It was too heavy-handed to take seriously. Even my mother despised the goody-two-shoes Gallant and sympathized with
the plight of poor, neglected Goofus. In high school, my friends and I made up satirical captions for Goofus and
Gallant, and my friend John Slocum delivered the all-time winner: “Goofus laughs at a funeral. Gallant pretends
I’ve laughed at a funeral. I don’t mean sharing a fond chuckle with the rest of the congregation as we
recall the time the power failed and the family had to eat peanut butter sandwiches for Thanksgiving. I mean kneeling
in church amidst stony grief and biting my lip to keep my snickers and stifled snorts from exploding into heaving
guffaws. It happened at my grandmother’s funeral. As the congregation recited the Lord’s Prayer, my older
brother, a nonbeliever who didn’t know the words, adopted the phrasal intonation of those around him and muttered
nonsense syllables. “Gob gobba. Gobbadee gobba gob.” It was a clear case of trying to get me to laugh
inappropriately, as he had succeeded in doing many times at the dinner table. This gobbledygook, inaudible to everyone
else, caught me off guard, and only by sinking my molars into the tender sides of my thirteen-year-old cheeks was I
able to contain myself.
I’d like to think that laughter and religion fit together nicely, but in my experience they don’t. If my
faith comes up in conversation with nonbeliever friends, I force my sense of humor about religion into the mix, perhaps
mentioning a scene from the Monty Python film The Life of Brian. It’s a defensive reflex. I haven’t even
seen The Life of Brian, but some of the scenes have been described to me, and so I mention the “Blessed are the
cheese-makers” line, hoping to defuse concerns my friends might have about the nature of my beliefs. Joking, I
figure, puts distance between me and the cliché of the God-fearing simp, typified by the humorless and laughably devout
Ned Flanders of The Simpsons, who wants to tell his neighbors that religion is fun. But when I drag Monty Python or
Woody Allen into any conversation about my faith, I become a mere variant of the humorless believer cliché, someone who
forces out laughter as proof that faith allows for a sense of humor.
Why make a show about humor and religion? For me, it starts with the popular images of Jesus. The soft-haired,
smooth-skinned Christ in all those paintings, who looks up at Heaven as if he has just set an apple on the
teacher’s desk—I can’t imagine that guy making me laugh. He’s the original Gallant. Pick a
comic actor of any era—Cary Grant, Peter Sellers, or Janeane Garofalo—and your inner director flinches at
the thought of casting him or her in the role of Jesus. The one alternative to this Jesus is the angry prophet who
turns over tables in the temple, and he’s not funny either. Sometimes we mix Mister Sensitive and Mister Angry
together, as in Jesus Christ Superstar. The version played by Willem Dafoe in The Last Temptation of Christ comes off
like a kindergarten teacher in search of a class. Would you want to have dinner with any of these saviors? Since he has
been steeped in warm milk for centuries, it should be no surprise that on his funniest day, Jesus is the Zeppo Marx of
If we want our spirituality to embrace humor, we must be prepared to be disturbed, to hear an uninvited cackle at a
funeral and, worse still, to do the cackling. That hasn’t been easy for me. For example, about ten years ago
someone took the Ronald and Nancy Reagan “Just Say No to Drugs” speech and edited it to produce a pro-drug
message. Hearing Ronald Reagan say, “Despite our best efforts, shortages of marijuana are being reported”
sent me into convulsions. But, though I always disliked Reagan, laughing at this tape felt strangely transgressive. I
got a copy of this reworked speech and played it for others, and as they laughed, a caution light blinked in the back
of my mind, warning me that this laughter and my participation in it was wrong.
I had a similar experience a few years later when a friend of mine showed me a videotape of a famous televangelist,
a man known for his face-scrunching histrionics. Some video hacker had gathered together this preacher’s all-time
best facial contortions and dubbed in the sound of farting under each scrunch. Juvenile, yes, but as I watched the tape
I couldn’t stop my stomach-clenching guffaws. I showed the tape to others, nonbelievers all, and they too howled.
