Essay, Profile

Jon Stewart, Religion Teacher Extraordinaire

By | May 1, 2012

(Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

As difficult as it is to find good writing about religion, it is harder still to find good television about religion. Most televangelists do not do good (challenging, nuanced) religious television: one of their goals may be to educate, or win converts, but they have to raise money, and offering sophisticated portraits of religion is as likely to close people’s wallets as open them. Religious television series tend to be unwatchable: no Touched by an Angel for me. And talk-show hosts are rarely any better when it comes to religion. The skepticism of Bill Maher can be as simplistic as the basest prosperity gospel, and we should all be glad that the eager gullibility of Oprah is now quarantined on her own network. Except for public television’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, it is hard to find intelligent talk about religion on TV.

Except for Jon Stewart, that is. The secular Jewish comedian, host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, covers religion often, but more important, he covers it well. Stewart seems to genuinely enjoy interviewing religious figures, whether of the left (like Sojourners magazine’s Jim Wallis) or the right (like pseudo-historian, political advisor and textbook consultant David Barton). Some of The Daily Show’s best sketches deal with religion, and his writers and multi-ethnic cast — including one of the few recognizable Muslim comedians in America, Aasif Mandvi — frequently move beyond satire. They are often funny, but just as often smart.

Above all, however, Stewart and his writers do two things that make them unique on popular television. First, they cover — and yes, I would say “cover,” not just satirize or mock — a wide range of religions. If you watched only The Daily Show, you would nonetheless learn, in time, about Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and a whole spectrum of smaller faiths, a category that I would argue includes atheism. And second, they pay attention to points of theology that more traditional news and talk shows skip over. Using chunks of time that would be unthinkable on a network newscast — six minutes for a segment on Mormonism! — The Daily Show teaches the finer points of belief, mining them for humor but at the same time serving a real educational function. 

Stewart comes at religion with buckets of derision, but I do not find him offensive, nor should anyone who enjoys comedy. Like so many of the best comedians, he is an equal-opportunity hater. Sometimes it’s atheists he cannot stand, as in his bit about the beams in a shape of the cross that survived the Ground Zero wreckage, which the American Atheists did not want displayed. Sometimes it’s the Catholic church, which last November proved a useful point of comparison for the football culture at Penn State: “I get that it’s probably hard for you to believe that this guy you think is infallible, and this program you think is sacred, could hide such heinous activities, but there is some precedent for that,” Stewart said, referring to coach Joe Paterno and the sex-abuse scandal. “Yeah, and just like with the Catholic Church, no one is trying to take away your religion, in this case football. They’re just trying to bring some accountability to a pope, and some of his cardinals.” In both cases, it was the culture of certainty that Stewart was mocking, not the belief system itself. It was the human tendency toward hubris. 

But of course belief systems are fair game, too. In fact, Stewart and his writers have realized that good theology — getting people’s beliefs right — happens to make for good humor. Consider a bit that aired last October, in which Stewart interviewed cast members Samantha Bee and Wyatt Cenac on the differences between Mormonism and traditional Christianity. Bee, a fair-complected Canadian, was playing a Mormon, wearing a shirt that said “Team Mormon”; and Cenac, a black man of Haitian ancestry, was wearing a shirt that said “Team Normal.” Bee began by complaining about the tee shirts they were made to wear: “Why is Wyatt ‘Team Normal’? That implies that Mormons aren’t normal … We are not a cult. Mormonism is a proud religion founded by a great man who was guided by the Angel Moroni to golden plates buried in upstate New York that he placed in the bottom of a hat where he read them using a seer stone.”

Matters devolved from there. Team Mormon and Team Normal began arguing about which group is crazier: the one that believes Jesus was born of a virgin and the Holy Ghost, and that he rose from the dead and ascended to Heaven, or the one that believes all that plus the story that he then returned to Missouri. Jon Stewart intercedes, saying that both Bee and Cenac seem happy to suspend disbelief when it comes to the basic tenets of the New Testament. Both Bee and Cenac then take license to turn on Stewart, for being an adherent to a religion in which “it’s normal to hang out in someone’s living room and watch a guy with a beard cut off a baby’s penis while everyone eats pound cake!” (as Bee puts it). The bit is as comedically deft as it is religiously shrewd: how often do we catch ourselves rolling our eyes at someone else’s belief system, only to realize at the last second that we believe some crazy things ourselves? In that regard, Stewart is a stand-in for all of us, enjoying some fun at the expense of other religions until the gods of dramatic irony hold a mirror to his face.

