The Gospel and Humor

 With Easter falling on April Fools Day I thought this article,  reprinted from the April 2007 issue of Presbyterians Today, with a couple of resources updated and the note about Parable added, might be of interest.







When Thou Shalt Laugh, a DVD featuring a stage full of Christian comedians, was released last year, some critics were amused by what they considered an anomaly- the idea that Christians could be funny. Let’s face it: many regard Christians as humorless and church services as boring affairs for the seriously pious. But not only are humor and laughter indigenous to the Christian (and Jewish) faith, they are rooted in the very nature of the Bible. Smiles and celebration belong in church, especially at Easter, when we remember Christ’s victory over sin and death.

Godspell got it right

John-Michael Tebelak saw the potential for humor in the gospel story when, joining with composer Stephen Schwartz, he conceived his Broadway musical Godspell. He daringly depicted Christ as a clown, who calls men and women from their humdrum world to form a troupe of comic performers. Through mime, song, dance and vaudeville skits, they sing the good news. Tebelak was very much in tune with theologian Harvey Cox, whose book The Feast of Fools (1969) called the church to rediscover the joyful spirit of the Gospels.


When I wrote this article in 2007 I did not recall that my favorite short film PARABLE inspired GODSPELL.


Another popular 1970s musical, Jesus Christ:  Superstar, presents the story of Jesus as a tragedy. It’s the tale of a good Jewish boy who becomes a hapless victim. Lamenting the situation, narrator Judas wonders (to Jesus) “why you let the things you did get so out of hand?” The show closes with the soft music of “John Nineteen Forty-One,” referring to the verse in John’s Gospel about the tomb where the body of Jesus was laid. No resurrection here.

In contrast, Godspell presents the story of Jesus as a comedy, filled with exuberant music, clever sketches interpreting Jesus’ parables, funny pratfalls, soft-shoe dance routines and outrageous comments uttered by Jesus and his disciples. True, the scenes of the Last Supper, Gethsemane and the crucifixion are serious and moving: the disciples sing a dirge-like song, “Long Live God,” as they carry the dead body of Jesus on their shoulders. But then the film version concludes with the disciples breaking into the raucous “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.” Jesus’ body is gone, and his risen presence seems mystically embodied in the disciples who are skipping and dancing again as they did earlier in the show.

A resurrection outlook

Tragic elements certainly exist in the story of Jesus. But even the grimmest passages recounting events leading up to Jesus’ death offer hints that the impending tragedy will ultimately be swallowed up in God’s “divine comedy.”

For example, Jesus’ appearance before Pilate, as depicted in John 19:10-11, is a serious confrontation. Pilate challenges Jesus: “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?”
But Jesus answers, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.” His reply brings to mind the child’s response to the naked potentate in Hans Christian Anderson’s the story “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” “Look,” the youngster blurts out, “the Emperor doesn’t have any clothes on!”

Jesus’ faith in God enables him to see through the humiliation and pain to the reality that Pilate is not as mighty as he thinks he is. Suffering must be endured; but Easter will reveal that God’s power not only surpasses that of any political leader, it is greater even than sin and death.

Followers of Jesus today view the tragedy of the cross through the lens of resurrection. How much more inviting would Christian worship services be to outsiders, if they embodied this resurrection outlook. The Lord’s Supper, for example, ought to be more like a celebration than a funeral service. Instead of the preacher solemnly intoning the
familiar words of the liturgy against a background of muted organ chords, why not sing a joyful hymn such as “Lord of the Dance” while preparing to share the bread and wine?

A Sunday for laughter

A pie in the pastor’s face during worship is not standard fare in most churches, but it’s no longer unexpected at First Presbyterian Church in Winter Haven, Fla.

Nine years ago the church joined the Holy Humor Sunday movement, and attendance has been climbing steadily for its Sunday-after-Easter service. Associate pastor C. Alan Harvey says church leaders got the idea for the service from an
article in The Joyful Noiseletter (see “Humor helps,” opposite page). They read that early Greek Orthodox Church leaders called the Sunday after Easter “Bright Sunday,” emphasizing the joy and laughter engendered by Jesus’ resurrection.

Last year’s Bright Sunday service at First Church will be hard to top. At the climax of the children’s sermon, pastor Steven D. Negley pushed a pie in Harvey’s face.

