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.

  • Jude Jones

    Well, your comments about the relationship between comedy and serious commentary or participation in public discourse takes the issue to much broader scope than my reply to the original Gervais post. I wasn’t thinking of Gervais in tandem with the Jon Stewart issue that you’ve frequently discussed, but I can see where they coalesce. For the record, I think Bill Maher could be taken more seriously as a spokesman for atheism if he showed more evidence of having really encountered serious theology, but then it might not be so funny. I don’t begrudge him or Gervais their humor, in any of the spots I’ve seen, I’m just saying (as I think you appreciate) that the ‘serious conversant about an issue’aspiration brings on the higher bar for showing evidence of certain efforts of thinking things through. Both Maher and Gervais should show evidence of encountering religion at its BEST moments in so far as they will be important contributors to the conversation about atheism (as I think comedians should be), rather than just taking it to task for some of its WORST moments. And likewise Jon Stewart on other issues. I don’t think either Maher nor Gervais take their atheism to the point of rudeness with any given believer, but the characterization of believers in general that is sometimes explicit (especially in Maher) and sometimes implicit can amount to a tin ear about the concerns of the believer epistemically and experientially.

    Here’s a link to the audio in question in regard to Ricky, as it was included in the Daily Kos post that called MY attention to the fact that the document Ricky used in his absolutely hilarious bit was actually from Westboro Baptist Church:
    I don’t think he ever corrected the attribution as being to a spoof site as opposed to a bona fide church-affiliated site, though in his podcasts he did on occasion correct factual errors when brought to his attention. It’s possible I missed the correction or an explanation that he was just using the spoof for deeper spoofing, but I imagine that would have made the blogs as well as his alleged error.

    You say I “take him to task” and I suppose that’s a fair way to characterize my post, though I don’t want to see my posting quite so harshly. But maybe it DOES give that impression, because I focus on a fault rather than on the effectiveness and positive dimensions of what Ricky otherwise says on the question of religion. In other words, perhaps my post was insufficiently attentive to the positive dimensions of what Ricky’s atheism means in his broader public persona, in so far as I was focusing on something I find a little fault in. Which is sort of akin to what I’m saying he and Maher sometimes do, though they have the payoff of a good laugh while my payoff is just a boring internet comment. Let me say, though, that in Ricky I hear a loving wonderment about the world, not unlike the one Dennett claims he has in the absence of–and maybe all the more BECAUSE its in the absence of–a religious foundation in the explanation OF the world. And here, for me, the ultimate NON-offensiveness of his lambasting of religion is rooted. When I said the sign-off at the GG could be considered mocking, I meant it in a relative and not absolute way. I admit I didn’t hear it as a call to the ‘minority’ of atheists as you did, though I will give that more thought. In the context of the evening of in-your-face spoofing, it didn’t strike me as a minority-solidarity sentiment but I could be wrong. I do think, with Derek on your original post, that it was more sending up of an over-inflated self-absorbed Hollywood.

    One of Ricky’s BEST moments in regard to religion is the scene in “Invention of Lying” that gets the whole “Man in the Sky” deal going, namely his wanting to take away his mother’s terror at death. Here we see him play out deeply human emotions about PRECISELY the question Piers Morgan puts to him about whether atheism is ultimately bleak on the question of death. He presents the son character as absolutely loving and well-intentioned, understanding of his mother’s fear and wanting to relieve it at the moment of death; and maybe even indulging the hope (which he simultaneously knows to be futile) that she could convey his “hello” to his already-dead Dad. It was a remarkable moment, film-wise. The emotions are real, and the lie equally real and obvious. And that is it–that’s where he leaves it, wonderfully. The religious impulse is not mocked but tearfully and empathetically recognized, even as it is portrayed as hollow. The real sadness of death is palpable (for me anyway) in that moment. I don’t know why he didnt say that to Piers Morgan, but chat shows are not known for deep/full conversations.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Let me first say that you meant Landover Baptist Church, not Westboro. That’s a big difference. One is, as is now clear and you meant all along, a parody site. The other is Fred Phelps. That’s the difference between Gervais falling for a parody and treating it as a literal representation of real Baptists on the one hand and his using the worst representative of a group to unfairly represent the whole on the other. The first is just a total mistake (it has to be or Gervais is a dishonest hack, and I would be hard pressed to believe that without more evidence) and the second would be at worst guilty of employing a “weak man” tactic (where you attack not a straw man position that no one on the other side holds but rather a weak argument some hold but which the best proponents do not hold).

