Stand-up, Scandal, and Satire: On Iain Ellis’s ‘Humorists vs. Religion’

Is a "theology of humor" viable?

Humorists vs. Religion: Critical Voices from Mark Twain to Neil DeGrasse Tyson
Iain Ellis
August 2018

If the chapter content here is any indication, Iain Ellis’s English courses must be lively. [Full disclosure: Iain Ellis publishes with this magazine.] This Kansas University lecturer introduces 22 thematic chapter case studies with a necessary clarification. Neither screed nor satire, this timely and trenchant collection offers a “researched cultural study into a modern historical phenomenon.” What Ellis admires in his three-dozen or so chosen wits are that they “frequently offer voices of transparency, honesty, and conscience” in addressing abuses of power, authority, and commonsense, which serious critics shrink from—or at least lack the mass clout that many court jesters included here can boast of. Furthermore, it’s entertaining as well as educational. For example, George Carlin’s “deconstructions of the symbols, rituals, and practices are as artful as any French post-structionalist—only funnier!”

As the book’s subtitle suggests, this is a chronological account. Instead of starting with Aristophanes let alone Erasmus, Voltaire, or Swift, Ellis examines relatively more recent examples of intelligent humorists, beginning amidst the turbulent wake churned up by Darwin. Mark Twain personifies the mental skill and rhetorical edge of such clever commentators on creeds and sects. Ellis shows how conflicted the public Twain was from the Christian faith his wife remained devoted to. “In finally choosing to confer with his mind over his heart on such matters, Mark Twain also personifies the essential dichotomy of the critical humorist and religion: the inclination of the former toward truth-telling candor will always be at loggerheads with the latter’s propensity to (self-)delusion and irrational belief.”

However, five-sixths of the selected satirists arrive long after, say, Mencken and the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial“, which Ellis reminds us was a harbinger of how much the American public could get worked up by a court case, as with the O.J. Simpson “If I Did It” frenzy seven decades later.

From the ’60s on, heralded by Lenny Bruce’s (decidedly secular) Judaic passion for justice and Carlin’s preaching in the guise of a stage performer, Ellis tracks mass culture and religious media as they responded to these trenchant tirades. But he compresses a lot of material, like a comic rushed to fit his act into a tight time-frame. Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) had “Jesus” appear in the film for all of two times totaling two minutes, Ellis tallies. But the deeper details of what “usable materials” the Cambridge-educated Pythons drew on from biblical and Dead Sea Scrolls sources remain obscure, instead of explained. Randy Newman‘s provocative, if slyly evasive, lyrics gain, on the other hand, sufficient context for a reader at least to look up the songs online to hear them fresh.

Attention is paid to other musical influences, which probably other popular culture scholars might likely have let pass without comment. Ellis astutely notes how the dour straight-edge “sXe” punks of the ’80s “oftentimes embodied the very kind of rigid moralizing and closed-mind attitudes that the likes of the Dead Kennedys had so virulently set themselves against.”

The Simpsons use of what is parsed as the “take-back gag” proves Ellis’ point about a phenomenon which took a post-punk era’s sneers and plastered them on characters who seemed bold in taking on social, political, and cultural icons. Yet this gag routine left each side placated. “All sides are duly ridiculed” to create “equal-opportunity satire”. Religious references occur in 95 percent of the episodes. However, in a pattern increasingly common in the contemporary comedy realm, Islam alone remains off-limits. This delicate sensibility silences the intent of humor itself.

Family Guy and South Park chapters resemble accomplished term papers. Peppered with the names of academic critics, their scholarly references will assist students, but they may disappoint readers from a more casual audience. But it’s sobering to note again how Comedy Central, for all its counter-cultural marketing attitude, capitulated and removed any references to Mohammad from reruns of episodes mocking the big names across the pantheon of deities, gods, and spirits.

