22 December 2011

Praise be to Woody Allen Jesus

The hoohah in today's news about Tim Minchin's 'Woody Allen Jesus' song having been cut from Jonathan Ross's Christmas special is a curious one. There seems to be a certain disingenuity in how Minchin himself has been describing the song, and indeed in how others have followed the story.

On his own blog, Minchin says, 'Being Christmas, I thought it would be fun to do a song about Jesus, but being TV, I knew it would have to be gentle. The idea was to compare him to Woody Allen (short, Jewish, philosophical, a bit hesitant), and expand into redefining his other alleged attributes using modern, popular-culture terminology.'

That all sounds very innocent, really, and on the face of it, one would think Minchin could be excused for being a bit miffed at how his song, the lyrics of which had gone through the lawyers and producers and so forth, had wound up being cut from the show at the last minute; seemingly Peter Fincham, ITV's director of television, got nervous in light of how people might react, and said it had to go.

Well, okay, but it's worth listening to the song, or at the very least reading the lyrics -- as accurately transcribed, in the main, by this fellow -- and then wondering whether they really would have been ideal Christmas television.

Sure, the song starts with a Woody Allen comparison, which, even if wholly contrary to what historical evidence we have -- Jesus doesn't seem to have been admired by his peers or been remotely political, as far as we can tell -- is nonetheless not something that would bother many people, but then it starts to crank things up. Comparing Jesus with Darren Brown doesn't quite work, as it suggests that Minchen doesn't understand what magic supposedly is, and how it differs in rather profound ways from conjuring and from miracles, but it's only with the next verse that things get really tricky.
'Jesus died but then came back to life
So the Holy Bible said
Kinda like in Dawn of the Dead
Like a film by Simon Pegg
Try that these days, you’d be in trouble
Geeks would try to smack you with a shovel

Praise be to Jesus
Praise be to Magic Woody Allen Zombie Jesus
Magic Woody Allen Zombie Jesus!'
Now, given that I'm a huge fan of Stewart Lee, who's gone much further than this in his attempts to lampoon Christianity, being far more offensive, far more original, and far more intelligent than Mr Minchin, I'm hardly going to say that Minchin ought not to be allowed say such things. That'd be absurd. No, I'm just saying that I'm a bit surprised he was naive enough to think this would be the sort of thing that would be likely to be broadcast as bland light entertainment at Christmas.

And, of course, he went on in his puerile way, comparing Jesus with a superhero flying into the sky and Mary with a parthenogenetic lizard or snail, and likening Jesus to Psychic Sally because of his ability to communicate with the deceased -- though I'm not sure when he's meant to have done that, unless that's a really oblique reference to the Transfiguration.

In any case, that's a prelude to saying,
'Jesus lives forever, which is pretty odd
But not as odd as his fetish for drinking blood'
Which, let's face it, was never really going to be broadcast by a thoughtful or pragmatic broadcaster at Christmas time. Saying, 'Hey guys, did it ever cross your minds that Jesus was a bit like a zombie or a vampire?' is, aside from being neither a challenging nor an original idea, something that ITV probably wasn't ever going to run with, especially at Christmas time, and most especially not with a presenter whose career they're relaunching in the aftermath of stupid behaviour on BBC.

There's a sense in which Minchin's point is about free speech, but like it or not, commercial television isn't about free speech. It's about advertising and making money, within the limits of official broadcasting standards. Sorry, but that's how it works. On his blog, Minchin says
'It’s 2011. The appropriate reaction to people who think Jesus is a supernatural being is mild embarrassment, sighing tolerance and patient education. And anger when they’re being bigots. Oh, and satire. There’s always satire.'
Fine. Minchin's fully entitled to his views, childish and ill-informed though they are. But he must surely realise that others are entitled to theirs too, and that lots of people's views might differ from his own, and it's only prudent of ITV to take them into account. He must be extraordinarily naive -- childish, even -- if he can't grasp that. This isn't even about fear of the Daily Mail. It's about being polite, and having basic respect for people, and not insulting people's views just because you don't agree with them.

Especially at Christmas. Because there wouldn't be a Jonathan Ross Christmas special for Mister Minchin to tinkle the keys on were there no Christmas to celebrate, and because there wouldn't be a Christmas if it weren't for Christians, and because there wouldn't be Christians if it weren't for Christ.

After all, despite all the factoids long absorbed by so many who think themselves educated, Christianity predates Paul of Tarsus and Christmas was not a creation of the Emperor Constantine.

I've liked some of Minchin's work. He's a talented musician, and sometimes can pen some genuinely witty songs. This isn't one of them.


Anonymous said...

There would, however, be a Yule, or a Winterfest, or a Festivus, or a Winter Solstice. But thanks for the capitalist take on the celebration that christians claimed for themselves alone, just by renaming it.

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

Er, the capitalist take on the festival that Christians claimed for themselves alone just by renaming it? Really?

How is this a capitalist take on Christmas? You have read this, haven't you? Sure, I've a capitalist take on commercial television, but that's because it's, well, commercial. Given a choice, for what it's worth, I'd watch BBC over ITV almost every time.

And the festival that Christians annexed just by renaming it? Who exactly do you think they annexed it from, and what do you think it was previously called? And why do you think this? You have followed the links, right? You've not just read something, disagreed with it, and spouted off, without checking to see whether I'd backed up what I'd said?

