Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Catholic comedians share the gift of laughter

By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published June 13, 2019

We know that Jesus wept.

We can’t be sure that he ever laughed.

I’ve thought about this question for the past several months. My older son Graham, who will soon enter the sixth grade, has developed a fascination for comedy. He memorizes classic Saturday Night Live sketches and performs them with uncanny recall and timing. He watches classic comedians and comic actors and is quite good at imitating their mannerisms and nuances. Most of all, he loves to watch Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show monologues and routines. He’s so enamored with Jimmy Fallon that for his fifth-grade talent show, he put together a set of video clips and did a Tonight Show routine in which he had the audience laughing loudly at his commentary and observations. Like Jimmy Fallon, he even wore a navy blue modern-cut suit.

My son likes Jimmy Fallon because the comic is funny. But he respects Jimmy Fallon because he knows that Fallon is Catholic, and that he was once an altar server, just like Graham.

Actor Tim Conway is pictured in Los Angeles in a Sept. 13, 2008, photo. Conway, a Catholic, who won four Emmy Awards on the “Carol Burnett Show,” died at age 85 May 14. He also starred in “McHale’s Navy” and later voiced the role of Barnacle Boy for “Spongebob Squarepants.” CNS photo/Mario Anzuoni, Reuters

Last October, Graham wrote Jimmy Fallon a fan letter, the first he’s ever written to anyone.  “Not long ago, I had the chance to visit Rockefeller Center,” Graham wrote, “and I hoped I would see you there. I’m sorry I missed you. I am an altar server, too, just like you were.” And then, as a coda, “Please, please, please Jimmy respond.”

Nearly nine months later, we’re still waiting on a response. It’s enough to make a father cry, or maybe even laugh—not with spite, but with joy at the innocence of a boy who still retains a sense of wonder.

Did Jesus laugh? Being human, he must have. Yet a Google search will sadly convince you that the Lord never laughed. Catholic writers, even Chesterton, suggest that Jesus hid his “mirth” from the world.  Sola Scriptura Protestants, in attempts either to affirm or refute Christ’s laughter, point only to Old Testament prophecies or the lack of absolute evidence in the Gospels.

The problem with that approach is that it misses the crucial truth of presence in absence. It misses mystery. Mary’s keeping and pondering of things in her heart, for example, tells us more about Our Lady than a literal account. Likewise, Jesus’ admonition to suffer the little children and see them as a mirror of heaven implies that Jesus rejoiced in the innocence and joy of the young. I can’t fathom Jesus with a crowd of children not joining in their laughter.

As the Mass tells us “by the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” For me, if Jesus was fully human—able to experience grief and sorrow just like us; able to enjoy food and drink; able to express anger—then he must also have known the gift of laughter.

The place of laughter

A Catholic can affirm laughter’s place in Christianity as simply as recounting a priest’s or deacon’s favorite homily jokes. He can even cite the comic tendencies of the great saints, whether St. Thomas Aquinas’ valuation of happiness or St. Augustine’s oft quoted quip, “Lord grant me chastity, but not yet.” On a more advanced level, he can point to comedy in the classical sense, in which someone is taught a lesson or granted an epiphany by being placed in a position of absurdity often arrived at by his own folly. Think of Jonah. Or more recently, recall Flannery O’Connor’s Hazel Motes.

O’Connor’s gift for laughter, her self-described vocation as a comic novelist, is too often overlooked. Much of her work is hilarious, yet while the reader laughs out loud, O’Connor also slyly reveals to the reader deep theological insights.

Not long ago, I gave a retreat on O’Connor and redemptive suffering at the Benedictine Abbey in Cullman, Alabama. The nuns graciously offered me an honorarium of $500, which I happily accepted. Driving back to Atlanta, I thought about all I could do with that $500.  As I crossed a bridge into Cedartown, Georgia, a passing truck carrying a load of tires lost part of its freight. A tire bounded straight toward my Mini Cooper, and slammed into the driver’s side front wheel well. In a flash, I was stranded and my $500 check from the nuns was instantly swallowed up by the insurance deductible. Beyond being grateful to be alive, I also learned it’s probably a good policy not to take honorariums from humble nuns.  Standing by the highway at dusk in rural Georgia, I could almost hear Flannery O’Connor laughing at me.

O’Connor is but one example of a Catholic comic novelist. Others who come to mind include Walker Percy, John R. Powers, and Richard Russo.

Rejoicing in redemption

Popular culture and mass media are full of Catholic comedians, many of whom still practice the faith, or who at least acknowledge it with respect. Late night television is dominated by Catholics. Beyond Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Kimmel are all Catholics. Colbert is perhaps the most public about his Catholicism, but in a sense he’s still like an enthusiastic new convert. Colbert had actually renounced the faith, but in a remarkable reversal, he returned to the church. O’Brien is a bit less sincere and more inclined to make jokes about Catholic guilt, but it’s easy to see how Catholicism shaped his identity. Kimmel, most of all, vigorously defends his Catholicism. Many Catholics don’t share Kimmel’s views on social matters, but his willingness to stand up for the church—even when it’s in crisis—is admirable.

Of course, these television personalities are part of a long tradition of Catholic comics. Bob Hope was a convert to Catholicism. Bob Newhart is a Catholic. So many Saturday Night Live alumni are Catholics, in life and in death. John Belushi and Chris Farley both died after young lives of excess, yet both are remembered for their essential goodness. Bill Murray frequently alludes to the importance Catholicism has had in his life, and he has often acknowledged his love for the Latin Mass of his youth. John Candy was devout, though quietly humble, in his practice of Catholicism.

None of these comedians, just like none of us, were perfect. Perhaps that’s why Catholics make such good comics; we know what it is to sin, and we therefore rejoice more in our redemption.

Though there are many others, I must mention Tim Conway, who died last month.

Conway, who was best known for his brilliant improvisational comedy on the Carol Burnett Show, was widely eulogized in tributes from the Catholic Press, because he never shied from discussing how important his Catholicism was to him.

As Conway always said, his celebrity meant nothing to him, compared to faith. But as often as he sincerely spoke about his faith, he was fond of joking, too. “I like to go into the confessional and stay for an hour and a half,” he said, “and just let people wonder.”

Surely, Jesus would laugh at that.

David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.