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.
When we do finally meet the alazons of Thank God I’m Atheist, they too are stereotypes that, unfortunately for the vigor of the plot, wield very little power or prestige. Holly’s confrontation takes place in a familiar sitcom domestic space, the kitchen, where the maternal rules. Her mom Barbara is baking buns. She’s excited to help plan Holly’s upcoming nuptials. In Barbara’s imagination, the wedding should be held at the church “cultural hall”, a gym, and presided over by “Bishop Anderson”. Holly struggles to disclose. Interruptions ensue. Her dad Charles “bursts into the kitchen” and piles on, the parents forming an uninterestingly undifferentiated unified front. Holly acquiesces to one demand. Charles presses for more.
Then, “suddenly the smoke alarm starts beeping furiously”. What is meant to be a clever reincorporation of a previous trivial detail comes off as a tedious bit of circumstantial realism, where the physical situation reflects mood. The buns in the oven have burnt.
What would have been more interesting here would have been that the timer bell simply rang. Barbara could have pulled the hot buns from the oven. Then the family could have commenced, as a unit, to appreciatively devour them. This domestic squabble was so lacking in teeth, that it only served to reinforce how relatively harmonious the family is. With weakly drawn alazons, we’re left wondering what her parents could have done to traumatize poor Holly so thoroughly that she’s become such a coward.
Ultimately, the episode suffers from its own “half-assed convictions”. At one point, Claire admonishes Holly to “nut up”. I wish it had had the resolve to “nut up” and make the blocking characters, and the sparks that fly from confronting them, truly powerful. For example, imagine if Holly’s father were a Romney-esque presidential candidate in the middle of his campaign. Such a scenario, where the “heavy father” is rich, powerful, and famous, suggests a lot more comic possibility, a sort of Veep for atheists.
In the conclusion to the episode, Matt comforts Holly by putting a novel spin on the classic tale, “The Ugly Duckling”. Matt reminds Holly that it’s “the story of a swan that is told her whole life that she’s a duck!” “You aren’t a duck, Matt assures her, “you’re a fucking swan.” This soliloquy is meant to tie back to the theme of the initial podcast, the exhortation to “be yourself”. But all I got out of this final exchange was the opposite lesson, a lesson predicated on a contradictory essentialism. Thank God I’m Atheist wants us to concede that atheists are beautiful swans. By implication, then, the rest of us are just a bunch of ducks.
The webisode “Earth Angel” fares better, insomuch as the skill of the actors compensates for an equally strained script. And for a webisode, the production values are top-notch. Good lighting goes a long way toward obscuring the contrived premise. We meet the protagonist, Angel, as she addresses us from the desk in her bedroom. Angel tells us that she’s turning 18 on Christmas. But the purpose of the weblog we’re watching isn’t to celebrate this milestone. It’s to record for posterity her resolution to “come out” to her parents.
So, again, we have a dubious co-opting of queer liberation rhetoric for the sake of what also turns out to be, due to a lack of real conflict, a plot denouement that is more “curly fry” than Boys Don’t Cry. Angel informs us that she’s adapting the premise of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” for her coming out. She’s going to profess her true nature to 12 of the neighbors, one day at a time, as preparation for the ultimate revelation on Christmas day to her parents. Her older sister, Krista, who Angel tells us is “always depressed”, will serve as camerawoman and dispenser of sarcastic asides.
Family tensions simmer. A kind of low-grade sitcom disapproval roils out from Angel’s mom, largely based on shame. Mom disapproves of Dad’s party shirt. She worries that Angel’s plan to visit the neighbors might expose her to harm. She and her husband frown at Krista’s suggestion that the cross necklace they give Angel could fetch a decent amount of beer money on eBay. Yet Angel’s parents, whose names we never learn, come off as genuinely adoring of their daughter. Apart from their lazily rendered theology, they’re caring, decent folks.
