The One-Liner That Made a Man a Saint
There are few better feelings in life than coming out with a zinger that really knocks people on their asses. An effortless off-the-cuff remark that catches people off-guard and makes them laugh their heads off. It’s the kind of thing that endears you to strangers, strengthens friendships and can elevate a person into a legend.
But one man managed to produce a gag that did more than that — it helped turn him into a saint.
St. Lawrence, or as he was known at the time, “Lawrence,” was a Christian deacon in Rome in the third century. Along with other prominent Christians, he was killed under the orders of Emperor Valerian as part of the Roman persecution of Christians. First Lawrence’s mentor, Pope Sixtus, was killed. Then Lawrence, along with six other deacons, were ordered to gather all the treasures that the church owned and surrender them to the Romans. Instead, he spent the next few days distributing them among the poor, stating that the real treasures of the church were in fact those people, a rather sweet sentiment that — and he really should have seen this coming — saw him immediately sentenced to death.
In fact, according to the tale, the Romans were so angry that they strapped him to a grill and cooked him to death over hot coals, a pretty grisly fate that led to Lawrence’s immortally funny rib-tickler: After being burned for some time, he instructed the Romans, “I’m well done on this side. Turn me over!”
It’s a good gag, a badass bit of downplaying the whole being-cooked-to-death situation by pretending to be cheerful and helpful. (To steal a popular dad joke, gags about being roasted to death are a rare medium well done.) But in a joke like that, what is actually going on? It’s funny, but why?
Oliver Double knows comedy inside and out — he’s both an academic specializing in comedy (as Head of Comedy and Popular Performance at the University of Kent at Canterbury) and a working comic himself. This means he gets laughs in two ways: 1) by entertaining people; and 2) by understanding how he has done so.
“The bit of theory that immediately springs to mind in relation to this is Freud’s 1928 essay, ‘Humour,’ the lesser-known follow-up to his book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious,” Double explains. “In it, Freud considers a gag similar to St. Lawrence’s final punchline. A criminal is being led out to the gallows on a Monday, and comments, ‘Well, the week’s beginning nicely.’ Freud describes this kind of thing as ‘the triumph of narcissism, the victorious assertion of the ego’s invulnerability.’”
There’s definitely an arrogance to the line, a dick-swinging insistence on showing off even in the most dire of circumstances. For both Lawrence and the criminal in Freud’s example it’s a final bit of acting up, a moment to remind people, “Things might not entirely have gone my way, but let’s just all remember how extremely cool I am.”
To that end, Freud’s essay continues: “Humour is not resigned; it is rebellious. It signifies not only the triumph of the ego but also of the pleasure principle, which is able to assert itself against the unkindness of the real circumstances.” In other words, says Double, the joke denies reality as a way of escaping it in a pleasurable way — even if only for a moment or so.
While Lawrence is cracking wise, the focus briefly shifts from his horrific imminent death to his gag, a brief chuckle distracting everyone from the unthinkably painful, entirely monstrous events taking place. As Double points out, later in the essay, Freud defines “the intention which humour carries out” as: “Look! Here is the world, which seems so dangerous! It is nothing but a game for children — just worth making a jest about!”
And so, in addition to Lawrence’s aren’t-I-cool posturing, there might be something quite profound in his joke, his flippancy serving to point out the futility of everything. At a time when the majority of people he knew — and everything he believed in — was being systematically destroyed, facing death in a way that seemed to attach little importance to life itself might have seemed rather appealing. After all, you can’t be entirely defeated if nothing is of any consequence.
It’s also, again, a really cool line. He must have been determined not to say anything else in his final moments to take away from the awesomeness of it — timing is everything. If he had delivered his rad one-liner too early in the process, and then started crying or shitting himself or shouting about what a dickhead everyone was being, it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good.
Although it was Lawrence’s martyrdom that led to him being canonized as a saint, it was the manner of his death and that one legendary quip that led to him being named the patron saint of both comedians and chefs. That’s really, really funny. (He’s the patron saint of a bunch of other jobs, things and places, too — paupers, librarians, Canada — but it’s a much snappier revelation if you don’t mention them, and as we’ve established, the man had impeccable comedic timing.)
Admittedly, it might never have happened this way — as with any story that old, omissions and embellishments may well have been made over the years. There’s also a possible bonus laugh in, if the story is indeed false, how it came to be. Some historians have pointed out that a swift decapitation was generally preferred at the time, and that cooking someone to death would have been very unlikely. One theory is that a spelling error — not a typo, as typing wouldn’t be invented for 1,500 years or so — led to some confusion. Most tales of martyred saints involved the Latin phrase passus est, which translates as “he passed.” However, assus est — ha ha, asses — means “he was roasted.” The idea of a clumsy monk copying lengthy texts by hand accidentally omitting a P doesn’t seem completely out of the question.
Cool one-liners, asses and missing pee: Whether St. Lawrence was arrogantly defying death, profoundly demonstrating the ultimate futility of existence or neither of the above, the guy was hilarious!