It was one of those “guess you had to be there” moments, but the pastors say the stunt somehow related to a telling of the Bible story. The church has adopted the butterfly as a symbol for Bright Sunday. Thanks to Florida’s warm climate, worshipers are able to go outside and release butterflies given to them at the beginning of the service.

 Clowns and comedians

Even outside the church, a resurrection outlook informs the performances of classic comedians such as Charlie Chaplin. For Chaplin’s Little Tramp character, life is a dangerous and humiliating waltz among the slippery banana peels of life. He suffers many falls and disappointments, but each time he stands up again, retrieves his cane and dusts off his fallen hat. Then, after doing a little hop/dance step (I like to call this his resurrection dance), he heads down the road into a new day.

Resurrection-centered faith is the basis for clown ministry, a movement that sprang up around the country in the 1970s. Inspired by Paul’s words about “the foolishness of God” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31), chaplains at retirement homes and hospitals have donned clown make-up to lift the spirits of patients and demonstrate the healing effects of humor. As
Lutheran minister Floyd Schaffer put it in his 1984 book If I Were a Clown, “a clown is someone who lowers himself, in order to lift someone else up.” (Not a bad description of Jesus’ ministry.)

Comedy in Scripture

Many of us approach. the Bible with such seriousness that we miss the comic element in some of its stories, But readers looking for humor will not be disappointed. For example:

Gospel guffaws

In his ground-breaking book The Humor of Christ (1964) theologian Elton Trueblood pointed out examples of the under-appreciated humor of the Gospels: Jesus accuses show-off hypocrites of blowing horns before giving alms. He warns that when blind (leaders) lead the blind, both will wind up in a ditch. And he compares a money-obsessed person seeking to enter the kingdom of heaven to a camel trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle. Some humorless scholars have attempted to “explain” Jesus’ hyperbolic joke about the needle’s eye by suggesting that there must have been a low gate
in the Jerusalem wall through which a heavily laden camel could pass only by kneeling and inching its way through.

Mirthful birth

Genesis 21:17-21
God chooses a childless couple in their 90s to begin the family of “chosen people.” Ludicrous! No wonder Sarah and Abraham laugh when God tells them they will become parents. When Sarah finally does bear a son, the parents name him Isaac, which translates as “Laughter.” Sarah declares, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”

Sibling rivalry run amok

Genesis 25-29

Hebrew storytellers must have chuckled over the saga of the contentious twins, Esau and Jacob. They begin competing against each other while still in the womb, each trying to position himself to emerge first and thus have the rightful claim
to the family inheritance. Second-born Jacob enters the world holding onto Esau’s heel, trying to pull his brother back into the birth canal. Jacob manages to trick Esau out of his birthright, but the trickster gets a taste of his own medicine when he finds himself tricked by Laban into marrying the wrong woman.

Wise ass

Numbers 22

It’s hard to miss the humor when Balaam’s donkey is depicted as having more sense than its owner.

Designer gods

Isaiah 44:9-17
Satirical passages like this one in the book of Isaiah show the absurdity of making and worshiping idols.

Fish tale


The delightful story of Jonah could be subtitled, “Your legs are too short to run from God.” Don’t get hung up on the question of whether or not a person can survive in the belly of a whale, or you’ll miss both the humor and the point of this fisherman’s tall tale.

Humor Resources

The books mentioned in the article, by Cox, Trueblood and Shaffer, are out of print but are available through Amazon.corn. Go to the “Book” section and type in the title to find used book dealers that sell them. Other books
related to humor and the gospel: • The Gospel According to Peanuts, by Robert Short (Westminster John Knox Press, 1964; reprinted often)

  • The Joyful Christ: The Healing Power of Humor, by Cal Samra (Harper & Row, 1985; also out of print but available
    from Amazon .corn)
  • Reaching for Rainbows, by Ann Weems (Westminster John Knox Press, 1980)
  • Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale, by Frederick Buechner (HarperSanFrancisco, 1977)
  • Thou Shalt Laugh (Warner Home Video, 2006), a DVD featuring 90 minutes of Christian stand-up comedians, hosted by Patricia Heaton (Everybody Loves Raymond).
  • The Gospel and Comedy Retreat Kit provides humorous Scripture passages, movie references and sample skits for a group
    to explore this topic in depth. Contact Visual Parables, 4337 Napa Valley Dr., Bellbrook, OH 45305 or

Especially for children

  • The Clown of God, by Tomie dePaola (hardcover: Harcourt Chidren’s Book, 1978; paper: Voyager Books, 1989)

New! Visual Parables Journal for September 2016

LOVE MOVIES? Want to spark discussion with friends? Subscribe to Visual Parables Journal. The September 2016 issue is packed with complete study guides, including: Southside With You, Pete’s Dragon, Kubo & the 2 Strings, Ben Hur and The Light Between the Oceans. Visit our Visual Parables store to subscribe.

