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The Divine Late Night Comedy

AP Photo NBC Lloyd Bishop File

Matthew Becklo - published on 04/24/14 - updated on 06/07/17

The faith isn’t meant to be boring.

With the replacement of David Letterman announced this month, three Catholics – Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, and Stephen Colbert – have officially taken over late night comedy.

Rolling Stone reported that Jimmy Kimmel, who served as an altar boy as a young kid, is “still religious.” “I don’t understand atheism,” he told the music magazine. “I don’t know how anyone could be sure there isn’t a God.”

Jimmy Fallon – also a former altar boy – may not be practicing, but did confess in an interview that he “wanted to be a priest” when he was younger. “I just, I loved the church,” he confessed. “I loved the idea of it. I loved the smell of the incense. I loved the feeling you get when you left church. I loved like how this priest can make people feel this good. I just thought it was – I loved the whole idea of it.”

And Stephen Colbert – the king of Comedy Central – is maybe the most unabashedly Catholic of all three. This might come as a shock; after all, his sanctimonious pundit character on “The Colbert Report” seems to be a wink-wink disavowal of all things Catholic or even religious. But for this CCD teacher, nothing could be further from the truth. From candid confessions in NPR and The New York Times about his faith, to schooling scholars on Christian theology on his show, to co-chairing an event with the Archbishop of New York at a Catholic university, the man takes his faith very seriously. (Even centered around some eye-rolling Christmas-cocktail puns, e.g., “no room at the gin” and “king of the juice.”)

Is this all just a coincidence? What does it mean?

Joe Heschmeyer is convinced that the rise of this trio says more about Protestant America than about Catholicism – namely, that the number of self-identifying Protestants is in rapid decline. But that won’t do; the convergence just seems too remarkable. I mean, why not three “spiritual but not religious” comedians – or at least one? Whatever else it means quantitatively, the rise of three Catholics to the high thrones of comedy is qualitative evidence of the joyful nature of Catholicism, a joy that tends toward humor, even in the throes of – maybe especially in the throes of – great suffering.

As Fr. Barron memorably put it, Christianity is launched on earth with a sacred “jest.” “The essence of comedy is the coming together of opposites, the juxtaposition of incongruous things,” he writes. “So we laugh when an adult speaks like a child or when a simple man finds himself lost amid the complexities of sophisticated society. The central claim of Christianity – still startling after two thousand years – is that God became human. The Creator of the cosmos, who transcends any definition or concept, took to himself a nature like ours, becoming one of us…It has been suggested that the heart of sin is taking oneself too seriously. Perhaps this is why God chose to save us by making us laugh.”

But the comedy doesn’t end with the Incarnation – far from it. GK Chesterton ended his classic book Orthodoxy with a meditation on Jesus’ hidden sense of joy throughout his life:

“He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.”

The death of Jesus may seem to douse the funny flames with the cold waters of tragedy – but just as Christianity is pinned down by all the weight of the world, it slips out from under its thumb with the Resurrection, the glorious and happy conquering of sin and death that billions of Christians commemorate every Easter. Dante, reflecting on the grand drama of the Cosmos from the spark of Creation, through the heart of the Cross, and up to the heights of the Empyrean, rightly re-branded it a “divine comedy.”

No wonder, then, that cultural commentator Fr. James Martin declared joy, humor, and laughter the heart of the spiritual life.

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