Flannery O’Connor, famed Catholic author from the south who lived during the twentieth century, once reflected, “While the South isn’t Christ-centered, it is certainly Christ-haunted.”
Christ-haunted. That phrase came to mind when I watched “Kid Gorgeous,” John Mulaney’s latest stand-up special available on Netflix.
John Mulaney is a thirty-something comedian who, before having three comedy specials absolutely explode on Netflix, had been a writer for Saturday Night Live. Most famously, he was the progenitor behind “Stefon,” a recurring Weekend Update fixture played by Bill Hader who is arguably the show’s greatest recurring character of all time. Though his self-titled sitcom “Mulaney” bombed on Fox, he somehow turned a YouTube sketch he did with friend Nick Kroll about two elderly Upper West Side gentlemen into “Oh Hello,” an incredibly successful Broadway show that the two starred in.
“Kid Gorgeous,” while in my opinion not as heavy in the “laughs per minute” as “New in Town,” his 2012 special, has still been wildly popular. For a certain age group, John Mulaney is probably one of the most famous comedians in the world.
Now, I’ll be real with you: I wouldn’t necessarily recommend John Mulaney or “Kid Gorgeous” for mass Catholic consumption. Discerning viewers only maybe. While cleaner than most comedians, Mulaney still liberally utilizes profanity and the subject matter can turn adult at times. I, however, like many other millenials, have been a huge Mulaney fan for years, and a couple of weeks ago, with both kids in bed and my wife out of the house, couldn’t resist pulling up Netflix to laugh my way through his latest.
Though John Mulaney is what I would consider almost a perfect comic (his joke writing and delivery are, in my opinion, incomparable), one of his greatest appeals to me is he feels so much like the people I grew up with. We are both Catholic school graduates from the Chicagoland area, and Mulaney honestly just feels like he could be the funny kid I went to high school with. His jokes are down-to-earth, and there is a shoulder-shrugging humility to his delivery that makes him so different from so many of the overly brash and vulgar comedians of our time.
I had to stifle my laughter so as to not wake up my own kids during “Kid Gorgeous.” From his bits on Sergeant Bittenbinder’s tips for avoid muggings on the streets of Chicago (“Keep a fifty dollar bill in a money clip that you can throw before you make your getaway”) to his reflections on being recently married (“My wife said that walking around with me is like walking around with someone who’s running for the mayor of nothing”), Mulaney is truly my generation’s Seinfeld.
I wonder if part of the reason I am so fascinated by Mulaney, though, is that he represents the archetypal cultural Catholic who has since left the faith. While Mulaney has never shied away from jokes surrounding his Irish Catholic upbringing, he dives into the topic much more fully in the last section of this show with a whole bit revolving around what it was like growing up Catholic and how his secular wife and friends react to his religious heritage.
Most of the punch lines have to do with the awkward experiences centered on attending Mass as a child, which reminded me of Dane Cook, once an ascendant comedian in his own right during the early aughts who broke onto the scene with a thirty-minute Comedy Central special that included his own comedic take on attending Mass as a kid.
I couldn’t help but be a little reflective about Mulaney’s description of growing up Catholic and couldn’t help but wonder if therein were found several “clues” to why so many millenials have fallen away. It is a topic at the forefront of many conversations in Church circles these days, and here we have a world-famous comedian giving us a comedic take that reveals something of the heart of maybe why some of them did leave.
I want to share with you three poignant quotes from “Kid Gorgeous” that stuck with me and what I think they reveal about what was missing in the experience of the faith in so many of my peers growing up.
1. “I don’t know if you grew up going to Church and now you don’t, but it can be a weird existence because I like to make fun of it all day long, but then if someone like Bill Maher is like, ‘Who would believe in a man up in the sky?’ I’m like, ‘My mommy, so shut up!’
Sherry Weddell, author of Forming Intentional Disciples, is fond of the phrase, “God has no grandchildren.” In Mulaney’s bit, it is clear that his parents are very religious. They go to Mass every week, he says, including on vacations, and not every Catholic can say the same. What is clear, though, is Mulaney’s Catholicism is still kinda just “his parents’ thing.” In an increasingly secularized, post-modern culture, where faith is built on family heritage and cultural upbringing alone, there simply are not the same kind of cultural supports of religious praxis that there were in the past. It is not enough to simple expose young people to the faith in the hopes that they will just get it by osmosis. We have to proactively propose the “why” behind it all.
What is fascinating about this quote too is the defensiveness that you can tell Mulaney still feels toward the faith of his childhood. Though the joke is that he doesn’t like atheists sneering at his “mommy’s” beliefs, you can’t help but feel that there is this part of him that still has a glimmer of faith himself, a sort of far-off belief in God that he can’t quite shake and feels more acutely in moments of quieter reflection. It reminds you of something from a Graham Greene story. Though he is far from God, you can’t help but feel he hasn’t shaken him off entirely.
2. “No kid is just going to Church. Riding by on his Huffy like, ‘Whoa! What’s this place? What’s this Byzantine temple with green carpeting where everyone has bad breath and I wear clothes that I hate on one of the mornings of my two days off?’”
Bishop Barron’s phrase “beige Catholicism” came to mind often during the section on Catholicism in “Kid Gorgeous.” It is clear that Mulaney got a taste of beige Catholicism as a kid and, not surprisingly, it didn’t take. That description of Sunday Mass—replete with bad carpeting and decor, smelly pew-mates, and itchy clothes—brought rushing back my own memories of attending Mass as a kid.
