In the first article I concluded, perhaps hyperbolically, that situation comedy isn’t just profoundly Christian. It might be the most Christian genre of all. I’m grateful to my fellow contributors to this series of articles for their cautious and partial agreement. Maybe they are humoring me. They have certainly been gentle with me. Let’s be honest. My theological qualifications are slight. I have an undergraduate degree in theology that I completed at the age of 21. At the age of 44, playing theological catch-up, I can endorse the view that education is wasted on the young.
I skipped plenty of lectures at the University of Durham from august and learned men like Professor James Dunn (yeah, yeah, I know) because I had another greater passion: comedy. I was writing for and then running the university revue, which was the equivalent of The Cambridge Footlights. This proved to be excellent training for my comedy-writing career, especially when university didn’t offer degrees in screenwriting. I would advise young people to avoid those courses anyway. Have something to write about, have a desire to write, and you can figure out the rest.
My background in comedy at least stood me in good stead to write a slightly theological book about comedy (The Sacred Art of Joking). Even if my theology isn’t as nuanced or well-informed as those with letters after their name and titles before, I have at least made rooms full of strangers and BBC audiences laugh out loud. Theories about comedy are all very well, but do they work in practice? Ken Dodd was a British comedian who made audiences laugh in theatres and on TV for decades. He once remarked “Freud said that the essence of the comic was the conservation of psychic energy. But then again Freud never played second house Friday night at the Glasgow Empire.”
What Comedians Know
Practising comedians or sitcom-writers know a couple of things that are relevant here to this discussion, and I’m focussing on those, not least because I’m out of my depth on the theology. The first thing they know is how to make an audience laugh. This sounds rather obvious, but it’s not enough for people to smile. You can’t hear smiles. And it’s much more fun when we’re all laughing together. (Unless you’re a TV critic, in which case you despise the sound of human joy and deserve our pity).
Making an audience laugh out loud is a skill and a gift. Not every writer has it, including the great Aaron Sorkin. Back in 1998, he created a show called Sportsnight which ran until 2000. Sorkin wanted it to be a comedy-drama, but back then no one cared what Sorkin wanted. ABC wanted a comedy and insisted that the show have a laugh track. Despite the slickness and crispness of the writing, there’s barely any audible audience laughter in that first season. It’s pretty weird viewing. In reality, the show wasn’t laugh-out-loud funny, but even when it was, there was nowhere for the audience to actually get a laugh in before someone else said something smart that you didn’t want to miss. Classic Sorkin. He didn’t make that mistake with West Wing.
Sorkin is a truly brilliant writer, but he doesn’t really know how to make a studio audience laugh. That’s also why his Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip show never quite landed. In the pilot episode, we were invited to believe that a studio audience would fall about laughing at some kind of Gilbert and Sullivan pastiche as the finale to a SNL-type show. The idea was that Chandler from Friends and Josh from West Wing could save this fictional show with this hilarious routine. Nope. Didn’t buy it. Not funny. At least, not all that funny. And certainly not laugh-out-loud funny.
I’m belaboring this point partly because I just gosh-darned love writing about sitcoms. I’m a comedy writer, not a theologian. But here I’m trying to highlight the marked and notable difference between something being comic and funny. It’s possible for something to have a comic structure and not make an audience actually laugh. That would be Sportsnight, in my estimation. In different hands, that show, that situation, those characters, those stories, could be laugh-out-loud funny. There is a laugh-out-loud version of Studio 60. It’s called 30 Rock by Tina Fey. That’s funny.
I think that’s what was bothering me as I read Aaron Belz’s contribution to this discussion when he was challenging my assertion that the Bible is funny. “And the other biblical characters James lists, were any of them funny? Do they make us laugh?”
Let’s hit pause there. Maybe they are funny, but just don’t make us laugh out loud? Or at least, we can’t imagine how they would. Belz continues:
“Perhaps Zacchaeus, wee as he was. But Rahab? Job’s friends? Peter? Pathetic, yes, and in our mortal eyes not worthy of honor—but none of these are funny characters, nor are they involved in hilarious situations. . . . Other than the Apostle Paul’s coarse manner, none of this material is funny. It’s awful, sad, shocking, violent, and it is the mess in which God creates and recreates his beloved people.”
It understandable to react this way to the biblical stories. Christians love being scandalized by immorality. It helps some Christians get up in the morning. The irony is that the Bible contains lots of stories and scenes that could make us tut, frown, or nod sagely and say “I thank God that I am not like these people.” You get the idea.