The same goes for Bob and Harry, the first neighbors Angel, Krista in tow, visits. Before she rings their doorbell, Angel informs us that they’re “lovers” but that we “pretend like they’re straight”. “We go along with it,” she cheerily announces, “because we love them.” They offer her champagne. At first she demurs, but they persuade her to partake, since she’ll soon also be able to vote and join the army. In effect, she’s a responsible adult, thus entitled to all the pleasures befitting one.
Harry prods her for her “deep, dark, delicious secret”. She declares that she’s “coming out to you guys first”. Bob and Harry recoil, proclaiming, “We’re not gay.” The actors are too self-possessed, too cosmopolitan in their demeanors. They’re way too charming, thus unconvincingly repressed. There’s an oblique reference to The Odd Couple, which is telling. In the early ’70s, the charade of heteronormativity posited by “Earth Angel” may have worked. You may even be able to make a case that, back then, it was absolutely necessary. But in this day and age, a charade that is meant to be wry just comes off as contrived.
Finally, in the ninth minute of a 16-minute webisode, Angel proclaims that she’s coming out “not as a lesbian, as an atheist”. When her hosts react with incredulity, she confides that her conversion began three years ago, when her brother Adam passed away. How symbolic. The death of Adam prompts her to turn away from the Holy Father. Adam, the mythical first mortal.
Harry then attempts to defend his Catholicism. “How do you explain all this,” he asks Angel, “the universe, the world, us?” Angel admits that she can’t, but that’s okay. She plumps for “reason and evidence” and implores that “you should stick with what you can see and not invent things you don’t”. She attributes this pearl to the principle of Occam’s Razor.
Harry graciously demurs. He advises Angel to keep God “in her back pocket”, just in case. Bob and Harry then toast Angel, who they exult as a “beautiful butterfly”. As with Angel’s folks, Harry and Bob, the closeted hypocrites, come off as gracious and loving. I’m not suggesting that the director means to imply that only belief in God makes people moral or nice. Rather, the portrayals of the characters that are supposed to block Angel’s path to liberation are incoherent, so much so that there’s little comedy to be harvested from the muddle.
The only chuckle-worthy bits result from Krista’s cynicism. This is also the case with Thank God I’m Atheist. The repartee comes to life when Holly and Matt riff on hypothetical conversation starters for Holly’s upcoming visit with her parents:
Holly: So what do I even say? How do you start the “I’m ruining our eternal family” conversation?
Matt: I don’t know. How about “Mom, Dad, you know how I figured out that Santa was fake when I was eight? God took a lot longer…
Holly: “Mom, Dad, you know everything you hold dear in your whole lives? Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s nonsense…”
It’s ironic that the lone bright spots in these redoubts of ham-fisted Enlightenment values appear precisely when the jokes are at their darkest.
In an blatant intrusion of authorial voice, when Angel returns to her room to report on the first neighborly encounter, she declares smugly that she expected the “cosmological argument” from Harry and that she’s anticipating the “teleological argument” and the “argument from moral truth” from the neighbors to come. For someone so hesitant to be honest about her worldview with her parents, she’s awfully well-versed in the rhetorical moves of science versus religion debates.
The gag at the climax of the webisode relies, like Thank God I’m Atheist on a cliché. Mom catches Dad partaking of “Christmas spirits” and mildly chastises him. Krista, camera on, leads them to the door, cracked open, of Angel’s room. She’s recording her weblog at her desk. Unaware of her audience, Angel intones once again the running joke, that she’s going to “come out” to them on Christmas. Mom grabs Dad’s tumbler and swigs its contents. Ba-da-bump.
Intuiting perhaps the anti-climax of the gag, the webisode ends with an oddly superfluous coda by Krista. She says she’s “hijacking” Angel’s video blog in order to complete a video production course she needs to graduate from junior college. Krista confides that Angel’s adventure is “getting her going”. Who knew that a mild—and I mean very mild—dose of atheist gumption was also the cure for clinical depression?