The “Danish cartoons” of 2005 dared to publish what mass media declined. Jyllands-Posten sponsored a “Draw Mohammed as you see him” contest, to demonstrate the necessity for free speech in the face of censorship and threats of violence. Ironically, Ellis’s book lacks images. He refers to the Wikipedia arrangement of the offending sketches, offering commentary on each in textual form. This runaround may please the book’s sensitive buyers, but it also serves as a tacit commentary on editorial submissions to “correctness” rather than backing blunt, bold expression.

Similarly, the 2015 drawings and copy left behind by the murdered staff at Charlie Hebdo earn examination in verbal format only. This section is divided into sub-topics with titled headings. Perhaps this portion of Humorists vs. Religion is once more empty of the very content which caused death to comic creators to make a silent protest, but one suspects it’s a decision made by the professor and/or his publisher. At least Ellis closes this event with a nod to Christopher Hitchens. He predicted over a decade ago the advent of a climate where any criticism of “the religion of peace” would be drowned out by cries of Islamophobia. We see the results around us.

For if a one belief-system gets a free pass while all others are taken down, what does this say about the hard-won right to offer commentary on the foibles and follies of others, in sophisticated or silly tone? Turning to Pussy Riot, another conflict between power-structures and prickly protesters emerges. Ellis grounds this movement in feminist predecessors, the Guerrilla Girls of the art world and the grunge-affiliated, punk-seasoned tunes from Riot Grrrl bands and singers.

As for catchy names for malcontents, Ellis credits “a former Mormon woman” with inspiring Bill Maher’s tag of “apatheist”. One who can’t be bothered to care less about God. While any viewer of Real Time with Bill Maher will scoff that its sneering host skirts past or sidles by faith-based, divinely proclaimed hypocrisy, Ellis focuses on the show as the forum for Maher’s derision. Whether tactfully or not, Ellis barely mentions Maher’s rickety 2008 documentary. Religulous (2008) set up far too many straw men to knock down much too effortlessly.) It’s an odd omission, given the space granted to the series and secondary sources cited, commenting on Maher’s media impact.

More of Ricky Gervais‘ fun tweets about God would have enriched his respective chapter. Yet Ellis’s look into the arguments advanced by Julia Sweeney reveals a double-marginalization resulting from a female atheist comedian’s career. Sweeney does not settle for a facile condemnation of what she believed as a child and what many of her family still affirm. Her one-woman act, Letting Go of God (2008) thoughtfully sustains what Ellis credits as the time-tested genre of the Bildungsroman, the coming-of-age narrative. This acknowledgement tamps down the tacky schoolyard taunts and easy targets deployed by certain celebrated entertainers in these pages. For these critics need perspective and a dose of the humility they chide their foils for not having.

Penn and Teller appear, compared by Ellis to Andy Warhol, Johnny Rotten, and Bruce Springsteen as they turn on the conventions of their own artistic milieu, to “bite the hand that feeds them.” While Penn’s hilarious and decidedly not suitable for work memoir-screed sent up in the pages of God No! Signs You May Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales (Simon & Schuster, 2011) does not get the excerpts it deserves, fans eager for more of Penn Jillette’s inconsistent jabs and scattershot philosophizing, half-bluster, half-hubris, are urged to seek this demented prose out.

The closing chapters on a “Sci-Five” passel of “public scientists” and “parody religions” feature voices evidently either too obscure or too many to earn their respective titular acclaim. Bobby Henderson‘s 2005 demand for equal-time with “creation theory” in public school science curricula reminds us of the impact of the Internet’s memes, discussion boards, and later, social media, in promoting such geek-nerd phenomena as the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

In his conclusion, like his introduction, Ellis weighs in with thoughtful reflection. He ends with an overview of scholarly perspectives on the clash between the two spheres of religion and humor, and passing glances at the calmer, self-effacing situations where two realms may mingle. He wonders if a “theology of humor” is viable, when religion remains so threatening in its extremist aspects and its sheer amount of adherents. Ellis wraps up this welcome survey by asserting freedom of expression. If this is not championed by traditional leaders, he opines, it will be defended by the words and deeds emanating “from our more courageous humorists.”

RATING 7 / 10