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Thursday, August 7th, 2014

Jesus, You're Funny: 'Black Jesus' and the Long History of Comedic Messiahs

blackjesus

Wherever Aaron McGruder goes, controversy follows. Black Jesus, McGruder's new live-action Adult Swim show starring Gerald "Slink" Johnson as the title character, debuts tonight amid criticisms from Christians of what they view to be blasphemous material, based not on screenings of full episodes but on footage from an extended trailer Adult Swim posted on July 18.

McGruder's last show, the just-recently-ended Boondocks, offended practically everybody. Conservatives objected to The Boondocks' raunchy material, progressives found the show to be misogynist and homophobic, a few of the show's satirical targets didn't take kindly to being satirized and threatened to sue either McGruder or Adult Swim, and Boondocks viewers were offended by being made to wait four years between seasons. But in the case of Black Jesus, the only people who are angry with the extended trailer are far-right Christian groups like the American Family Association and One Million Moms, which wants Black Jesus taken off the air because "the show depicts him living in Compton Gardens and makes a mockery of our Lord. The foul language used in the trailer, including using the Lord's name in vain, is disgusting."

Not all Christians agree with groups like One Million Moms about the Black Jesus clips. Jay Parini, author of Jesus: The Human Face of God, views satirical works like McGruder's as an essential way of commenting on humanity and argues that the new show's depiction of a modern-day Jesus Christ who hangs out with potheads and winos isn't too far off from the "marginal" kind of company Christ preferred to keep. In his op-ed on the Black Jesus trailer controversy, Parini cites a passage from the Gospel of Luke where the Pharisees condemned Jesus and his followers for eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners.

The uproar over Black Jesus is just the latest in an endless cycle of controversies ignited by Christian groups who immediately take offense at religion being satirized in comedic works and denounce those works as blasphemous. Will the outrage over the McGruder show last as long as the controversy surrounding Monty Python's Life of Brian, which continues to this day? Life of Brian drew protests from Christians around the world in 1979 and ended up banned in Glasgow for 30 years. As recently as 2013, the 1979 religious satire was banned from being screened in Germany on Good Friday. The accusations that Life of Brian is blasphemous against Christ make little sense because the Python troupe actually respected and admired Christ's teachings and backed off depicting him comedically in any way; he's played completely straight in the film by Kenneth Colley. In fact, Life of Brian isn't even about Jesus, who appears in the film for about only 30 seconds and is always filmed from a distance. Instead, the film targets Jesus' followers, and in keeping with the Python troupe's disdain for authority and institutions, it points out the absurdities and failings of organized religion.

Life of Brian seems mild in comparison to the likes of 2006's The Book of Daniel and Black Jesus, which go a step further than Life of Brian and include Christ as a central character instead of a beatific figure only seen briefly in the background. Articles about stage or screen depictions of Jesus have been done before (just Google "cinematic portrayals of Jesus"), but there's never really been one that's focused on comedic takes on Jesus. The following is a look back at these comedic Jesuses, not counting works like Cheech Marin's 1987 vehicle Born in East L.A., where Jesus only appears as a creepy holographic photo (actually a photo of Tommy Chong in a crown of thorns) that gets mistaken for a reincarnation of Jesus; Kevin Smith's 1999 religious satire Dogma, where Jesus is an absent figure who gets appropriated as a corporate mascot; or 2008's Hamlet 2, which features Jesus as a character in the musical within the movie. These comedic Jesuses happen to exemplify what Parini says about the satisfaction of seeing Jesus in various skin colors and social contexts and with his sense of humor intact. Also, how does Slink Johnson's Black Jesus stack up against the other comedic Jesuses, and will his new show be as divine as many of the following works?

History of the World: Part I, 1981

Author Max Brooks is such a stickler for historical accuracy that The Harlem Hellfighters, his new (and excellent) graphic novel based on the experiences of African-American soldiers in World War I, took him about 15 years to complete, whereas his comedy director father Mel Brooks isn't exactly known for historical accuracy. In Blazing Saddles, the elder Brooks imbued Cleavon Little's 1874 Wild West hero Sheriff Bart with a taste for the sounds of Cole Porter and Count Basie, a few decades before either of them were born. Then in the Roman Empire/Last Supper segment of History of the World: Part I, Brooks had Leonardo Da Vinci interacting with Jesus, 1,419 years before the Italian Renaissance genius was born. He also wrote Emperor Nero into the segment, even though Nero didn't start ruling Rome until two decades after Jesus' death. John Hurt won the bit part of Jesus after starring in The Elephant Man, which Brooks produced. Like in Life of Brian, Jesus is played completely straight by Hurt, even when he gets into an Abbott and Costello-ish exchange with Brooks' standup comic/waiter character Comicus, who exclaims the earnest religious leader's name in frustration after irritating the stressed-out Apostles ("Jesus!" "Yes?" "What?" "What?" "What?" "Yes?"). As a straight man to the antics of Brooks, Jesus rules.

