Ricky Gervais, Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, And Ethical Dilemmas In Comedy

In response to Ricky Gervais’s fervent insistence that he was not mocking religion at the Golden Globes, which I aired earlier this afternoon, Jude takes Gervais to task, as charitably as she can, for not owning up to what he is effectively doing in his act:

I’ll begin by saying, as you know Dan, that I adore Ricky Gervais. And I have zero problem with his being an atheist and saying so with a bit of irony at the end of an awards show where people are wont to thank God that the foreign press, or the Academy, or whomever voted for them for a metal statue and some reputation-boosting.

I do think, though, that Ricky either has a blind spot about the way his relationship to religion squares, or how it comes off, OR he’s being insincere when he denies seeing how his sign-off comment seems mocking. Since I generally think he’s a pretty sincere guy, I think there is a bit of a blind spot on his part where his atheism is concerned. I frankly don’t think he’s completely thought it through carefully but does insert himself publicly into the discussion about ‘belief’.

His comedy contains frequent open and deliberate lambasting of religion, religious beliefs, and religious practices. That’s a simple fact. So he DOES mock religion, even if he didn’t think he was mocking it by saying “Thank God for making me an atheist”. But just as Hume was mocking religion when he said that he who continues to believe in miracles despite their rational disproof is ‘conscious of a continued miracle in himself’, Ricky was mocking religion (even if unintentionally at the conscious level) when he thanked God for being certain there is no God.

In one of his audiobooks, Ricky launches into a bit about the ridiculously violent image of God that is gleaned by some Baptists as a reading of the ten commandments and the punishments one can find in the Bible for violating them (genocide, in many cases). Except the source he used to set up the bit was a document on the Westboro Baptist Church website, taking it as if it were a real religious community’s distillation of Exodus’ moral law teaching. This is either careless or a deliberate sleight of hand. Since, again, I don’t see Ricky as genuinely deceptive, let’s say it’s careless. But if you want to be a serious and non-offensive player in the atheism/religion debate, you need to be more careful about the subject matter. I’m not saying this instance proves anything one way or another, but that it denotes a careless demeanor on Ricky’s part that undermines the solidity and substantiality of his counter-religious claims. He needs to do more homework about theology if he wants to be party to the conversation in a way that’s not open to the charge of gratuitous attacking. I say this as someone who has ALL of his audiobooks, all of the podcasts, listens to them REPEATEDLY the way some people listen to music repeatedly. There is an absence of knowledge on his part regarding theology, however funny (and sometimes right) he is about this or that foible or nonsense about ‘religion’.

Having said all that, I think he’s absolutely right that “I am the judge of what’s good”–that is a solid foundation for ethics, and he does not mean it in a relativistic sense (from my own knowledge of his overall attitude in his various published materials). I think he’s on solid rational ground in claiming that one does not need a religious foundation for a good life, even if he is a little sloppy when it comes to his take on the religious foundations themselves.

I deliberated about this as part of deciding whether to profile Gervais’s remarks here and so am delighted Jude raised this issue. As I have argued many times elsewhere, including in lengthy debates with Jude, I think Jon Stewart (whom I can prove by many metrics that I love quite a bit) on some occasions tries to have his cake and eat it too in a similar way to what Jude accuses Gervais of here.

Stewart wants to be heard on political matters but hide behind the excuse that he is just a comedian when criticized.  And I understand that.  Even though Bill Maher and George Carlin make clear you can be both, a political and religious partisan while still having credibility as a comedian and not be just an ideological hack, it certainly helps if you keep as much distance as possible between your opinionated act and a biasing level of allegiance or deference to parties and creeds.

I think this is clearly what Stewart wants and it makes sense since it enables him to criticize vigorously while evading substantive criticisms of himself.  That’s a win/win that I understand he has plenty of incentive to continue to enjoy, but I also think some of his statements and evasions to protect this appearance of independence are dishonest, whether intentionally or not.

Nonetheless, what Stewart usually understands is that the comedy must come from the truth and not be compromised by either political calculations or pure indulgence of the rabid base’s desire for red meat.  That’s why The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are landmark successful comedy shows, whereas FOX News’s Half Hour Comedy Hour and Rush Limbaugh, et al. are hackery only funny to the most dogmatic conservatives (if to anyone at all, that is).

So, in this context, I certainly wondered if we should see Gervais as using the “I’m just a comedian” fig leaf to protect himself from a legitimate charge.  I would say that his instinct is the same as Stewart’s which is to protect both his jokes and his popularity by trying to insist they’re just jokes and they’re not serious as an instance of mean-spirited mockery.

Now, the joke about thanking God for making him an atheist is clearly not mocking religion but just a play on expectations.  He has come out with possibly Hollywood’s most explicitly atheistic movie ever and around Christmas last month had a very public article on the Wall Street Journal‘s blog explaining and defending his atheism. So, when he thanked God, my ears perked up and many others’ did too and that set up was for a reaffirmation of his atheism.  So the joke was to say something that sounded like a shocking reversal and then reveal that it was not.  The joke was a simple play on our expectations and not a shot at religious people.

