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Many comedians have a Catholic background – and no wonder

Underneath it all, we’re laughing at ourselves

Back when the United States was primarily dominated – both in numbers and in culture – by the WASPs, a strange paradox emerged which has remained with us ever since: whatever has passed during a given period as popular entertainment for the Sons of Puritans has been dominated by three marginal elements – blacks, Jews and Catholics. It was true when Vaudeville reigned supreme; it was true as the flickers began their long march via the silent films into sound and then colour movies; and it is true in the age of the internet.

Despite its popularity, entertainment was not considered a respectable trade: as Edgar Allan Poe’s hapless father found out, even Protestants of impeccable bloodlines who chose to tread the boards were considered little better than gypsies. When in 1870, Joseph Jefferson (noted for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle and grandfather of noted poet and Catholic convert Eleanor Farjeon) asked New York’s Episcopal Church of the Atonement to host a funeral for his fellow actor George Holland, the rector refused because of Holland’s trade. However, he added helpfully: “I believe there is a little church around the corner where it might be done.” It was, and the Transfiguration Church, now nicknamed “The Little Church Around the Corner”, has been the mecca for Broadway’s non-Catholic actors ever since.

But there is a Catholic equivalent – St Malachy’s, the “Actor’s Chapel”, which has filled a similar role since the 1920s. Similarly, in Hollywood, Blessed Sacrament, St Victor’s and Good Shepherd have all served successively as centres of Tinseltown’s Catholic life, as the residential centre of gravity of the film colony moved ever westward to Beverly Hills.

In any case, one area where Catholics have excelled is comedy: Fred Allen, Dom DeLuise, John Candy, Chris Farley, Bob Newhart, Bill Murray, Jimmy Fallon, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Kevin James, Jay Mohr and a host of others have all practised the Faith with varying degrees of intensity. Bob Hope converted late in life after decades of marriage to his devout wife, Dolores, and endowed two statues of Our Lady of Pontmain: at the parking lot outside his parish church in North Hollywood, and with an accompanying altar and chapel at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC. Naturally, that particular apparition is also called “Our Lady of Hope”.

In any case, having been a comedian myself, I was asked by my editor at this magazine what I thought was the reason for the large number of our co-religionists in the trade. There are, I think, several.

The first has to do with the nature of comedy itself, which consists, in my opinion, of making the absurdity of life obvious to one’s audience. As with any of the other arts, this requires a certain aesthetic distance from the everyday scene – without that, one cannot depict, portray, write about (or ridicule) the passing circus. So it is that artists in general and comedians in particular tend to come from marginal tribes of one sort or another. This is why popular entertainment in the US rapidly fell into the hands of the three groups previously mentioned.

Moreover, good comedy requires a great deal of conscious or unconscious reflection upon the world. I have yet to meet a comedian who was not in some sense a philosopher, and I have met many. The result, of course, is that the comic is also very much aware of human foibles, and many a laugh-master has had a thick melancholy streak.

There are, however, specific Faith influences that affect the Catholic comic – especially in the Anglosphere. Again, consciously or otherwise, the Catholic is all too aware that this is a fallen world and much of our ridiculous behaviour – the breeding ground for humour – is a result of that fall.

But in Protestant (or post-Protestant) countries there is an added layer of pretence to respectability. Herein the Catholic comedian finds himself cast repeatedly as the little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes. He is incapable of not pointing out laughingly that the Emperor is naked and everyone else is silly to deny it.

Traditionally, this was reinforced by the beauty that attended all things Catholic, especially liturgical. At that time, the Catholic comedian could not help but notice the difference between the sublimity of his Faith and the tawdry self-gratification of the mainstream.

Nevertheless, at the same time his own co-religionists gave him plenty of reason to laugh: fiercely devout old ladies; slap-happy nuns; self-important laymen in various ancillary positions of pseudo-leadership; and, of course, foibles of any kind among the priesthood – the funnier for being done by men who actually do bring God down on to the altar on a daily basis.

If a comedian was not on his way out of the Church, such humour might well be affectionate and almost homey. But even if sharp, it was intended to elicit reform, not pain, on the part of its recipients – or at the very least, forbearance and understanding on the part of their victims.

Since Vatican II, of course, another source of humour has opened up for Catholic comics – as evidenced by Stephen Colbert’s hectic dance rendition of The King of Glory Comes. Liberal though he may be in politics, Colbert obviously sees the ridiculous in much of what circulates as Catholic hymnody today.

Back when the Mass was first being played with, Bob Newhart would joke about “Moog Masses”, and Bill Murray has confessed to preferring the Latin Mass and Gregorian chant. When nuns first dumped their habits, Catholic comedians wise-cracked about nurses, firemen, soldiers and police chiding the wayward ladies in various ways and situations.

The current situation in the Church and various excitements within the Holy See have somewhat retarded comedy due to their seriousness. But already comics are starting to have fun with the age-old “Is the Pope Catholic?” cliché. If the Holy Father has any unpleasant regrets about his decisions, he may find some comfort in having provided stand-ups with much-needed new material.

Ultimately, however, there is another understanding common to most comedians which the Catholic deals with uniquely. It is that the macrocosm of absurdity and nonsense that we see and laugh at is deeply reflected in ourselves. For in truth, our targets are very much like us, in all our pretentiousness and vainglory.

This can lead the non-Catholic to despair, as many a comedian’s suicide illustrates. But for the Catholic, used to going to Confession, this realisation is nothing he does not already know. It is what he lives with and accepts.

In a way, poking fun at the world in which he lives, the people he knows, and even at himself is a sort of lighthearted penance, from which his audience derives a kind of unconscious absolution. For me, there was nothing better than when an audience was roaring with laughter at whatever I said – oblivious to whatever unpleasantries may have dogged their everyday lives, and to which they had to return at evening’s end.

To deliver them from that was for me a signal and almost sacramental joy. Consciously or not, I suppose most Catholic comics feel that way.

Charles A Coulombe is an author and lecturer based in Los Angeles