Christianity, Comedy, and Joy

There are other things I’d love to see my university get recognized for, but if hilarious pictures of our nationally-ranked football team are going to get Bethel publicity, so be it.

Apparently, this all started a few years back when now-assistant coach Jesse Phenow (also a Pietist Schoolman guest-blogger, I should point out) took this picture. When roster photo-taking time rolled around this summer, about twenty players decided to be, um, creative with the form. Before you know it, everyone from ESPN to Fox to CBS to the NCAA itself had picked up the story.

Locally, Pat Borzi of MinnPost did a nice piece on the origins of the headshots and how they went viral. But in his opening paragraphs, one remark rang dissonant:

What could be more boring and by-the-book than head shots of college football players? You know the requirements. Everybody look tough. No smiling – that’s for wussies. Save the pearly whites for your yearbook portrait.

That’s why the goofball mugs by certain Bethel University football players went viral last week. Coach Steve Johnson’s bunch was encouraged to be creative and show some personality. The results are pretty funny, especially for an evangelical Christian institution. 


Now, most of the funniest people I know are evangelical Christians. Granted, most of the people I know are evangelical Christians. But there’s no shortage of genuinely hilarious people who work at a school like Bethel. And the humor ranges widely: lots of us are full of typically Midwestern self-deprecation and weirdness; others are tremendously witty; a few are simply goofballs. The funniest are the scientists: they’ve got the deadpan thing down.

So why should Borzi be surprised?

I asked my Lutheran wife, who is pretty funny herself and often amused when I get hung up on these kinds of questions. She gently suggested that — outside the fold — there’s probably a sense that evangelicals are, y’know, humorless Pharisees who take themselves and everyone else much too seriously.

Or words to that effect.

There’s no doubt truth to that perception. But I don’t think evangelicals have the market cornered on earnestness or self-righteousness. In general, I’m not sure that people tend to link comedy, humor, or laughter with Christianity of any sort.

Which is why I’ve been struck recently to see three leading comedians identified so closely — by themselves or others — with Catholicism.

• Google “Catholic comedian” and Jim Gaffigan comes up first, on the strength of profiles like this one by religion reporter Kimberly Winston. Of his frequent references to their faith on their new TV Land show, Gaffigan’s wife and collaborator Jeannie says that “He is not being negative about religion, he is being negative about himself. The reason everyone thinks it is funny is they also have that lazy side.” (It brings to mind at least a couple episodes of Everybody Love Raymond, which had the added virtue of featuring a parish priest who looked and sounded like Charles Durning.)

Jeannie Gaffigan added, “This is not a Christian show, preaching to the choir…. We just wanted to do something that would be funny for everyone and show our reality. Jim and Jeannie go to church. They live their lives as Catholic, churchgoing people. They are not preaching to anybody, they just live by example. And they struggle.”

• For a quite different model of Catholic comedy… Over the summer, I included a link to theologian Jonathan Malesic’s America essay on Louis C.K. as the “comedic heir” of St. Augustine. (Really.) Unlike Gaffigan’s comedy, Louis C.K.’s show and stand-up “plunge deep into TV-MA territory” — precisely in order to “[paint] a picture of a man who can see the moral order of things but cannot will himself to act in accordance with it.” In short, says Malesic, Louis C.K. is “not simply making good-guy jokes about Mass, nor is he eviscerating belief. Louis C.K. is doing something more radical; he is doing theology.”

• And then there’s Stephen Colbert, who has jokingly dubbed himself “America’s most famous Catholic.” I trust that it’s well known by now that Colbert is not just a churchgoing Catholic, but one who has taught children in his parish, interviewed theologians and clergy, and, most recently, talked about grief and faith with no less than the vice president of the United States, fellow Catholic Joe Biden.

The world doesn’t need another think piece on Colbert-as-Catholic. If you need to be brought up to speed on this, just read the recent GQ profile or watch the recent interview with Rev. Thomas Rosica.

Here’s my favorite excerpt, which is as strong an argument as I can think of for Christians to engage in comedy:

Here’s a purpose of humor, or of laughter really… You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time… if you’re laughing, you just won’t be afraid. Which is why it’s so important to laugh at the devil.

At the old show, and hopefully the new show… We used to call it the “Joy Machine,” especially when it was really hard… And somehow when it was hardest, it would feel the most joyful… If you don’t approach it with joy, it’s just a machine and it will grind you up…. doing something joyfully doesn’t make it any easier; it only makes it better. And also it makes it communal, that we’re all doing it together. When you work in fear, or when you work in distress, you often feel alone. But jokes, laughter, humor, joy — whatever you want to call it — it connects people.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.