Week Six Column from the President

Welcome to Week Six of this 144th Assembly. Our mission is to explore the best in human values, and this week that pursuit brings us a week on comedy and laughter. We so often think that diving into heavy topics will lead us to key answers, but how many of us have come to great conclusions after a belly laugh or two? I hope we bring that to you this week, whether you are here with us for the first time or continuing your summer at this very special place.

Our week on “Comedy and the Human Condition” should not be taken as a “light” week, however. Through an incredible partnership with our neighbors at the National Comedy Center, the first cultural institution of national scale devoted to the art of comedy, which is being built just down the road in Jamestown, New York, we hope to challenge your mind while tickling your funny bone. Consider the following questions we get to look at together:

• What are the politics of comedy and political satire? Comedy often serves as our greatest mirror, a unique conduit of truth. What will this week tell us about our truth in these times?

• What does it look like inside the writers’ room? What insight might we gain into the craft of comedy for television and film by peering into the mind of the writer?

• Is such a thing as “universally funny”? We’ll look around the globe for the answer, and perhaps a laugh or two!

• When has a joke gone too far? We consider issues of free speech and ask, “Is there such a thing as too offensive?”

As always, we are enriched by a parallel interfaith exploration. This week, we’ll be looking at “The Spiritual Power of Humor.” Many religions tell stories in which “the gods laughed.” In the Hebrew Scriptures, Abraham and Sarah named their only son Isaac — meaning “she or he laughs,” because of the improbability of Sarah giving birth at an advanced age — and Buddhism often depicts the Buddha laughing. In this week, we will look at the power of humor to create insight and healing of the spirit.

As we have all season, we will also be pushing the boundaries of viewpoints. In a week on comedy, you can expect plenty of satire and some political “ribbing.” While we move through this week, I hope Chautauquans will be reminded that sometimes it’s OK to not take ourselves so seriously. If there’s any week to allow ourselves to laugh at the foibles and fables of a diversity of perspectives, this is it!

During last week’s incredible probing of the Supreme Court, we tested the opening charge I offered in my first “Three Taps” around the need for this community to practice a muscular civic dialogue. (I recognize that not all Chautauquans can be with us every week of the season. For those that missed the opening Three Taps of the Gavel, I asked if we could commit to a new muscular civic dialogue this season and beyond. If you missed that talk, you can find it

To help us to build and exercise that muscle, we have invited partners from Claremont Lincoln University to join with us in launching the Chautauqua muscular civil dialogue initiative. I hope you’ll join us for this inaugural engagement at 3:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 11 in the Hall of Christ. If you can’t be here in person, you can join in via livestream on Facebook. We will be sharing more about this program and ways you can participate in The Chautauquan Daily, via email and online at

I hope you’ll indulge my ending this week’s column on a personal note. As you may know, I was honored to serve as president and chief executive officer of Youth For Understanding USA before coming to Chautauqua. YFU is one of the world’s oldest and most respected intercultural student exchange organizations. Each year YFU brings thousands of young people from around the world to live with a host family in a community. I was blessed to host for the first time during this last year, and Alen Nsambu came to the United States from Finland to be my “exchange” son. Many of you had a chance to meet Alen, as he crisscrossed Chautauqua for the first five weeks of the season. Alen took in ballet, fitness and other Special Studies classes, and was a regular in the Amp for both 10:45 a.m. lectures and evening performances. He was a frequent occupier of practice shacks and was out on the lake in sailboats and kayaks, and through all of that met many Chautauquans. I want to thank the Chautauqua community for the incredible care you showed Alen during the last five weeks of his experience in the United States. Chautauquans represented our nation well, and Alen left considering himself a Chautauquan. I suspect you’ll see him back next summer. The photo at left was taken from the living room in the President’s Cottage the night before Alen left for Finland. I promised I would share that huge smile on his face with all of you as a way to say “thank you” for including him in the life of our community. You have my deepest, heartfelt thanks for your kindness and generosity of spirit.

While we passed the midway point of our season last week, we have so much left to discover in the remaining weeks of this season. I continue to be grateful for the warmth you have shown me in my first season as your 18th president. Alen got a chance to see it in his time here; I count myself lucky that I get to enjoy it this season and for years to come.

Now bring on the laughter of the week and many more memories of our beloved Chautauqua!

Tags : comedyComedy and the Human Conditionmichael e. hillpresident columnWeek six
Michael E. Hill

The author Michael E. Hill