When he was a young actor in Chicago, Stephen Colbert stood offstage waiting for his scene. He nervously watched an actor perform the bit he was supposed to do next: Tossing a Ritz Cracker into his mouth and calling it “The Body of Christ.” Colbert, a devout Catholic since childhood, found the joke blasphemous and refused. As he told a packed crowd of 3,000 Fordham University students, faculty, and clergy last Friday, the director was furious. Almost thirty years later, however, abstaining has worked in Colbert’s favor: Besides being a major television star, he was kibitzing about piety with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, while the director “was part of a Satanic biker gang.” Colbert’s religiosity, in his own assessment, helped him come out on top.
Comedians and improvisers are seen as a godless lot. After all, some of the most popular “atheist evangelists” are comics. Ricky Gervais, George Carlin, and Eddie Izzard’s most famous bits mock religion. Julia Sweeney’s Letting Go of God is so secure in the atheist canon that Richard Dawkins quoted her extensively in The God Delusion. Even Louis C.K., whose “Everything is Amazing and No One is Happy” is popular with Christian educators, is skeptically agnostic, declaring, “If there is a God, God is an asshole.”
Colbert basked in his outsider status at Friday’s event, called “The Cardinal and Colbert: Humor, Joy, and the Spiritual Life.” Moderated by James Martin—Jesuit priest, official Colbert Report Chaplain, and author of the religion and humor book Between Heaven and Mirth—the event brought together Colbert and Cardinal Dolan for “a conversation about humor, faith, joy, and the spiritual life.” While the speakers did a little digging into the mechanics of Christian humor, the main focus was demonstrating how someone can be a serious Christian and funny, too. The New York Times dubbed the evening “the most successful Roman Catholic youth evangelization event since Pope John Paul II last appeared at World Youth Day.”
Whether or not that is true—And I have my doubts: Fordham is a Christian college but it is hardly Bob Jones University, and many students entered the event more excited than they exited it—there is no doubt the Catholic Church needs to invigorate young people. Mass attendance and clergy enrollment continue to face a steady, decades-long drop. In June, Gallup revealed that of those who remain with the Church, only 46% have confidence in its leadership. Public crusades against the pill aren’t helping the cause, as 82% of US Catholics believe birth control is morally acceptable and 98% of Catholic women will use it at some point in their lives. On Friday, Dolan and Martin admitted that the Church is perceived as prudish, regressive, and out of touch.
Stephen Colbert understands this; as a veteran improviser and satirist, God knows he can read a room. So instead of his pompous Report character, the man on stage Friday night was Colbert the Sunday school teacher, bringing to life a bit of personal history previously reserved for magazine profiles. The All-American dad described hiking with his sons, talked about his favorite beers, and complained about the new mass translation. Early in the evening, Cardinal Dolan brought Colbert’s wife, Evelyn, onstage and gave her a peck on the cheek, a song and dance familiar this election year. “I can kiss your wife. You can’t kiss mine,” joked the Cardinal. The interaction embodied the “Aww, shucks” family values that Colbert was there to promote; notably, Mrs. Colbert was not asked to speak, just to be seen.
It is not as though Colbert’s religiosity is insincere or, at the other end of the spectrum, rigid and humorless. In his introduction, Colbert called humor an antidote to fear and a sign of joy. “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God,” he said, “and that’s how I can mix faith with what I do for a living.” He recalled riding home from the funeral of his father and two brothers, all three of whom died in a plane crash when Colbert was 10 years old. At one point during the somber ride, one Colbert sister cracked a joke that made another laugh so hard she fell on the floor. “That’s when I said, ‘I want to do that,’” Colbert explained, going on to say, “If Jesus doesn’t have a sense of humor, I’m in huge trouble.”
Still, he said his Catholic identity is scorned in the comedy world. “There are people [in comedy] who can’t understand why I’d remain a Catholic,” he said. In addition to his conscientious objections to Ritz Cracker comedy, Colbert described an interaction he had shooting a TV show that, given the context provided, was likely Strangers with Candy. During filming on Ash Wednesday, Colbert requested to leave the set to go to mass. The director laughed uproariously. “That’s a good one,” he said, presuming Colbert was joking. Colbert said he interrogated the director about why that would be funny, reminding the boys and girls in the audience to stand up for their faith. Again and again, Colbert conveyed a professional world where his faith isolated him but, in the end (and, presumably, The End), God is worth it.
Colbert’s David and Goliath framing of his faith in the contemporary world brought to mind Arrested Development and Veep actor Tony Hale. Like Colbert, Hale is a Christian comic actor. In a recent interview with Jesse Thorn on PRI’s Bullseye, Hale said that being part of a community of Christian artists allowed him to survive in an industry riddled with jealously and rejection. He said uptight churches, not the comedy community, were the ones criticizing him and his fellow Christian actors. Are Catholic performers more rare than Protestants, is Colbert uniquely isolated because of his position, or was his outsider identity just part of the evangelist character he was playing Friday night?
Now that he is the boss, Colbert said that he won’t do jokes about the Seven Sacraments nor will he put the Crucifix onscreen. Almost defensively, he said there were no jokes about religion he regretted doing, since he only jokes about “the use of religion,” or “Christ as cudgel.” Upon watching clips from his “This Week in God” segments after experiencing Sunday School Colbert, though, I wonder whether he regrets dressing up as a priest for a fake porno called “Confession Booth Confessions” or making fart jokes involving myrrh. If it is true that, as he said on Friday, “satire is parody that has a point,” I would love to see Colbert explain those points to the Cardinal.
Marisa Carroll won a poetry contest in third grade; now she writes stuff on the Internet. She has also written forThe Rumpus and The Nation. Follow her on Twitter here.