January 28, 2006

Colbert and the dissonance between religion and comedy.

Steve Colbert describes the set of "The Colbert Report":
Everything on the show has my name on it, every bit of the set. One of the things I said to the set designer—who has done everything, I mean even Meet The Press, he does that level of news design—was "One of your inspirations should be [DaVinci's painting] The Last Supper." All the architecture of that room points at Jesus' head, the entire room is a halo, and he doesn't have a halo." And I said, "On the set, I'd like the lines of the set to converge on my head." And so if you look at the design, it all does, it all points at my head. And even radial lines on the floor, and on my podium, and watermarks in the images behind me, and all the vertices, are right behind my head. So there's a sort of sun-god burst quality about the set around me. And I love that. That's status.
Speaking of Colbert and religion: Did you see his show on Thursday, with Paul Begala as the guest? Begala is going on about how he needed to teach Bill Clinton how to get his ideas across in short, simple form for the news. Begala describes how he made his point to Bill Clinton, who was bellyaching about how his wonky policies couldn't be condensed into sound bites. Begala reached in his back pocket and pulled out a copy of the New Testament that he's been carrying since 1979. At this point on the show, Begala actually pulls out the tattered, taped-together book and says he highlighted John 3:16 and handed it to Clinton. Begala hands the opened book to Colbert, points to the verse, tells Colbert to read it, and says he's going to time him to prove -- as he proved to Clinton -- how much can be said in 5 seconds. Colbert takes a slight glance at the book, flips it shut, looks straight at Begala and says, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that those who believe in him shall not die but have eternal life." Begala says, triumphantly, "Four and a half seconds!" And Colbert says "That's the Christian sound bite."

I was struck by this moment on the show. The interview was going very well -- Begala speaking crisply (about speaking crisply) and Colbert slipping in perfect zingers. And then Begala wants to use the New Testament to prove a point about how he got through to Clinton. I felt that, reciting the verse, Colbert was not being the Colbert Report character but that his own religion was dictating that he had to say the verse as a demonstration of his own faith, and it wasn't right to fool around with that. I can't say why I feel so sure. The Colbert character would, I think, have been more pleased with himself to know the verse. You'd have felt the preen. I experienced this moment as a startling statement of faith, the kind of thing you don't normally see on TV.

The subject of Colbert and religion is an interesting one. He used to do "This Week in God" on "The Daily Show." When he was on "Fresh Air" a year ago, he talked about religion with Terry Gross:
Mr. COLBERT: This Week in God is--you know, This Week in God is, for me, a tightrope, because I--while I'm, you know, not a particularly religious person, I do go to church, which makes me kind of odd for my profession. You know, most people can't understand why I do, other comedians. And I have to walk that thin line because I don't want to criticize anyone's religions for the fact that it is a religion, and what's funny to me is what people do in the name of religion. ...

GROSS: Now you grew up in a family with--What?--11 children?

Mr. COLBERT: Yeah, I'm one of 11 kids. I'm the youngest.

GROSS: And was it a religious family? You say you go to church and...

Mr. COLBERT: Oh, absolutely.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. COLBERT: We're, you know, very devout and, you know, I still go to church and, you know, my children are being raised in the Catholic Church. And I was actually my daughters' catechist last year for First Communion, which was a great opportunity to speak very simply and plainly about your faith without anybody saying, `Yeah, but do you believe that stuff?' which happens a lot in what I do.

GROSS: Can I ask you a kind of serious question about faith?

Mr. COLBERT: I've been turning all of your funny questions into serious things for an hour or so. I don't see why you can't do the same to me.

GROSS: In the sketch we heard earlier from "This Week In God," you talked about the Christian pharmacist who refused to fill a prescription for birth control.

Mr. COLBERT: Right.

GROSS: Now the Catholic Church opposes birth control, which...

Mr. COLBERT: They do.

GROSS: ...I presume you do not and...

Mr. COLBERT: Presume away.

GROSS: ...so how do you deal with contradictions between, like, the church and the way you live your life, which is something that a lot of people in the Catholic Church have to deal with?

Mr. COLBERT: Well, sure. You know, that's the hallmark of an American Catholic, is the individuation of America and the homogenation of the church; homogenation in terms of dogma. I love my church and I don't think that it actually makes zombies or unquestioning people. I think it's actually a church that values intellectualism, but certainly, it can become very dogmatically rigid.

Somebody once asked me, `How do you be a father'--'cause I'm a father of three children--`and be anti-authoritarian?' And I said, `Well, that's not nearly as hard as being anti-authoritarian and being a Roman Catholic,' you know? That's really patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time. I don't know. You know, I don't believe that I can't disagree with my church and I'll leave it at that.
I don't have a conclusion I'm driving at here. I love Steve Colbert and "The Colbert Report," and I'm fascinated by religion and comedy and the way the dissonance between the two affects a performer who is actually a believer.

