Commentary by Shulem Deen, editor of Unpious:
When I first looked at this cartoon, I wondered: who is the joke on? Women? Mikva-goers? Cell phone users?
Being that we’re all here in the service of advancing the agenda of shkutzim and apikorsim (we are, aren’t we?), there must be an anti-religious point here, I reasoned. An anti-chasidish point. An anti-mikva point. An anti-something point. But I couldn’t find it. It seemed like most who submitted captions were looking for the same: a message in this cartoon condemning something.
And then it hit me. It isn’t condemning anything. It is simply, as its creator does so consistently, being funny.
Humor is a funny thing. It can often cast a glow on human foibles in a way that reasoned arguments cannot. But despite that, I believe that humor fails in one particular instance: when it turns polemical. Sure, it can still be funny. Side-splitting hilarious, even. But not necessarily convincing.
This reminded me of one of the funniest anti-religious movies I’ve ever seen: Bill Maher’s “Religulous.” I remember watching it with friends in a Brooklyn theater surrounded by howling crowds. And I remember thinking: This shit is funny! And then thinking: This shit isn’t going to convince anyone who isn’t already convinced.
“If you want to go back to scientific proof,” a truck driver sitting in a small roadside church says to Maher, “I think it was the turban of shroud.” “The Shroud of Turin,” Maher corrects him. “Or whatever,” the truck driver says. He’s made his point.
A U.S. Senator tells Maher he does not believe in evolution, after which he helpfully adds, “You don’t have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate.”
Funny stuff, I thought, and was too busy laughing to give to give too much more thought to the film’s effectiveness as an argument. This was comedic gold, one scene after another: a minister who believes himself to be a reincarnation of Jesus Chris and wears 2,000-dollar suits and a pirate’s chest full of bling. The Jew for Jesus guy whose life is “filled with miracles.” (One example: He was thirsty once, held out a glass, prayed, and it rained.) The ex-gay minister who professes to “heal” other gay people but whose therapies appear to have had dubious effects on himself.
It wasn’t until about an hour into the movie that I began to really think about the argument part of it. It was when Rabbi Yisruel Duvid Weiss appeared—the Neturei Karta guy from Monsey in his plotchige bieber hit, Chicago accent, and Palestinian flag pin on his chest–that I realized: The movie just lost its chance to convince any Orthodox Jew of the ridiculousness of religion. THAT guy?! We ALL know he’s crazy!
Maher’s movie highlights why making comedy out of religion doesn’t work–if, that is, you’d like to actually change minds. The most bizarre beliefs and practices—those with the most comedic potential—don’t allow “normal” religious people to see themselves in all that nuttiness. Sure, THAT guy is crazy, but OUR beliefs are sane.
All of which is to say: if you’re going to make your point by trying to be funny, you will almost certainly fail. You won’t likely make you point, and there’s a good chance you won’t be funny either.
And this is one reason why OyVeyCartoons delights me as much as it does. It’s also what made me realize that the answer to my question—where’s the anti-religious point?—that there is in fact no such point. Shpitzle does what Shpitzle does most brilliantly: highlight the craziness in us as humans—not only the crazy in religious people, but also the crazy and the neurotic and the obsessive and the just plain silly in all of us. (Even, often enough, among our brethren OTDs.)
And this is also why I chose the caption that I chose to win. It is the funniest, in my opinion, but it is funny precisely because it mocks a human habit, not a religious one. There is no mocking of mikvas, or of kosher cell phones, or of rabbis inspecting underwear (all of which deserve to be mocked—certainly!—but that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily funny). Only of the obsessive cell phone user, pious or otherwise, who simply can’t disconnect until the very last moment.
And so I declare the winner of the October Caption Contest:
Wannabe: Every time I take off my turban the stupid phone falls out! argh!
It’s been real, folks. Congratulations to the winner, and a great thank you to Shpitzle for inviting me to be the judge on this month’s contest. May she forever keep doodling and forever keep us laughing.