TV Review: Comedy as the new religion: holy offensive or just damned funny?

In Easter week, we view religion through the prism of an atheist comedian and the eyes of a convert


Vicars with funny false teeth and a trio of bewildered priests on a remote island are fine in their gently humorous way, but for the former Conservative party politician and Catholic convert Ann Widdecombe the way stand-up comedians use Christianity for snarky bitter fodder is both a mystery and, well, no laughing matter. In a serious documentary, Are You H aving a Laugh? Comedy and Christianity (BBC Two, Wednesday), she explored why Jesus and the sacraments, as well as the broad notion of Christianity, are now the butt of so many comedy monologues and sitcoms in a way no other religion is.

The comedian and atheist Marcus Brigstocke explained, with all the desperate earnestness of a comedian talking about comedy, how he is a “political comedian, primarily” and that “nothing is off limits”. He seemed taken aback and even chastened when she said, with intense feeling, that “for me and many Christians the mocking of Jesus Christ is incredibly hurtful.”

At least Brigstocke showed up. Widdecombe said most comedians and Christians she approached would not take part. Talking publicly about religion, she concluded, was now just one of those things people in Britain won’t do. Sex and politics? Fine. Religion? Not so.

It’s all about context, anyway. Jokes about Christianity work only where knowledge of Christianity is part of the culture. The blessed-are-the-cheesemakers scene in Life of Brian is funny, said the comedian Steve Punt, only because the audience understands the biblical reference.

Stand-up comedians tend to preach to the converted. There’s an assumption that everyone in the audience thinks the same way, and more than one of the contributors talked about the wider acceptance of an atheistic point of view in Britain, a very different scenario from 50 years ago.

Widdecombe cuts an eccentric figure. At one point she continued her narration, in garish Widow Twankey make-up, from her dressing room during a panto performance. And when she cast a censorious eye on sitcom scenes, she didn’t pretend to be a neutral observer.

She certainly didn’t look pleased with the former archbishop of Canterbury Lord George Carey, who talked about liking Life of Brian , saying that “the mature Christian response is to have a sense of humour”.

One atheist comedian
All the stand-up routines and sitcoms in Are You H aving a Laugh? showed that Britain seems to be falling down with atheist comedians, but watching Would You Believe: Nothing’s Sacred (RTÉ One, Sunday), we appear to have one: Abie Philbin Bowman. That can’t be right, can it?

It was an interesting profile of the stand-up comedian, whose one-man shows include Jesus: T he Guantá namo Y ears . He’s an atheist: his parents, the broadcaster John Bowman and the psychiatrist Eimer Philbin, decided against baptising their youngest child, letting him find his own way to religion.

The everyday scenes in their house were lovely, and the support his family give him was obvious, although his parents, far from being stage-door gushers, were measured, even analytical, in their response to his act.

Philbin Bowman said much the same things as Brigstocke about wanting to “provoke and challenge”, to use comedy to “make the world a better place”, and that “offence is collateral damage in the battle to change hearts and minds”. We saw his comedy-club set, and the jokes about the church or anything else weren’t the least bit shocking for the audience – once again, preaching to the converted. But, for me, the one about the ashes of his late brother, Jonathan, was too much.

The presenter, Mick Peelo, perhaps a little weary of Philbin Bowman’s talk of “surprising people with the truth”, mischievously asked him about one of his funnier riffs about the then pope, Benedict XVI, being like a Bond villain. “But the truth is, the pope is not a Bond villain,” said Peelo, deadpan. The comedian launched into an explanation, not getting Peelo’s subtler humour.

Lifestyle pilots
Last year, under the Format Farm banner, RTÉ screened half a dozen lifestyle and entertainment pilots, the idea being that the station would work with independent producers to create formats that could be marketed to other broadcasters. Two have made it as RTÉ series. They are the harmless couples’-night-out show Six in the City (RTÉ Two, Monday) and The Takeover (RTÉ Two, Thursday), presented by the publisher and Newstalk broadcaster Norah Casey.

The idea for The Takeover is based on the universal truth that workers always believe they know better than the boss. The twist is that the companies featured are in trouble and the boss is asked to step aside while the employees come up with ideas to turn the business around.

The pilot, which was shown in September, was filmed at the Tea Time Express bakery in Dublin, where the workers were already on a three-day week. There was something deeply uncomfortable about looking at desperate people trying to think of ways to save their jobs, for our entertainment. Their big idea was cupcakes. Casey beamed, the bosses looked worried, the credits rolled: job done. The trouble was, the next we heard about Tea Time Express was the report that it closed before Christmas with the loss of those 30 jobs.

This week’s second episode in the newly commissioned series saw the hairdressers at Ultimate Hair and Beauty, a Dublin city-centre salon, take over the business for 10 days. The boss was suitably stick-in-the-mud and the staff were great, sparky and enthusiastic about the experiment.

In an early scene the boss called the 35 staff together for a meeting. The voiceover didn’t have to remind us how terrifying such a call-up is in any faltering workplace, and the tears welling up in the eyes of some of the women showed they feared the worst. It seemed cruel.

And there’s something phoney about a show that presents itself as a quasi-business programme but doesn’t give figures or budgets. It’s not even clear what Casey’s role is. At least if the programme brought in a team of experts – equivalents to Mary Portas, Gordon Ramsay or Feargal Quinn, who have fronted such shows – to advise and help, it might not look quite so exploitative.

I hope that Ultimate Hair and Beauty isn’t in trouble, that it was in it for the hour of free publicity, and that the joke is on us.