    I agree with must of the rest of what you say except that I think talk of “engaging more serious theology” very often gives waaaayyy too much credit to allegedly “serious theology”. I’ve read plenty of it and in this day and age of scholarship there’s little serious about it.

    Sure, a few serious theist philosophers are insightful but even the best of those (say, Aquinas) only has a few arguments that have any credibility or meaning in terms of contemporary metaphysics and science.

    But beyond all this, Gervais and Maher, being comedians, are right to attack the absurd religion most religious people ACTUALLY BELIEVE than the convoluted abstract rationalizations of more sophisticated apologists which only intellectual believers take seriously. For one thing, the religion Maher, Gervais (and everyone else in the videos above) go after is the absurd one people have the most familiarity with and so make for the best jokes for them to understand and get genuine enlightenment out of. You could attack the word saladness of postmodern theological contortions (and there’s a little of that occasionally) but it’s a minority kind of position outside ivory towers.

    What they attack are the real core contradictions and absurdities that all that “sophisticated” ink is spilled trying to rationalize away. They’re hitting the real and most fundamental weak spots. Hammer away all day about how ridiculous the Trinity is, for example. I don’t care if some theologian can ice skate on the issue. The doctrine is unintelligible, anyone who has ever said anything clear about it has been damned as a heretic, and it’s the core of Christianity itself.

    The comedian is precisely the person to attack exactly that absurdity and if some brilliant theologian some day can actually defend against what a comedian can point out, then that theologian becomes the greatest of all time. But so far no theologian I’ve ever seen is worthy of the comedian feeling obligated to address him or her before mocking the plain absurdity of the idea. The comedian lays down the challenge, the comedian points out what is fundamentally absurd in religion. Sophisticated theology is just ad hoc rationalization in the wake of the comedian’s wisdom.

  • Mary Young

    I think what Jude meant when she said that Gervais pulled specifically from Westboro Baptist Church’s website is that Westboro Baptist Church is hardly recognized by any other religious group as being a religion. It is a certifiable hate group. In fact it’s website is “godhatesfags.com” I’d say the majority of theists would categorically reject Westboro Baptist Church.

    I really like Ricky Gervais. I think he’s funny as shit. But when he talks about how he stopped believing in God when he was 8 and then points to books written for children that he received in Sunday school and the Westboro Baptist Church as reasons against his belief – I can’t help but think of him as childish with a lack of understanding of theology. If you want to enter the debate against religion in a meaningful way, are you really being affective by only attacking those things which most religious people don’t take seriously? I almost feel like he attacks only the most anti-intellectual aspects of religion so that he can’t be seen to be mocking more mainstream religion. But it’s clear that he feels strongly about his atheist. In some of the religious discussion in his most recent comedy special (which I thought bordered on pedantic, it was like ‘gee, Ricky, something tells me you don’t believe in God and you want everyone to know why’) you could see that it is an emotionally important issue for him. This isn’t just some passing thing which, as a child, he dismissed using logic. Atheism is important to him and I do think he pulls the “oh I’m just joking” card as a way to avoid open debate about it.

    However, I do think that saying, “Thank God for making me an atheist” is comedy pure and simple. Firstly, I don’t understand how every one in Hollywood was so upset about it. Did I miss something (and this is a genuine question) about Hollywood caring at all about religion? I wasn’t under the impression that it was some sort of guardian of religious values so I can’t quite understand why a statement which was obviously a joke is the cause of so much ire. Obviously it was a play on the normal, run of the mill thank yous which come at the end of any ceremony and being a comedian he made a joke out of them – a joke which relates to his personal beliefs. It seems to me that the backlash against what he said about thanking God for making him an atheist was a clever issue to attack when the real issue at hand is that egos were bruised during his presentation. If you play to the “he attacked religion” factor, then you can get the side of the public who will otherwise probably feel some schadenfreude at the hurt feelings of Hollywood big wigs.