And except for the fact that circumcision doesn’t involve the whole penis (“In my defense,” Stewart says, “it’s just the tip, and the cake is incredibly moist”), the dialogue is exceptionally accurate about all three religions: traditional Christianity, Latter-day Saint practices, and Judaism. The Mormons’ special underwear is played for laughs, it’s true — but the point is that Stewart and his writers convey more specifics about religious practice in less than four minutes than any documentary or nightly-news segment I’ve ever seen.

And the implicit message is one that religion scholars are always trying to convey: all religions have beliefs that seem bizarre to outsiders, and “cult” is often just a word to describe the other guy’s religion. The Daily Show approaches American religion in the spirit of tolerance, but not with the wimpy, eager-to-please hand-wringing that characterizes so much liberal dialogue in this country. Rather, religions are shown to be strange and possibly cringe-inducing: our job is to take an honest look, then tolerate them anyway. It’s a call to rigorous citizenship.

At some point, every one of Stewart’s regulars is called upon to represent a different religious group — Mandvi is often the Muslim, Cenac the Christian, and in one episode the Englishman John Oliver tries to claim Halifax, Nova Scotia, as a new holy site for Jews (“Challahfax” — although according to Mandvi, who is trying to claim the site for Muslims, it is pronounced “Halalifax”). The cast is like a merry band of religious satirists, with a joke for every faith playing in their repertory.

Stewart himself has said very little about his own Judaism, although he is clearly non-practicing by most any definition: he has gone to work, and recorded shows, on the High Holidays, for example. The writer Marty Kaplan tells the story of moderating a forum about why Jews who don’t believe go to synagogue on the holidays: “At one point, a congregant, without prompting, told the room that Stewart didn’t take the High Holy Days off,” Kaplan writes. “His tone was a mixture of anger and disappointment, the kind of sentiment someone might feel about a misguided family member.” And it so happens that I think Stewart’s humor might even be stronger, more durable, if it weren’t all quite so frivolous to him. For example, the writer Shalom Auslander, who was raised very religiously, is capable of a kind of enduring, deeply poignant satire that is beyond Stewart. Similarly, I suspect that Stephen Colbert, erstwhile Daily Show cast member and now host of The Colbert Report, has comedic hues that come from his Catholic religiosity, which he speaks openly about.

But if Stewart is himself indifferent to religion, he is clearly not bitter about it. There is no apparent ideology, either religious or skeptical, animating Stewart’s treatment of religion. More than anything, he and his writers have the scrupulosity of objective journalists. They win laughs without deforming, or even exaggerating, the religion’s actual beliefs. This is an extraordinary feat. Most religious humor, especially on television or in the movies, depends on stereotypes, which are by definition crude and reductive. Stewart’s writers, by contrast, find humor in the specifics of each faith. They would rather laugh at the finer points of belief than stick pins in some caricature. When they are especially fortunate, they can describe a faith through its antagonists — while making those antagonists look ridiculous. Here I am thinking of a segment from 2010, in which Wyatt Cenac interviewed a Muslim woman whose application to be a foster mother was rejected because she would not allow pork products in her house. He made the foster agency look absurd and bigoted, and he helped explain Muslim dietary practices to the audience.

Especially when taken out of context, disembedded from the civilizations and cultures in which they make sense, religious claims are frequently of the bizarre sort that no sane person ought to believe. Humor actually proves to be one of the best devices to help skeptics or the uninitiated talk about religion. And it offers a great litmus test for believers: how confident are you in your beliefs? After all, no confident believer should be afraid to chuckle about religion’s seeming absurdities — just as no mirthful human being should pass up the chance to laugh along with the unbeliever. The Daily Show has more fun with religion than any show on television — more fun, in fact, than many religious people have in their own observance. Jon Stewart may not be a believer —he did boast that he had a bacon croissanwich for Passover — but he is one hell of a teacher.

Mark Oppenheimer writes the Beliefs column for The New York Times. He is the author of Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate. Follow him on Twitter @markopp1.

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