The Alabama Debate

From 'Shout Shows' To Comedy Central

One of the things people say to me most frequently after they listen to one of my speeches is, "I didn't know you had a sense of humor."

I can understand why they say it. Most people only see me on shows on networks like the Fox News Channel yelling at the host and possibly one or two other guests on the opposite side of the issue. This could give you the impression that I am some angry guy constantly looking for a fight. That's not how I am at all, but I learned a long time ago if you want to be heard on these shows you need to speak up.

Occasionally I do get an opportunity to interject some humor into the "shout shows." It shouldn't surprise you to learn that I did a lot of television appearances during the Ten Commandments controversy in Alabama.

The self-righteous bombast of some of the folks on the other side of the issue got to me after a while. On one show, I told Jerry Falwell during one of his many filibusters and constant interruptions, "The Eleventh Commandment is not, 'You shall be rude.'" In a discussion with one of Judge Roy Moore's supporters who claimed there had been a massive influx of people from around the country to rally for the Commandments monument, I pointed out, "Your largest rally drew fewer people than attend the average Alabama high school football game."

OK, it's not necessarily the kind of material you'll hear from Jay Leno, but then he has people writing a lot of his material. I work alone on my stuff.

A few weeks after the media frenzy of the days leading up to the removal of Moore's monolith, AU's Communi­cations Department got an unusual call. It was from a producer of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," a program on the cable network Comedy Central. That's right, it's an all-humor network. The producer wanted me to come to New York for an interview.

Regrettably, this was not an offer to have me do a five-minute stand-up comedy act. It was just an interview about the Ten Commandments lawsuit that would be interspersed with clips from an interview with Alabama's Christian Coalition head John Giles. They even told me to play it straight.

Everybody on the staff who is between 20 and 35 watches and loves this show and insisted that I must do it. They did concede that the editing of these interviews is sometimes creative, to say the least, and that the format is clearly that of a mock news program. Nevertheless, I must do it, I was told. They said my own children would even watch it. So I went to New York City one Tuesday to film it at the Judson Memorial Church where my friend Peter Laarman is the minister.

The filming took an astonishing three hours, while I sat in the choir loft surrounded by really hot TV lights, cameras and other unidentifiable electronic gizmos. Some of the questions from the correspondent were pretty routine, such as, "Why did Americans United get involved in this case?"

Most, however, were a tad more unusual. One of my favorites was, "Did you get your ordination by responding to a computer pop-up ad?" I was happy to have the opportunity to clear up how I got ordained, since Falwell constantly accuses me of being a phony minister. (For the record, I attended Boston University School of Theology and was ordained by the United Church of Christ. I still preach guest sermons, perform weddings and preside at funerals.)

A second interesting question was, "Now, the Ten Commandments are in the Constitution, right?" When I responded in a pretty straightforward way to that one, the follow-up was, "I was just in Alabama and those folks told me they were. You might want to check your facts."

The correspondent also asked how I could say that the monument removal had not cast a pall over Alabama since when visiting he "got a speeding ticket for going a mere eight miles over the speed limit, could not find a cup of coffee after 9:30 in the morning and couldn't find a single Starbucks in the capital city at all."

Remember, this is a comedy program. I will admit that I couldn't keep a straight face even listening to some of the questions, and I could more or less see the overall direction this piece was going to take.

I was able to appreciate that spirit, knowing that humor has long had its place in the range of protective tactics that prevent people in activist battles from sinking into despair or rage.

August was a pretty intense month for everyone on the AU staff. One 36-hour period brought nearly 2,000 negative e-mails, many generated by irate, far-right talk show hosts and websites. Some of these messages are so vile they are unprintable; a few are under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. We were forced to increase security at our building.

In light of this, a little humor is always a welcome relief.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.