But any of these stories could, in the right hands, be presented humorously and in a way that could make an audience laugh out loud. In fact, I have an act in which I do that with the first half of John which is littered with jokes that just need teasing out. In so doing, I don’t believe I’m doing violence to the text, or the context, or even the meaning. The skill of the comedian is that they make things funny that initially appear unpromising. Or make something that feels quirky and “comic” into something “funny.”
I’m not saying the Bible is uniformly comic, or funny. I’m not saying Jesus was a comedian, although he was sometimes comic. And funny. Nor am I saying that correctly done, simply reading Scripture out loud correctly will make a congregation double over with laughter or slap their thighs. But I am saying that a book as huge as the Bible, written over centuries by different people in different contexts, would be a very strange and inhuman one if little of it was funny. Life is funny. Furthermore, I am saying that plenty of incidents, characters, and stories are both comic in structure and able to be presented or retold humorously. That humor is not being superimposed on the text, but is merely drawing out the comic themes and juxtaposition.
Making people laugh out loud using biblical stories will delight some and enrage others. And here we arrive at the second thing that the comedian or sitcom writer knows: that the audience will do as they please and are very hard to predict. You never quite know how anyone will react. An audience can be presented with something which stands a good chance of working, but they might not laugh. They might be silent. They might bay for your blood. It’s way harder to know than you might think, even for the experienced comedians.
The Jerry Seinfelds of this world make it look easy, but their polished seventy-minute set is the result of months and months of work. It doesn’t just involve a notepad or a word processor. It involves trial and error, in clubs in front of people. The dirty secret is that Jerry Seinfeld tells plenty of jokes that don’t work and makes plenty of observations that don’t ring true. He just does it unannounced in a small room of eighty, not at the Royal Albert Hall in front of several thousand.
Comedy is an extreme form of art. It’s designed to create one reaction: laughter. And it can’t be done entirely in private. A joke needs a context and an audience. So spare a thought for comedians. Every time they tell a joke, they become a Schrodinger’s Cat locked in a box of intrinsic uncertainty. They can have a great idea and be very experienced, but it’s not until they say it out loud in front of an audience that they realise their fate. Will it be laughter and appreciation? Or incomprehension and embarrassment?
By the time you’re watching the Netflix special, almost all of the kinks have been ironed out. But each joke, each laugh, represents at least a dozen or more failed jokes, or less funny iterations. Maybe more. Maybe a hundred. Experienced comedians will tell you that they don’t think they get much funnier as they get older. They’re just harder on themselves and their material. Plus the audience have already bought into this comedian’s sensibility.
Sitcoms are even harder than stand-up routines in that you get only one shot. You don’t get to trial scripts and ideas in front of multiple audiences. You write a script. You commit to a story. The characters are set in stone. Your sets are limited. And you have less than a week to rehearse, rewrite, and rewrite until you film it. At which point it’s too late. You don’t get another shot at it. That’s it. You might have overshot by a minute or two so you can cut the bits that don’t work. You might be able to paper over the cracks in the edit. But let’s say you have a great script and a great audience and it goes really well on the night. It goes on TV and some viewers at home will scoff, complain, tut, or roll their eyes.
I’m not saying this to beg for sympathy for sitcoms. Christians don’t need to cut sitcoms slack because they’re really hard to do. No one’s making them do it. My point is that comedy creates unpredictable reactions in people because it is by nature mostly experimental. And therefore it’s very unlikely that anyone especially likes every single moment of every single episode.
I’m also making this point because there is clearly a moral component to comedy. It’s not just a technical craft. Every joke is saying something about how the universe works, because the punch depends on the comic juxtaposition. In The Sacred Art of Joking, I explain the myriad of ways that a joke can go wrong. And it depends on the mood of the listener and the changing of the times. People felt different about jokes the day before 9/11 than they did the day after, to take an extreme example. Sitcoms walk this temporal tightrope all the time. A show we thought at the time was great, edgy, artful, and wonderful can, in hindsight, seem cliched or, worse, creepy.
Criticising a sitcom, then, is very very easy. You can always find something to hate. That said, the first three seasons of Modern Family are, from a comedy point of view, pretty much perfect. I really enjoyed them. But then some Christians may have found it hard to get past the Cameron-Mitchell same-sex couple. For them, any Christian who doesn’t have a serious problem with that and can condone that (fictional) relationship by watching the show needs to have a long hard look at themselves. But then why focus on that relationship? Sitcoms portray virtually all sex outside marriage as having no consequences. (I tried to redress this in Bluestone 42, when at the end of Series 2, an impromptu sexual liaison seriously affected a character in a way that I’d rarely seen done in other sitcoms.)
