Friday, September 21st, 2012

When God and Comedy Meet: Stephen Colbert on Christianity

When he was a young actor in Chicago, Stephen Colbert stood offstage waiting for his scene. He nervously watched an actor perform the bit he was supposed to do next: Tossing a Ritz Cracker into his mouth and calling it "The Body of Christ." Colbert, a devout Catholic since childhood, found the joke blasphemous and refused. As he told a packed crowd of 3,000 Fordham University students, faculty, and clergy last Friday, the director was furious. Almost thirty years later, however, abstaining has worked in Colbert's favor: Besides being a major television star, he was kibitzing about piety with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, while the director "was part of a Satanic biker gang." Colbert's religiosity, in his own assessment, helped him come out on top.

Comedians and improvisers are seen as a godless lot. After all, some of the most popular "atheist evangelists" are comics. Ricky Gervais, George Carlin, and Eddie Izzard's most famous bits mock religion. Julia Sweeney's Letting Go of God is so secure in the atheist canon that Christopher Hitchens quoted her extensively in The God Delusion. Even Louis C.K., whose "Everything is Amazing and No One is Happy" is popular with Christian educators, is skeptically agnostic, declaring, "If there is a God, God is an asshole."

Colbert basked in his outsider status at Friday's event, called "The Cardinal and Colbert: Humor, Joy, and the Spiritual Life." Moderated by James Martin—Jesuit priest, official Colbert Report Chaplain, and author of the religion and humor book Between Heaven and Mirth—the event brought together Colbert and Cardinal Dolan for "a conversation about humor, faith, joy, and the spiritual life." While the speakers did a little digging into the mechanics of Christian humor, the main focus was demonstrating how someone can be a serious Christian and funny, too. The New York Times dubbed the evening "the most successful Roman Catholic youth evangelization event since Pope John Paul II last appeared at World Youth Day."

Whether or not that is true—And I have my doubts: Fordham is a Christian college but it is hardly Bob Jones University, and many students entered the event more excited than they exited it—there is no doubt the Catholic Church needs to invigorate young people. Mass attendance and clergy enrollment continue to face a steady, decades-long drop. In June, Gallup revealed that of those who remain with the Church, only 46% have confidence in its leadership. Public crusades against the pill aren't helping the cause, as 82% of US Catholics believe birth control is morally acceptable and 98% of Catholic women will use it at some point in their lives. On Friday, Dolan and Martin admitted that the Church is perceived as prudish, regressive, and out of touch.

Stephen Colbert understands this; as a veteran improviser and satirist, God knows he can read a room. So instead of his pompous "Report" character, the man on stage Friday night was Colbert the Sunday school teacher, bringing to life a bit of personal history previously reserved for magazine profiles. The All-American dad described hiking with his sons, talked about his favorite beers, and complained about the new mass translation. Early in the evening, Cardinal Dolan brought Colbert's wife, Evelyn, onstage and gave her a peck on the cheek, a song and dance familiar this election year. "I can kiss your wife. You can't kiss mine," joked the Cardinal. The interaction embodied the "Aww, shucks" family values that Colbert was there to promote; notably, Mrs. Colbert was not asked to speak, just to be seen.

It is not as though Colbert's religiosity is insincere or, at the other end of the spectrum, rigid and humorless. In his introduction, Colbert called humor an antidote to fear and a sign of joy. "Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God," he said, "and that's how I can mix faith with what I do for a living." He recalled riding home from the funeral of his father and two brothers, all three of whom died in a plane crash when Colbert was 10 years old. At one point during the somber ride, one Colbert sister cracked a joke that made another laugh so hard she fell on the floor. "That's when I said, 'I want to do that,'" Colbert explained, going on to say, "If Jesus doesn't have a sense of humor, I'm in huge trouble."

Still, he said his Catholic identity is scorned in the comedy world. "There are people [in comedy] who can't understand why I'd remain a Catholic," he said. In addition to his conscientious objections to Ritz Cracker comedy, Colbert described an interaction he had shooting a TV show that, given the context provided, was likely "Strangers with Candy." During filming on Ash Wednesday, Colbert requested to leave the set to go to mass. The director laughed uproariously. "That's a good one," he said, presuming Colbert was joking. Colbert said he interrogated the director about why that would be funny, reminding the boys and girls in the audience to stand up for their faith. Again and again, Colbert conveyed a professional world where his faith isolated him but, in the end (and, presumably, The End), God is worth it.

