From The New York Times, an appreciation of the comic, who died last week from cancer. The author is Matthew Walther, editor of The Lamp:
The relationship between Christianity and stand-up comedy has been going steadily downhill for half a century. In the 1960s, this was still a country in which Bishop Fulton Sheen could take part in the Friars Club roast of Milton Berle, and Tom Lehrer could give Catholicism a goofy but informed ribbing in his song “Vatican Rag,” which appeared on an LP that spent 51 weeks on the Billboard album charts. These days, with the notable exception of Stephen Colbert, it is difficult to imagine many mainstream comedians engaging with Christianity at all, except in the context of lazy jokes about the Catholic sexual abuse crisis or the political views of stereotypical Southern evangelicals.
This is why I was surprised that few of the obituaries of Norm Macdonald, who died last week at 61, mentioned his Christian faith. A famously reticent comedian, he did not often discuss his personal life, and his mannerisms were so flippant that it was often in doubt whether he had serious views about any subject. In his later years, however, he spoke and wrote at length not only about his belief in God but also, with more reluctance, about his opposition to abortion. (“I don’t like saying it because it’s unpopular,” he said on Dennis Miller’s radio program.)
The neglect of Mr. Macdonald’s religion is more than a mere biographical oversight. For it is by viewing him as a somewhat idiosyncratic Christian comedian that we can best take stock of Mr. Macdonald and his comic legacy.
His comedy was remarkably free of malice, and in recent years it was marked by startling displays of mercy and humility. During a televised roast of the comedian Bob Saget in 2008, Mr. Macdonald baffled viewers and delighted his fellow comedians with a tender routine full of corny one-liners that would not have been out of place at a retirement party in 1954. “The one thing that bonds us as comedians,” he told Mr. Saget in a rare unguarded moment at the end of his appearance, “is that we are bitter and jealous and hate anyone that has any success.”…
…In an interview with Larry King in which he declared “I am a Christian,” Mr. Macdonald echoed Kierkegaard and St. John Henry Newman on the subject of faith, which he presented as ultimately a question of free individual assent rather than as belief in some detailed series of abstract propositions. Asked whether he believed in eternal life, he told his host: “I don’t believe it. I have faith. What people don’t understand about faith is that you have to choose it.”