UPDATE: Ambivablog questions my use of the word "dissonance." So let me say that I mean it in a good way. It's more difficult to be comical around a subject you respect, and working through a difficulty makes what you do more interesting. By contrast, when George Carlin jokes about religion, his comedy on the subject feels cheap and thin, because it's just flat-out obvious that he hates religion. I'd much rather listen to Colbert on the subject, and not just because I'm not entertained by hate. Colbert has to struggle with a problem, and he chooses to make comedy out of a subject that is complicated for him. I love that.

ADDED: You can listen to the great interview with Terry Gross here.

36 comments:

Ruth Anne Adams said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pogo said...

Re: "...and not just because I'm not entertained by hate."

A wonderful comment. I hadn't thought about humor in that way before, but you're exactly right. I have long been discomfited by comedy and other entertainment based on hatred of the subject matter, but I never really scrutinized it as such.

XWL said...

Stephen Colbert was announced as the choice to headline the White House Correspondence Association's annual dinner.

I'm assuming he'll do it entirely as 'faux O'Reilly', but maybe not.

He should be funny either way.

JP said...

I saw that Bible moment, too. He certainly did step out of character; quiet, with a different kind of confidence. And Colbert's use of the scripture contrasted so much with Begala's, it was striking.

KlugOR said...

Colbert and Begala may have discovered a bit of a shibboleth, where one can discover the religiosity of a person merely by asking them to read certain parts of scripture.

As a practising Baptist, I'd have a difficult time reading that verse with anything but reverence.

WisJoe said...

I am always intrigued by people (Colbert?) who profess that they are religion X, disagree with fundamental principles A, B & C, of it, and yet somehow plod on in it seem to have no problem swearing allegiance (is that not what you do when you engage (correct word?) in a sacrament in the Catholic faith?) to all the beliefs of the religion. In this regard, I am not sure for whom I have more respect, the person who says because I disagree I cannot be religion X (or perhaps any religion, e.g. Carlin), or the person who says, it is a struggle, maybe the religion will catch up with my understanding, so I can sort of "go along with it" despite my personal disagreement. This is not to say the person/comedian who is more principled is more entertaining. I personally have never enjoyed Carlin, though I grew up after he probably broke some ice with his comedy.

I really enjoy these discussions, and thanks to the prof for starting it!

Ruth Anne Adams said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
reader_iam said...

Does anybody other than me find it somewhat telling that Begala would assume that Colbert wouldn't know John 3:16 off the top of his head?

(I'll betcha Clinton knew it already, too.)

Something about whipping out a bible to prove a tactical point about effective soundbite technique doesn't sit too well.

But then, I'll admit to bias, here: Begala is one of the few political operators/pundits whom I turn off on sight or hearing, no matter what he's talking about or with whom. And I can listen to darn near anybody, and do, regularly.

Ann, this is such a cool post, with all the extra stuff interwoven. It may be one of my instant new favorites.

chuck b. said...

People humorously mocking their own background or issues are always more funny than third parties who do so on behalf of others.

WisJoe's comment about whether to respect the religious dissident or the collaborator (my words) prompts me to comment that I have never seen any reason to feel particular respect for either group. You got faith? Good for you. You don't? Good for you.

paulfrommpls said...

Wonder what he has in mind with "what's funny to me is what people do in the name of religion." And what kind of funny does he mean. And why Terry Gross jumped in right then. Was she listening?

Ann Althouse said...

"Something about whipping out a bible"

Describing handing the Bible to Clinton, Begala said that he "tossed" it to him. He said "tossed" because he tries to say everything in a sharp, lively way, and he just didn't notice how bad it sounds to say that you threw this book you supposedly care enough about to carry on your person for a quarter century.

Ann Althouse said...

"People humorously mocking their own background or issues are always more funny than third parties who do so on behalf of others."

In the interview with Terry Gross (which I can't link to), Colbert talks about The Daily Show's coverage of the 2004 Democratic Convention, which he says he thinks is the best thing they ever did. The Daily Show could be a lot funnier -- I've said this many times -- if they didn't rely so much on just pointing to things they don't like and assume you also don't like. Often, that's pretty much the whole joke.

ChrisO said...

I don't particularly care about Begala one way or another, but I find it interesting that some commenters seem to take the tone (if I'm interpreting them correctly) that Colbert demonstrated more seriousness about the Bible than Begala. It was Begala, let's remember, who's been carrying the same Bible in his pocket since 1979, and used Biblical verse to demonstrate what powerful ideas you can communicate in few words.

Wade_Garrett said...

