Tragical Sexual Comedy

If you have ever been to a stand-up comedy show, you know that comics tend to be something of a mess. Comedy is, for many of these people, a way of dealing with trauma and pain. It is not that bad of a way, either, as far as these things go. Making jokes about hurts can help the comic to stay above it, gain perspective, look at it in a different way, shake it off. It can make terrible things seem not-all-that-terrible, or soften the edges of painful memories or current insecurities. Whenever I go to a show, though, despite all the laughs, I am often left with a sense of heaviness. I think this is because the comics do not seem to know that there is somewhere better for their pain to be heard—therapy, sure, and many of them talk about their experiences with therapy—but also, well, Jesus. I realize this sounds kind of pious and preachy, but as I walked out into the night after a comedy show this week, I was grateful to have Someone to talk to for the comics I have just seen.

Sexual jokes are cheap jokes, my friend noted as we left an open mic night. She has done stand-up herself, has taken classes with other comics and performed in various places. She told me that while she and her classmates worked on their sets and refined their jokes, the teacher kept urging them not to go for the cheap sexual jokes. Sex is still taboo enough that comics can often get laughs that way, but they are not really earning them. Those jokes aren’t all that funny—people may laugh because they are uncomfortable, shocked, trying to look cool. In contrast, jokes about the family, work, or everyday occurrences are relatable to everyone and often worth laughing about. But if you go to a comedy show today, unless it is explicitly labeled “family-friendly” or “clean,” you have to be prepared to hear some crude things. (I know, maybe this means I should never go to any; I’m on the fence about that.) As the night goes on, and the comics get better (usually the most amateur comic is the first to perform), there are fewer crude jokes or sexual comments. At the show I went to this week, though, not a single comic of the five who performed could be labeled clean.

There has been significant discussion the last few years (or longer) about whether the institutional Church in the U.S. is “obsessed” with sexual morality. Bishops fall on either side of the debate, and as a single woman striving to live the virtue of chastity, it is unedifying, to say the least, to recount its terms. Working on the issue of clergy sexual abuse means that my perspective on the relative importance of sexual morality is biased. I cannot be a neutral, theoretical observer. The idea that sexual sin is “just not that big a deal” strikes me as ludicrous. It is ludicrous not only because of the tremendous lifelong harm that men and women have suffered because of child sexual abuse, but also because of the gaping wounds on display during almost every stand-up comedy set that come from a culture of “consenting adults.” Look for someone who is being brutally honest about their experience in today’s sexual landscape, and tell me what you see. It is not someone who is fulfilled and happy, I can tell you that much.

Obsession is an interesting word to use for the Church’s continued preaching of the perennial truths of human anthropology. Throughout Church history, you can trace the contours of the dominant secular culture by what the saints focused on. First, of course, it was just exhortations to stay faithful in the face of martyrdom. You could say that the Church at the time was “obsessed” with apostasy. Surely there were Christians being greedy and fornicating in the first century, so where are the homilies on that? Then you have St. John Chrysostom preaching constantly about the obligations of wealth and the call of Christians to be poor in the 4th century. St. Francis of Assisi, similarly, focused so much on giving up material possessions that one could argue that he was “obsessed” with Lady Poverty. St. Dominic was “obsessed” with the truth—what about goodness or beauty? Fast forward to today, and what is the theme of the culture that surrounds us? Autonomy, you may say. Yes. But autonomy, above all, in the sexual sphere.

It is not difficult to make the case that it is American culture that is obsessed with sex and its related issues, and that is the primary reason why the Church has to spend so much time on it. The number of people in America watching pornography regularly; the number of people looking for a quick hook-up with “no strings attached”; the number of people who look at other human beings only as objects or collections of various parts is astounding. These things (and more) are all so normalized that the idea that anyone lives chastely is actually unthinkable. When one of my friends first broached the topic with her not-religious-at-all now-fiancé, who was totally supportive, he asked if she was the only one who lived this way. Even though there are many of us in the “Catholic bubble” who live chastity, apparently, we do not get out enough. Your average Joe out there in the world not only has no model of chastity in the culture, he also does not know anyone living it out. If you don’t believe me, just go to a comedy show.

Comedy is a window into the culture; it is an art form meant for the masses, always performed in person (there’s no such thing as stand-up without an audience), and it is as current as the performer can possibly make it. It is a good barometer, therefore, of the zeitgeist. And things are not looking good out there for healthy sexuality. If the Church will not speak about the power and beauty of the sexually-differentiated and meant-for-the-other human person, who will?

Some clips to help my case (these are basically clean, but watch at your own risk!)