Why are there no comedy vicars in American sitcoms?
February 27, 2021 9:22 PM   Subscribe

Having finally started watching Miranda now that it has been adapted for a US audience, I was reminded that Anglican vicars and Catholic priests are stock figures in traditional British sitcoms. That's not true in the US, or at least I'm not aware of them beyond Father Mulcahey in M*A*S*H (who was a fully-formed character). Was there ever a time when clerical characters were part of mainstream American comedy?

The "comedy vicar" isn't typically a figure of fun: more often, the vicar is the bemused outsider who shows up when the protagonists have tied themselves in the most embarrassing knots. That context is what makes Miranda's "just punched a vicar!" especially funny. On the other hand, Peter Cook in The Princess Bride is also a comedy vicar. There's a 'clerical errors' joke here somewhere.
posted by holgate to Society & Culture (57 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: In Three's Company Chrissy's dad is a Reverend (Played by Peter Mark Richman, who died last month at the age of 93 after being in literally everything), who very much fits the bemused outsider type. Oddly enough his character appears to be original to the US series without an analogue in the original British series Man About The House.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:50 PM on February 27, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I laughed at "clerical errors." The only one I can think of is Rev. Lovejoy on the Simpsons.
posted by entropyiswinning at 10:22 PM on February 27, 2021 [20 favorites]

It’s one of the fundamental differences between English and American culture in the 20th century, basically. We don’t really have the same kind of little villages with churches that have been there for centuries with patchy roofs that need fundraising via flower show competition (or whatever). We have small towns with strong religious traditions but folks kind of pride themselves on manufactured cultural differences and kindly vicars are definitely not an archetype that feels familiar enough to make into a funny recurring character without a ton of backstory and detail. Religion is vastly more fraught in America, if you’re trying to make a mainstream sitcom. Remember that a good chunk of colonizers came here to explicitly escape religious persecution by the same church that these comedy vicars are affiliated with.

I think the closest that I can think of is maybe the nuns in Sister Act. That’s of course the wrong religion and movies not tv, and the nuns are main characters.

In the sitcom The Middle there was a recurring storyline about the church and the family’s relationship with it. The daughter had a crush on the insufferable youth pastor, if I recall correctly. Said youth pastor would occasionally show up to comedically steer family crises or strum his guitar and sing about god. He was a comedic character but not a default archetype like the ones you’re referring to.
posted by Mizu at 11:13 PM on February 27, 2021 [28 favorites]

Best answer: England has panto farce, but African-American slightly-too-worldly preachers are a black character-comedy staple (think Arsenio Hall).

Outside character comedy, Catholic priests are always walking into American bars with their friends, the preachers and the rabbis...
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 11:47 PM on February 27, 2021 [6 favorites]

Best answer: While Canadian rather than American the show Little Mosque on the Prairie is very much American style, features two comedy "vicars", and takes place in small town Saskatchewan.

The first is a ex big city [Toronto], ex lawyer now newly minted Imam. The second (initially) is a long time Anglican Minister of the town's church who ends up renting the church basement to the expanding Muslim Mosque who mostly plays the wise straight man. He is later replaced by a different Minister with a totally different characterization.
posted by Mitheral at 12:07 AM on February 28, 2021 [4 favorites]

Your question is really fascinating to me as an American who tried to show my dad “Father Ted,” only to find out that his Ireland-philia (Clancy Brothers fan) did not prevent him from being deeply offended by the show’s treatment of men of the cloth.

Comedy priests are one of those things that, now that you mention it, we just don’t seem to have on TV even though we do have “a priest and a rabbi walk into a bar” stock joke structures. Could it be something that varies country by country based on our relationship with the church?
posted by johngoren at 12:45 AM on February 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

A few things come to mind that might be at play to varying degrees (and by nature they are sweeping generalizations that of course won't hold true for all individuals/situations):

1. Clergypeople (specifically in their roles as clergypeople) aren't actually a part of the everyday lives of most Americans the way (British media has led me to believe) they are for British folks.

2. Because the stereotypical Average Sitcom American doesn't have the pastor come 'round on the regular, once you do introduce a pastor or priest or rabbi etc., the show becomes About Religion, and network people believe that risks alienating people who are either not part of that religion so think the show won't be for them, or are part of it and are offended by it.