I think it adds to Colbert's humor. He and Steve Carrell seems like genuinely likeable guys and very good fathers. Their whacky characters are much funnier, I think, because they're so clearly different from their real-life personalities. I love the bits of Colbert's shows where says something outrageous, and barely seems to be able to keep a straight face. It heightens the outrageousness somehow.

I'm always surprised when people are suprised that an actor or celebrity is religious. Why shouldn't they be? Is it because they believe Bill O'Reilly and Pat Robertson when they describe New York and LA as being like Sodom and Gomorrah?

I heard Colbert's interview on Fresh Air when it was first aired. It made me think that, too often, religious conservatives act as if its not enough to simply be privately religious; in order to be a good Christian you need to be really really public about your faith, vote for politicians who want to make your beliefs law, and actively try to convert others. Why isn't it enough to be privately religious? I come from a family of privately religious Roman Catholics. We were all educated in Catholic schools, but at times struggle with the conformity of the Catholics Church and the way in which some of our friends and neighbors try to out-Caholic each other. Its refreshing to see a celebrity speak about his beliefs while at the same time admitting that he doesn't buy church doctrine hook, line and sinker.

Ann Althouse said...

Paul: "Wonder what he has in mind with "what's funny to me is what people do in the name of religion." And what kind of funny does he mean. And why Terry Gross jumped in right then. Was she listening?"

Actually, I have an ellipsis that represents a big cut there. So don't be hard on Gross. She did respond. It went like this:

GROSS: So how do you walk that line? What kind of test, in a way, do you administer to your material before doing it to make sure that you can live with it, and that you're not being offensive...

Mr. COLBERT: That is it disre...

GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.

Mr. COLBERT: Does it disrespect the concept of their belief? And if it does, then I really don't think I can do it, because who am I to say that what they believe is wrong? But if they are doing things, using religion as a tool in some other behavior, you know, hypocritical or destructive, then it's fair game.

GROSS: Now how did refusing to give birth control prescriptions pass the test?

Mr. COLBERT: Because it has a central hypocritical quality to it. It pre--birth control prevents abortion, and so if you are anti-abortion, it seems like that would be one of the first things that you would do is give people birth control. And also the fact that pharmacists have no trouble passing out Viagra, which is a sexual enhancement drug with absolutely no license or restriction on how it would be used, seems like a very easy conflict of ideas.

GROSS: Since you're dealing in landmine kind of material, I mean, you're not dealing in little quips. You're dealing with satire of religion and politics, and it's really important...

Mr. COLBERT: You see, I don't actually think...

GROSS: I'm so interested in how you...

Mr. COLBERT: I don't think it's that...

GROSS: ...navigate through all that.

Mr. COLBERT: I don't actually think what we do or what I do is navigating through minefields of material. I mean, navigating through minefields is navigating through minefields of material for me. You know, as Noel Coward said, `When I think of miners and waiters and diners, those are people who are doing something hard. We're just saying what makes us laugh.' And while it may take, you know, intellectual sweat to get it out, we're having a great time doing it, and the walking the tightrope quality of it where--how can you talk about one thing and where do you draw the line about what you talk about next--is--that's actually--if you maintain your humanity, if you don't think like a joke is more important than being humane, like not talking about tragedy or not questioning someone's dearly held beliefs religiously, if you can keep in mind a certain level of humanity, then that's a good guide as to what you can and cannot talk about.

(You can stream the audio of the interview here.

Elizabeth said...

Why isn't it enough to be privately religious?

It is enough; read Matthew, chapter 6.

paulfrommpls said...

Or call Stephen Colbert and have him recite it for you.

(I'm kidding!)

Thanks, Ann.

AJ Lynch said...

Youngest of 11. Did not know that. I find that more interesting than the religion aspect. He is an incredibly hard worker when you could expect the youngest to be a little spiled and /or neglected (parents exhausted form raising the ten previous kids).

Troy said...

Elizabeth,

being privately religious is enough in most circumstances. But everyone will be called to make a stand (read 1st Peter) be prepared to make a defense for the faith (and no not in some caricatured violent sort of way for any dolt out there...)

Jesus did many worshipful things in private -- he also did many acts and stands in front of large crowds.

Scripture is a whole and -- not to be cherry-picked.

Elizabeth said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Elizabeth said...

Scripture is a whole and -- not to be cherry-picked.

Can you give me chapter and verse for that, Troy? I suspect you consider it cherrypicking when you don't like what the book has to say.

AlaskaJack said...

Although not exactly on topic, it sorta is.

Here's a definition of "faith" that I heard today. I think it comes from Flannery O'Connor:

"Faith" is what you know is true even if you don't believe it.

lindsey said...

"And also the fact that pharmacists have no trouble passing out Viagra, which is a sexual enhancement drug with absolutely no license or restriction on how it would be used, seems like a very easy conflict of ideas."

