In Theory: Should religion be off limits to comedy?


Q. Comedy based on religion is always bound to offend, as it makes fun of people’s fundamental beliefs. But that doesn’t stop comedians from using religion in their routines.

Recently, Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” caused an uproar because of a sketch slamming conservatives. And Egyptian comedy actor Adel Imam has been jailed for offending Islam in some of his movies. Television shows “South Park,” “The Colbert Report” and “Family Guy” regularly come under fire for poking fun at religion, with “Family Guy” slammed by the Parents Television Council and the Christian Coalition on an almost weekly basis.

Australian stand-up comedian Tim Minchin sparked protests after a show in Atlanta during which he sang an expletive-packed song attacking the Pope over the Catholic child abuse scandal; he even managed to offend atheist attendees. The creators of “South Park” received death threats after one episode featured Muhammad, causing Comedy Central to censor the second episode to protect staff. And Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard was attacked with an ax after cartoons of Muhammad appeared in the Jyllands-Posten newspaper in 2009.

Given the often angry responses to religion-based comedy, should religion be off-limits to comedians?

Oh, heck no! This is America, for crying out loud! I absolutely love it that comedians can joke about anything and everything. It’s a matter of free speech. And if you can’t laugh at stereotypes of your own faith, maybe you ought to do a little soul-searching.

The late comedian Steve Allen was once asked to define what comedy was. He said, “Tragedy, plus time.” And I believe he was right. The Titanic disaster 100 years ago was of course a huge calamity. Many died and many suffered. But look at the jokes we hear now that reference the Titanic.

I’ve even heard politicians who, of course, never want to offend anybody, say things about legislation they don’t like, and they say this: “That’s like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

If anybody had said such a thing in 1912, he/she would have been thought insensitive. Now nobody bats an eye.

Another example is Custer’s Last Stand. That was a tragedy for Gen. George Armstrong Custer and all of his men, but comedian Bill Cosby got big laughs with his “Coin Toss” routine. (Custer loses the coin toss, so he and his army have to let every Indian in the world run down on top of them.)

So in my opinion, nothing should be off-limits. However, that doesn’t mean comedians don’t need to think through stuff before they open their mouths. They could be putting their careers in jeopardy by not being sensitive to the current zeitgeist. But again, I believe this is a freedom of speech issue.

Somebody may be an insensitive boor, but so far there is no law — nor should there be —against bad taste. Again, this is America, where we revel in bad taste. What a country!

The Rev. Skip Lindeman

La Cañada Congregational Church

La Cañada Flintridge

Comedians use religion in their routines because it’s an important topic to virtually every person in the audience. It connects with us. It’s impossible to prevent them from expressing their thoughts if they’re determined to air them. That’s particularly true when the comedian is a fool.

The fool denies God’s existence. He is rebellious and mocks the concept of sin. A fool rejects discipline and correction. Proverbs tells us about a fool’s speech. He “does not delight in understanding, but only in revealing his own mind” (18:2). A fool is a scoffer (1:22). His mouth only spouts folly (15:2). His “mouth is his ruin, and his lips are the snare of his soul” (18:7).

So what do we do about the offensive words of fools? Leave them alone. They won’t receive correction anyway, and they’ll only hate you more if you try it.

“A babbling fool will be thrown down,” says Proverbs 10:8. Jesus warned us all, “every careless word that men shall speak, they shall render account for it in the day of judgment” (Matthew 12:36). But of course, that’s just the kind of expression fools love to mock.

Pastor Jon Barta

Valley Baptist Church


Of course not. The loss of humor, the perception of humor as threatening, is yet another hallmark of the anxious age in which we live, a regressive society increasingly defined by its own self-limiting fears.

Other hallmarks of a chronically anxious society, brilliantly described by Edwin Friedman in his book, “A Failure of Nerve,” include escalating feedback loops of reactivity; a herding mentality that demands that the only safety lies in sameness; the immediate salve of public blame; the gridlock of imagination, risk-taking and adventure; and the sabotaging of leadership by the smallest minds and loudest voices in the room — all of which can be seen in the public outcry against religious humor.

God is the all; the life of all life; the mystery of holiness transcending time and space; the sacred beauty within all things; the power and force, the living tide and pulse of all worlds, all lives, all beings; the vastness beyond all that is vast.

Do you honestly think that God can be reduced in any way by someone saying, “A priest, a rabbi and an imam walk into a bar....”? I think not. Lighten up!

