Beliefs are funny things. From aliens to talking snakes, people believe in some pretty ludicrous stuff, and the rationalist comedians of The Evolution of Comedy tour are here to have fun with that. This Sunday, November 11, Ian Harris, Jason Resler and Maurice Northup will be at Comedy Works to riff on the absurdity of people's irrational beliefs. Before the show, we caught up with Harris to talk about skepticism, conspiracy theory and the hazards of poking fun of people's core beliefs.
Westword: What is a rationalist comedian?
Ian Harris: Well, I think basically, there's three of us and we're all various levels of nonbelievers. Me personally, I've been a skeptic all my life. I belong to CFI [Center for Inquiry], so for me, what I find funny is people's irrational beliefs in stuff. The more I started putting together my material over the last twenty years, I realized, man, almost everybody I know believes something for no apparent reason. Even the most seemingly rational people who might not have a particular religion or something, they still have some weird belief, some kind of superstition or something.
I find that the more we talk about it, the more people start questioning their own beliefs, but also it's just hilarious. It's easy to make fun of, or to find the humor in something when it's just a complete irrational belief. The hard part is that so many people have these beliefs so ingrained in their person, that it's not always welcomed.
Comedy has a long tradition of skepticism and irreligious humor. Is that a tradition you draw on?
There's a ton of guys out there, so many comedians I know -- it has to be close to 40 percent, 50 percent -- who are atheists or nonbelievers on some level, but they don't do that much material on it. They'll do five or ten minutes on it, but it will be something safe, something about the Catholic church or whatever, something that's kind of easy. I think when someone does something like George Carlin, who did two specials that were almost all about religion, it's divisive. Either people love it, or they absolutely hate it.
I don't know how many people who said, "Oh I used to love George Carlin, but his last couple specials, he just seemed like a bitter old man." Then I watched his last couple specials, and I'm like, "This is his funniest stuff!" I realized, with his older stuff, he was more goofy, he was doing characters and voices and baseball and football and stuff. And soon as he got really deep and down and dirty with belief, even people who loved him were like, "Whoa, this guy's angry!"
Ideologically, we're supposed to be more skeptical as comedians. We're supposed to be thinking about this stuff, looking at everyday beliefs and concepts and making fun of them, looking at them in a different light. I don't think a lot of comedians that think that way actually do it in their material. They do it offstage, but they don't do it enough onstage. That was kind of our idea, let's do this onstage.
That is at the heart of what all comedians do: look at all aspects of life and finding the absurd and contradictory and weird and spinning it in a funny way. And religion, there's not much more absurd than that, right?
Absolutely. It's funny, because people, as an audience, are very willing to laugh at themselves and go, "Oh, yeah, I do put too many pillows on the bed! I do that with the toilet paper roll! I DO fart on airplanes! Hahaha." They're willing to laugh at themselves for that kind of stuff, but if you say, "Hey, you believe in an invisible man in the sky who gives you cancer and then cures your cancer. That's ridiculous!" they go, "Wait a second!"
I don't know how many times people have come up to me and said, "Oh man, that stuff about Christianity was hilarious, that stuff about astrology was hilarious, but hey, ghosts are real, dude." I'm like, are you kidding? You just said astrology is ridiculous, religion is ridiculous, but ghosts are real. And [they're] upset that I said it! They're like, "Hey, man, I've seen bigfoot." Okay. It's crazy. People will laugh at something that's silly, but as soon as they realize some of their core beliefs are just as silly, they're laughing their ass off for forty minutes about other people's religion, but then when it comes to their religion, they're like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa!" It's obvious to the outsider that they're equally ridiculous. But that's the good thing -- eventually you get people who are like, "I never realized how ridiculous some of my beliefs are."
You've mentioned ghosts, Bigfoot, religion... what other stuff do you do material on? What about some of the new nutty stuff, like crazy Internet conspiracy theories?
I'm working on a bit about that exact thing. The alternative medicine thing -- it's weird, I'm pretty liberal, and so are the other guys -- but I live in L.A., and every one of my friends who's a liberal is just as religious about "Oh, you have to get acupuncture, and you have to get reiki." Yeah, prayer doesn't work, but moving imaginary energy around from the other room does. I find there's conspiracy theories around that that crack me up.
My wife works in the pharmaceutical industry, and while I'm no fan of big business, they're also not dominating everything we do. I have this friend who's like, "The cure for cancer is out there, the cure for everything is out there, but the pharmaceutical companies are paying to keep it down." Yeah, they're paying off the millions of oncologists and cancer researchers across the world, because the anti-cancer drugs make a quadrillion dollars a day. I'm like, really? People don't even think about it, about how much money they'd have to make to pay off everybody in the cancer [research] industry. There's not that much money in the world!
Right, and not one person would break ranks and come clean to admit the cure was out there.
Yeah, out of the millions of people, not one of them has any moral fiber to go, "You know what guys? This is the fucking cure for cancer, how about no. How about I won't take your million dollars." What would it take you? Even the most evil, greedy bastard I know would be like, "This is the cure for cancer! How evil do you think I am?" Every single person in the cancer industry is that greedy?
It's all over the place. It's left, it's right, it's center. I have a friend [who's] totally rational in every other aspect of his life, but yet he is completely convinced that there are alien coverups every day. Whatever you say to him, no matter how rational, he's just like, "Well, that's what they want you to know."
You mentioned that people can get pretty upset about you ridiculing their core beliefs. Do you get a lot of angry hecklers? People trying to stone you onstage? Is that something you worry about?
It has not happened yet. We do a pretty good job of marketing to our audience. Our biggest problem is, honestly, a lot of people who think like me are socially awkward nerds. They would never speak up at a comedy club. We're hoping somebody will protest us at some point.
Is there anything else you want to mention about the show?
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This show is the Sunday before Veteran's Day, and my partner Jason is going to close the show; he's actually a veteran of the first Gulf War. He'll probably do some material about his service that isn't normally a part of the show. It's really funny stuff, and people who've seen us in Denver before will get to see some new material they haven't seen before.