You could however take away that it’s a nasty shot at theists that he thanks God he’s not one.  It would certainly not have gone well had he ended with “and thank God I’m not black”.   But such a remark does not play on the irony of thanking God and not believing in God, so it is a nonsensical as a joke anyway.  Now, maybe we can reverse the dynamics.  What if a theist made this joke, “I’m glad there is a God because otherwise I’d be an atheist!”  Now that joke makes the point we might hear in Gervais’s remark—it’s bad to be one of “those people“.

But, still, then is something which separates Gervais from that mean-spirited interpretation which non-atheist-activists commentators do not even think to consider, they are so indifferent to understanding or empathizing with us.

The issue is that the atheist is the bullied minority here and just as privileged white, straight American males (like me!) need a little tougher skin when listening to the affirmations of, say, non-American black lesbians even when they take the forms of passive aggressive shots at them (at me!), so also the theists need to start understanding that many atheists feel repressed with respect to our thoughts on God and like we are forced in numerous ways to  compromise too much of ourselves to accommodate the religious.

A remark about thanking God we’re atheists is much more about affirming ourselves as legitimate than it is about attacking religious people as illegitimate (much as we might do that in other contexts).  I heard Gervais’s gesture as totally one of solidarity with his fellow minorities with respect to religion and the privileged class in this issue would do better to start listening more empathetically and less sensitively.

But all of these considerations aside, let’s say Gervais were to try to weasel out of even his explicitly anti-religious rants with an “I’m just a comedian” excuse.  Now, that’s a harder issue to resolve.

On the one hand, he might be saying this:  “I’m just being funny and the jokes are funny enough that even religious people should recognize they are justifiable as comedy, even if they disagree with my point of view.”  I have heard many comedians advance positions which are so, so funny because they are ignoring obvious realities that would make what they are mocking actually make sense.

For example, Louis CK has a bit about the prima facie absurdity of the bank charging him for having no money and giving rich people more money just for having money.  That routine had me crying it was so funny and cathartic, even though I totally understand the justifiable logic of how banking works.

And I think Gervais could plausibly argue that if his primary intention is just to make people laugh, even if it means presenting things which can be better explained in their most absurd light, then he is simply copping to being a comedian and not a genuine mocker, in the sense of someone really out to aggressively damage someone or something through  his jokes.

Now, this is all tricky and complicated because Gervais does also want to come out and be an outspoken and apologetic (in the sense of defense-giving) atheist and to level actual arguments against religion.  The tough question then becomes whether it raises the bar on his jokes about religion.  It’s one thing for a comedian to say, “take nothing I say seriously, I’ll say anything for a laugh and make even non-absurd things look absurd if necessary to get one” but it’s another, less fair thing for a comedian to say, “take me seriously but when I misrepresent you don’t complain since I’m only kidding”.

Now to an extent you can do that.  Maher makes very clear his views and distinguishes I think clearly enough when he is pointing out a genuine absurdity comically and going over the top just because it’s funny.  I don’t see that as dishonest or as unfair.  He’s got his cards squarely on the table and uses no fig leafs.  But, also, Maher is also unabashedly a mocker who makes no bones about that either.

If Gervais misrepresents Baptists as badly as you describe, then it seems like he’s not being as clear as he should there and probably should be more responsible since he’s walking this line between advocate and comedian.  I think he can still say “my jokes are just jokes, they’re not mockery” and “my philosophical and activist exercises are where my real opinions you can hold me to are” and have a respectable distinction.  But the more he mixes them, the more he should be scrupulous about keeping clear which of his jokes are meant to also be taken seriously and which ones are just about doing anything for a laugh.

Now, to atone to all the angry people who must resent that I just tried to analyze all the fun out of comedy, here are some of my favorite clips from the comedians discussed above (including the Louis CK bit I referenced and Jon Stewart being clearly absurdist about religion) to make you laugh yourself out of your resolve to come at me with rotten tomatoes:

And since we have everyone else on religion, here’s a little more Louis CK, this time on religion and as NSFW and unapologetically mocking as it gets:

For those who don’t mind sucking all the fun out of comedy, I’d be delighted to hear discussions of what in the above videos was mockery and what was just absurdity for absurdity’s sake and what was truthful observation of genuine absurdities.  And, in each case, is it an instance of advocacy and what as comedy only for comedy’s sake and not also for advocacy’s.

And, for real masochists who love overanalysis of humor with respect to religion, there’s plenty of it in my pieces:  In Defense Of Mocking And Embarrassing ReligionMy Thoughts On Blasphemy Day, and On The Uses And Abuses Of Religion In Art: The Lines Between Expression, Tolerance, Respect, Fear, and Torture.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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