    What upsets me about the whole thing is that it’s not at all in perspective with Ricky Gervais’ comedy. Of all the things in his comedy to get really angry about, why atheism? Why not get really mad that he makes repeated, graphic jokes about incestuous pedophilia? Or that when he makes jokes about fat people, they are almost exclusively pointed at women. I think both types of jokes are really funny and I personally laugh really hard at them, but if I were going to picket something about Ricky Gervais’ routine, I have a feeling there are things I would be more upset about than the fact that he disparages a story about Noah’s ark.

    I think all comedians with a political bent walk a fine line that can be a line of success or failure. I remember one time thinking that Jon Stewart looked like a total jerk on the Fox News Channel when he kept saying things like, “do you expect me to be nice to you just because I’m a comedian? I’m not your monkey.” But most of the time, he’s really funny and it’s obvious that he cares about the country and about it’s progress. I think things like “Weekend Update” on Saturday Night Live often have left-wing political messages that still manage to be really funny. I find Bill Maher to have bordered on murdering humor because his conversations are entirely politically charged, not funny at all, and egocentric. I guess I just don’t really know what the line is. At what point do we really want comedians entering the real sphere of public debate? Will it hurt their comedy? I guess these are all good questions I just wish that they hadn’t come up about something as insignificant as Ricky Gervais thanking God for making him an atheist.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Yes, Mary, it’s a trivial instance for provoking the discussion, but c’est la vie, at least we can have it now that it’s started!

    As I figured out above, the issue is worse even than Gervais taking Westboro Baptist Church to represent Christianity, he mistook the parody site, Landover Baptist Church, to represent it!

    Your remark about Gervais getting emotionally involved is the most insightful one. (Above I’ve explained why I don’t mind them attacking the absurdities of literal religion–MANY people DO believe things that theologians and other sophisticated religious people want to say NO ONE really thinks. We live in a country with 40% denying evolution and even 13% of biology teachers teaching creationism!!)

    But the emotional line, if he really crosses it is where you’ve got him. When I’m teaching I can debate both sides of the God issues very fairly and when appropriate advance the atheist line with persuasive intent. But if I let myself become emotionally engaged, I lose all professorial authority in moderating the discussion and become too much of a full participant. And the couple times this has happened, I kick myself later. It’s really dicey. And a comedian that becomes emotional similarly loses the latitude afforded comedians to distance themselves from their jokes.

    Those jokes had better be really really funny (and a professor’s arguments had better be really really good), if the issues get emotional.

  • Jude Jones

    Yes, yes, I meant Landover. Duh!!

  • http://www.lousycanuck.ca Jason Thibeault

    Not to be entirely too flip about this, but there’s a saying: “Tragedy is when I stub my toe. Comedy is when you fall in a manhole and die.”

    It’s funny when you’re not the one being cut by it. And since so many people in Western culture espouses some level of religious belief (whether they practice any or not), no wonder people are quick to say “what he’s saying is an attack on religion”. Gervais does a routine on obesity in GTA4 ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cfWTkbfs6Y ) despite being on the overweight side until recently. I have seen nobody short of the Telegraph point out that it might be even slightly insensitive. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/celebritynews/2974135/Ricky-Gervais-calls-for-more-stigma-around-obesity.html

    Making matters worse is the fact that a great many people take offense at the existence of atheists. Do anything to point out that we exist, and we’re taken to task for being too confrontational. The billboard saying “Don’t believe in God? You’re not alone” generates exactly as much outrage as the (admittedly ridiculous) one saying “you know they’re all myths”. The religious folks’ skin appears to be (in general) particularly thin so any joke edging up on being atheistic is a direct affront, open mockery, regardless of any argument we can make about absurdity for its own sake, genuine absurdity, or advocacy outside the scope of “pure comedy”. Anything short of genuflecting is unacceptable in many cases.

  • satanaugustine

    What videos? There are no videos posted.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      They seem to have been wiped out when we transferred everything to Freethought Blogs from Camelswithhammers.com. This happened with a lot of videos. I need to do some restoring at some point.