SNL, 1991 and 1993

Blessed with a broadcaster's voice and impeccable comedic timing, the late Phil Hartman had a knack for embodying gravitas. On SNL, that made him perfect for roles like stern dads, commercial pitchmen, Charlton Heston, or the early '90s SNL writers' interpretation of Jesus as a gentle soul who remains patient and unflappable, even in the face of dumb receptionists who have never heard of him before ("And you are…?") or believers who pray too much. David Spade's receptionist sketches, where he played a snooty and nameless receptionist at the Dick Clark Productions office who won't let anyone see Dick Clark, always ended with a powerful and out-of-the-ordinary individual approaching Spade's desk and still getting turned away by Spade despite his power. One receptionist sketch concluded with an alien threatening to destroy Earth, while another receptionist sketch ended with an appearance by Hartman as Jesus, who gets blocked by Spade like everyone else and bonds with guest host Roseanne Barr over Spade's obnoxiousness while being made to wait ("Isn't he the worst?," says Roseanne, and Christ responds with a gentle "He really is").

The Lord's unflappability continued in what's known as the "Pious Housewife" sketch, in which guest host Sally Field played a housewife who prays to God for the most mundane things, like making sure her slipcovers are clean, keeping the rice from getting sticky, or guiding her daughter to pass her algebra test. Hartman's Jesus surprises the housewife by materializing in her kitchen and kindly suggesting to her that she focus her prayers on much more difficult matters, although praying about algebra is okay with him because even he finds algebra to be insurmountable. The "Pious Housewife" sketch is so unusually thoughtful about prayer and free will that even Christians, who don't often respond well to being satirized, admire the sketch and continue to reference it in church newsletters or on Christian message boards.

The Spirit of Christmas/South Park, 1992-present

South Park first became a blip on the pop-cultural radar in 1995, in the form of Trey Parker and Matt Stone's animated short The Spirit of Christmas, which went viral in the days before there was such a phrase as "going viral." In The Spirit of Christmas, Jesus (voiced by Stone) visits Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny and asks them to direct him to Santa Claus because he's upset with Santa for making people forget that Christmas is the celebration of his birthday. The Lord starts a fight with Santa at the mall that results in the hurling of both Mortal Kombat fireballs and Highlander catchphrases and lots of collateral damage involving kids, including, of course, Kenny. The Spirit of Christmas, which led to Comedy Central approaching Parker and Stone about launching South Park, is actually a partial remake of a much cruder-looking 1992 short that Parker and Stone also called The Spirit of Christmas. In the earlier short, primitive versions of Stan and Kyle summon a mute baby Jesus, complete with beard, to save them from an evil Frosty the Snowman.

Jesus has been portrayed in two modes on South Park. Either he's a superhero who helps out the South Park gang, like in that 1992 battle with Frosty and the 2001 episode "Super Best Friends," or he's a Maytag Repairman-type sad sack who gets ignored by the gang. The 1995 Spirit of Christmas ends with the kids expressing more excitement about having been visited by figure skating star Brian Boitano than about having been visited by Christ. The Lord receives an even colder treatment during the end credits of 1997's "Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo," when he winds up alone on the set of his little-watched public access talk show Jesus and Pals, singing "Happy birthday to me."

Superstar, 1999

Jesus is envisioned as part spaced-out hippie, part Obi-Wan in director (and Kids in the Hall star) Bruce McCulloch's feature-length attempt to turn Molly Shannon's signature SNL character, Catholic school misfit Mary Katherine Gallagher, into the next Wayne's World. In Superstar, Will Ferrell plays a dual role as Sky Corrigan, the dancer/football player Mary Katherine pines for, and Jesus, who advises Mary Katherine to do whatever her heart tells her and "go with the Godly flow" and then is later seen encouraging Mary Katherine's Special Ed classmate Slater (Harland Williams), a stuttering biker who's had a crush on Mary Katherine since grade school, to pursue the girl of his dreams. The movie tries to explain Ferrell's dual role by having Jesus describe the form he's taken as a combination of Mary Katherine's deceased Irish stepdancer dad, her perception of God, and her idealized vision of Sky, but then when Jesus materializes in front of Slater, why does he appear in the same exact form to Slater, who clearly doesn't worship Sky as frequently as Mary Katherine does? And since Slater's Jesus bears the same Mr. Gallagher-ish traits as Mary Katherine's Jesus, does that mean Mary Katherine and Slater are actually – ick – long-lost siblings? The extremely bizarre conclusion of the 2000 SNL sketch where Jim Morrison (Val Kilmer) formed a band in Rock and Roll Heaven and Ferrell briefly reprised his Superstar role as Jesus ("Oh my Dad!") made more sense than this.

