In the past weeks, two major religious groups have been on the receiving end of one or the other sharply-edged comedic barbs. Trey Parker and Matt Stone's musical “The Book of Mormon” is playing on Broadway. According to the “South Park” duo, the Mormon community is not a target, but a “vessel or vehicle” of social commentary. Given the cartoon's reputation, I actually believe that. (Not that I'm tempted to buy a ticket to a musical that depends on vulgarity to keep things on pace.)
Meanwhile, in TV-land, Bill Maher had some fun of his own, repurposing a lay Catholic movement's “Come Home to the Catholic Church” video spots to tar every priest in the world with the brush of pedophilia. You can't exactly say that this Ash Wednesday spoof was “social commentary”: I did an Internet search for “Bill Maher hates Catholic church” that yielded 1.4 million hits. (The man is in my prayers.)
It can be a fine line that separates humor from ridicule. The deciding factor isn't how it is received, but how where it came from.
Here in Chicago, one of the longest-running shows in history is set in a Catholic school classroom. “Sister” is still in charge at “Late Nite Catechism” and its spin-offs. Sometimes older Catholics who haven't seen it express the fear that it sets “da nuns” up for ridicule, but the improv routine never goes that (cheap) route. The show's creators have even taken a special interest in raising money ($2 million so far) for the retirement needs of the Catholic school teachers whose legendary idealism and strictness inspired the schtick in the first place. (Chicagoans: Mark your calendars now for the May 28 performance of "Sunday School Cinema"--a fund raiser for our documentary film project!)
As long as our religious communities are having an impact on society, we can expect to provoke interest, exasperation and … humor, both within and without. As St Teresa of Avila, the 16th century Spanish mystic, is said to have remarked, “Lord, preserve us from sorry saints!”