Anthropoid (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour min.

Our content ratings: Violence 6; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 4


I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity;

I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant, and lay low the insolence of tyrants.

Isaiah 13:11


Czech partisans Jan and Josef study the route that Heydrich follows from home to office. (c) Bleecker Street Media

Title cards at the beginning set up this true story. In 1938 Great Britain and France at Munich have given Czechoslovakia away to Hitler, and when the Nazis occuppy it, SS General Reinhard Heydrich becomes the ruler of the nation. Considered the “architect of the Final Solution,” he was so brutal that he earned the name of “The Butcher of Prague.”

The action begins in December 1941 with two agents from the government in exile in London parachuting at night into a forest outside of Prague. Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) quickly learn how dangerous their mission will be when they catch the partisan who had met them t rying to telephone the German authorities. Making their escape to the city, they manage to make contact with Uncle Hajský (Toby Jones), a local resistance leader. When he asks about their mission, they reply it is “Operation Anthropoid,” the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. He is next only to Hitler and Himmler in the ranks of the Nazi Party. Not everyone is pleased with the goal of the mission. Partisan Ladislav Vanek(Marcin Dorocinski) asks them if they are mad. He is certain that the Nazis will kill hundreds in reprisal for the killing of such a high ranking official.

There is irony in Jan and Josef being Czech and Slovak respectively. They were willing to die for a unified nation that after WW 2 and the Cold War would break in two. The pair are placed in the home of kind-hearted Mrs. Moravec (Alena Mihulova), whose teenaged son is a violin student. The agents are drawn to two lovely women Marie Kovárníková (Charlotte Le Bon) and Lenka Fafková (Anna Geislerova) who agree to pose as their girlfriends that makes thir moving about seem natural. During the days that follow while the men try to catch glimpses of Heydrich and figure out his travel routine between office and home, one of the relationships does blossom into a romance.

As the men and women move through Prague’s streets they pass by hundreds of heavily armed German troops. More upsetting is the occasional corpse of a Jew hanging from a lamp post. There are also several other soldiers who have been flown from England and dropped by parachute into the country. One of them, Josef Bublik, recites Shakespeare’s words from Julia Caesar, ”Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.” The words come to mean a lot to Josef Gabcik, whose hands tremble when he holds a pistol. This becomes more pronounced as the moment for the killing approaches late in May, 1942.

The attack on May 27 by Josef and Jan on Heydrich’s open-topped Mercedes runs afoul when Josef’s Sten submachine gun will not feed its bullets. Heydrich stands up in the car to fire his Luger at his attacker. Jan throws at the car the grenade he has hidden in his briefcase. Even though it does not enter the car itself, the explosion hurls shrapnel into the Nazi’s body so that when he tries to chase the fleeing Jan, he staggers and falls. The attackers barely make good their escape, but neither they nor all of those connected with the plot will find lasting safety. Heydrich is not killed immediately, so they partisans think they have failed. However, despite the efforts of Czech and then SS doctors, the Butcher of Prague dies from his wounds on June 4.

Nazi retaliation is even worse than feared. 13,000 Czechs are rounded up, and an estimated 5000 executed, including two whole villages suspected of harboring the plotters. The partisans find shelter in the Orthodox Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius during the massive manhunt mounted by the Nazis. They still hope to escape the city.

Using torture and a huge reward, the Nazis learn of the hideout and on June 18 send 750 soldiers to seize the men. This proves far more difficult than the over confident Germans had expected. The partisans manage to stave off their attackers for seven hours, despite the heavy machine gun fire, smoke, and water poured into the church crypt. Refusing to be captured, the patriots either shoot themselves with their last bullet or take a cyanide capsule. This heroic sequence is as exciting as any phoney superhero battle, the uneven struggle, similar to that of the much large one that will happen in Poland the following year when a relatively small army of Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto hold off the Nazi army for over a month. (See the film Uprising.)

