Just for Laughs

November 02 2020 | by

AS IDENTITY politics continued to consume the United States in the run-up to the November presidential elections, Jeremy McLellan took to Twitter to complain that he had become a recent victim of the prevailing “cancel culture.” Amid the revolutionary context of 2020, in which reputations and livelihoods are being deliberately destroyed following a pronouncement somehow deemed “problematic,” offensive or insufficiently politically correct, McLellan grumbled that he had just lost his sponsorship with Monster Energy drinks.

“Antifa terrorists threatened to burn down their headquarters over my innocent remark on Joe Rogan’s podcast that ‘gays shouldn’t drink it because they have too much energy to begin with,’” he moaned. “So much for the tolerant left.” To uninitiated Europeans watching America seemingly burning via satellite television, such remarks might have seemed plausible. But of course McLellan is joking. Comedy is his business, and he was just poking fun at the negative cultural trends convulsing his country.


Stand-up comedian


Jeremy McLellan is a stand-up comedian, a master of satire and sarcasm with the sort of deadpan delivery that might sometimes make an audience hesitate for a split second while they consider if he is either joking or being serious. It exerts perhaps the same effect as that of a skilful magician making onlookers pause to ask if a trick might indeed be magic before they consciously acknowledge it as nothing more than a great act, and it makes him all the more funnier.

Certainly, the context of the US in 2020 offers him plenty of material with which to work, albeit perilously, and he uses his wit often to try to make people see sense. On one occasion, a Twitter user called “Dave” declared, “If you are white and not ashamed, you’re a racist.”

McLellan’s response was typical. “I’m ashamed of a lot of things, but being white doesn’t break the top 50,” he replied. “Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think you should be ashamed of anything you wouldn’t confess to a priest,” McLellan said. “Bless me father, for I have sinned. It has been two weeks since my last confession. I’m… I’m still white. For this and all my other sins I am truly sorry.”

It is one way to point out that skin color is an innate and unchangeable characteristic. Sadly, it is the sort of humor which today could, in America and other parts of the West, destroy a career. Such humor has become the new “edgy,” and McLellan is an adherent, in spite of the barbs presented by “lazy listeners” and people “trying to get offended.”


Tip-toeing taboos


McLellan is neither cowed by nor a stranger to controversy. He is a comic whose experience of performing to sell-out audiences in Pakistan has taught him how to tip-toe skilfully between taboos while remaining funny.

He has learned that it is better to be a little risky than to be safe, particularly after appearing on national television in the predominantly and sometimes fanatically Muslim country when he was advised beforehand against making any jokes about Islam.

“Then all they did was ask me questions about Islam,” he recalls. “I was trying to come up with ridiculous answers, and at the end of the show they said, ‘No offence, but we really thought you would be funnier,’ and I said, ‘well you told me I might be killed if I joked about Islam on television.’”

Nowadays he would joke about Islam, but only within the boundaries that might not invite a bullet. The result is that McLellan is unique in the comedy world in that he is devoutly and self-consciously Catholic, but with a huge international fan base among Muslims; he has even performed in a mosque in Saudi Arabia.

“Could you have made Jesus laugh?” I asked him. “I think so,” he asserts. “I think God thinks I’m funny.”

And what about Mohammed? “I don’t know,” he replies. “It says in the Koran that he would laugh, and people could see the back of his teeth. So I assume he had a good sense of humor. I think he would have come to my shows.”


Leap of faith


McLellan, 34, is among the rising stars of US stand-up. In 2017 he was acclaimed as one of the “New Faces of Comedy,” after he performed at the Just for Laughs International Comedy Festival in Montreal, Canada.

A year later he was received into the Catholic faith. This does not mean to say he is the US equivalent of Frank Skinner, though he is like the British funnyman in the sense that he is not only open about his Catholic faith, but informed by it too.

Catholicism is, in fact, at the heart of all he does, including his routines. The fusion of faith and fun is evident even from his choice of St Genesius as his confirmation name, in honor of the Roman martyr and patron of comedians – but not without a few reservations.

“He was killed for insulting the audience,” says McLellan. “It’s not what you want as a comedian.”

Behind the quick-fire wit is always a deeply serious and intelligent individual whose journey into the Catholic Church has been several years in the making. Raised in a conservative Presbyterian household in Charleston, South Carolina, he became intellectually convinced of the truth of Catholicism after reading about the Church while at college.

