Stephen Colbert came to Fordham University to discuss something about himself that usually escapes public consciousness: his Catholic faith.
The event was moderated by Reverend James Martin, set up as a dialogue between Colbert and Cardinal Timothy Dolan called “The Cardinal and Colbert: Humor, Joy and the Spiritual Life.” As you can tell from the title, it was bound to be one heck of a darn good time.
It’s not breaking news that Stephen Colbert is Catholic. Despite his reputation as one of them heathen liberals, he loves Jesus a whole lot–receives the sacraments, attends Sunday mass, reads the Bible–the whole nine yards. As someone whose firmest belief is that the Catholic Church can suck a dick (18+), I was interested in seeing how a comedian who makes politically-left jokes and, in fact, seems to endorse ideologies the church condemns, could reconcile this type of humor with complete submission to an out of touch, and often times belligerent body of old dudes.
The gymnasium where the event was held was full of Fordham clad Colbert enthusiasts who vigorously performed three standing ovations before Stephen even stepped on the stage. Needless to say, people were pumped. Psyched. Amped. Whatever adjective you prefer. Fordham University usually invites total shit heads to give talks to their student body (like Karl Rove… twice) and it seemed unanimously understood that this would likely be the sole opportunity to see a relevant speaker on campus within our four, rapidly shrinking years.
Like every Fordham event, a couple of arbitrary introductory speakers came on and thoroughly bored the shit out of everybody before finally getting around to inviting Stephen on stage. The room went nuts and gave a fourth standing ovation because, thank the Lord Jesus in heaven, finally someone they admired was addressing them.
Let the Evangelization begin! Students watched in awe as Stephen and the Cardinal throttled into….get ready for it…a boring conversation full of lame biblical jokes. Woooooohoooo!
A slow but steady trickle of people exited the talk as they realized the TV personality “Stephen Colbert” wasn’t in the house, as if they really expected him to be a wacky, facetious conservative at all times. In real life Stephen is just a boring old dad, still quick witted and charming, but way more reserved than expected. However, In accordance with his character, Stephen really is an all-American, Jesus-luvin, bourbon-drinking’, takes-his-kids-on-hikes kinda guy.
Though he wasn’t making the audience buckle over with laughter, It was refreshing to see the actual Stephen Colbert. He was extraordinarily regular; it was nice to know that the person whose comedy news broadcast you religiously watch isn’t some cocky asshole or some wacky, creepy loser, but just a normal fucking dude.
Stephen was naturally yet sparingly funny, and very smart. It was obvious from his respectful yet quick-witted responses that he had a strong background in improv, and understood how to play his audience well. You could tell that he was walking the safe path and avoiding responding controversially at all costs, which at certain points made me feel that his responses were well intentioned but not completely genuine.
[note: He didn’t say so, but I bet Colbert has a lot of Hobbies. Like magazine collecting, or building miniature ships inside of large glass bottles.]
To my disappointment, a lot of the talking came not from Stephen but from Rev. Martin and the Cardinal. While Stephen wasn’t trying to be funny the Rev. and the Cardinal were trying a little bit too hard. They seemed like nice guys, but was like sitting at a family dinner where your weird uncle dominates the conversation, laughs at his own jokes between his desperate glances for looks of approval, then awkwardly pats you on the back as if you were rolling with it the whole time just because you were forced to sit next to him after losing the place card lottery.
[note: I do not actually have an uncle like this but if I did he would be named Martin Dolan]
So while the event that subtly tried to show how humorous the bible is was ironically on the knock-knock end of the funny spectrum, the true goal was to address how someone could be Catholic and able to have a sense of humor that challenged the typical gloomy conception of the Church.
Stephen mentioned that when he makes religious jokes they are at the expense of people who commonly misuse religion as a weapon of hatred, but went on to proclaim, “I love my Church—warts and all.” He explained he maintains a strong relationship with the Church because he feels the greatest thing the Church intends to offer is love, which for him overshadows its many shortcomings. He said, “there are some things you can only say certain ways,” and the underlying principles of Christianity like compassion and love are what leads him and his family to stay invested in Catholicism.
Colbert talked about how comedians are often iconoclasts that use religion as the butt of their joke, and as a practicing Catholic he was frequently met with opposition or encouraged to partake in skits that shat on his faith; many people either challenge his Catholicism or flat out don’t believe that he’s a practicing Catholic. For example, on Ash Wednesday his manger thought he was joking about making it to mass to receive ashes. Stephen summarised his religious beliefs’ role in his humor, saying, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God, and that’s how I can mix faith with what I do for a living.” As someone who is religious, he has had to battle through both his Church environment and his comedy career walking a fine middle-ground with a kind of grace almost unseen elsewhere in the media.
On the whole, the three men agreed that a large part of involving joy in your religious life revolves around not taking yourself too seriously. Cardinal Dolan encouraged students to take their relationships with God and others seriously, but to avoid the pitfall of not being able to take a joke.
To me, the dialogue was a bit disappointing because it failed to clarify the Church’s actual physical role in encouraging humor and joy. In my opinion Colbert’s joke-news show does a better job of portraying the ideals of Catholicism, acting with greater social consciousness and encouraging joy moreso than the Church likely ever will. The event succeeded in showing an example of the right way to approach religion and other sensitive topics in comedy (if you’re going to make fun of something you should have a point), but ultimately failed to show how the Church necessitates humor.
In the end the dialogue seemed to be a long commercial for Catholic guilt, which at this point seems like the Church’s best bet in the evangelization of its youth.Tweet