The human being’s guide to not being a dick about religion – Matt Thomas, Canal Café Theatre
I find watching up stand-up comedy an inherently stressful business. Presumably less stressful than for the person performing it, but as the lights go down I find myself with indentations in the middle of my palms where my fingernails have found themselves firmly embedded. Despite having seen plenty of dross in the theatre over the years – from my bad plays, to poor directors and awful actors – I never suffer from anything close to the paroxysms of fear that accompany watching comedy.
It must be something about the different expectations of the audience – a play can mean many things, even a ‘comedy’ does not necessarily lead an audience to assume they will be convulsing in fits of laughter. To put these differences into perspective – there are many who consider Chekov to be quite a comedic playwright. It is fair to say that we are talking about the bar being set at a very different level.
So a one-hour monologue that bills itself somewhere between a play, a stand-up routine and a lecture, and that is also about religion. Are we having fun yet? In the event my fears were mainly without merit; Matt Thomas’ ‘The human being’s guide to not being a dick about religion’ proved an adroit and confident piece that skipped between jokes, set-pieces and information without the slackness that often slips into a one-man show.
If we are to place it on the comedic spectrum we are closer to the introspective intelligence of a Stewart Lee or a Doug Stanhope (without the razor-sharp deliberate audience alienation) than the ‘mates down the pub’ sub-standard preening of a Michael Macintyre or John Bishop. However Matt Thomas treads carefully on unstable ground and whilst routines that ruminate on the allegorical nature of the parables or the importance of the contexualisation of language may sound like a comedy desert, they are located within set-pieces that come across as a Live at the Apollo routine with added smarts.
This is exemplified by the standout routine of the show that demonstrates, with some brilliantly tongue-in-cheek visual aids and examples that subvert mainstream comedy tropes, the difficulty in communication when you are arguing across different planes of emotional engagement. It is a nimble leap of a fertile mind that refreshes a relatively tired genre of comedy and places the rationalism vs faith argument within scenarios that are immediately obvious and, more importantly, funny.
Perhaps what makes this show a success is Matt Thomas’ refusal to take sides in the debate. It is incredibly easy to make fun of religion, and religious people, but by avoiding the obvious and instead highlighting the problematic nature of focusing media attention on organisations like the Westboro Baptist Church, the show widens the scope of the argument and makes a more important point about the way that most rationalists will conflate extremism with all religion. It would be similar to Christians pointing to the 1930’s Stalinist purges or supporters of eugenic theory as being broadly the view of all rationalists.
The show is not without flaws and, in a piece that places a lot of weight on its verisimilitude, suggesting that Islam developed before Christianity is quite a major chronological error. However, in so far as comedy routines evolve, these are minor quibbles in a piece that managed that more rare of feats – the balance of laughter and learning. With some fine tuning and a little more stagecraft ‘The human being’s guide to not being a dick about religion’ could pack quite a weighty punch , and act as a counterweight to those who seem to think that comedy is about telling things you already knew through funny voices, borderline offensive remarks and windmilling arm gestures.