I also think that comedic or frivolous use of churches and clergypeople in media is still somewhat taboo for more mainstream audiences, in spite of the sex, violence, and other more challenging themes that are somehow no longer taboo. This is suggested by the fact that I've definitely seen several someone farted in church or accidentally punched a nun type plots in recent American sitcoms, but the church stuff nearly always takes place entirely off-screen.
posted by rhiannonstone at 1:32 AM on February 28, 2021 [6 favorites]

This has been implied in earlier answers but not actually stated: the hegemony of the Church of England, as a state religion, is unparalleled in the US. It's analogous to why the monarchy is a standard comedy element in the UK but not in the US (more than analogous, since the monarch is the head of the Church). The cultural dominance of the C of E can't be overstated -- perhaps especially because many Britons have a very secular approach to God/the Church, from an American perspective.

Also the C of E is progressive enough to come across as benign or even a net positive to most audiences, whereas Christianity in the US is fraught and often dangerous in its evangelical zeal.
posted by obliquicity at 2:34 AM on February 28, 2021 [42 favorites]

The vicar represents respectability -the classic sitcom setup (as parodied in The Young Ones) is the vicar coming round for tea (does this ever happen to normal people who don't otherwise seem to be churchgoers), and a string of farcical events - inadvertent transgressiveness - occurs that must be hidden from him for fear of offending his sensibilities.

Which brings us to the other thing: class. Almost all (I would say all, but I'm sure there's something I've not thought of) classic British sitcoms can be analysed in terms of class, especially aspiration, and the icon of the vicar as the embodiment of bourgeois respectability sits in the middle of that, while at the same time being slightly apart from conflict of it.

(From what I can tell, actual vicars work much harder, and for a lot less money, than one might imagine.)
posted by Grangousier at 3:35 AM on February 28, 2021 [8 favorites]

Yeah I think a lot of it is that there has not historically been one dominant religious denomination in the US that corresponds to the C of E in the UK. Christianity in the US is very diverse, even among your sort of mainline White person denominations. I don’t think there’s as clear of a shared national idea about what a default or stereotypical clergyperson is like, which makes it hard to use them as stock characters.
posted by mskyle at 4:16 AM on February 28, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: The cultural dominance of the C of E can't be overstated
Clergypeople (specifically in their roles as clergypeople) aren't actually a part of the everyday lives of most Americans the way (British media has led me to believe) they are for British folks.

I'm British and my response to the question would be completely opposite to this. Most British people are entirely detached from the church, while I get the impression that a high proportion of Americans take their religion extremely seriously. It seems to be a real, active part of many Americans' lives and something sacred and precious that Must Not Be Joked About, in a way that just doesn't apply in Britain.

Despite a high proportion of English people probably ticking the 'CofE' box on the census form (other parts of Britain obviously don't come under the Church of England), the vast majority of people here live entirely secular lives. I certainly don't know any vicars. Virtually nobody I know ever goes to church, or thinks about the church from one month to the next. I can literally think of one person I know who does, and she never talks about it. Churches are interesting old buildings, church congregations are amusing antiquated stereotypes, and the vicar is the chief stereotype, often seen as innocent, detached from reality, and a little pompous, which makes them the ideal figure of fun.

That means that you can joke about them without fear that you're going to go to hell for doing it. Nobody really believes the vicar is special or that religion is going to damn them for laughing at the vicar.

Maybe slightly different in villages, but these days most villages don't have a vicar of their own, they'll have a vicar who travels between several different churches, so it's not like the vicar is a fixture at the heart of every village. That said, most sitcom tropes have a significant time lag and rely on archetypes that might have been real several decades ago. The vicar you see in sitcoms is more of a 1930s vicar, back when people were a little more tied to their communities and perhaps a touch less secular. Possibly a reality to a small sliver of the population who actually attend church. But that's a very small sliver.

As an aside, if this thread has put anyone in the mood for more British vicar comedy, I heartily recommend Rev, with Tom Hollander as an inner city vicar, trying to reconcile the traditional vicar trope with the contemporary reality of being effectively an untrained social worker to a bunch of really difficult people, while your own bosses attempt to close your church for financial reasons at every opportunity. And of course the more traditional innocent and-slightly-pompous Rev Francis Seaton in This Country.
posted by penguin pie at 4:24 AM on February 28, 2021 [36 favorites]

Best answer: The sitcom Bridget Loves Bernie (1972-1973) had a character who was a Catholic priest. The whole premise of the show was that a Catholic and a Jewish person get married and hilarity ensues. The priest was Bridget's brother.

I barely remember the show and it doesn't appear to be available online, but per the Wikipedia article, it was cancelled due to negative reactions to the characters' marriage and was the highest rated television show to be cancelled after one season. Meredith Baxter, who played Bridget, said they had bomb threats on the show and that members of the Jewish Defense League came to her house to ask her to change it.

