October 4, 2012
This whole writing just once a week thing is a pretty nice arrangement. That is, until someone decides to marry off Jesus on a Wednesday evening.
As a weekly columnist, I face a variety of challenges. There are deadlines and angry readers and the steady struggle to find some subject worthy of writing about (not to mention retired high school English teachers perpetually hounding me about ending my sentences with prepositions.) That last one (the subjects, not the retired English teachers) can be particularly daunting.
Contrary to the insistence of my detractors, I do not just sit around and wait for my kids or pets to do something funny. There are times I have to completely fabricate the funny. Other times, I scour the local and national news for items worth riffing on. On rare occasions, stories drop in my lap and the jokes all but write themselves. Jesus’ marriage is one of those stories.
For those who haven’t been paying attention, the media latched on to a story last week about a piece of a fourth century Coptic text that suggests Jesus may have been married. What it allegedly offers (and I say alleged because I, unlike the rest of the world press, apparently, cannot read fourth century Coptic) is a fragment of text that read, “Jesus said to them, my wife.” That was enough to launch a worldwide debate over Jesus’ marital status, his very divinity and, more relevant to my situation, a gazillion bad jokes that I did not get to tell.
As rich as the married messiah story is, it could not have come out at a worse time, at least for me. I typically write this column on Wednesdays and had just put the finishing touches on last week’s version and hit the send button when I saw the story pop up on my news wire feed. The minute I read it I knew it was comedy gold. The snippet of text — “my wife,” lent itself to a plethora of possible jokes. I quickly pounded out a quick one-liner for Facebook (“My wife … take her, please. Apparently the Borscht Belt goes through Nazareth”) and put it in the file for my next column.
Then it happened, the same thing that happens whenever a good stories shows up after deadline. Every other writer, professional and otherwise, jumped on the jokes. Letterman, Leno, other columnists and a few million Twitter tweeters started riffing and by the time they were done, every drop of funny had been drained. They did jokes on what the unfinished snippet could have meant. They cracked on Dan Brown books. Most of all, they told jokes about how Jesus’ life would be changed by marriage.
“He can forget that beard and the robe. From now on it is cleanshaven and a polo shirt,” noted Stephen Colbert, almost a week before I could get a word in print.
I can tell you now that I had a whole notebook of jokes written for today’s column, puns and one-liners that would have had you snorting the morning java out your nose and all over the Readers Response section. I had crafted an entire set piece — taken from my own life, I’ll add — on the Magdalene tossing out Jesus’ favorite sandals because they had a hole in the soul and the resulting “Miracle of the blessed Duct Tape.” Seriously funny stuff.
But none of it works now, because the jokes are already out there. Even if I did come up with something I haven’t already seen on “The Daily Show,” there’s a good chance someone would find something close enough to it to call me a plagiarist. I can put up with being called not funny. It’s hardly the first time. But I can’t put up with being called a thief. Particularly a joke thief.
So that leaves me with one point left to make. This one’s not at all funny and it’s been made before, but it bears repeating.
As disappointed as I am that all the good married messiah jokes have been taken, I am immensely proud of the fact that we live in a society in which we can make those jokes — ad nauseam — without fear of violence or retribution. I feel equally blessed to count myself among the adherents to a faith that follows the teaching of one who is perceived as both divine and so wholly human we can crack wise about him without facing certain hellfire. We are not alone in this, either as a nation or a faith, but we know all too well that there are other countries and followers of other faiths that would implode over similar quips. And it doesn’t make me a jingoist to say our tolerance and humor makes us better than them.
Not funny, but worth saying. Of course, I wouldn’t have had to say it if I could have written this column last Friday.