Once again, however, my laughter felt defiling—more so in this case because over the sound-effect farts, the
televangelist was quoting Scripture. As I laughed, the involuntary twisting of my face and the heaving of my diaphragm
was met with a cold trickle of fear. “Woe to you for laughing,” that fear seemed to say.
If the humorless images we have of Jesus present the ultimate picture of goodness, the obverse is true of Satan,
routinely depicted as laughing. Filmmakers strain to show the bad guy laughing, especially around the other bad guys.
Their laughter is proof that they’ve lost control of themselves, and that’s the scary thing about humor: it
seizes hold of our bodies, and that feels dangerous.
Having been a church musician virtually my entire life, I've found that the only way to make it through
yet another rendition of some old chestnut hymn or haggard Christmas carol is to have fun playing with the text.
Changing the word “heart” to “fart” in a hymn often yields hilarious results. My eight-year-old
inner child has pet names for familiar religious songs, often changing a word or words to a homonym with sexual
connotations. Yes, it’s juvenile, but it gets me through the day. I’ve always felt that God doesn’t
take organized religion too rigorously anyway, and therefore enjoys the joke along with me.
— Sanford Dole
It certainly felt dangerous to me when I laughed at the reworked Reagan drug speech and again at the farting
televangelist. My moral instinct was to concede that the voice rebuking my laughter was right, and that the laughter
itself was wrong. Then I began to examine the personality behind that voice, and I made an important discovery. The
voice had no sense of humor. It offered me nothing but fear, and laughter was a threat to the authority claimed by that
fear. That didn’t mean the laughter was always right, but something about the disapproving voice was certainly
wrong, and laughter was the key to overthrowing its tyranny.
In the case of the reworked Reagan drug speech, my laughter was a response to a politician’s dressed-up,
serious tone being denuded. By turning the “Just say no” message into “Just say yes,” while
leaving the speaker’s tone intact, the tape exposed the play-acting inherent to political speech in shocking
vividness. The voice that chided my laughter was the same voice that has scolded me at protest marches.
“You’re wrong to rail against something so many other people think is right.” The reproving voice
claims the mantle of moral authority and cannot tolerate rebellion, whether in a protest sign or in a laugh.
Or take the televangelist tape. I’d like to think my laughs were a response to the ridiculing of a brazen
flimflam artist—it’s alleged that he’s bilked his viewers out of millions—but my discomfort
tells me it goes deeper than that. Perhaps I recognized in the televangelist’s histrionics a hint of my own
posturing, the seriousness that I exude as I try to look profound. Would God really be offended by this tape? No, but
the exalted voice admonishing my guffaws was trying to hide behind God, and laughter exposed it, like Toto pulling back
the curtain on the Wizard of Oz.
Which takes me back to laughing at my grandmother’s funeral. My brother’s “gobbada gobba
gob” revealed an unsettling fact: If he with his nonsense syllables could so easily recreate the heaviness of the
voices praying all around him, maybe the tone of those voices had been put on for the occasion, like dark suits and
black veils. Surely, the uniform tone of the praying voices masked the distractions that some of those people were
having, thoughts like “Where did I park?” or “What’s the name of that guy three pews in front
I knew that laughing was inappropriate, but my inner accuser went further and said that my suppressed giggles in
that church were a mockery of my grandmother and of God, which was patently false. That voice had robed itself in
piety, but my brother had pulled off the robe and revealed a tyrant standing in his underwear. Only now do I realize
that my near-laughter was not sacrilege but revelation. It’s just that the revelation was inconveniently timed,
as the best humor always is.
All of this makes me wonder about my nonbeliever friends, whose laughter appears to come much more freely than my
own, which has been constricted by something I have mislabeled as God. In fact, I picture Jesus sitting at the far end
of the couch next to my friends, laughing at the tape of the farting televangelist. I imagine him looking across at me
as if to say, “Loosen up.” More importantly, by sitting closer to the unbelieving Goofuses than to
me—the desperately believing Gallant—this imagined Jesus seems to be telling me to find God in the laughter
of the unbelievers, not in the defensiveness of the faithful.