The Rev. Amy Pringle

St. George’s Episcopal Church

La Cañada

I once trained with an improv troupe that wouldn’t let performers get gross during scenes. Nothing sexual or scatological. I got gonged for pretending to shovel elephant dung in a zoo scene. And no, it wasn’t a buttoned-up pastors’ troupe — the rule was there to make us work harder for better laughs. It’s just too easy to rely on the obvious and obscene, even though there’s always someone in the audience who still thinks that stuff is funny.

Getting obscene about religion — it’s an easy target, and it’s been done before. It’s not that there aren’t things to laugh at in church life. Most of my pastor friends can put together full-on stand-up routines: the fights over the ladies’ lounge wallpaper that take up more energy than a youth mission trip; the cymbal that went flying during the Hallelujah Chorus; the communion offertory that dissolved into a dissonant jazz odyssey.

We can also laugh (in an effort not to cry) at our own internal workings, in which we never seem to resolve anything, but never get bored, either. OK, sometimes we get bored and start texting each other funny messages during long meetings. But when we laugh at ourselves and each other, there is still an inherent love of Christ and the church, and a recognition of our human foibles on the way to perfection in love.

When these pieces are present in religion-based comedy, most of us laugh along. Even when we hear an incisive comedic insight from a non-religious comic, we are often humble enough to laugh. Sometimes “South Park” is right on target (see the Jesus versus Satan boxing match) and sometimes it’s just gross. Sometimes Bill Maher is sharp about religion, and sometimes he takes careless aim and makes dull sweeping statements (see Religulous).

It is appropriate to call out obscenity for what it is, and audiences have the right to remind the jesters to work harder at their art.

The Rev. Paige Eaves

Crescenta Valley United Methodist Church


Humor helps people understand each other and work better together, but there are also dark sides to the use of humor. While most of us enjoy humorous stories or jokes about people or events, we find it easiest to laugh when someone else is the target of the humor.

Humor can help us relate to other people. We can see people and circumstances in a new light or with a different perspective. For this reason, humor has been a tool of last resort for people challenging dictatorial government structures and cruel leaders. It sometimes is the only power available to the powerless.

But humor can be used negatively to belittle people and attack the weak. For example, instances of bullying are taking place in schools around the country. Many of the perpetrators of this bullying would probably claim they are just making jokes or using harmless humor against the students they are bullying. This type of humor is wrong and should be discouraged.

Perhaps a measure for deciding when humor should be permitted relates to how much power is held by the comedian’s target. Religion should not be off-limits to comedians, but we should oppose jokes that attack the weak.

Steven Gibson

South Pasadena Atheist Meetup


My answer is, no, humor shouldn’t be off-limits. Religious humor has been around for centuries. The likelihood that we are going to get rid of it now is pretty remote. Nor has religious humor been limited to making fun of only one religious tradition. It has been a safety valve that a diversity of religious and non-religious people, including comedians, have used to express their feelings about those whose beliefs and values they do not share. And it can be a harmless form of entertainment.

The problem, as I see it, is when the humor turns from entertainment to an attack with malicious intent. Humor that is used to support stereotypes that unfairly picture people of a particular religion as stupid, dishonest or crude, and encourages other people to take some negative action against them, can be toxic. In fact, even when people who are not comedians use humor with mean-spirited intent, the results are most often poisonous to our sense of wellbeing. In such cases, people of faith need to express their disgust with such attitudes, instead of remaining silent and letting these negative opinions fester and grow.

The satire of religion that is used by many comedians can, and most often does, have quite another intent. That purpose is to point out some of the legitimate failings of particular religious people or groups in a way that makes us think and can give us another framework for our ideas. Just because adherents of the particular religion being skewered are offended by the views expressed should not make them censorable.

In my opinion, humor makes us laugh is because we find some truth in it. So maybe instead of getting angry at what comedians are saying about us, we could look for the truth beneath the satire. We might just learn something about ourselves.

The Rev. Betty Stapleford

Unitarian Universalist Church

of the Verdugo Hills

La Crescenta

Back in 2006, Michael Richards, of Seinfeld fame, caused a furor when he started waxing racist during a comedy routine, uttering the N-word incessantly, along with lynching references. Sure, it was directed at hecklers, but its scope certainly went beyond his offending targets. Though a generally funny man, Richards got carried away into a dark, mean, ugly, uncivil manner that effectively ended his stand-up career.

