By Michael Austin
Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
Q: How many people work in the Vatican?
A: About half of them.
Hi-ohh! That zinger didn’t come from vaudeville, even if it sounds like it did. Pope John XXIII wrote the joke, spontaneously, in response to a reporter’s question—and it wasn’t the only quip “The Good Pope” gave us; a generous sense of humor was among his most endearing qualities.
The catalog of Catholic humor is thick and full of jokes, not only about the rites of Catholicism, but also the culture. There’s got to be a million of ’em, and surely you’ve heard half—from the “wait-for-it” tales set in confessionals to the ensemble pieces that begin with priests and nuns walking into bars. But there’s a third bit of Catholic comedy that exists beyond the Catholic story joke and the papal one-liner: original comedy by Catholics. Professional comedy. Not jokes over dinner—jokes on stage, jokes on television.
Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell come to mind, as both have been vocal about their Catholicism. But it appears that within the Catholic education system, an inordinate number of professional comedians have graduated from Jesuit high schools, universities, or both.
Here’s a short list: Bill Murray (Loyola Academy, Regis University),Chris Farley (Marquette University), Amy Poehler (Boston College), George Wendt (Campion Jesuit High School, Rockhurst University), Keegan-Michael Key (University of Detroit Mercy), Bing Crosby (Gonzaga Preparatory School, Gonzaga University), Colin Jost (Regis High School), Nathan Lane (Saint Peter’s Preparatory School) and John Mulaney (Saint Ignatius College Prep, Georgetown University).
It makes one wonder if there’s something inherently Ignatian about comedy.
“Jesuits emphasize open-mindedness and learning through experience,” says Michelle Renslo, a rising junior at Georgetown University and a member of the school’s improv troupe. “I think those aspects resonate with approaching life and personal growth through humor. Instead of getting bogged down by an awkward situation or failure, I think both Jesuit values and comedy emphasize character-building and learning from your experiences.”
Father James Martin, SJ, author of Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life (HarperCollins), has delivered several lectures on the topic of faith and humor.
“Joy, I think, has a somewhat disreputable reputation in the Catholic Church, and that’s a real tragedy because it has a distinguished history among the saints as an essential element for spiritual health,” Fr. Martin told a crowd at Boston College in 2011. “Anyone truly in touch with God is joyful. Think of people in your lives who are really in touch with God. Are they not filled with joy?”
In addition to John Mulaney, a stand-up comedian and former Saturday Night Live writer, Georgetown comedy alums include Jim Gaffigan, Nick Kroll, Alison Becker, Mike Birbiglia, and Bradley Cooper.
“Georgetown is definitely not an art school, but one of the benefits of that is the people who are involved in comedy are really passionate about it,” Renslo says. “Georgetown emphasizes cura personalis, care of the whole person, and I would certainly not be the whole person I am without embarrassing myself on stage once a month. So to me, it makes sense.”
That concept, cura personalis, must also make sense to Fr. Jake Martin, SJ, a Chicagoan pursuing a doctorate in film studies at Trinity College Dublin. Caring for his whole person involves being both a Jesuit and—wait for it—a stand-up comedian!
The author of What’s So Funny About Faith?: A Memoir from the Intersection of Hilarious and Holy (Loyola Press), Fr. Jake Martin, SJ (who is of no relation to Fr. James Martin), now understands that his two callings complement each other. But getting to that point, giving himself permission to be both devout and funny, took some doing.
“The person who had the most difficulty with the Jesuit and the stand-up comedian was myself,” he said in a video interview with Vinita Hampton Wright of Loyola Press. “I had this idea, or this image, of what a Jesuit was supposed to be.”
That image didn’t involve stand-up routines, but eventually he realized that his gift of humor was of value to others, and that sharing it could be a form of service.
“You’re giving something to someone,” he said in the Loyola Press interview. “You’re fulfilling a need that [people] have, and it’s a really kind of powerful experience. A room filled with laughter is a room full.”
Besides comedy’s ability to make us laugh, which is undeniably good for the soul, it can be a form of truth-telling. It can call attention to the wrongs of a society or institution. It can lift spirits and restore faith. It can also help us understand the absurd and vulnerable moments of another person’s life, as it did when Jim Gaffigan recalled being the warm-up act for Pope Francis in Philadelphia. During Gaffigan’s soundcheck, he could see cars lined up on the highway, an estimated 1 million people filing in to see the Holy Father.
“I looked at those people and thought, ‘Wow, a million people…that don’t want me to do stand-up comedy,’” he said in a later routine. “Because they were all there to see the pope, and not one of those million people was thinking, ‘I hope the pope has a comedian open for him.’” They might not have thought that, but it might have been just what they needed.