On graduating he worked for three years with adults with learning disabilities at a L’Arche Catholic community in Chicago, and toyed with the idea of conversion, but it was only when he came home and began to do stand-up that he took the leap of faith.


Hunger for the Eucharist


The catalyst was his exponentially growing Muslim fan base, which threw up the questions that caused him to think more deeply about life. Yet the decisive factor was a hunger for the Eucharist.

“When I felt that urgency and I reflected that Catholicism wasn’t a theory of the Eucharist, it was the Eucharist, I thought, ‘Oh, I need that,’” he says.

Conversely, his experiences were also shaping him as a comic. The “gift” of disabled people and learning to “enter into their world” prepared him for the stage by teaching him to “make peace with uncertainty.”

His encounters with Muslims would help him to hone his observational skills, to question society, challenge prejudices and push boundaries “in the service of what is true and what is real.”

“I am a pretty conservative Catholic,” McLellan admits. “The sort of liberal way of building bridges with Muslims, I am not a big fan of, and a lot of Muslims are not a fan of that either, where there is a lot of talking down, and saying ‘they are just like us’. What I like is that Muslims, for the most part, are asking the exact same questions about modern life as conservative or traditional Catholics are… how do you pass on the faith? Is modernity something that is hostile to traditional ways of life or can it be adapted? What happens when the extended family collapses? They see the way we treat our old people, and how insane that is.

“There is a lot of wisdom Muslims have that Catholics can learn from,” he continues. “They seem to have retained a lot of things that Christians have lost.

“It is not a matter of appropriating or borrowing from Islam. We have our own prayers at different times of the day, in the Liturgy of the Hours or the Divine Office. All of those things are within Catholicism. But they (Muslims) might be able to notice things at the moment and say this is something in our culture that is poisonous – for example, the collapse of the extended family, especially among white people - and we say, ‘Oh, really?’, and then it turns out that it is.”


Christian vocation


The evidence suggests his brand of humor and the way he communicates to his audiences are certainly building bridges faster and more strongly than many of the endeavors of those who are virtue-signalling their way to a world constructed around the highly fashionable, but intrinsically divisive and intolerant identity politics.

Three years ago McLellan played to six sold-out houses in Lahore, Pakistan, for example, and last year toured the UK with six Muslim comics, performing at 19 venues in as many nights.

Principally, comedy is of course about making people laugh, but to a man as thoughtful and religious as McLellan, it is also a Christian vocation. To him, stand-up can make people feel less lonely and “happy in a full sense”; it can unite souls, particularly when routines acknowledge that “basic reality is a good thing” in spite of human frailty.

“I think that comedy, when it is done right, is humbling to the audience,” he explains. “You are supposedly an expert on the unexpected, the misunderstandings, and the things on which people’s pride breaks down. You spend a lot of time making a birthday cake and then you drop it,” he says, offering an example. “It’s funny because you spent a lot of time doing that, and if you don’t have a good sense of humor then you are a horrible person for dropping it. I think that comedians provide a service by noticing all the cracks, all the failings and all the ridiculousness of life. We have all these constructs to make sense of reality, but the constructs are not reality.”


Necessity of humor


Good comedians are to McLellan essentially “ambassadors of a messy reality” – but a good reality designed by a loving God – and not peddlers of chaos.

Consequently, he does not rate atheistic comics very highly, holding Jews in far great esteem, especially since many were pioneers of stand-up in the US. He considers Catholics the sharpest of all, perhaps unsurprisingly. “I think I am funnier after I converted,” he says.

McLellan would visit Europe several times a year, but because of the “ridiculous experience” of the coronavirus pandemic he is unable to tour any time soon. He has become a stand-up comedian forced to work from home, principally over the internet – a messy reality indeed.

He can be viewed on social media and he would appreciate support via Patreon.com as the lockdown means he cannot work, while stand-up comedy “is going to be the last thing that is going to come back.”

“Think about what happens in a comedy club,” he explains. “Your goal is basically to get everybody together in a tight space and get them to cough. It’s not really coughing, but laughter is the same thing. How are we going to get that back? It is sad to see because we need that (humor) now more than ever.”

Updated on November 02 2020