Out and About (Sort of): Chautauqua by Howard Freedlander

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The humor was dark, spiritual, political, ethnic, race-related and provocative–all aimed at tickling the funny bone and cheering the soul with laughter for a week in the unusual community of Chautauqua, NY.

“Comedy and the Human Condition” was the theme of week 6 in a summer venue known for 143 years as a religious, cultural and academic community filled primarily with mostly small Victorian houses oriented to the lovely and peaceful Lake Chautauqua. Though I’ve heard for years about this quirky place in western New York State, not far from Erie, PA, I didn’t really understand the overriding need for total immersion in lectures focused entirely on the subject at hand.

I quickly learned the rules of the Chautauqua Way.

Rev. Susan Sparks

The tone was set early on, on the first Sunday, July 30 at the week’s opening religious service when the chaplain-in-residence for week 6, the Rev. Susan Sparks, senior pastor at the Madison Avenue Baptist Church in Manhattan, NY, introduced at least a thousand of us to her special mix of spirituality and humor. Her sermons were pitch-perfect. What we all learned, I think, was that the message of hope and faith and joy and love and compassion resonates more effectively when leavened by humor.

Prior to becoming an ordained minister, this Charlotte, NC native was a trial lawyer and stand-up comic. One of her sermons drew a parallel between the King as in Jesus Christ and the other king, Elvis Presley.

Are you kidding me, coupling Christ and Elvis, the king of rock? Yes, according to Pastor Sparks.

Just as his fervent followers, unwilling to give up the ghost, believe Elvis is still alive and set to return any time now, Christians should too consider that Christ is alive and ever-present in our hearts when we act with grace and decency. While I sound preachy and sophomoric, Susan did not. After all, she knew how to blend the serious and comic. She liked Elvis too, appealing to her southern roots and fondness for a legend that keeps growing.

W. Kamau Bell

A self-described “motorcycle chick,” the cowboy-boot wearing pastor captivated her audience every morning. It seemed that her Chautauqua congregation smiled and listened whenever she spoke. She was truly an effective messenger of God.

My mind rarely wandered. That was unusual. Laughter fuels attention. So I discovered sitting continuously on a hard bench, without the requisite seat cushions borne by the wise Chautauquans. We happily sacrificed comfort for nourishment of our souls–sounds like a rookie’s rationalization. New-found friends brought us seat cushions. An act deserving of “Alleluia!”

As I listened and laughed at the political humor of the Capitol Steps, the angry, cynical humor of Lewis Black, the ethnic, Jewish humor of

The Capitol Steps

Rabbis Bob Alper and Joseph Telushkin, the sly, boundary-breaking humor of David Steinberg and the poignant and powerful humor of W. Kamau Bell, I learned that humor can compel you to think differently, ignore your worries, appreciate life’s absurdities, laugh at yourself and provide a wider lens into our nation’s flaws, follies and frailties, as well as our own personal idiosyncrasies.

One caution to political satire, long a staple in our raucous country, came in the voice of Kelly Carlin, a radio comic and moderator and daughter of at the late comedian George Carlin, who pushed the limits of humor by disparaging nearly everything and everybody. She wondered aloud whether political satire weakens our national institutions by shooting holes into and shredding our elected leaders and government agencies. The mistrust sowed and the cynicism generated can be injurious and harmful to the institutions that depend on public support–and trust.

Lake Chautauqua

Maybe it’s too late to resurrect respect for our government leaders. A gruesome prospect. Hope sustains me. Kelly Carlin subtlety betrayed her paternal legacy by questioning but not chastising the impact of mean-spirited humor.

At the risk of seeming self-righteous, I too laugh at satire, particularly if aimed at both ends of the political spectrum. The Capitol Steps are particularly adept. One of their funniest musical routines last week targeted “The Supremes” as a riff on the aging members of the Supreme Court, underscored by a musical rendition of “Staying Alive.”

It was hilarious and apt. And inoffensive to this senior citizen.

Back to Chautauqua, a place that encourages introspection and civil discourse. It’s not a resort, though located on a centerpiece lake. There are too few restaurants. There is not a bar on the premises, maybe due to its religious origin. I say this as a non-drinker. The major hotel, the Athenaeum, is worn, with no pizzazz; our ceiling leaked after some but not significant rain. Few cars are allowed on the property.

And, besides the omnipresent porches on the small, charming houses are the equally pervasive hydrangea plants. They are attractive, but not stunningly so. They remind me of enlarged, colorful mushrooms. They exude colorful freshness. They seem perfect for tradition-laden Chautauqua.

Did I say quirky?

Part Two continued here

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

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