Are Atheists Better Comedians for Their Irreverence? Jim Gaffigan Doesn't Think So

Why does Jim Gaffigan tell clean jokes? Jesus Christ told him to, obviously. The real reason, which Gaffigan explains here, takes him through the history of comedy and satire in American.

Jim Gaffigan:  Most of my friends are atheists I would say. And so being a self-identified Christian is so loaded in my field of standup comedy which has such a contrarian spirit. Look the Catholic Church has done horrible things. Horrible things. You know sexism bigotry, just monstrous things. But so has the United States of America. I mean genocide, enslaving people. But I’m still American and I feel a sense of pride in that. I’m not apologetic. Like when I travel internationally and if people are negative towards Americans I get angry. I get annoyed. So for me it’s not about the participants in this belief system that I share. It’s what the belief system provides me. The concept of mercy is very appealing to me. The concept that there is something greater than me that is forgiving is very important to me. But being a comedian – it’s such a strange path being a comedian because I’m also a clean comedian. I’m considered a clean comedian. Which is a very backhanded compliment. Comedians don’t want any adjective. They don’t want to be a female comedian. They don’t want to be a black comedian. They don’t want to be a gay comedian. They want to be a comedian. The only adjective that a comedian wants is funny. Like if you’re attractive you don’t want to be like, a funny good looking comedian. They just want funny. And so being a clean comedian is, it’s weird because it’s almost kind of like an asterisk. It’s like Yeah, yeah, you can be a funny clean comedian. Comedy has such a rich kind of irreverent fighting censorship mentality.

So being clean, you know, Mark Twain was clean. George Carlin was clean before he did the seven words you can’t say, right. So clean is not a great adjective. But that being said from a historical standpoint most comedians were clean. There were one or two that – there was Lenny Bruce but the rest of, a majority of them – not a majority but I would say a great portion of them were clean. So I did an interview a year ago with Larry King who’s now 109 years old. And he told me the interesting thing is he used to ask comedians why are you dirty? That was the question he would ask them. And now he asks why are you clean? I like to think that George Carlin and Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor broke all these barriers so that I could talk about mini muffins. Comedians do the type of comedy they’re going to do whether it’s irreverent, obnoxious, yelling or quiet. They do the type of comedy they’re going to do and then people give credit or criticism to it. So in other words people will go that person is so brave. Are they brave or that’s the type of comedy we’re going to do anyway. So people will say thank you for being clean. I’m like that’s just how it comes out.

I’m not sitting there, you know, people sometimes will say why are you a clean comedian. And I say because Jesus told me. It makes no sense. It’s what works for me. So what works for Chris Rock and Louis Black and Dave Chappelle is what they do. Now clean and irreverent and filthy are these strange kind of adjectives. That’s not to say that individually comedians aren’t challenging themselves. But challenging yourself is not I’m not going to curse or I am going to curse. You challenge yourself in being more honest and being more authentic or talking about an issue in a creative way. So that’s why you’ll see some people just preaching these social issue as a comedian. And in my opinion, yeah those are important social issues. But it’s not funny. But if you can craft it in a funny way, in a more subtle way where you’re reflecting on how all human beings and maybe addressing homophobia is much more potent. But again like I said, I think comedians just do what they’re going to do. I’m from a small town in Indiana. I curse every day but I’m not the type of person that’s going to stand in front of 1800 people and discuss the love life that I have with my wife or bury my wife on state. It’s just not my mentality. So anyway, that’s my rant on that.

Jerry Seinfeld famously prefers not to swear during his standup set, believing that four-letter words elicit a a cheap laugh from the audience. If there is truth to that, perhaps it is a truth that comedians have known throughout the history of their craft. As Jim Gaffigan explains here, the majority of comedians have always told so-called "clean" jokes. It was only recently that humor took a turn for the vulgar.


But that is not a judgement on "dirty" comedy, says Gaffigan. For comedians like Chris Rock, that language is what is required to communicate in an authentic voice. And that authenticity is more the soul of comedy than society's which words are used to deliver punch lines. Gaffigan says he happens to prefer discussing mini muffins and avocados more than the romantic details of his marriage (and he thanks comedians like Richard Pryor for allowing him to feel comfortable in that space).

Gaffigan has the unusual quality of being Catholic — unusual in the world of show business, at least. But it affects his comedy remarkably little, he says. Never has he censored himself because of religious dogma, but his beliefs inform who he is, and therefore what kind of material resonates as authentic to him. Comedians do not want to convert you to their faith, he says. They want only one thing: to be funny. And that requires a great diversity of comics all being truthful to their own circumstances.

Check out Jim Gaffigan’s book,Dad is Fat.

And tune in to the The Jim Gaffigan Show.

Elizabeth Warren's plan to forgive student loan debt could lead to an economic boom

A plan to forgive almost a trillion dollars in debt would solve the student loan debt crisis, but can it work?

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Politics & Current Affairs
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren has just proposed a bold education reform plan that would forgive billions in student debt.
  • The plan would forgive the debt held by more than 30 million Americans.
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Supreme Court to hear 3 cases on LGBT workplace discrimination

In most states, LGBTQ Americans have no legal protections against discrimination in the workplace.

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Politics & Current Affairs
  • The Supreme Court will decide whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also applies to gay and transgender people.
  • The court, which currently has a probable conservative majority, will likely decide on the cases in 2020.
  • Only 21 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws effectively extending the Civil Rights of 1964 to gay and transgender people.
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