It’s tough to pull off a joke about religion, even under the best conditions.
To do so requires quick wit, excellent timing, high confidence and maybe even Oprah-quality stage lighting.
Plenty of people have done it. The good humor varies from astute observations to cringe-worthy one-liners — Whoopi Goldberg to Mel Brooks.
Maybe the great ones are so good at religious humor, they make it seem easy. It’s not.
On Monday, CBS will premiere a new sitcom called “Living Biblically.” It stars Jay R. Ferguson as Chip, the man who will, presumably, make good on the title.
The death of his best friend and news of his wife’s pregnancy leads Chip to a more spiritual, moral path. This eventually causes him to take up the Bible as his guide.
Chip’s wife, Leslie (Lindsey Kraft) is a tolerant atheist who stands by him as he attempts to eschew lying, mixing the fabrics he wears and even make good on his vow to stone adulterers. (This may set up the best joke — which of those three tasks is toughest.)
Humor is deceptively difficult. Religious humor is more so. Making religious humor the center of a contemporary television sitcom is either genius, foolhardy or both.
Time will tell. Reviewers have been allowed only a few episodes. The show is helped by those Chip calls on for assistance in sticking to his plan; the “God Squad” he assembles includes beloved actors Camryn Manheim, David Krumholz and Ian Gomez.
The show is based on “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible” by A.J. Jacobs, an editor at Esquire magazine.
Published in 2007, the book was a New York Times bestseller and popular with book clubs. You may have seen it on library shelves: Its cover is a comedic a take on the 1956 “The 10 Commandments” movie poster. Jacobs is dressed as Moses, ala Charlton Heston, sporting a full beard. He’s holding two stone slabs in his left hand, but instead of a bracing for a lightning strike, he holds a disposable coffee cup in the other.
The book cover is telling, even it wasn’t necessarily intentional. In the book, Jacobs portrays “living biblically” as living legalistic religiosity. That is, in his quest, Jacobs relies heavily on his interpretation of biblical law.
As many observant Jews can tell you, the Torah doesn’t have just 10 “rules”; there are more than 600. In his journey, Jacobs counted more than 700. Throughout the book, he digs into these rules and tries to follow them as closely as possible.
It’s understandable and highly relatable. For some who weren’t raised in religious homes, which is the case with Jacobs, this is a common stereotype about religion. As a result, his book is thought-provoking and highly entertaining.
As for the show, I’m cautious and hope to become optimistic. I hope it gets better with more episodes and has a chance to gain some depth. Reviews of the writing are lukewarm, though most seem to reserve judgement regarding the premise — for now.
Yes, but is it funny? We’ll see. Consider this for what it’s worth: The pilot concludes with a priest, rabbi, lapsed Catholic and nonbeliever walking into a bar. Really.