Colbert's David and Goliath framing of his faith in the contemporary world brought to mind Arrested Development and Veep actor Tony Hale. Like Colbert, Hale is a Christian comic actor. In a recent interview with Jesse Thorn on PRI's "Bullseye," Hale said that being part of a community of Christian artists allowed him to survive in an industry riddled with jealously and rejection. He said uptight churches, not the comedy community, were the ones criticizing him and his fellow Christian actors. Are Catholic performers more rare than Protestants, is Colbert uniquely isolated because of his position, or was his outsider identity just part of the evangelist character he was playing Friday night?

Now that he is the boss, Colbert said that he won't do jokes about the Seven Sacraments nor will he put the Crucifix onscreen. Almost defensively, he said there were no jokes about religion he regretted doing, since he only jokes about "the use of religion," or "Christ as cudgel." Upon watching clips from his “This Week in God” segments after experiencing Sunday School Colbert, though, I wonder whether he regrets dressing up as a priest for a fake porno called "Confession Booth Confessions" or making fart jokes involving myrrh.  If it is true that, as he said on Friday, "satire is parody that has a point," I would love to see Colbert explain those points to the Cardinal.

Marisa Carroll won a poetry contest in third grade; now she writes stuff on the Internet. She has also written forThe Rumpus  and The Nation. Follow her on Twitter here.

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  • carson1

    Great article, but I'm wondering about your last point. Of the two pieces that you mentioned Colbert maybe wanting to regret (the myrrh fart joke and the Confession Booth Confessions), how would they contradict Colbert's philosophy? They may not be high satire (although the need to be satirical and have a "point" can be overrated), they're far from blasphemous.

  • http://twitter.com/megh_wright Megh Wright
  • http://www.facebook.com/jasonfarr Jason Farr

    Thank you for writing this article. I am a Christian and I started doing comedy 3 years ago. Though I'm in South Carolina (Greenville, the home of Bob Jones no less) I'm one of the only couple Christians in my comedy circle. And I actually feel a bit isolated in my church or comedy community when the other is brought up.

  • Murphy01

    I like Colbert and I feel he'd have had me more convinced if he were arguing from a Quaker perspective or such, something I can imagine him managing well with its relation to civics and community. But his form of borderline-doctrinaire Catholicism isn't really going to make me overlook the reality of how that cohabits with a form of "respectful" censorship, and how THAT has turned out in the day-to-day handling by priests and administrators, whether regarding birth control, women's rights, gay rights, and I'm not imagining anyone has forgotten about some children-related scandals…. But I think most of the big religions enacted by precisely such doctrinaire leadership. Whatever the religion, when it becomes dogma (and not showing a cross on tv is silly DOGMA pure and simple) comedy is one of the human keys, allowing us to take on that supposed "natural rules of order" relation apart and letting us see our selves, flawed, imperfect, but with humanity, within it. If for some reason Colbert wants to control it on the simplistic level of just the signs – which is actually more a comment on idolatry than religon – more is the pity, because in the US all we see is hypocrisy, contradiction etc. is too close by as one result. And that's what he's usually good at showing in his combination of comedy and politics. Faith by all means, but becoming a cultural enforcer…. no thanks.

  • http://twitter.com/erstwiles Stephanie Campbell

    Just a note: Christopher Hitchens wrote God Is Not Great. Richard Dawkins wrote The God Delusion.

  • Brendan Jordan

    This article, and specifically the point of view of its author, clearly illustrate Colbert's point about being treated as an outsider due to his faith.

    Congratulations, Marisa.

  • Benji Zee

    Colbert is only interested in making big money from his show. Of all guys that defends his religion! Does he still go to confession? "Bah Humbug"!

    • AverageHomeboy

      Well, he teaches Sunday school every week….is that enough for you, or…..?

  • Aaron Clarke

    This lady writes for The Nation, yet she misidentified The God Delusion as being by Christopher Hitchens..

  • Brandon Roberts

    i was thinking of doing sketch comedy and i would make fun of everything atheists agnostics scientologists even catholic preists i think comedians should make atheist jokes

    • fredrostarr

      I would like to see something like that, it would be interesting to see a different point of view since most comedy seems to be from the flipside. You would likely encounter just as much hate and negativity from the other side, which would be interesting.

      • Brandon Roberts

        Yeah and I'd also make fun of plenty other things

  • Ben A. Varkentine

    A good article, but I feel like you only scratched the surface.