Robot Chicken, 2005-present

Seth Green and Matthew Senreich's stop-motion sketch show is fond of placing Jesus (usually voiced by Breckin Meyer) in silly settings, whether it's a Judd Apatow-ized retelling of his personal life that's narrated by Stan Lee for some unknown reason (The 33-Year-Old Virgin) or a sitcom version of his persecution (Everybody Hates Christ). Robot Chicken has also given Jesus the revenge movie he always deserved, via a fake trailer for a Kill Bill-style actioner called Kill Bunny, in which the George Burns version of God from the Oh, God! movies teaches sword techniques to Jesus (voiced not by Meyer but by Green's Family Guy boss and co-star Seth MacFarlane), the Crazy 88 gang is replaced by Hasidic Jews, and the David Carradine nemesis role is recast with the Easter Bunny.

Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical, 2005

In Showtime's made-for-TV adaptation of the intentionally campy stage musical version of the unintentionally campy 1936 anti-marijuana flick (wow, even typing that was exhausting), Jesus shows up in the chiseled form of original stage musical cast member Robert Torti to discourage '30s youth Jimmy (Christian Campbell) from smoking weed. "I'm the face on the Shroud of Turin/Do I need to test your urine?," sings "the hardest-working man in the afterlife" during the Vegas-y number "Listen to Jesus, Jimmy." This anti-pot, clean-living Jesus is a huge contrast from the pot-loving Black Jesus who walks the streets of Compton in both the Super Rumble Mixshow shorts and now his own TV spinoff (more on Gerald "Slink" Johnson as Jesus later).

The Book of Daniel, 2006

Garret Dillahunt's jokey but profound incarnation of Jesus ("I'm a one-liner kind of guy: 'Do unto others,' 'Turn the other cheek,' stuff like that.") also displays a firm anti-drug stance during Warehouse 13 showrunner Jack Kenny's short-lived NBC church dramedy. But instead of admonishing Christian Campbell, who happens to show up here too as Peter, the openly gay son of Aidan Quinn's titular Episcopalian priest, this time Jesus is nagging Quinn about his Vicodin addiction. Whether this sage and laissez-faire Jesus is a Vicodin-induced hallucination of Father Dan's or the actual dude himself is left open to interpretation. But one thing's for sure: Dillahunt's version of the Messiah is someone you'd want by your side for advice if you're like Father Dan and you're having a hard time juggling a church in debt; Mafia benefactors; an alcoholic wife (Susanna Thompson); a gay son who's nearly killed because of his sexual orientation; an adopted Asian-American son (Ivan Shaw) who can't control his libido; a teenage daughter (Alison Pill) who got caught selling weed; a mother with Alzheimer's (Kathleen Chalfant); and an ex-bishop dad (the late James Rebhorn) who opposes your support of gay rights and is having an extramarital affair with your boss, the female bishop (Ellen Burstyn).

Did I mention that The Book of Daniel is overstuffed? But this overly busy show gets better on disc or YouTube as it goes along (don't miss a pre-Community Gillian Jacobs as Burstyn's niece, who isn't aware of Peter's homosexuality and attempts to seduce him), which is why it's a shame that the religious right, offended once again by a piece of entertainment they didn't even bother to watch or understand, succeeded in scaring off advertisers and intimidating NBC so much that the network put an end to The Book of Daniel right when the show settled into a comfortable groove. One of the Dillahunt Jesus' many aphorisms during this anti-7th Heaven is "Life is hard, Daniel. For everyone. That's why there's such a nice reward at the end of it." It sucks that The Book of Daniel was denied a nice reward like renewal or a Yahoo-saves-Community-style rescue by a gutsier network, thanks to a certain segment of the audience that, to borrow the words of another great long-haired philosopher, is too stupid to have a good time.

