Miles Kington: The Crucifixion Considered as a Subject for Humour

If anyone said there was one thing that should never be joked about, it was a clear sign that they had secret fears in that particular area
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The humorous writer George Mikes once wrote a book about humour in which at one point he dared to approach the topic that people seem to find so alluring without ever being able to solve: are there any subjects which should never be joked about? Are there things which are so taboo or so holy or so sacrosanct that they are beyond humour?

George was clear in his own mind about this. He said unequivocally that nothing is sacred, nothing taboo. Nothing should ever be placed in quarantine from satire. He went further and said that if anyone ever said to you that there was one thing that should never be joked about, it was a clear sign that the person who said it had secret fears in that particular area.

(Later in the book George Mikes unwittingly and rather unexpectedly breaks his own rule, or at least gives himself away, when he says that there is one thing you should never joke about: physical deformity. Did that mean that George himself had secret fears about his body? He certainly was quite small, and slightly hunched, but it never occurred to me on a slight acquaintance that there was anything particularly odd about him. Or worth being fearful about. But who knows the truth, when it comes to other people's secret fears?)

This is by way of a return to a subject I raised last week, which was the suitability or otherwise of the Crucifixion as a subject for irreverence. (Interesting, by the way, that we always say "the Crucifixion" and not "Jesus's Crucifixion", as if nobody else had ever been crucified, just as people always say "the Holocaust" and not "the Jewish Holocaust" or "Nazi Holocaust", as if there had never been any other holocaust. Yet even on the same day as he died, Jesus was not the only victim of this horrible method of execution...)

Enough shilly-shallying. Let us face the question squarely. Can you be irreverent, or even humorous about the Crucifixion?

And of course the question has already been answered for me by Monty Python, in the closing sequence of Life of Brian, where Eric Idle and other assembled biblical people on crosses sing the jolly yet utterly banal little song, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life". This is so incongruous and so far from the normal austere, pain-ridden image of the Crucifixion that you cannot help laughing at the sheer pointlessness of it.

Monty Python was not the first to take the Passion lightly, however. Billy Connolly had already aroused controversy years before with a routine about Christ's last days on earth, retelling the story as a mighty three-day piss-up in Glasgow, with Jesus being portrayed as a local hard man called the Big Yin.

And over a hundred years ago the French enfant terrible Alfred Jarry had retold the story as a sporting event in: "The Crucifixion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race", with the opening line: "Barabbas, one of the favourites, had scratched from the race just before the start". It's a vigorous though muddled tale, because there are in truth not many parallels between the Crucifixion and a bicycle race, but it struck J G Ballard enough for him to write a pastiche of it called "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race", which I think is actually funnier.

Nor can I get out of my memory a true story which appeared years ago in the satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné. They reported that rehearsals had been taking place in front of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris for a Passion play. Apparently, according to the Canard, the main rehearsal was well under way, with the actor playing Jesus already fastened to the Cross, when a sudden fierce rainstorm swept across the open ground and sent all the actors scurrying for cover. All, of course, except for Jesus, who was trapped on the cross in near-nakedness, and could do nothing except shout after them: "You bastards! You bastards!"

What an awe-inspiring image.

I hope to return to this subject tomorrow, unless I am struck down by a thunderbolt before then. Still, it never happened to Jarry, Connolly or the editor of the Canard, so I live in hope.