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Friday, April 1, 2011

Gag Reflex

Why is some of the best stand-up material about religion?

Not a widely-recognised likeness.
 If you don't accept the premise of the question, do yourself a big favour: get a box of Kleenex (for the tears, sicko) and do a Youtube search, inserting any of the following comedian's names into the search phrase "...on religion":

Bill Hicks
Dave Allen
Billy Connolly
Doug Stanhope
Bill Maher
Lewis Black
George Carlin

Then point, click, and brace yourself.

This is a quick grab-bag, largely to do with my own tastes, but you can always think of your favorite stand-up, search him/her and the odds are good there'll be material on God, the Bible, religious traditions, etc.

Nor is this phenomenon historically new (cf. Aristophenes and Chaucer), although this strain of humour did go 'underground' during the bad old days when a non-pious crack could get you flayed, burned, disemboweled, quartered, hung, and tossed in a pond (just to make sure of the job).

So, if religion has always been a laughing matter, even if sniggered quietly about in secret amongst the lower orders, did one urge pre-date the other? That is, which came first, the joke or the prayer? Did sentient hominids have humour before heavenly thoughts?

A widely-recognised likeness.

Or, as seems more likely to me, did the two grow up together, sort of the conjoined twins of the human psyche?

Why does this seem an urgent question to me? Well, let me, er...confess that I find my pulpit style moving from "Speaching" to  "Preaching"; that is, I find myself drawing more and more on the genre of stand-up than on the dry academic lecture or earnest Victorian-style improving public address. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that good preaching and stand-up share certain frontiers--present-tense audience engagement, a sense of danger in uncomfortable truth-telling, and a liberating catharsis.

Could be this is just me, as I have always had a 'gag reflex'--possessed of a mind that finds the quickest route to a quip. This might just mean, of course, that I'm not really cut out for the work as it's practiced.

It's not that most of us in the pulpit make no attempt at humour, it's just that that humour is also usually lame. Like your 10th grade math teacher's idiotic daily puns and safe, stock gags he's been laying out for years.  Wry, dry, professorial...no, no, no what I want is the laughter that leaves you helpless, your mind blown by truth that SO needed saying, your soul cleared of the s*** that banks up in the course of living in this broken world.

Laughter has long and widely been known to be intensely therapeutic; so why oh why are the no jokes in the Bible (or the Qu'ran, come to that)? What will we laugh about in heaven? Will there even BE laughter at all, since all absurdity will have been resolved? I shudder at an eternity without big fat laughs.

You'll go blind looking for a laugh in here.
 Unless God's idea of a joke is Job or Isaac ("Bwahaha...just kidding!...'smatter can't you take a JOKE?"). Perhaps because his audience was a pre-literate desert tribe, armed with little more than pointy rocks and just ten evolutionary hairs short of a clan of orang-utans?

Jesus, too, seems particularly (nay deliberately) humourless. But as an genuine iconoclast, he was well-placed to mock the falsely pious pretensions and the systems of authority he was passionately over-turning. It's a situation and an audience ripe for comedy. Some of the comics listed above are noted for their messianic quality.

My theory is that the Bible is probably FULL of humour, but like most humour, it has not survived translation. Ancient Hebrew or Aramaic to Greek, Greek to Latin, Latin to 500-year-old English, 500-year-old English (which regularly uses the long-defunct subjunctive tense) to whatever it is we are speaking and thinking in today.

Watch a sub-titled comedy from, say, Finland, if you don't agree. Even if SOME humour makes it through (and modern Finnish is linguistically VASTLY different English, it's almost like Vulcan), it clearly does not make the same sense to you as it does to the Finn.

Despite cultural and linguistic and historical differences, we ALL have a gag reflex, though the triggers for it may vary. But not the guide-for-living-holier-than-thou core texts, oh no, missus. Matters too serious for anything as coarse as a guffaw.

A mission, if I choose to accept it: making the practice of worship a safe place for healing, cleansing, full-bellied laughter? NOT at the expense of others, though some of my favorite targets are fundamentalists and Catholics. And that's just not good enough for a confirmed pluralist, which I claim is the essence of the Unitarian ethos.

But I want people to leave the church service--not always, but not never-- feeling as good as I saw a large, mixed audience of all ages last night leave the Frog and Bucket comedy club, far and away the best such establishment in the northwest. Cheap ethnographic ministerial field work it was, too--5 comics for 6 quid plus the cost of a carefully-nursed pint of Murphy's.

A mere 'widow's mite' for a glimpse, however brief, of the Kingdom of Heaven where all is truth, and light, and laughter.

(Speaking of messianic comedy, enjoy this video of the late lamented Bill Hicks, doing the best preaching you'll never see in church.)

It's just a ride...all that's missing from the end of his set is an 'amen.'


  1. Great blogpost! I love it.

    I always say that a religion that cannot laugh at itself is a waste of time.

    Who tells the best Jewish jokes? The Jews.

    And my favourite Pagan goddess is Baubo, who generally gets left out of the story of Demeter and Persephone. When Demeter was down in the dumps after Persephone shacked up with Hades, Baubo came along and made Demeter laugh by dancing and being crazy and telling hilarious stories.

  2. Oh yes, and I meant to say, people often miss the jokes in Shakespeare plays because they are subtle plays on words that have changed their meaning - which backs up your theory.

    I read a 1927 pamphlet by Norbert Capek about religious education in which he said he was shocked that his friend at school was beaten for not memorising the story of the Good Samaritan. That's how humourless it's possible for some people to be about religion - so far up their own asses that they cannot see the irony in beating someone for not memorising a story about compassion!