The film celebrates the bravery of those who resisted the takeover and brutalizing of their country, Shakespeare’s words befittingly applied to them. But the film also displays the madness of war, and the often repeated warning that violence always provokes more violence. Films such as this can be difficult for those espousing non-violence. We are obviously on the side of the oppressed and against the oppressor, yet our heroes are plotting to kill a man. Over in German itself German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, once a pacifist, is working with a network of military and civilians who will attempt to assassinate the No. 1 Nazi. Bonhoeffer had once hoped to visit with the world’s great apostle of nonviolence Mohandas Gandhi. Let me end at this point by including words the Mahatma once wrote, words that apply to the partisans in this film:

“Though violence is not lawful, when it is offered in self-defense or for the defense of the defenseless, it is an act of bravery far better than cowardly submission. The latter befits neither man nor woman. Under violence, there are many stages and varieties of bravery. Every man must judge this for himself. No other person can or has the right.”

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the September issue of VP.

If you have enjoyed and used this and other reviews, please consider subscribing to the Visual Parables journal, wherein you will find more help in exploring film and faith.


Equity (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 51 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 0; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 4.

Our star rating (1-5): 4


Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have…

Hebrews 13:5a


Naomi confronts her difficult boss who is about to retire. (c) Sony Pictures Classics

That is not the advice that Naomi Bishop (Anna Gunn) would pay any heed to, as we see in this woman directed, written (Meera Menon and Amy Fox), and largely female produced feminist take on Wall Street greed and power plays. At one point Naomi, a senior investment banker, confesses frankly to a room full of networking women that she “likes money.” She likes it not only because of what it can buy—her diamond earrings and an education for her brother—but also because numbers fascinate her. Wall Street for her is a high stakes game.

Money is also power, and Naomi is very conscious of its prerequisites to which she feels entitled. There is a telling scene late in the film in which she is upset by the chocolate chip cookie an underling serves to her. She demands, “Count the f—ing chips!” “Three,” is the answer from the terror-stricken gofer. Naomi insists that in the future there had better be as many in her cookie as in th e ones served to the men.

Naomi is in line, along with several men, to replace the retiring Randall (Lee Terguson) at their underwriting company. However, he likes to keep her ill at ease, not letting her forget that she was failed recently to land a major account. We wonder, though, if Naomi had been a man, would her boss have made this such a big deal. Thus she is under great pressure for her negotiations with a new client in California to end well. An online investment company called Cachet is about to launch its IPO (Initial Public Offering), and Naomi has studied it from every angle so that it will open at least at $35 a share.

Naomi’s right hand woman is Erin Manning (Sarah Megan Thomas), a younger version of herself—brilliant, ambitious, hard working, and beautiful. Like Naomi, Erin refuses to wear the pants suits once thought necessary for women wanting to make a good impression in the male world. Both wear their hair long and skirts short, just above the knee. We see that theirs is not the old style feminism, one of sisterhood, in the scene in which Erin asks Naomi if she can put in a good word for her overdue promotion. Naomi abruptly and coldly cuts her off with no encouragement, telling her now is not a good time to push this. Erin becomes pregnant and tries to hide it. She also has to fend off the attention of Cachet’s CEO without disrupting the deal.

If Naomi is sort of an anti-heroine, a softer, more subtle version of Gordon Gekko, the closest the film comes to providing a heroine is Naomi’s friend from college, Samantha (Alysia Reiner), a state attorney investigating securities fraud. She tries unsuccessfully to enlist Naomi’s aid in sniffing out some insider trading among the latter’s colleagues.

Virtually all of the men in the film are slippery guys who would stab you in the back for gain, as does the man serving as the femme fatale in this role reversal movie, hedge fund manager Michael Connor (James Purefoy), Naomi’s supposed boy friend. He knows his way around women, turning on the charm over glasses of wine and trysts in bed. Because he and Naomi work at the same bank, there is supposed to be a firewall between them, but he occasionally asks a question or two, seeking tidbits of information. There is also Ed (Samuel Roukin), the CEO of the California tech firm that Naomi and Erin are wooing to hire their firm for underwriting its upcoming IPO. Erin is able to use both logic and her feminine charms to win his favor. However, as Naomi, with Erin’s able assistance, bring the negotiations to a successful close, she discovers just how treacherous the denizens of Wall Street can be—and that there really is for women a glass ceiling.

