but arise naturally among the affirmations and questions of everyday conversation (Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, 40-41). The same can hold in the classroom: as Drew C. Appleby’s review for the APA shows, students appreciate not only teachers’ jokes and amusing stories, but their smiles, willingness to laugh along with students, and use of “light-hearted personal examples to highlight important points.”

Another good way to bring humor into the classroom is to make the pros do it for you. NetVUE colleagues have recommended graduation speeches by Toni Morrison, Greg Boyle, and David Foster Wallace, all of which incorporate humor brilliantly.

Like vocational studies, academia as a whole has tended to be pretty serious, and students have learned to be careful with their laughter. So sometimes it’s helpful to let students know ahead of time when an upcoming text or speaker is funny. My classes have long benefited from a visit from a Rabbi who’s known for her dry wit, but initially students didn’t laugh at her jokes; they said later that they were afraid that laughing would be offensive. Once I began telling classes ahead of time that the Rabbi is funny and it’s okay to laugh, the sessions became much livelier—even over Zoom.

Dissecting the frog: Analyzing humor

A famous adage by E.B. White and Katherine White claims that “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.” I don’t buy it. Humor represents our values, our cultures, our unique tastes, our sense of relationships—so of course it’s worth analyzing. Having students analyze jokes about our subject area can make for a terrifically insightful class.

If analysis takes anything away from our enjoyment of humor (and it very rarely does), it more than compensates by giving us a better understanding of humanity. We’re living in days in which the Proud Boys are selling themselves as “not Nazis, just funny dudes.” We need to be willing to think critically about humor.

Winnie the Pooh at Thanksgiving: Laughter and community

Another line students tend to remember from my courses is “What do Winnie the Pooh and Alexander the Great have in common?” They remember it, I think, because it’s their own effort that makes it funny. First, they hear the riddle and have a minute to think of answers. Then, once they hear the official answer, they need a minute to figure out why it makes sense. Then we discuss why the answer has to be told exactly this way: “Same middle name.” That terse phrase makes the hearer figure the joke out for themselves. If, instead, you end the joke by saying, “They both have ‘the’ as a middle name,” the joke evaporates; the work is gone, and so is the pleasure.

Students may not learn much about vocation or religion from that joke, but I hope they learn something about community: how we work together, how we can be patient with each other as we figure things out, how we can come together in groans and laughter. I hear the joke goes over pretty well at the Thanksgiving table. That’s one solid point for eutrapelia, and nil for Thanksgiving-table differences.

It’s also a model for what teaching can do: to build community within the classroom, and to help students build community beyond it. When it comes to creating, and then expanding, community, virtuous laughter is a good place to start.


A former high-school teacher and parish lay minister, Anita Houck is Professor of Religious Studies and Theology and Joyce McMahon Hank Aquinas Chair in Catholic Theology at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana. She co-founded Saint Mary’s long-running program in vocation, Real Life Calling, and participated in the 2018-2019 NetVUE faculty workshop. Her research explores religion and humor, vocation and single life, and pedagogy. She teaches comparative theology, spirituality and comedy, and interfaith studies, and has received the College Theology Society’s Monika Hellwig Award for Teaching Excellence. For other posts by Anita, click here.

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