It is believed that comedy began in Ancient Greece around 450 BC and was defined by Plato as all exhibitions which have a tendency to excite laughter. The first form of religion began some time around 2500BC. Until recently the two have never walked hand in hand. Over the past few years a new generation of comedians has surfaced, one that aims to break down cultural barriers, correct misconceptions and bridge the ever widening gap between those with faith and those without.
One example is the blossoming comedy show, “Allah Made Me funny” created by a group of American Muslim comedians in an attempt to counter the negative stereotypes and attitudes about Muslims and Arabs. The founder is Preacher Moss, an African American Muslim who set up the company to engage audiences in contemporary issues facing society through humour. He is joined by Mohammed Amer, a Palestinian refugee, who hopes to conquer ignorance and continue his aim of raising awareness about the hardships of being stateless.
Former lawyer Azhar Usman was interested in waging peace through humour. Azhar Usman is also part of another unusual partnership with comedian Rabbi Bob Alper in their show entitled “One Muslim. One Jew. One Stage. Two Very Funny Guys” which aims to address the differences and similarities between these religions in a light hearted and most of all, peaceful way. However, as well as showing Americans that most Muslims are not radical extremists, the comedians also hope to take the show to Muslim countries to help the Islamic world gain a better understanding of America. With such a noble cause at heart it may be easy to agree that using religion as a tool for constructive humour is not as shocking as it seems. In fact, humour should bring us all together irrespective of race, culture and religion.
The maddening thing for these comedians is that all their good work can be undermined by the fury and extreme reactions they provoke. For example the name of a teddy bear or the drawing of a cartoon ends up as fuel for claims that adherents of religion cannot take criticism. Hopefully by using comedy to encourage tolerance and understanding of faiths we can learn to laugh more and fight less. This is the intention of a comedy show called “A Muslim, a Mormon and a Jew Walk In to a Bar: The Comedy of Religion”. The show consists of a Jewish stand up comedian Lisa Geduldig, and perhaps the most popular Muslim female stand up comedienne, Shazia Mirza, famous for starting her show in an Islamic headscarf. They believe that comedy is the perfect way to make people laugh and think at the same time.
The Mormon in this show is Bengt Washburn who defines himself as someone who has trouble following the rules of his faith, like drinking coffee. “There are a lot of rules for Mormons; no drinking, no smoking, no premarital sex, no coffee. In fact that’s the one rule that actually makes sense when you think about it. I mean, you can’t drink, you can’t smoke, you can’t have sex, why stay awake?” He believes that as a comedian the point is to expose a hidden irony that reveals the world in a different light.
The purpose of using religion as part of comedy is not to destroy or vilify religion, but to encourage people to take it less seriously. This is certainly true of the last and most unusual example of a comic partnership entitled The Coexist Comedy Tour. Consisting of an atheist, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian and a Buddhist, this holy ensemble share a stage and happily make fun of each others beliefs and culture before sharing hugs and driving home together. It is definitely a novel approach to Inter-faith dialogue but one that seems to be well received by the public as they go from strength to strength.
Humans have long fought, killed and angered one another over their religious differences, and that hostility has spawned generation after generation of segregation, prejudice and racism. It does not take much to realise that instead of using religion as a weapon, we can use it to wage peace. The key to this it seems is comedy.
Although we have a right to satirize any religion, we also have a moral imperative to respect all faiths and beliefs. The truth is you can never please everybody. Conflict and disagreement make the world go round and it is this that encourages people like those mentioned above to make a stand and restore the peace, until the next time. For now, the unlikely alliance of religion and comedy seems to be working. The worry for these comedians though must be that some forget to keep laughing.
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