SNL, 2006 and 2011

Like Hartman and Ferrell before him, Jason Sudeikis became a much-valued utility player during his SNL run, so like those other beloved utility players, he was handed the role of Jesus. In one of those countless SNL monologues that follow the "guest host takes questions from crazy people in the audience" format, guest host Tom Hanks promoted The Da Vinci Code, which was in hot water with the Catholic Church at the time for its portrayal of Catholicism, and Sudeikis pretended to be Jesus to shame Hanks, not for making The Da Vinci Code but for making The Terminal ("You're one of the new cast members, aren't you?," says Hanks to Sudeikis).

The next time Sudeikis appeared on SNL as the Messiah, it wasn't as himself as Jesus but as the real deal himself, and it was much more controversial. On the Monday after the airing of this other Sudeikis sketch, in which Sudeikis' good-natured, wisecracking Jesus tells an overly fawning Tim Tebow (Taran Killam) to take it down a notch, Pat Robertson went on The 700 Club to denounce the sketch as "anti-Christian bigotry that is just disgusting." The Tebow sketch also offended liberal Fox News host Bob Beckel, who said, "It's despicable to display Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, like that on Saturday Night Live and they should be ashamed of themselves." The sketch's biggest crime isn't that it's "anti-Christian bigotry," which it's not. Its biggest crime is that it rehashes the 1993 Hartman/Field "Pious Housewife" sketch, but with a snarky Jesus instead of a reserved and formal one. However, Sudeikis is hilarious as the Messiah, and like Jesus on The Book of Daniel, his Jesus is the kind of Jesus anyone would want to have as a pal: quippy and brutally honest.

That Mitchell and Webb Look, 2006

In its first year, David Mitchell and Robert Webb's British sketch show poked fun at how racist the parable of the Good Samaritan from the Gospel of Luke appears to be in modern-day parlance. As Jesus (Webb) tells his disciples the story of a member of the Samaritan community who becomes an exception to his community when he helps a stranger who's been assaulted and left for dead, the disciples question Christ's use of the adjective "good" to single out the Samaritan and immediately turn on him. They point out that not all Samaritans are bad ("Yeah, me and the wife went on holiday to Samaria last year, and they were lovely people!" says one disciple) and accuse Jesus of being racist, which he denies, and he doesn't help his own cause when he starts tossing around terms like "Sammy lovers." Perhaps not since Gary Larson's old Far Side cartoon of "God as a kid trying to make a chicken in his room" has a depiction of an inept God or Jesus – as opposed to a heroic and competent Christ like in nearly all the other examples of comedic Jesuses – been so amusing.

Funny or Die, 2008, 2011, and 2012

For anyone who, to borrow the words of standup John Fugelsang, loves Jesus but is scared of the fan clubs, perhaps there's nothing more enjoyable than the sight of Jesus criticizing the hypocrisy and intolerance of many of his present-day followers, which Funny or Die made happen in two popular shorts. In composer Marc Shaiman's 2008 viral sensation Prop 8: The Musical, Jesus (Jack Black) manages to persuade an all-star pack of fake conservatives (John C. Reilly, Allison Janney, Rashida Jones, Craig Robinson, Lake Bell, Sarah Chalke, Kathy Najimy, and Jenifer Lewis) to reconsider their opposition to same-sex marriage, with the help of the principle of separation of church and state, some frequently overlooked Biblical passages, and an enticing glass of shrimp cocktail.

An even better and more scathing Funny or Die video featuring the Messiah is 2011's really brief "Jesus Responds to Rick Perry's 'Strong' Ad," where Jesus – played this time by DC Pierson and irritated by Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry invoking his name during an anti-gay campaign ad – cuts the Texas governor down to size by comparing him to a guy who brags about being friends with Brad Pitt but does nothing more than wash Pitt's car. Pierson reprised the Jesus role a few months after the Perry ad spoof to give his pick to win Super Bowl XLVI, but because his favorite quarterback Tebow and his team at the time, the Denver Broncos, failed to reach the Bowl, he preferred to skip the game ("I'm Jesus Christ! I've got a lot of stuff I've gotta get done. Plus I'm more of a College Bowl guy.").

American Dad, 2009

Jesus is also a fixture of Seth MacFarlane's animated shows, but his most enjoyable appearance in the Fuzzy Door Productions universe has to be during one of American Dad's cleverest and nuttiest half-hours, the Chris McKenna-penned Christmas episode "Rapture's Delight." The world gets raptured on Christmas Day, and Stan and Francine are left behind because they snuck out of a Christmas church service to have sex in the church janitor's closet. Stan blames Francine for being left behind and breaks up with her, so she takes up with a handsome stranger who turns out to be an incognito Jesus, voiced by Matt McKenna, Chris' brother, as well as the episode's co-writer (several sites erroneously list Jesus as being voiced by Will Forte, who actually has a smaller part in the episode as a false Jesus).