That this is not an overt critique of Wall Street and its ways we see in what Samantha does when she is unable to close her investigation successfully. Married (to a woman) with two young children, she realizes how low her government salary is compared to the lizards she is investigating. What if she should join them? She would be bringing some valuable knowledge and experience of government ways to her new employer. Is this selling out, or a matter of getting smart?

There are many movies whose characters one enjoys and with whom one would love to hang out. This is not one of them. Most of the characters are so success-driven that they seem willing to pay any price to reach their goals. The film has been seen as feminist, and it is certainly woman centered. But maybe we should question any celebration of the lives of these women. Did so many people struggle so long and hard for gender equality so that women can now be as mean and underhanded as men? Hmm, I suppose so. Real equality does have a dark as well as a bright side. Plenty to think about, especially if you have, or are, a daughter. In the past it was more the serving, or nurturing vocations that women went into. Indeed, two of those professions originally were male dominated—teaching and nursing. As women in society slowly become equal with men, they are free to join the predatory professions as well.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the September issue of VP.

If you have enjoyed and used this and other reviews, please consider subscribing to the Visual Parables journal, wherein you will find more help in exploring film and faith.



Southside With You (2016)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 24 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 0; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,

for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly;

defend the rights of the poor and needy.

Proverbs 31:8-9

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.

Matthew 7:1-2


The two enjoy the exhibit of a black artist at Chicago’s Art Institute. Miramax Films

Even were the pair not destined for the White House, writer-director Richard Tanne’s fictionalized story of a summer day that Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama and (played by Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers) spent together on a summer’s day in 1989 would be the almost perfect story of a first date—as well as being the perfect date film.

As much as I liked Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, I enjoyed this film even more. Here are two young, passionate people who do not pant and unclothe themselves for sex within an hour of meeting, as in so many so-called romantic films. In fact, as Michelle insists to her parents while primping for her rendezvous, she is not going out on a date. It is just a get together with from an intern at the posh lawfirm where she works. When he picks her up in his rust bucket of a yellow car (twice the camera reveals the large hole in its rusted-out floor), Michelle makes the first of a numerous denials throughout the rest of the film that she is on a date. She explains to Barak that she is his supervisor during his summer internship at the film. Because it would be violating the lawfirm’s rules forbidding members dating each other, she is not about to jeopardize her position.

The public meeting he has invited her to is several hours away, so they stop first at the Art Institute to admire the exhibition of famed black artist Bernie Barnes. This is a delightful scene as Barak talks about the former football player turned artist as they gaze at several of his paintings. Especially powerful is the artist’s “Sugar Shack” that singer Marvin Gaye used for the cover of his album I Want You.

The further the film progresses, the more I was impressed that these are young people filled with ideas they can articulately express and reams that hope to bring about. We see the work ethic and pride instilled in Michelle by her supportive parents, and also her keen awareness that she has two hurdles to confront at her law firm—her femaleness and her blackness. Thus she wants no nonsense from Barak, who will return to Harvard at the end of the summer. We see too Barak’s intense work ethic and his keen ability to understand, empathize with and thus relate warmly to others to others. It is obvious to Michelle as he talks about his father and his absence, his “incompleteness,” that her friend has very ambiguous feelings about his Kenyan parent. Indeed, she calls him on what she sees as his judgment of his dad.

After briefly taking part in a public festival in a park, the two arrive at the church where there is a community organization meeting to discuss the city council’s turndown of their request for a community center building. Michelle finds herself in defensive mode when everyone assumes that she is “Barak’s girl,” no, “Woman friend.” She learns how caring Barak has been—he had been a volunteer with the people the summer before—and what a life-changer he had been for the troubled son of one mother. What a convincing diplomat Barak turns out to be when he is called upon to speak. He douses the anger of the people and directs their energy, first at understanding where the Council members are coming from, and then suggesting the means for achieving their goals. We can certainly see the future eloquent politician at this point.

Afterwards the two continue to talk and argue over drinks, Michelle obviously helping Barak with his feelings about his father. After attending a showing of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Michelle is embarrassed when one of the lawyers from her firm and his wife encounters them outside the theater. When Barak gives an interpretation of what seems (to whites) to be a very negative ending to the film, the lawyer unwittingly shows the latent racism underlying so many white liberals. The film ends with an ice cream cone and a light kiss, and then a shot of each of them in their own bedrooms.

