TV review: Are You Having a Laugh? Comedy and Christianity, BBC1

Parks and Recreation, BBC4

Will Dean
Thursday 28 March 2013 12:00
Marcus Brigstocke and Anne Widdecombe in Are You Having A Laugh?
Marcus Brigstocke and Anne Widdecombe in Are You Having A Laugh?

There is, it appears, one person left in Britain still offended by The Life of Brian. Thankfully, and presumably in response to accusations of atheist bias in the BBC's comedy, someone has seen fit to grant an hour of TV to her for Are You Having a Laugh? Comedy and Christianity.

Ann Widdecombe is unamused because "jokes about Christianity are everywhere you look". Her evidence is mild at best – a clip of Dara O Briain asking, "If we're all God's children, what's so special about Jesus?" here, another of (the Christian) Ian Hislop taking mock-offence to being called a Christian on Have I Got News for You there.

Her arguments, meanwhile, are from the Worzel Gummidge school of straw-manism: "Why is it now so funny to call Christians stupid? Why is Christianity easier to ridicule than other faiths?" (a) It's not and not one of her examples does this. (b) It isn't – ask Jerry Springer: the Opera's Stewart Lee.

One can empathise with Widdecombe's hurt at gags about her religion – as Marcus Brigstocke does when she interviews him – but it's hard to have any sympathy with her argument that Christians get an overly hard time on TV. Better that than being strip-searched every time you go through departures, eh?

Widdecombe's cause is further undermined by two of her examples of what she "regards as most sacred" now being "fodder for a cheap gag". The first is a decade-old Goodness Gracious Me sketch in which characters are confused at Communion and try to dip the bread in mango chutney. Producer Anil Gupta has to patiently explain that it's a joke at the Indian characters' expense rather than the Church's.

Then there's The Life of Brian. Which Ann hasn't seen. We get a careful explanation as she watches it for the first time. "This man's name is not Jesus, it's Brian," she says while everyone watching, shouts, "and he's a very silly boy!" Then an aghast Ann watches the crucifixion scene. She doesn't love it.

Rather than gags at the Church's expense, Widdy wants more shows like the mid-Sixties ecclesiastical sitcom All Gas and Gaiters – "where the humour was based on the quirks of characters rather than their faiths" – as if Father Ted kicking Bishop Brennan up the arse was a Hitchensesque polemic against the Holy See rather than doing exactly what she's describing.

For a woman who spent a large part of 2012 complaining that free speech was under threat by gay marriage, she's on thin ice hypocrisy-wise in this blinkered and naive film. But look on the bright side of life, Ann, at least you can turn these shows off. As, one imagines, many did last night.

Religious interference into secular life was skewered in the first episode of the second series of Parks and Recreation, too. A week after series one finished, we're straight into the 24-part second series and it's becoming clear why the show is so revered. Tonight's first episode saw Leslie Knope – Amy Poehler's Mr Smith in a world of Francis Urquharts – accidentally become a local gay icon when the two penguins she "marries" in a PR stunt for the local zoo turn out to be gay. And prove so in front of a crowd of children.

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Under pressure from the Widdecombe-like leader of Society for Family Stability ("when gays marry it ruins it for the rest of us"), Leslie goes double-or-nothing with an appearance at Pawnee's gay bar, the Bulge: "I guess I'm like Queen of the Gays," she tells her boss, Ron (Nick Offerman) later.

It's a nice take on the wider political discourse in the US and would be funnier were it not for the fact that right-wing fury over two gay penguins marrying sounds like an all-too-real Fox News story.

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