Goofus and Gallant

by Jacob Slichter

Anyone familiar with the kids’ magazine Highlights for Children will remember Goofus and Gallant, two fictitious boys brought to life in side-by-side drawings to illustrate bad and good. “Goofus cuts in line,” reads the caption under the picture of Goofus barging ahead of his innocent schoolmates. “Gallant waits his turn.” The second panel shows Goofus’s well-groomed counterpart, Gallant, a promising lad at peace with his schoolmates and the rules.

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 to cry.”

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 the Bible.

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 of me?”

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.

Jacob Slichter is a musician and writer who lives in New York City. He is currently writing a book entitled So You Wanna Be A Rock and Roll Star, about his experiences as a drummer in the rock band Semisonic. He is an out-of-town member of St. Gregory's.

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