It is hard to believe that this is the first film that Richard Tanne has written and directed, so artfully made is this film. The conversation and speech are of his invention, but they sound so true. The speech in the church especially resembles those made later by Barak Obama, the Senator from Illinois and President of the United States, even giving us an insight into the values and beliefs of Barak Obama. Mr. Tanne could not have chosen two better actors to play the pair. Neither try to impersonate the real life characters, but due to their similar appearance and acting skills we always are convinced that they are the real thing. Even if you do not regard President Obama as a successful president, you will gain real insights into the Obamas as a couple, of their values, dreams, and beliefs. And as stated before, just Richard Tanne’s story of a first date makes for a delightful date film.

Oh yes, do not make the mistake of leaving when the credits st art rolling. Otherwise you might miss out on quite a number of Ernie Barnes’ dynamic paintings. Although I was familiar with some of them, I did not know that he flourished as an artist in the 60s. His style reminded me so much of the WPA murals and other paintings of the Depression era that I was surprised that he came later, following up his childhood interest and skill and becoming a professional after an extensive career in professional football. For a wonderful tour of his exciting paintings about black life Google his name and then go to the right and click on “More Images.”

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the September issue of VP.

If you have enjoyed and used this and other reviews, please consider subscribing to the Visual Parables journal, wherein you will find more help in exploring film and faith.

Don’t Think Twice (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 32 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 0; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

Iron sharpens iron,

and one person sharpens the wits of another.

Proverbs 27:17


The improv group The Commune are good at inter-acting.                         (c) The Film Arcade

If it weren’t for the fact that the title has already been claimed by a film popular among evangelicals, Mike Birbiglia’s second feature could have been titled Left Behind. That is how members of the NYC based improv group The Commune feel when one of their members is singled out for the Big Break by producers of a TV weekend show.

The film’s prologue lays down three principles of improv: 1. You respond with a “Yes…” to whatever an audience member suggests; 2. You do not try to stand out but rather work with your colleagues to produce a funny skit; and 3. You do not think, because improv requires you to be free and to go with the flow, whereas rational thought makes you uptight.

The director himself plays Miles, his six-member group (evenly divided by sex) drawing an enthusiastic crowd. But not a large enough one to bring them financial stability. All but one have to work during the day, and the one comes from a well-off family willing to support her. Then comes the day when a rep from the popular TV program is in the audience, and Jack goes into his Barak Obama impression. It is not really related to the skit, which is set off by the group’s signature question, “Who has had a bad day?” Thus it violates Rule 2.

When Jack’s interview is a success and the others watch him on their small TV set, all sorts of emotions arise, the chief being jealousy. How they work this out, while dealing with the crisis that they have to find a new venue because a developer is buying the building that serves as their theater, makes for entertainment that is a fine blend of humor and pathos. They also gather around one of their members whose father is severely injured in an accident.

I have not seen a comedy film that reveals as much about humor, especially of the improvisational kind as this one. Unlike the stand-up comedian who has carefully honed his act through numerous rehearsal and try-outs, members of an improv group depend upon one another, each contributing a piece of the skit that fully emerges only at the conclusion of the act. Each member must be nimble, often sending the skit in a different direction from which it began. And like all humor, the person’s words must be unexpected. The skits themselves are enjoyable, as are the ways in which the members show their conflicting emotions. Jack has guilt feeling, especially when his boss rebuffs his attempts to recruit his friends for the TV show. Add this to your list of “must see” shows!

Sorry, but I’m so rushed that I don’t have time for discussion questions. However, I will post some on my blog by Sept. 5, so check it out at

This set of discussion questions will be posted on my blog by September 5 2016.

If you have enjoyed and used this and other reviews, please consider subscribing to the Visual Parables journal, wherein you will find more help in exploring film and faith.

War Dogs (2016)

 Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 54 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!

Isaiah 5:20 (RSV)


Our war profiteers make an unexpected & unwanted trip to he Middle East to save a gun deal. (c) Warner Brothers

Maybe it was because of my low expectations, but I found that I enjoyed director Todd Phillips and screenwriter Sean Ellis’ film more than I thought I would. (I attended the advance screening mainly because it was free.) This is “a true story” based on Guy Lawson’s 2011 Rolling Stone article “Arms and the Dudes.” The two dudes are David Packouz (Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), best friends back in their yeshiva school days.

