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Stephen Colbert wears his religion in his punch lines

The host of 'The Colbert Report,' a devout Catholic, is the rare comedian who is comfortable joking about faith, religion and morality.

September 09, 2012|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Stephen Colbert and Cardinal Timothy Dolan attend the TIME 100 Gala at Jazz at Lincoln Center on April 24, 2012, in New York City.
Stephen Colbert and Cardinal Timothy Dolan attend the TIME 100 Gala at Jazz… (Kevin Mazur / WireImage…)

Like everything Stephen Colbert does on television, it's set up as a joke.

A nun and a television host walk into a studio. They discuss the recent papal censure of American nuns for "perpetrating a feminist agenda." The host takes a hard line.

"The pope has said, 'Knock it off with the social liberalism,'" he says. "You're not socially conservative enough, at least admit that."

"What I'll admit is that we're faithful to the Gospel," says the nun. "We work every day to live as Jesus did, in relationship to people at the margins of our society. That's all we do."

The Colbert Report": In the Sept. 9 Calendar section, an article about how religion is dealt with on "The Colbert Report" identified the show's official chaplain as Father John Martin. His name is James Martin. —

"That's a cheap applause line, Jesus," the host says with a dismissive wave. "But if we're just concentrating on helping the poor, that's leaving the rich people out. Guys like me need more help … the poor shall inherit the kingdom of heaven...."

"You need help to be generous," says the nun. "There's enough to go around if we would only share. It's this American ideal that we should hoard and hold onto the individual things that we have that creates the problem."

"Jesus said, 'I got mine, Jack,'" the host interrupts.

"Jesus broke the bread and gave it to everybody and said, 'Eat and be filled,' and there was enough. If we share."

"Well," says the host, with a shrug. "I'm not going to debate the Gospel with a nun."

But it's not a joke, or at least not really. At a time when the term "God-given," as used in the Democratic platform, caused enough controversy that it was removed and then reinstated, it's the one place on television where liberal Christianity is given a place at the table. The Passion of the Colbert. No one in popular culture talks about religion the way he does.

According to the old saw, polite people do not publicly discuss sex, money, politics or religion. Which is why comedians, our socially appointed purveyors of necessary rudeness, spend so much time talking about sex, money, politics and religion.

In these days of partisan rage and general raunch, it's easy for comedians to talk about the first three. Religion is trickier — through some quirk in our cultural evolution, one's thoughts about a Supreme Being and the nature of worship have become more closely guarded than our habits in the bedroom. There has been no Kinsey report on religion.

Fortunately there is instead "The Colbert Report" on Comedy Central, which is having a very good year. During the last election, Colbert took performance art to a new level by running for president; this year he established his own "super PAC," raising hundreds of thousands of dollars while exposing the absurdity of campaign financing laws, which super PACs were invented to flout.

But for all the adulation Colbert and his team have received for their seven-year run of grade-A political satire, the most consistently revelatory aspect of the show is its theology.

The man, in reality and character, is a devout and out Catholic, observer of Lent and teacher of Sunday school. Unlike other comedians of his persuasion — liberal though disguised as conservative — Colbert does not hide, ignore, downplay or make light of his faith. On Ash Wednesday, he shows up with the obligatory smudge on his forehead. He has been known to recite bits of the Nicene Creed on air. He has appointed a smart and articulate Jesuit, Father John Martin, as official chaplain of his show.

He plays his Catholicism for laughs, of course — one Lent, it was what he chose to give up — but, as is befitting the father of three, he is able to keep hold of the baby while disposing of the bathwater. Colbert's humor is not so much an attempt to separate politics from religion as it is a reminder that what many people call religion simply isn't.

On the same show in June on which he hosted Sister Simone Campbell (who went on to speak before last week's Democratic National Convention), he also interviewed Martin Sheen, ostensibly there to promote his role in the then-upcoming "Spider-Man." Here's how some of that exchange went:

Colbert: "You're a super lefty liberal, you're like Sister Commie who was here a few minutes ago. You've been repeatedly arrested for activist activity.... Who inspired you to be such a liberal?"

Sheen: "It had something to do with what that same Gospel Sister was talking about. We are called to be a voice for the voiceless, to be a presence for the marginal. So if you have capabilities and you don't have to work full time, you're required to be on the line and work for the common good."

Colbert: "I should pepper spray you right now. Just for good measure."

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