I don't think this is true. At the end of the day, you still need a prescription to get Viagra, but not emergency contraception. By letting women get emergency contraception (something I don't personally have a problem with) you are, let's face it, rewarding irresponsible sexual behavior and preventing life. I don't think anything encouraging irresponsible sexual behavior is a good thing for society. Viagra actually makes life more likely as previously impotent men can now get erections. He's comparing apples and oranges.

Elizabeth said...

It's not only impotent men that use Viagra. Are you quite sure that no sexually irresponsible behavior occurs with the help of that little blue pill?

lindsey said...

No doubt there's a great deal of abuse of Viagra, but just because there is abuse doesn't mean there are no rules or restrictions governing the dissemination of those little blue pills. There are. Colbert stated there weren't. At the very least, you have to visit a doctor and get a prescription. You can just show up to get emergency contraception at the pharmacy without having visited a doctor. This of course begs the question of why a woman can get a large dose of contraceptives over the counter after a night of irresponsible sex, but can't get contraceptives over the counter before she has sex. If it's safe after the sex why can't it be safe before the sex? This is the real hypocrisy.

Elizabeth said...

Maybe the condom broke? Maybe she was raped? Maybe she did a really stupid thing that she regrets? Why should we care?

My concern is that if one doesn't want to dispense medication, one shouldn't be a pharmacist. I have on concern as to why someone wants birth control, pre- or post-sex. If it weren't important that we get the right medication, I'd support putting it on the shelf.

AlaskaJack said...

"If one doesn't want to dispense medication, one shouldn't be a pharmicist". If one doesn't want to teach national socialism, one shouldn't be a professor of political science.

Elizabeth gets the non sequitor award for 1/28/06.

ZW said...

Great Post Ann! I got lucky and caught that show and was struck by his recitation of 3:16. It is so strange to see any celeb demonstrate reverence in Faith.

Thanks for digging up the background. Very Cool.

Wade_Garrett said...

Please, everybody under age 30 knows somebody who's found a way to get themselves Viagara to go on their honeymoon, or even a college kid going on spring break. I agree with everything Elizabeth said. Not only are birth control and emergency contraception totally different, but even emergency contraception isn't terminating a viable embryo, its keeping one from forming. Three women have admitted to me that they had to get the emergency contraception pill; two were raped and the third needed it when her husband's condom broke. Oh, the irresponsibility!!!!

The christian pharmacist is exactly the sort of hypocrite that I love the Daily Show for lampooning. I suspect that as soon as the evangelicals get a court precedent in their favor, they will start telling their followers to boycott pharmacies that continue to distribute it and advising their teenagers to pursue a degree in pharmacy to limit the number of drug stores that distribute the drug.

Colbert's larger point, I think, is that if Jesus was alive today he's have far more important things to worry about than the emergency contraception pill, don't you think?

Eric said...

It occurs to me that you, Anne, might really like the movie musical version of Reefer Madness -- Alan Cumming as the anti-weed, evangelistic narrator looks almost eerily like Stephen Colbert in "Colbert Report" mode.

Elizabeth said...

So if professors can choose what not to teach, pharmacists can choose what not to dispense? That's the stupidest analogy I've ever heard. And you should look up non sequitor sometime. What doesn't follow in discussing pharmacists and dispensing medicine?

E. Hayden said...

Wisjoe:
The Christian-ethics problem of whether or not to support birth control is hardly one of the top three or four fundamental principles of Catholicism. Catholics throughout history have had widely-varying views on topics much more integral to the Faith than that one, while still remaining fundamentally Catholic.

Troy/Elizabeth:
Troy, I don't think she ever implied
that to live a life of un-ostentatious Christianity means that one would be more or less inclined to defend it when the need arose. Also she wasn't cherry picking; as far I can tell she was just mentioning a passage in which the tone seems to contrast strongly with that of some religious conservatives, as mentioned by another commenter. Geez, man.

purekaz12 said...

Does anyone know what the name of the music - it is a dark, classical piece - that was used about halfway through the show? I apologize for this being quite a bit off topic from the religious discussion everyone else is enjoying, but I really would like to know the name of that piece. It is similar in feel to "Night on Bald Mountain." Thanks.

Daniel said...

Colbert is an enigma. I wouldn't doubt that he's an atheist satirizing Catholicism.

trr said...

If Elizabeth can find me a pharmacist who dispenses potassium cyanide, I'll consider accepting her logic.

acemax said...

Christian pharmacists are not public servants who are there to cater to everyone needs as others see fit. They are private citizens working in a business oftentimes as owners or managers of the pharmacy itself. If bartenders can refuse someone a drug (alcohol) when they deem its necessary I find it absurd that someone who is better educated can't make a private decision that they technically free to make.