David has been eking out an existence giving body messages to rich Miami Beach guys and trying (vainly) to score big by selling high quality bed sheets to homes for the elderly. Efraim, after making money through shady schemes elsewhere, has returned to the city after coming across a means to profit from President Bush’s Iraq War. The two buddies are reunited at the funeral of a former classmate.

Whereas Efraim is the bold and brash kind of guy who likely to remove the gold fillings from the teeth of his dead grandmother before calling for an undertaker, David is mild mannered and possessed with a semblance of a conscience—though actually it is his wife Iz (Ana de Armas) who serves as his moral compass. She is pregnant, and so they need the money because no one is interested in his bed sheets into which he has sunk all of his savings. Efraim’s “can’t miss” plan is too tempting, with David soon signing on as a junior partner in the fake company that his friend has set up

The story is narrated by David, and were it not for all of the trial evidence left behind, a rational person would say “this far-fetched tale couldn’t possibly happen!” But it did. Efraim has discovered that the Bush administration, after being criticized for awarding no-bid defense contracts to conglomerates like Halliburton and Lockheed Martin, agreed to a bill that made it possible for anyone to bid on military contracts. On his laptop Efraim shows David a list of literally thousands of military procurement requests awaiting bids. Most of them are small projects, “Crumbs” as he calls them, but with rewarding profits. He has taken as a silent partner the owner of a chain of dry cleaning stores who puts up money for his bids. He calls the fake company he has set up AEY (the letters mean nothing). Soon David is bringing home some serious money, but he lies to Iz about his job with his friend because he knows she would not approve of his selling arms. Both she and he had demonstrated against the Iraq War.

As they take on more and more contracts, their company grows—and we see that the large poster on the wall of Efraim’s office expresses his macho values—it is of Al Pacino in Scarface firing a hand-held machine-gun. However, their deal with an American officer in Iraq to supply handguns for the police of his district thrusts them outside their comfort zone.

Various snags in getting the cases of pistols to Iraq require them to fly to Syria to make an under the table deal with customs officials, and then to escort the shipment by truck over 500 miles of terrorist-infested roads to the army base where they are to be paid. They barely survive this adventure, and a later deal will result in David being kidnapped in Albania and almost killed by thugs who think he is not on the up and up with them.

This project involves supplying the Afghan military with 100 million rounds of AK-47 ammo, a deal requiring the money of the king of military hucksters Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper), whom they had meet at an arms dealer expo in Las Vegas. He agrees to bankroll this $300 million deal, but lots of complications arise, such as the revelation that the ammunition is outdated and, worse, made in China. This is what leads Girard to think he has been stiffed, thus ordering the seizure of David.

The end of the partnership is caused not by this wild and dangerous caper, but by Iz discovering that David has been lying to her. She is as hurt as much by his lying as by his sleazy occupation, so she packs up their child and leaves. Brought to his senses, David …Well, let’s say he finally leaves the dark side. His love for his family overcomes his greed for riches. And a good thing, because the federal government also enters the picture. This time they are not buying, but giving—arrest warrants, and then prison sentences. Efraim has been ingenious in his schemes, but no amount of quick thinking can extricate him from this affair.

The filmmakers’ light touch could easily have made the film a satire or farce, but they do show the dark, sleaze of Efraim. He is no nimble con man like George Clooney’s Lee Gates in The Money Monster, who comes to his senses. Efraim has lived on the dark side too long to return. The phrase from the Thirties struggle against the arms industry “Merchants of Death” came to mind as I watched his greed and enthusiasm lead him deeper into the shadowy world of gun merchandising. The film does not show us the results of supplying armaments—the thousands of women and children, as well as the soldiers involved, killed and mutilated. This is after all a light entertainment, but what it does show is perhaps enough.

Note: In the cast listing we see that the real David Packouz has a bit part in the film: he is the “Singer at Hilldale Home” one of the homes for the elderly where his character is attempting to sell his bed sheets.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the September issue of VP.

If you have enjoyed and used this and other reviews, please consider subscribing to the Visual Parables journal, wherein you will find more help in exploring film and faith.