Wednesday 16 August 2006

Jesus: the Guantanamo Years

Underbelly, Edinburgh

Abie Philbin Bowman’s show starts well, as he introduces himself as the son of God, stand-up comedian, back on Earth for a comeback tour. The initial pleasure is in watching as Philbin Bowman slots various aspects of the life of Jesus into his comedy conceit: the sermon on the mount as a sell-out gig, the contradictory gospels as a practical joke, and various elements of church doctrine, such as the requirement for priests to be celibate, as a massive wind-up.

And of course it makes sense that a man emerging from a cave in Palestine (in preference to inconveniencing another virgin) with no official identity and a willingness to die a martyr’s death, should have wound up at Guantanamo Bay as a suspected terrorist. Then he can have fun with the idea of being the only Jew in Gitmo, and the later benefits of his ability to walk on water. But beyond that, the joke starts to wear thin. Philbin Bowman flatters the audience’s politically correct credentials with references to the wrongs of the war on terror, but the ‘serious’ points tend to come as breaks from the comedy.

For all that the show might have worked if Philbin Bowman had kept it shorter or developed some more decent material. But for me, the initial bonhomie soon gave way to boredom. Too many jokes are either poor or unoriginal. (Neil from The Young Ones certainly made a joke about how you can’t crucify yourself because you can never get the last nail in, and it wouldn’t surprise me if some wry, sideways-looking Roman soldier had made the same gag a couple of thousand years ago.) Other jokes are just irrelevant, like the musical tirade against X Factor judge Louis Walsh.

The general problem, however, is that irreverence about religion is just not intrinsically funny any more. The portrayal of Jesus’ ‘dad’ as a silly old duffer is maybe funny the first time, but in an overwhelmingly infidel society there is little edge to be had from such cheekiness. Similarly, Philbin Bowman’s repeated counterposition of his own right-on version of Jesus to the dogmas and prejudices of organised religion is hardly shocking. The constant refrain is that people got the message wrong. Hoho, what a cock-up. But this is conventional wisdom, and it just isn’t funny.

Till 27 August 2006.

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