Can God Be Funny? Some Films Think So

There are certain taboo subjects that polite social society hates to address. Politics is one, especially in light of our modern desire to divide completely along ideological and electoral lines. Enter a party spouting the latest liberal nonsense or equally offensive Tea Party talking points and you’re bound to face a fierce rebuff. Religion is another hesitant topic, though the reasons are slightly less unilateral. Everyone assumes a belief in God (or a one way trip ‘down below’ for those that don’t), it’s just how they choose to believe, and what they do in said Higher Power’s name, that causes commotion. For some, all Muslims are violent fundamentalists. For others, Christians have just as many insane skeletons in their closed confessionals.

Naturally, such self righteous indignation often finds itself the subject of ridicule and mockery, and as many in the comedy game can tell you, it’s just a quick hop, skip, and jest from scorn to satire. With politics playing its own surreal game of “Whose Line is it Anyway,” across the 24 hour news cycle, the one vital source for spoofing has more or less dried up and drifted away (…and over to Britain). On the other hand, faith has found a more difficult route to the ridiculous. Because individuals put so much passion into their worship, because they can’t easily distinguish between a philosophy for living and an excuse for action, they don’t take kindly to criticism, albeit done in a wise, even witty way.

All of this begs the question of whether God can be funny, and if he can, how? With another attempted big screen spoof of the entire End of the World spectacle with a clear connection to the Good Book hitting the medium (the relatively funny Rapture-palooza, premiering in theaters and on VOD 7 June), it’s interesting to go back and see how far we’ve come, and how little we’ve evolved, in reference to using religion as a source for silliness. Sure, there have been numerous comedians (Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Bill Maher) who’ve tackled the organized practice of same as a laughable sham, but when it comes to making actual big screen laughers centering on the sacred, the picking as sadly slim.

We can actually start this discussion way back in the 1930s. Then, a white novelist named Roark Bradford came up with the idea of turning the stories of the Bible into an Uncle Remus like revision of the old/new South. Ol’ Man Adam an’ His Chillun (oh no, that title’s not offensive, not at all…) was heralded at the time of its release , and was later adapted into a Pulitzer Prize winning play by another Caucasian craftsman, Marc Connelly. When Hollywood came calling, a film version (retitled The Green Pastures) added further fuel to the intolerance fire. At the time, no one had a problem with the Stepin Fetchit way the African American cast and characters (all portraying famous figures of faith) were envisioned. Today, the horribly intolerant portrait borders on the ludicrous, leading some to call it an accidental comedy. Perhaps laughter is the only way to heel from such misguided ideals.

While we can debate the controversial effort all we want, the truth is that faith was always a subject of slight across the Golden Era of Tinseltown. Priests – usually drunk and Irish – were part of many otherwise ordinary films and religious hubris formed the foundation for many a screwball joke or gag. The big budget spectacles of Cecil B. DeMille tried to reinvest religion with a kind of reverence, but their oddball casting and film formula foundations often resulted in unintentional laughs. It wasn’t until the post-modern era, however, when filmmakers decided to drop God down a few omnipresent positions and add in the yuks. Ken Russell worked several religious critiques into his surrealistic masterpieces while writers such as Paddy Cheyefsky and Rod Serling explored the subject with a sly, satiric seriousness.

But it took Monty Python and its praised/pilloried Life of Brian to truly open up the faith-based funny business floodgates – if only a little. So controversial at the time that it was banned, debated, and fussed over, the film really didn’t denounce Jesus or his Dad. Instead, it was an attack on blind allegiance, a witty war on persecution, prejudice, and one character’s peculiar speech impediment. Often considered the Python’s best “film” (it tells an actual story instead of merely tying together seemingly incongruous bits), Brian underachieved at the box office. Still critics and fans supported it wholeheartedly, indicating that, as long as it was done right, religion could be a possible send-up source.

Kevin Smith took things even further, finding a wonderfully arcane balance between his typical gross out gagging, exquisite dialogue, and devout Catholicism to craft his 1999 film Dogma. With an all star cast (including the recent Oscar winners Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) and a significantly high profile, it too faced the daggers of those determined to quiet its accounting. Sure, who else but Smith would have a shit demon show up to argue scripture, but his insights were beyond scatology. Indeed, Dogma is so defiant in its love/hate relationship with religion that it’s almost impossible to separate the sacred from the profane. In Smith’s world, both exist, both are relatively equal, and both deserve expression, even if a thread of spiritual anarchy flows through the entire film.

Since, these two pioneering efforts, we’ve seen takes on the Commandments (The Ten), a twist on the teen comedy (Saved! ) – even a telling documentary of the false promises buried within the otherwise sunny strategies of salvation (Maher’s marvelous Religulous). We can even go back a bit and touch on titles that have dealt with fraudulent preachers (Leap of Faith, Holy Man), nutty nuns (Sister Act), and all manner of perverted priests. In fact, some of these ideas have lost their power and impact for the very reason of their cliched comic use. Rapture-palooza, by taking on the End Days and the aftermath from a scriptural starting point, vests itself more in the “isn’t this all so foolish” school of wit than working within the confines of Revelations to really skewer the source. It works, but it could be so much better.

Still, within a genre that sees few actual affronts, it’s nice to acknowledge when intelligence is applied to the ridiculing of religion. Sure, there are far more cheap shots than intelligent insights, but that’s the nature of the comedy beast. Some believe the best approach is in your face. Others want to be more subtle in their skewering. In either case, it’s the subject which causes concern, not the eventual content. Yes, God can be funny. Good examples of same, however, remain as elusive as the ultimate truth itself.