The Center for Inquiry, a nonprofit headquartered in Amherst, New York, recently announced the winners of its writing content, No God But Funny. Contest entrants were to “Contribute to the downfall of civilization by writing a sitcom and/or producing a webisode that features a likeable atheist.” In the teleplay category, the contest winners were the tandem of Rachel Lewis and Daniel Beecher for their sitcom pilot script, Thank God I’m Atheist.
The cash prize for the webisode category went to John Dardis for his webisode, Earth Angel, which “blew [the] judges away.” They won US$15,000 and US$25,000, respectively, with the “possibility” of future development.
I wrote in a previous column about the contest and why I was skeptical that it would yield real comedy. The source of my skepticism was essentially the same reason why Milan Kundera complained that Orwell’s novel 1984 would have been better off as a political pamphlet. Kundera found 1984 to be a heavy-handed lesson unconvincingly packaged as narrative exploration.
It’s challenging enough to write good comedy. It’s nearly impossible to do so burdened with an agenda, even one as innocuous as featuring a “likeable atheist” as protagonist. This isn’t because atheists aren’t likeable. Many surely are. It’s because comedy rarely succeeds when it tries to be what Kundera might call “authoritative”, which is to say, when it sacrifices vulnerability for the sake of pedantry.
Don’t get me wrong. I wanted to be entertained. While I had low expectations when I read Thank God I’m Atheist and watched “Earth Angel”, low expectations are often the best place from which to be pleasantly surprised. But I’m afraid the shows, to varying degrees, confirmed my suspicions.
I’ll start with the sitcom, Thank God I’m Atheist, which was, echoing the judges’ implicit damnation by faint praise, the more disappointing of the two. The pilot, titled “The Swan”, delivers us to Salt Lake City through a series of “outdoor shots” that reveal the city’s “quirky nature”. We see a “somewhat bustling downtown… the Mormon temple, and hipsters in a coffee shop”. Immediately, I thought, why do atheists feel compelled to single out Mormons for their ridicule? Easy targets, I guess.
We’re introduced to two members of the ensemble cast, Scott and Matt. Scott and Matt produce a podcast called “Thank God I’m Atheist”. If this heretical transmission is meant to signify their courage—raging against the stultifying orthodoxy of Mormonism like Christian Slater in Pump Up the Volume, it’s a question that remains unanswered throughout the episode. Normally, when a story introduces such a framing device, it returns to the frame at the conclusion, a tidying up that should be familiar to sitcom enthusiasts. In an odd lapse of protocol, Thank God I’m Athiest fails to do so, prompting readers to wonder what the point of the podcast scene was in the first place.
Scott and Matt announce that they’re devoting the podcast to the theme of “being yourself”:
Matt: Whether you’re gay among straight folks,
Scott: Or a heathen among believing folks…
Matt: Or a… curly fry person among non-curly fry folks.
The bit ends with a punch line that falls flat. But interestingly, it also serves to disclose the inner logic of the narrative. Scott is gay. Although it’s left presumably as a reveal for a later episode, so too is another member of the ensemble, Claire. Thank God I’m Atheist wants to equate coming out as an atheist to coming out as gay. But the sequence of the joke from “gay” to “heathen” to “curly fry person” betrays a hierarchy of consequence. Clearly, to come out as a “curly fry person” bears with it no real social risk. Coming out as gay, especially in a conservative community, certainly does. Not only does coming out as gay risk judgment, it may also expose someone to ostracization, even the threat of violence. “Coming out” as an atheist falls somewhere between these two extremes.
In American culture, the doctrine of separation of church and state, while contested from the margins, is firmly at the center of civic life. Precious few atheists have been or are now subject to dark alley beatings because of an ill-advised confession or aggressive “outing”. Homosexuals have been persecuted thus, and—the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality as the most recent milestone of progress notwithstanding—will probably continue to be for the foreseeable future, particularly in those communities still allegiant to the zombie charms of patriarchy. So to equate “coming out” as an atheist to coming out as gay is dubious, at best. At worst, it betrays a tone-deafness to the struggle the gay community faces for civil rights.
Thank God I’m Atheist teems with comparable jokes, both flat and ill-considered. There’s a quip about not being able to get “gay married” in Uzbekistan that just serves to paint the character who says it as provincial, and not in a amusing way. There’s a by now beaten-to-death joke about the trials and tribulations of assembling Ikea furniture, which even features an obligatory mockery of Swedish: “Floodish slorrdish bork bork bork!” Pointing out how funny the Swedish language sounds to American ears was great when The Muppet Show did it back in 1976. In 2015, not so much.
Other clichés abound: the blocked novelist, drinking to forget, gays as catty fashionistas, heated arguments provoking acute physical trauma, in this case, an argument over religion causing a hernia, brats at the supermarket. There’s a running gag where Claire, the would-be dyke, learns to piss standing up. But in the midst of this gender-bending revelry, as she delegates furniture assembly to Matt, the following words are foisted into her mouth: “As a proper feminist, I know I’m not supposed to find that funny, and I’m definitely not supposed to agree with you… but I’m actually perfectly happy to demote myself to beer wench and leave all the fun for you.”
The core foursome, Matt and his fiancée Holly, Scott and David, all sound alike. No “quirks” differentiate them as characters. They exchange what the writers intend to be witty banter, but there’s nothing at stake in these exchanges. We don’t know what any of them really fear, or want. Claire accuses Matt of having “half-assed convictions”. This is a problem for all of them as characters. They come off as dilettantes.
This failure of conviction hints at a deeper flaw in the script. What drives the plot of the episode as a whole is meant to be Holly’s conflict with her parents, Barbara and Charles. Holly wants to “come out” to them as an atheist in order to forestall a tacky wedding. But we don’t meet Barbara and Charles until the 15th minute, well past the halfway point of the episode. Up to that point, we get a lot of telling—about how Holly’s confession is going to make them “freak the fuck out”—but no showing of these (what should be) formidable obstacles to Holly’s happiness.
In my previous discussion of comedy and atheism, I mentioned the distinction Northrop Frye made, drawing on Aristotle, between eiron and alazon characters. The eiron is the comic hero, the self-deprecator who ushers in a new social order. The alazon embodies, through his or her “ritual bondage”, the older, obsolete social order. A comedy’s plot hinges on the alazon’s efforts, as an impostor, to hinder progress from the old to the new. Frye notes that for the plot to have punch, the alazon must have a “good deal of social power and prestige”. He or she must be able to “force much of the play’s society into line with his obsession”. Dramatic tension—and laughs—arise from not only the great pleasure we, as the audience, take in witnessing the absurd extent of the alazon’s obsessions, but also the eiron’s acrobatic efforts to twist free from their entanglements.