Conan O’Brien’s Stupid-Smart (and Spiritual?) Comedy

Joel Mayward

Despite the title of the 2011 documentary chronicling his post-Tonight Show comedy tour, Conan O’Brien can stop.

The comedian recently retired from hosting late-night television programs after nearly 28 years. A writer for Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons, Conan became the host of Late Night in 1993, briefly took over The Tonight Show from 2009 to 2010 before being controversially ousted, then has hosted his own show, Conan, for the past decade. In his poignant farewell, Conan thanks his friends, family, and staff who have worked alongside him and supported his distinctive and quirky approach to comedic entertainment. And then he closes with this thoughtful reflection:

“I have devoted all of my adult life—all of it—to pursuing this strange phantom intersection between ‘smart’ and ‘stupid.’ There are a lot of people that believe the two cannot coexist. But God, I will tell you, it is something that I believe religiously: I think when smart and stupid come together—it’s very difficult—but if you can make it happen, I think it’s the most beautiful thing in the world.”

Conan’s comedic style is a rich combination of the awkward and the absurd performed with eager self-deprecation. Yet he is genuinely smart: he was his high school’s valedictorian and graduated magna cum laude from Harvard with a degree in history and literature (he wrote a thesis on symbolism in William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor). The evidence of this humor is obvious in Conan’s repeat gags like “the Walker, Texas Ranger Lever,” Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, Conan’s ribbing of his associate producer Jordan Schlansky, an ongoing joke where Paul Rudd shows a ridiculous clip from the movie Mac and Me, and Conan’s hilarious dynamic with his beloved co-host and sidekick Andy Richter.

In the farewell speech, Conan goes on to describe this stupid-smart comedy as having a “tiny sort of flicker of what is a kind of magic.” He concludes that while achieving such magical stupid-smart humor is not easy to do, to “try and do what you love with people you love . . . it’s the definition of heaven on earth. I swear to God, it really is.” When he says these last bits of advice, he briefly chokes up with emotion—you can tell that this comedy gig has not just been a job, but a spiritual vocation.

What’s striking is how Conan sums up a nearly three-decade career of comedy by describing it in religious, even theological, language. Perhaps reflecting his Irish-Catholic background, there’s a spiritual resonance behind his description of stupid-smart humor as being “phantom” and “magic.” But despite the title of Dante’s classic poem, comedy has not historically been viewed with great esteem within Christianity. The few examples of God laughing in the Bible are laughter of derision in the face of enemies or evildoers; laughter in Ecclesiastes is described as madness and meaningless (albeit sometimes timely). The Rule of St. Benedict includes advice to “speak no foolish chatter, nothing just to provoke laughter; do not love immoderate or boisterous laughter.” Many contemporary attempts at “Christian comedy” are decidedly sanctimonious and unfunny.

You can tell this comedy gig has not just been a job, but a spiritual vocation.

So, is there room for stupid-smart comedy in Christian thought and practice? We can find theological support for a sense of humor in an unlikely source: John Calvin. Consider his commentary on Philippians 3. In that passage, Paul references opponents who put their spiritual confidence “in the flesh”—that is, in religious practices like circumcision—and writes this: “Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh. . . .”

In Calvin’s commentary on these verses, he writes, “In the third term employed, there is an elegant play upon words. They boasted that they were the circumcision: he turns aside this boasting by calling them the concision inasmuch as they tore asunder the unity of the Church. In this we have an instance tending to shew that the Holy Spirit in his organs has not in every case avoided wit and humor, yet so as at the same time to keep at a distance from such pleasantry as were unworthy of his majesty.”

Calvin is admiring Paul’s (and thus the Spirit’s) use of wit and wordplay to make a theological point, demonstrating a sense of levity for a serious topic. Calvin goes on to say that, as evidenced in scripture, “there is no profane author that abounds more in agreeable plays upon words, and figurative forms of expression” than the Holy Spirit. For Calvin, the Holy Spirit has the ultimate sense of humor, even as the Spirit also refrains from “unworthy” forms of comedy. Even so, this wordplay about circumcision is, arguably, scriptural scatological humor—the Spirit’s phallic-centric witticisms are the kind of jokes of which Conan O’Brien would approve. Passages like Philippians 3:2–3 and Galatians 5:6–12 are quite crude (stupid) while also demonstrating Paul’s Spirit-given acerbic wit (smart).

So, perhaps Conan’s confession of believing “religiously” in comedic entertainment is appropriate. Perhaps the “phantom” and “magic” behind Conan’s stupid-smart approach has a pneumatological origin. Perhaps Conan O’Brien has the spiritual gift of comedy.

Topics: TV