Freethought Today, May 1998

Mixing Religion & Humor

By James D. Underdown

Let's face it, getting people to laugh about their religious beliefs is no easy trick. Robert Schuller can insult Satan and get laughs from the stiffs at the Crystal Cathedral, but the rest of us have to work at it. Imagine how many more people there would be to fill the comedy clubs today if Hitler and Cardinal Richelieu would have had a sense of humor about their faith. It's rough I tell you--combining the right comic, with the right material, in front of the right audience.

During my five years as a professional stand-up comedian, I only dabbled with the topic of religion. Sometimes I ended my 35-minute act by noting the amazing coincidences between the lives of Jesus and Elvis:


Coincidence, or Not?

Jesus

  1. Known by one name (aka "The King")
  2. 5 Letters in name, ends with 's'
  3. Roamed the desert
  4. Said, "DON'T take the Lord's name in vain."
  5. Easily fed the sitting multitudes with five loaves and two fishes
  6. Was delivered overnight not far from Memphis, Egypt
  7. Died in the state of Grace to be near his Father's throne

Elvis

  1. Known by one name (aka "The King")
  2. 5 Letters in name, ends with 's'
  3. Played the Sahara in Vegas
  4. Said, "DON'T be cruel."
  5. Could easily eat five loaves and a couple fish at a sitting
  6. Was born near Memphis, TN, home of Federal Express and overnight delivery
  7. Died on the throne at Graceland

One night in Grand Forks, North Dakota, a guy ran up to me after the show and wanted to know if I was mocking "Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." No, I said, I was mocking Elvis. (I'm not sure which he found more blasphemous.) Actually, I was poking fun at people who read too much into coincidences.

Why do comics and writers shy away from religion? Why did I? What exactly are the considerations for anyone trying to mix humor and religion?

I knew comedy about religion could be done. After all, many famous comedians have done bits which are not only well known, but are considered comedy classics. Comedy lovers might be familiar with:

One reason is that up-and-coming comics and writers with no established audience often avoid offending audiences in order to get re-booked into the venue. I worked for one club owner who had rules about what specific (swear) words you could use. He didn't have to spell it out that he didn't want people leaving his place offended. Comics who wanted to work had to be careful what they said. The courageous comics who do whatever material they want to--all the time--choose a difficult road.

Well-established comics have more freedom to risk alienating parts of the crowd--but most choose not to exercise it. The performers I've known tend to think there's more to lose than to gain by offending big chunks of their audience. Yet many comedians do admire thought-provokers like the late Bill Hicks for his fearless routines about politics and religion. I've opened for Bill on nights when he'd lose tables full of offended patrons after scathing, but (I thought) funny diatribes. But I doubt if nationally known comics like Hicks, or the sarcastic (but also funny) Dennis Miller, worry much about if and when they'll work in a particular club again.

Of course the way one pokes fun at religion has everything to do with the risk of offending people. Doing jokes about your own religion (or at least one you were raised in) is a much safer bet than talking about other groups. This "It's ok to talk about your own group" idea applies to just about any topic. In today's politically correct atmosphere, anyone who pokes fun or criticizes other groups runs the risk of alienating people.

Having fun within one's group can draw fire as well. Best-selling author James Finn Garner (Politically Correct Bedtime Stories) got a little flak from family members for his chapter on the Biblical Apocalypse in his latest book, Apocalypse Wow! Garner considers himself a religious person, but has found varying levels of what qualifies as blasphemy within the Catholic Church. He asked, "What is blasphemy? If God, the creator of the universe, cannot take an elbow in the ribs, then where did we get our sense of humor?"

I spoke to others experienced with comedy and got some interesting comments.

Matt Walsh has appeared on Comedy Central, and Late Night with Conan O'Brien several times. He tells of a sketch he's done about the Pope at the post office (and getting into a knife fight) which drew criticism from family members who "felt the need to defend (the pope) . . . and it wasn't really a political sketch. It was just sophomoric more than anything." Walsh thinks just about anything can be approached in a humorous way, especially ". . . anybody who's too secure about what and who they are--then they're a prime target (for humor.)"

Chicago-based comic Caryn Bark does monologues in her critically acclaimed one-woman show Diary of a Skokie Girl. Her humorous look at both the Jewish culture and religion actually precipitated a self-discovery about aspects of Judaism which she had not participated in before doing the show. She takes a gentle approach as an insider, and doesn't encounter negative feedback. Bark had an interesting insight about the labels comics get.