For what it's worth, there would certainly be a Winter Solstice, as that's an astronomical phenomenon, but whether anyone would care about it nowadays, I'd not like to say. I think it's unlikely. After all, it's not as if people seem to understand how the Summer Solstice works: there's an increasing tendency to treat it as the start of summer, whereas it instead marks the high-point of the season, being the day with most daylight in the part of the year with most sunlight. And they generally don't celebrate this fact.

As for Winterfest or Festivius, they're modern inventions designed as reactions to Christmas; allowing that it's impossible to say with any sense of historical accuracy what would have happened, it seems rather unlikely that purely reactive events would ever have happened without the thing that they're intended as reactions to.

That leaves Yule. Not the modern made-up form of Yule, which like all Neopaganism dates back no further than the nineteenth century and is really just a reaction to Christian stuff (again). No, the ancient Germanic and Norse festival. We don't know a lot about it, to be honest.

Writing in the eight century, Bede says Yule was the name the Angles and Saxons gave December or sometimes December bleeding into January, and he says they had a big celebration on the same night as the Christians celebrated Christmas, calling it the mothers' night, though he doesn't know why.

Pretty much everything else we 'know' about Yule is from thirteenth-century Christian writers, who say that their Viking ancestors had celebrated a Yule feast, involving the mass slaughter of animals and the sprinkling of all present with animals' blood. Seemingly they had shifted the date of it to coincide with Christian celebrations, but modern scholars seem to think that it could have fallen almost any time after the middle of November.

I'm not sure how many people nowadays would be inclined to massacre their family pets and smear their blood on themselves and the walls of their homes as a way of celebrating the days getting longer, but if that's your kind of thing, knock yourself out.

Tom said...

Good on Minchin for trying to make a bit of Christmas TV that's actually about Jesus.

Kathryn Rose said...


I think you need to read this:

Have a happy Christmas, however or whether you celebrate it.

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

I'm really not sure that works. All else aside, there's a time and a place, and these considerations are dictated both by a sense of respect and sense that broadcasters generally want to keep their audiences.

I very much doubt ITV would be likely to give Frankie Boyle a spot to talk about the Queen's haunted private parts when her Diamond Jubilee comes up.

Roger Pearse said...

Just delete troll comments, hey?

Interesting article - thanks.

laBiscuitnapper said...

I quite like how in their desperation to make fun or say something subversive about Christianity, people like Minchin often get things slightly wrong. There is so much more in the Christian religion to make fun of if they really want to, I don't see why they stick to popular misinformation.

For example, as far as I know, it isn't Jesus who has a penchant for drinking blood per se, but us Christians. Get it right!

Anonymous said...

It is a light hearted bit of fun. not there to be taken this seriously. of course he's not going to focus on the parts that "are" sensible, that wouldn't make good comedy, when there are bits of "popular misinformation" there to be made a mockery of.

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

You think that's good comedy? Rather than childish nonsense, far below his own best work?

And is it really a light-hearted bit of fun? Have a read of his blog, or run through his Twitter timeline, and you'll see that he doesn't approach these things as light-hearted fun. As he says, there are only three valid ways of dealing with Christians: mild embarrassment, sighing tolerance, and patient education; anger; and satire.

Now, which of those approaches do you think he was exhibiting in the song, and how do you think it constituted light-hearted fun? I hope you're not going to say 'satire' fits the bill, because satire shouldn't ever be light-hearted fun. It's meant to have fangs.

In any case, I'm not taking issue with him having written or sang the song. I'm just pointing out that his annoyance at it having been dropped from the show really just shows how clueless he is.

Robert Brenchley said...

Christmas is first referred to in 354, at a time when Christianity was in the process of becoming the official religion of Rome. There was a belief that Jesus was concieved on the same date as he died, which would put his concetion at Easter, and his birth around December.

The solstice was already celebrated, we don't know exactly how. Maybe they did take over some aspects of the existing festival, but if so, they rejected the specifically religious features. They may have taken over a pre-existing part of European culture, but if so, why not? There's nothing wrong with stuffing our faces and drinking ourselves silly in the gloomiest season of the year, and if we honour the birth of Jesus at the same time, that's all to the good. At least that's one part of his story the world will have trouble forgetting!

Unknown said...

"A little nonsense now and then is cherished by the wisest men."
- Willy Wonka

Greg, I think you've started taking your Faith a little too seriously. This article crosses that invisible line that makes you embarrassed to associate with CU types.

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

Ahem. There's a comment policy nowadays. See the link up the top. Henceforth, no purely anonymous comments.

Anyway, two points.

First, I don't think the Faith can be taken too seriously; either it matters absolutely, or it doesn't matter at all.

Second, I don't really think I've said much at all about what I believe, or about the song in general, other than that it's not very good.

My point was pretty simple: The Jonathan Ross show is a very bland mainstream show, and its Christmas show was especially so. It would have attracted a bland and mainstream audience, and many of these would have been bothered by the song. Given that it's Christmas, when despite commercialisation blah blah blah religiosity reaches an annual high, this annoyance wouldn't have been among an insignificant number of people.

Leaving aside the fact that the song would have sat very awkwardly in the show, given how the rest of it held together, such that losing it made sound editorial sense, it's sound business sense to refrain from doing things that will cause your audience to give up on you.

And Minchin should understand that. If he doesn't, he's a moron.

The one thing that is odd is that he was asked on at all. It was inevitable that he'd do this sort of thing, and just as inevitable that it wouldn't get broadcast. Given how this will have turned out to have been a huge waste of his time, I hope he was paid properly for it.