The question is, why was the immediate audience and general public so outraged at that, yet when comedian Tim Minchin just recently called the Pope the F-word 75 times at the 2012 atheist Reason Rally, it was met with resounding applause? Now I am neither black nor Catholic, but I find both cases especially degrading and over the top.

Isn’t it interesting though, that the attack on a respected religious head received less disapproval than an attack on ethnicity? Do we as a people find race more sacred than God?

Now, I love a good comic. I even enjoy the fun-poking at my religion, when it’s not the mean-spirited, bigotry sort. There are actually Christian comedians that make a living entertaining in Christian venues where their whole routines are based on the foibles of our faith. But they won’t denigrate God or treat him with blasphemy.

Half the humor out there is simply stereotypical observation of various groups of people. We laugh because we’ve seen or been those stereotypes from time to time. But when the agenda of the humor is to tell people of faith that they are stupid idiots for believing in a sky-fairy, or for following the myths of a dusty tome, humor becomes humorless. It no longer makes us laugh; it’s humiliating, denigrating and hateful.

But then, look at the audiences. If they’re filled with God-loathers or ethnicity haters, then the guy up front can tear down their mutually dehumanized enemy. Is this what we wish to cultivate in America? Is civility gone from us?

“The Lord laughs at the wicked, for he knows their day is coming” (Psalm 37:13 NIV).

The Rev. Bryan Griem

Montrose Community Church


No, I certainly do not believe that religion should be off limits to comedians. Faith-based practice is an integral part of life, and just as comics parody many other elements of our society, so too should religious rites and rituals be open to comedic interpretation. It’s important to take a step back once in a while and laugh, since laughter is a key part of our wellbeing and provides a relief from the often rigid realities of our lives. It behooves religious leaders to allow this to transpire and not take it too seriously and protest whenever a comic cracks an innocent joke. As a general rule, I think we should just let it slide, and maybe even chuckle a bit ourselves, since it may do us all some good.

At the same time, I do feel that comedians should try to exercise some good judgment and not gratuitously offend people’s religious sensitivities. It’s one thing to poke fun and shine a light on various absurdities; it’s an entirely different story when someone goes on an extended tirade and becomes abusive.

There are many ways to portray religion in a humorous fashion without being offensive. Many famous Jewish comedians, especially those of the legendary “Borscht Belt” in upstate New York in the 1950s and 60s, would regularly joke about Jewish practices and ceremonies. While they would bring their audiences to roaring laughter, they always managed to keep it fairly respectful.

I would suggest that we all learn from the comic relief of the past, where clergy and their followers were able to appreciate a good joke even if it lampooned their religious beliefs, and comedians were thoughtful enough to not let the ridicule get too far out of hand. It’s the combination of these two approaches that provides an easy-going environment and allows us all to have a good laugh.

Rabbi Simcha Backman

Chabad Jewish Center


I don’t think anyone wants to make religion off limits to comedians, nor should they try. The same 1st Amendment that protects our right to worship also guarantees freedom of speech.

However, a degree of respect for beliefs and practices that religious communities hold sacred would be appropriate and welcome.

The Bible itself contains humor, and even sarcasm. The barbed wit is clear in the 14th chapter of Exodus, when the Israelites were trapped by the Egyptian army on the shores of the Red Sea. Doubters demanded of Moses, “Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness?”

One can also see comedy in the story of the Fall, as Adam and Eve, standing before God, each blame someone else for their decisions to eat the forbidden fruit.

What troubles me is that today, jokes about religion frequently cross the line that separates humor and ridicule. Comedy becomes a vehicle for insulting or intimidating those who hold religious beliefs. Rather than bring us together as a society, this brand of humor pulls us apart.

A case in point: One of the examples provided in the background material for this week’s question was The Daily Show’s use of a photo of a nude woman partly covered by a small Nativity scene. It’s difficult to believe the producers’ didn’t know the photo would be seen by many Christians as the desecration of a sacred image. So why do it, unless the intent was to offend?

I believe it is unlikely that this will end. Religion has become intertwined with politics, and faith-driven viewpoints will continue to attract the attention of comics.

Believers, I think, also must acknowledge that the bad behavior of a few has made religion an easy target. We espouse high standards and inevitably we will be judged by our adherence to them.

If there is a solution, it lies in Jesus’ example of patience in the face of criticism. We certainly should defend our beliefs and principles, but we ought to do so with grace and good will. Perhaps the biggest mistake would be to emulate the tactics of ridicule and mockery that others have used against us.

Michael White

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

La Crescenta