The relationship between Christianity and stand-up comedy has steadily deteriorated for half a century. In the 1960s, this was still a country in which Bishop Fulton Sheen could participate in Milton Berle’s Friars Club roast, and Tom Lehrer could give Catholicism an awkward but informed side in his song “Vatican Rag”, which appeared on an LP. who spent 51 weeks on the Billboard Albums charts. These days, with the notable exception of Stephen Colbert, it’s hard to imagine many mainstream comedians engaging in Christianity except in the context of lazy jokes about the Catholic sexual abuse crisis or the political views of evangelicals. stereotypes of the South.
This is why I was surprised that few obituaries for Norm Macdonald, who died last week at age 61, mention his Christian faith. A notoriously reluctant actor, he rarely spoke about his personal life and his mannerisms were so casual that it was often doubtful that he had serious opinions on any subject. In his later years, however, he spoke and wrote at length not only about his belief in God, but also, more reluctantly, about his opposition to abortion. (“I don’t like to say it because it’s unpopular,” he told Dennis Miller’s radio show.)
Mr. Macdonald’s neglect of religion is more than a mere biographical oversight. For it is by viewing him as a somewhat idiosyncratic Christian comedian that one can best take stock of Mr. Macdonald and his comedic heritage.
His comedy was remarkably free from wickedness, and in recent years it has been marked by surprising displays of mercy and humility. During a televised roast by comedian Bob Saget in 2008, Mr. Macdonald baffled viewers and thrilled his fellow comedians with a tender routine full of cheesy lines that would not have been out of place at a retirement party in 1954. What binds us as comedians, “he told Mr. Saget in a rare unguarded moment at the end of his appearance,” is that we are bitter and jealous and we hate anyone who are successful. “
By the end of his life, Mr. Macdonald seemed to have let go of even his well-known animosity against OJ Simpson. “All he’s guilty of with me,” he said on a Comedy Central show in 2019, was being “the greatest rusher in NFL history. Maybe that I was the biggest rusher – until judgment “.
It is not difficult to see in such gestures an expression of Mr. Macdonald’s faith and his belief in the intrinsic metaphysical dignity of the human person. Often the Christian dimension of his work was implicit and casual. In an ironic online exchange with biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins, Mr Macdonald asked why organisms that exist only to reproduce their genetic material would ever kill themselves.
But sometimes he was less oblique about his commitments, which he seemed to have carried out with a lot of fear and trembling. In a 2009 series that began with a dismissive reference to comedian and atheist Bill Maher, Mr. Macdonald asked audiences to reflect on the question of the afterlife. There followed a sort of postmodern reformulation of Pascal’s bet. Mr. Macdonald said, “There are only two things. You have to look at the proof that God exists. Nothing. It’s not good. Then you say to yourself, “What is the proof that God does not exist?” ” Nothing. They are therefore equal. One of them is certainly right.
He continued, “You just have to hazard a guess at this point. So what I do if I have two choices is I’m like, “What’s the matter with you?” The guy says, ‘When you die you have to go up and play the harp on a cloud.’ Damn, I’ve always wanted to play the harp. ‘What do you have? What happens when you die in your plan? “They put dirt on you.” “
Years later, in an interview with Larry King in which he declared “I am a Christian,” Mr. Macdonald echoed Kierkegaard and St. John Henry Newman on the subject of faith, which he introduced at the end. of account as a matter of free individual assent rather than as a matter of belief in a detailed set of abstract propositions. When asked if he believed in eternal life, he replied to his host, “I do not believe it. I have Faith. What people don’t understand about faith is that you have to choose it.
Here, as elsewhere, it is difficult to say whether Mr. Macdonald arrived at his point of view independently of the authors I have just mentioned. References scattered across his Twitter account suggest that despite his lack of formal education – he often regretted dropping out of high school – his readings in literature and theology were both broad and deep. He especially admired Russian fiction, where the types of moral and theological questions he sometimes engaged with coexist effortlessly alongside absurd characters and storylines he also enjoys. Dostoevsky’s influence is evident in the routine known to his admirers as the Moth Joke, an existentialist shaggy dog story starring a serf bug driven to despair by a overseer named Gregory Olinovich.
Perhaps the most overtly Christian part of Mr. Macdonald’s legacy was his quiet acceptance of what we now know to be nine years of cancer, from which he passed away without publicly acknowledging his illness. (The closest he ever referred to his illness was in a bit of a stand-up that poked fun at the fashionable rhetoric of “fighting” cancer: “I’m not a doctor, but I’m pretty much pretty sure if you die, cancer dies at the same time. It’s not a loss. It’s a draw. ”) Unlike secular ethical systems – Stoicism, for example – Christianity invites almost only its adherents to find value in suffering, for it allows us to unite with Christ in his crucifixion.
But the recognition of suffering is not the final goal of the Christian religion, which ultimately derives its meaning from the joy of the resurrection of Christ. In the early centuries of the church, Christians were mocked by their fellow pagans for some kind of joyful silliness that reminded them of drunkards. Even in his last years of pain, Mr. Macdonald, too, displayed an almost Falstaffian joie de vivre. “Sometimes the joy with which life attacks me is unbearable and leads to hysterical gasping laughter,” he said. Recount his Twitter followers in 2018. “How can a man be cynical? It’s a sin.”
A few years ago, Mr. Macdonald was asked on social media if he was a Catholic. He answered that he was not, explaining that in his native Quebec, it would have been very unusual for a person of non-French origin to be a member of the church. “Like everyone else,” he said, “I am of course looking for real faith. It has been quite a long and difficult journey, at least for me.
It has now come to the end of it.