Here is where things get really complicated and it’s possible to climb on what we think are unassailable moral high horses. We all react differently to jokes, characters, concepts, and themes in sitcoms. But it’s really hard to say with any confidence that someone is right or wrong to watch any particular show, be it Game of Thrones, Big Bang Theory, Desperate Housewives,or Two and a Half Men. There are plenty of Bible verses which begin “But as for you.” Be accountable for your own viewing. And for the amount of viewing.
We watch too much TV. The amount of time Western Christians spend staring at screens, normally measured in hours per day, is almost certainly too high. And the amount of time we spend reading our Bibles and on our knees in prayer can often be measured in minutes per week. That is definitely too low. Are we “Amusing Ourselves To Death”? Many of us are, or at least Distracting Ourselves to Spiritual Immaturity. Christians seem fine with binge watching. That seems a little off to me.
But here are two final points. When sitcoms are good, they’re amazing. They’re mini-plays that capture life perfectly, throwing up all the absurdities of character, situation, and the times in which we live. In the UK, we tend to strive for those. Lots of our shows run for only twelve episodes (e.g., Fawlty Towers, The Young Ones). The original version of Gervais’ and Merchant’s The Office ran for twelve episodes with the addition of a few Christmas specials. When the idea was exported to USA, it became a Steve Carrell juggernaut with 201 episodes.
That’s how the economics of American TV work. Sitcoms are so expensive to make, and so likely to fail, that the hits have to be run for a long long time to recoup the money from all the failures, pay all the talent, and create a bit left over to fund a dozen more failures. It means that the show keeps running even after the guy everyone tunes in for has left. (See also Scrubs.) Do we judge sitcoms harshly because they are often disposable? And because they can be so good, do the disposable episodes seem disappointing, a waste of time, or downright degenerate?
The final thing to note is this, something every single sitcom I’ve mentioned have in common—The Office, Scrubs, Fawlty Towers, The Young Ones, Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, Modern Family, Sportsnight, 30 Rock: They are, broadly speaking, written and produced by non-Christians. And they are made for TV networks that have zero interest in the Kingdom of God. Is that not significant? And why are we holding these people to a Christian standard? What would a truly Christian sitcom look like?
Let’s take a moment to reflect on how well Christians are represented in Hollywood and the BBC. How many show runners take their family to church every Sunday and would say that Jesus is Lord and his Word is not only inspired but inerrant? Given that there are about 500 scripted shows on TV in America, there must be at least 500 show runners, and probably 3000–4000 in the running to be runners in the next few years. How many of those are Christians? Why would we expect anything that Christians can really celebrate or recommend? Is it any wonder that even when a TV show called Living Biblically is commissioned (and cancelled after eight episodes), it barely resembles what any biblical Christian says is living biblically?
Here are two reasons why. The church generally hates art. At least it does now. But it didn’t used to. It’s worth noting that an awful lot of truly magnificent art was commissioned by and for the church. Okay, we don’t want to return to pre-reformation relic worship and statues of Our Lady that usurp the Son. But we’ve fallen off the horse on the other side. Look at Church architecture and design. We’re not trying to recreate Solomon’s Temple and build building fitting for the dwelling place of the LORD. Rather, Christians seems strangely happy to build and pay for churches that resemble stores where you would buy discounted furniture. In an era when the church is unwilling to spend serious money on the arts, design, and media, why should we be angry or disillusioned when Netflix or the Guggenheim spend billions and affect the culture with their own post-Enlightenment nihilism?
And yet, there are a lot of Christians in America. Why aren’t they running Netflix, buying shows for Amazon Prime or Hulu, or writing comic books that become multi-million dollar movies? Here’s why: If a young Christian, especially a guy, is good with words, articulate and communicative, what will his parents and church advise him to do? Be a pastor.
That’s fine. We need pastors. But what happens when we give every single guy like that the same advice to do the same thing? And what if we give the impression that there is no higher calling than being a pastor? And what if we do all that while denigrating everything in the mainstream media as foul, vapid, or worthless? Huh. We reap what we sow.
Maybe some seminarians could even skip a few lectures by august and celebrated New Testament professors and write and perform some skits. Maybe they’ll end up working comedy and improv clubs and end up on Saturday Night Live. Or the next incarnation of Friends. Or writing sitcoms for the BBC. That’s what I did. And it’s pretty lonely. Send help. Thanks.
James Cary is a sitcom writer for the BBC TV (Miranda, Bluestone 42) and Radio (Hut 33, Think the Unthinkable). He is the author of The Sacred Art of Joking (IVP/SPCK) and is a member of the General Synod of the Church of England and The Archbishops’ Council. He lives in Somerset, UK with his wife and two daughters.
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