"A lot of people did Catholic school material. It's funny, if you did Catholic school material in a comedy club, you weren't pegged as a Catholic comic, or doing Catholic comedy--you were just a comic. If you did anything Jewish in a comedy club you were a Jewish comic--you were doing Jewish comedy." The same goes for female, and minority comics, she notes, whether or not you did material about those subjects. (She's right. I've rarely seen two nonwhite, nonChristian--Jewish, female, black, Hispanic--comics on a regular three-act bill. I've never seen three. With the exception of Women-in-Comedy, or Def Jam-type shows.)

Actor, and Second City alum Rick Hall also has a little inside fun in his one-man show, Pig Boy. In it, he tells a story about a conservative white preacher who is asked to preach to an all-black congregation. The humor in it stems largely from the culture differences between the two Christian congregations, but is told gently from the perspective of a church member. Hall doesn't worry about his show offending his audience (at times, church groups). But he remembers declining to perform a Second City sketch that he found sacrilegious. "Everybody does have their line, and that scene wouldn't offend maybe 80% of the people, but it bugged me, so I wouldn't do it." A comic's own judgment comes first in deciding what and what not to talk about.

So the venue, the status of the comic or writer, and the comic's own boundaries are all considerations as to whether or not to do religious humor. What about the audience? What effect does the specific audience have on what material is attempted?

The short answer is, it depends on the material. Scott Carter did stand-up for a few years before he began producing ABC's Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. He still performs biographical monologues, one of which, Suspension Bridge, deals with his search for spiritual answers. Carter wouldn't perform material from the monologue for stand-up audiences because it's not what they expect to see, but, he says, the genre doesn't matter as much as the performance itself. "If it's stand-up, it has to be funny. If it's a theater piece, it has to be funny and/or dramatic . . . it just depends on who's writing them and who's performing them."

Any experienced comic knows that audiences are fickle and change from town to town, show to show, and to some extent, subject to subject. When veteran stand-up comic and agnostic Tony Boswell writes religious material, he is very conscious of where he's taking the audience. One bit he does involves Boswell and Jesus at the Pearly Gates doing a knock-knock joke, and ends with Tony going to hell. "Even if they didn't think the Jesus part was funny, they're vindicated in their belief(s) because I was ultimately wrong . . . but I would hope that it's slightly an eye-opener . . ." Some audiences prefer blindness. After Boswell made a (rather mild) religious reference before a large crowd in Grand Island, Nebraska, "This huge farmer guy stood up and yelled out at me 'This is the Bible belt, motherfucker.' "

Money is probably the final consideration why comedy and religion rarely mix--especially for the mass media. The enormous expense of producing television and movies contributes greatly to the fear of offending people. Most entertainment is aimed at attracting large, diverse audiences. While the level of political correctness runs high, the common denominator of mass audiences is disturbingly low. Many very successful comedians--Rosie O'Donnell, Jay Leno, Sinbad, Gallager--do not challenge their audiences. Nowadays, most audiences aren't drawn to any provocative discussions about social issues, belief systems, or how to live their lives--whether those discussions are funny or not.

Discussing religion in our society makes people uneasy. (Some of the people I interviewed were uneasy.) The freedom of (and from) religion we have in the United States allows huge groups of people to openly hold fundamentally different beliefs about how to view their lives and the world. Civilized people try to respect others (or at least tolerate them) despite their differences. But the fact remains that there is still strong disagreement between the groups. Disagreement makes people uneasy. People who are uneasy are hard to make laugh.

Making people laugh is tough enough without the hurdles religion adds. It's easy to see why few walk down the same religious comedy path as Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Lenny Bruce. They are comedians who speak to people about volatile subjects and not only make them laugh, but make them think.

Jim "U-Boat" Underdown, a Foundation member, did stand-up comedy for five years as The Poet Laureate of Calumet City, IL. He has also performed at New York's Comic Strip and Chicago's Improv. He has appearanced in films such as Hollywood Boulevard and Ghosts May Kiss and on TV's Cagney & Lacey, Ernie Kovacs and the Oprah Winfrey Show. His theater credits include starring as Mr. Saigon and a leading role in The Gathering. Jim is a certified scuba diver, a R&R and R&B singer, and tandem parachuter. He lives with his wife, Colleen Wainwright, in Los Angeles, and writes and directs for stage and screen.


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