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Ricky Gervais

Don't Laugh, God Forbid

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Still, on the film’s release a critical assault was immediately unleashed from various religious quarters, though it was difficult to tell whether the various “representative” spokespeople trotted out had been offended by Maher or by the embarrassing realities he had unveiled and investigated. (Some even admitted—in the midst of their outrage—that they had not yet watched the movie!). Despite the knee-jerk religious backlash, and despite being tagged by certain media critics as an “atheist” film, Religulous clearly struck a receptive chord with a sizeable portion of the religion-weary public, whose viewing made it the seventh highest-grossing documentary in US film history.


While Maher’s satirical take on religion was film-length, Gervais created comparable controversy (and media coverage) with just a few words he injected at the close of the 2011 Golden Globe Awards. Hosting the ceremony for the second year running, Gervais initially ruffled feathers by aiming a few incisive barbs at some choice celebrity attendees, but it was his final comment that resonated just as loudly through the media thereafter. Mocking the standard “And thank you to God” bromide we are so accustomed to hearing from politicians, presenters, and victorious athletes, Gervais affixed the addendum, “…for making me an atheist!”


“Stupid”, “Offensive”, and “in bad taste” were some of the immediate responses from horrified viewers, while the host Hollywood Foreign Press Association forthrightly apologized for (what they called) Gervais’s “totally unacceptable” conduct. Piers Morgan kept the hullabaloo buzzing when he interviewed the offending comic on his chat show a few days later. Like many others, the Catholic Morgan was clearly not amused, and aggressively admonished Gervais for resorting to humor that was bound to upset American audiences.


Perhaps the most internationally documented contemporary incident in which humor and religion have clashed in combat occurred in 2005, when a Danish newspaper published a series of cartoons satirizing fundamentalist Islam. The Jyllands-Posten newspaper, like many in Denmark, had a long tradition of lampooning all institutional religions, thus the editors, in the wake of 9/11, 7/7, and other atrocities recently committed by Muslim terrorists, felt journalistically justified when commissioning various cartoonists to visually comment about the various proclamations and threats these extremists were acting upon in the name of their prophet Muhammad. Among the 12 cartoons printed was one portraying Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, and another in which Muhammad greets suicide bombers entering heaven with the line, “Stop, stop, we have run out of virgins” (a reference to “Shahid”, which decrees that the reward for Islamic martyrs will be 72 virgins in heaven).


Reactions were local initially, with complaints made by a few Danish Muslim groups, but before long the cartoons were re-printed in over 50 other countries. Simultaneously, protests spread, with Danish embassies around the world coming under siege, resulting in flag-burnings, bombings, and the deaths of hundreds as protesters clashed with police. Over the next few months the conflict broadened in scope, with various parties weighing in on the pressing issues the incident had highlighted. Protesters, alongside officials from many governments (both East and West), condemned the cartoons as racist, blasphemous, and Islamophobic, with the more extreme critics calling for a “fatwã” against the cartoonists of the kind that had been issued against novelist Salman Rushdie years earlier. “Massacre those who insult Islam” and “Freedom go to hell” were among the slogans on placards held by Muslim demonstrators at the Danish embassy in London in February 2006. The Danish government, meanwhile, though not supportive of the content in the cartoons, still refused to intervene, citing freedom of the press as their reason, while one Belgian newspaper, Het Volk, suggested that we need more of the same so that Muslims can get accustomed to the principle of freedom of expression.


Finally, many months later, just as tensions started to simmer, South Park entered the fray. Their “Cartoon Wars” episodes, in addition to showing images of Jesus defecating on both President Bush and the American flag, also originally included unflattering representations of Muhammad—only Comedy Central hastily excised the latter prior to broadcast. (Shariah law, some claim, forbids any representations of the Muslim prophet). Double standards aside, Comedy Central—obviously cognizant of the tense climate—were clearly running scared for fear of reprisals. As far as writer-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone were concerned, the show had essentially been preemptively held hostage, with the precedent set that freedom of expression may be expunged whenever extremists can foster sufficient fear to elicit self-censorship.


Soon, a new battle-front emerged, with sympathetic comedians joining the front-lines on behalf of freedom of speech. Jon Stewart and Bill Maher came out first in support of Parker and Stone, while The Simpsons’ writers slyly contributed with an episode showing Bart writing on a blackboard, “South Park—We’d stand beside you if we weren’t so scared”. Another group, Citizens Against Citizens Against Humor, even established an “Everybody Draw Mohammed” day in 2010, as the conflict lingered on five years after the original incident.


Ultimately, these showdowns between defenders of humor and those of religion amount to skirmishes over values—secular versus religious ones—and neither side is willing to concede much ground. Some go further, arguing that these clashes symbolize war between the West and East; however, as is only too apparent in recent years, comparable struggles exist within the US itself. Matt Taibbi recently wrote an article for Rolling Stone entitled “Michele Bachmann’s Holy War”, in which he illustrates that homophobia, traditional family values, and “God-speaks-directly-to-me” theism are by no means exclusive to Islamic fundamentalists.


Furthermore, while he recognizes that comedians like Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert are among the few public figures willing to take on the religious zealotry of the likes of Bachmann, Taibbi argues that their targeted satire is essentially ineffectual. Whereas the superiority humor of Molière and Swift once confirmed the power of satire in chastening extremists into shame and change, Taibbi claims that such humor today only adds fuel to the opposition’s fire. “Don’t laugh”, he advises, for “the secret of Bachmann’s success is that every time you laugh at her, she gets stronger”. This is because far from feeling reprimanded or educated, her supporters just feel insulted and patronized—and thus newly re-empowered—by comic put-downs.


Contempt is clearly a mutual feeling for these two factions, and its expression and fallout will have about as much chance of silencing the satirists (for whom such comedy nearly writes itself) as they will in converting the doggedly faithful; in other words, this on-going war between critical humorists and religion appears to be far from its end-times.

Born in Manchester and raised east of London, Iain Ellis spent his formative years playing, performing, and consuming a heavy diet of punk rock music and football. In 1986, the young man went west to find his dreams in Bowling Green, Ohio. Instead, he picked up a PhD in American Culture Studies, writing his dissertation on 1980s American Punk Culture. In 2000, he traveled further west, settling in Lawrence, Kansas, where he currently teaches English at the University of Kansas and performs in his band The Leotards. You may also enjoy his books, Rebels Wit Attitude: Subversive Rock Humorists and Brit Wits: A History of British Rock Humor.


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