What elevates "Rapture's Delight" from a typically raunchy American Dad holiday installment to completely nutty territory is a seven-year time jump to the Great Tribulation, where Jesus' battle against the Riddler-style Antichrist (special guest star Andy Samberg) and his demonic forces is basically a Mad Max movie, but with a Day-Glo-colored Batman villain as the main antagonist. There's even a love triangle straight out of Casablanca, with a one-eyed, one-handed Stan in the jaded Humphrey Bogart role, Francine in the Ingrid Bergman role, and Jesus in the idealistic Paul Henreid freedom fighter role (although it's Jesus, not Francine, who turns to Stan for help because the Antichrist kidnapped her). "Rapture's Delight" will make the day of any viewer who ever thought Jesus would make a great action hero because it reimagines him as a no-nonsense warrior who cuts to the chase and takes down his enemies with a crucifix crossbow instead of taking them down with pesky things like love, civil disobedience, or Billy Jack-esque speechifying.

JASH, 2014

Laid-back Jesus, the type of Jesus NCIS star Michael Weatherly portrays in the JASH channel's "Sarah Silverman Is Visited by Jesus Christ" PSA for Lizz Winstead's pro-choice organization Lady Parts Justice, is starting to become as much of a cliché as noble, Miklós Rózsa-scored Jesus used to be, but in the Silverman video, Weatherly clearly has some fun with the role and gets away with uttering to Silverman a certain expletive he would never be allowed to sneak in during the lightning-fast banter on NCIS. Weatherly and the Jesus Is Magic star have such good chemistry that it's like stumbling into a lost Jesus-centric episode of The Sarah Silverman Program.

22 Jump Street, 2014

Dustin Nguyen, the only original cast member from the '80s 21 Jump Street who didn't reprise his role in the 2012 Jonah Hill/Channing Tatum reboot, gets to play not one but two roles in 22 Jump Street, both of them mute. He shows up briefly in his Jump Street role as Ioki in the sequel's hilarious end titles, and in an earlier blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment, he's seen dancing around with Tatum as a drug-induced hallucination of the Vietnamese Jesus statue from the Jump Street undercover program's new Vietnamese church headquarters. According to co-director Chris Miller, much of the footage of Nguyen as Vietnamese Jesus wound up on the cutting room floor. "So there was an extended scene where Dustin shot [Tatum's and Hill's characters] in the [genitals] with laser beams that you can find on the DVD," said Miller at a 22 Jump Street press conference. It was sacrificed to help keep 22 Jump Street from becoming as long as a '60s Biblical epic: the original cut lasted a whopping four hours.

Black Jesus, 2008 and 2014

In the original 2008 Black Jesus shorts, Gerald "Slink" Johnson is solid in the role of a Messiah who talks less like lily-white King of Kings star Jeffrey Hunter and more like a regular Comptonite, just like the subject of the posthumous 2Pac track "Black Jesuz," who's "Somebody that smoke like we smoke/Drink like we drink." Johnson's Jesus would probably curse out Robert Torti's Jesus from Reefer Madness if he confronted him in song about his blunt-smoking. But except for a moment when Johnson's Jesus complains about walking around in a nightgown and the unremarked fact that Black Jesus is into '80s He-Man reruns, the cheaply shot shorts aren't really all that funny and can get pretty repetitive (especially for viewers who are haters of the N-word). Hopefully that will change with the half-hour format, the addition of Trailer Park Boys creator Mike Clattenburg to Aaron McGruder's crew, and the increases in cast size and budget.

Speaking of the budget, the look of this single-camera comedy is already interesting too. Instead of being a throwback to multi-camera black sitcoms like Good Times, a show that McGruder frequently referenced in his Boondocks strip and his 2004 graphic novel Birth of a Nation, Black Jesus looks like the 1983 Charles Burnett movie My Brother's Wedding if it were disrupted by gangbangers and a constantly cursing Jesus. It remains to be seen if McGruder has another artistic success on his hands, but one thing's for sure: the advance footage in the controversial extended trailer is definitely funnier than any of the last two McGruder-less Boondocks episodes Adult Swim aired. Hallelujah?

Jimmy J. Aquino is a writer trapped in San Jose, California.

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