To me, “beige Catholicism”—a flattening of the faith that just tries to be this very nice, unobtrusive, pleasantly benevolent presence in the world—is at the heart of why Mulaney and so many others in my generation don’t quite seem to “get” that there is something more to Catholicism. There is nothing in his experience of Mass growing up that is pulling Mulaney into a deeper place of reflection on the meaning of his existence, no stirring homily to cause him to ponder and question, no moment that causes him to open deeper to the divine. Rather, it is just this kind of banal hour that he gets through every Sunday morning and will abandon as soon as he moves out of the house at eighteen. Where is the part of Catholicism and a relationship with Jesus Christ that wants to pull at Mulaney’s deepest desires and call him, “Further up! Futher in!”?
Like Mulaney, I was a relatively poorly catechized Irish (and Polish) kid from the Chicago area who didn’t quite know why I had to be in Church every single Sunday. If I hadn’t encountered compelling arguments for the veracity of Catholicism, and had my own moment of encounter with Jesus leading to a conversion of life, I imagine I myself would have walked away from the Church as soon as I got to college.
3. “The Psalms! Remember the Psalms? They’re not songs because they don’t rhyme and they’re not good.”
Mulaney has a knee-slappingly funny two minute bit about how difficult it is to figure out the experience of singing a Psalm. As a faithful Catholic, I was laughing but also kinda cringing. The joke revolves around how poor of a singer the cantor is and how much of a performance he clearly considers his role in the liturgy to be.
How do I say this…sometimes, we’re just trying too hard, guys. It is okay to stay in our lane. Since the Church moves so slowly in making changes to anything, an obsession with being relevant will mean that we are actually always five years behind the latest trend. You know how the coolest people in school growing up are the ones that don’t seem to care so much what you think of them? Even if they aren’t the most popular kid, they know who they are and just kinda be that and it’s actually kinda compelling, right? As a Church, we need more of that. Less of the cringe. Simple and confident is a great place to be.
Without veering too far into a conversation on the liturgy, too, it might just suffice to say that the more our liturgy can reflect vertical worship of God instead of just a horizontal service, the more we challenge people to recognize the reality that God exists and our calling to a relationship with him is the foundation for our church life. I personally have seen that done in both liturgies led by acoustic guitars and those with full Schola choirs. The key is helping the Mass maintain a vertical orientation.
I personally think that the loss of this internal coherence—that everything we do as a religion is fundamentally about accepting the invitation to a living relationship on earth and in eternity with the Triune God—is a huge part of the reason so many have walked away from the Church. When we lose that dynamism, we have effectively pulled the “why” out of everything we do as a Church.
In both Mulaney and Dane Cook’s “bits” on the faith, the focus was entirely on the experience of being forced to go to Mass as a kid. The reason for this emphasis is obvious: sitting in church on a Sunday as a kid is a widely experienced thing and so has some comedic legs. But what is sad about this whole bit is just how limited their experience of Catholicism was. Missing is a sense for the beauty, grandeur, history of the faith. There is no awareness of the inner logic, the intellectual tradition standing on the shoulders of giants, geniuses who discovered that it made perfect rational sense to believe that Jesus Christ is the living God. And finally, there is no dynamic lived relationship with God, finding that all meaning and happiness in this world is found only in the willingness to follow Christ with your entire life.
There is a vagueness to the whole experience that shows you why the overall impression Mulaney garners is of the Mass as just as a blasé cultural event.
I am reminded here, too, of Fr. Raniero Cantlamessa, the preacher to John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis’ papal household, and his quote from 2014: “People will not accept Jesus based on the word of the Church, but they will accept the Church based on the word of Jesus.” Mulaney’s experience seems to not be one of “Jesus” or even “Catholicism” but one of just “going to church.” When the richness of the Catholic faith is only experienced by young people as “going to church,” it won’t stick very long. We have to move away, in our apologetic and evangelistic efforts, from a church-centric approach. As Julianne Stanz, director of the new evangelization in Green Bay, wrote, “Leading with the ‘who’ of Jesus rather than the ‘what’ of the Catholic Church is the first step in helping people come to a relationship with Christ.”
Mulaney consistently refers to the Church as an “organization” in “Kid Gorgeous.” Anyone who has discovered the fullness of the faith knows that the Church is so much more than just another “organization”; it is the extension of the Incarnation into our own time, the enduring sacrament of the fact that God became human.
Overall, there isn’t one simple fix to the kind of exposure to the faith that John Mulaney had growing up. Certainly, he could have used greater formation spiritually and intellectually and a more rich encounter with the fullness of the faith. Most importantly, he probably could have used mentors to disciple him. My own desire to evangelize the culture has been shaped by encounters with those like Mulaney. When you yourself have had the light of faith turned on and see the refulgence of Jesus and his Bride, the Church, your heart breaks for those for whom the faith that they walked away from was just awkward Sunday mornings in itchy clothes in strange smelling buildings.
Watching “Kid Gorgeous,” though, I can’t help but wonder if there is not still something of the faith that he is clinging to somewhere in his soul. There is the famous Shakespearan quote about people who “doth protest too much.” Whether it is comedians like Mulaney and Cook poking fun at their Catholic upbringing, or atheists like Maher and Dawkins constantly railing against religion, you can’t help but wonder: “Why bring it up so much at all?” There were a couple of people in grade school that I didn’t get along with very well at all and, to be honest with you, I rarely ever think about them and never bring them up in normal conversation at all. But there is something about Catholicism that just sticks with these people where they can’t quite get it out of their craw. If it was truly as inconsequential and irrelevant as it would seem they feel it is, why does it seem to come up in conversation so often? Christ-haunted, indeed.