As others have said, it's possible that religion is a more fraught topic in the US - at least in the last hundred years. My great-grandparents aren't buried together because the cemetery was closed to Catholics between their deaths.
posted by FencingGal at 4:25 AM on February 28, 2021

Oh, also: I'm fascinated to know - how did Miranda have to be adapted for the US? Do you know what changes they made?
posted by penguin pie at 4:33 AM on February 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The answer to this question is very simple: censorship.

The Hays Code, which governed the making of Hollywood movies from the mid-30s to the late 60s, specifically stated: 'Ministers of religion in their character as ministers of religion should not be used as comic characters or as villains.' This was spelled out in more detail later on in the Code:
The reason why ministers of religion may not be comic characters or villains is simply because the attitude taken toward them may easily become the attitude taken toward religion in general. Religion is lowered in the minds of the audience because of the lowering of the audience's respect for a minister.
That's why there's no tradition of comic vicars in American movies and television. It's not about the lack of small country villages, the lack of flower shows, the lack of an established church or any of the other reasons ingeniously suggested in the comments above. It's because Hollywood studios were scared of offending the National Legion of Decency.

The British had their own code of censorship, of course. Until 1968 all plays had to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain's Office. But its priorities were very different. The American censors wanted to make the movies a moral force for good. The British, on the other hand, saw the theatre as inherently lower-class and vulgar, and hence beyond redemption. The Lord Chamberlain's job wasn't to raise the moral tone, but simply to prevent any outbreaks of shocking indecency: i.e. sex, swearing, and jokes about the monarchy. So you couldn't say 'Oh bloody hell' on the British stage, but you could play a comic vicar.

The tradition of comic vicars in English drama goes way back: as least as far as Dr Daly in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Sorcerer (1877) and Canon Chasuble in The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). There's a classic example in See How They Run (1944) where all the main characters disguise themselves in clerical clothes, leading to the big punch-line: 'Sergeant, arrest most of these vicars!'
posted by verstegan at 4:35 AM on February 28, 2021 [61 favorites]

I'm British, and penguin pie has it spot on, I think.

We're nothing like as zealous about our religiosity as Americans appear to be, and the CofE is primarily seen as pensioners and people who've grown up in unusual circumstances. Religion just doesn't play a big part in the daily life of most white British people, which is 85% of the population.

Because vicars are both suitably respected as pillars of the community and also the CofE tends to have a reputation as being "nice" (which is as much an insult as a compliment), they are perfect for a gently comedic figure. Generally the comedy is not malicious or mocking about vicars; they may be the butt of a joke, but it's not often (in my experience) that there is a nasty side to the mockery.

Altogether, this means that a) British people don't tend to worry for their immortal soul if they laugh at a comedic vicar, and b) the dominant state religion - CoFE - isn't going to rain fire and brimstone on people for doing do.

Americans on the other hand do appear to worry about their immortal soul, and many a preacher will rain fire and brimstone down on people for mocking religion. So to answer your question, it seems that it's because religion is a much more aggressive presence in America than it is in Britain.
posted by underclocked at 5:19 AM on February 28, 2021 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I have a weird feeling that "why aren't there stock comedies about ministers in the US" isn't just about how the US deals with ministers - I think it's also something to do with how the US deals with sitcoms.

It's not a comedy, but there was one recent example of a minister as the main character in a US program. 7th Heaven was a "family drama" which ran from the late 90s to the early aughts, and was about a Protestant minister and his family. I think it's a decent illustration of how the US perceives ministers - wholesome and kind, with the wacky hijinks they deal with being from the kids' mischief or foibles and Dad helping to sort them out. And that's kind of how all sitcoms in the US like to do things - everything gets sorted out by the end of the episode, even if it's a "very special episode" which addresses a more serious issue than "little Joey's dog ran away" or whatever.

And I think that's something about the American taste when it comes to TV shows. We like a bit more sentiment and heartwarming good-naturedness; consider the differences between the UK version of The Office and the US version. The UK version was much more comfortable with the boss being an irretrievable jerk and with Jim and Pam never getting together; the US version gradually made the boss more of a "loveable scamp" and Jim and Pam married and had children together.

I think what people say above about the religious diversity in the US is a factor as well - there are so many different kinds of ministers that there isn't a sort of nationwide touchstone for "the minister character" over here. But I also think that this kind of "we like our sitcoms to be happy and cuddly and heartwarming" tone also has a hand in this.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:22 AM on February 28, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: We do seem to have this with comic rabbis - in fact, I’m having a hard time thinking of any portrayals of rabbis in mainstream media who aren’t comic figures (besides the ones who are the stereotypical stern / hypocritical/ bigoted Religious Leader which we get in all religions in US media - John Lithgow in Footloose stands out here). Then again, I’m having a hard time thinking of many actual rabbis I’ve known who aren’t at least somewhat comic figures, so there’s that.
posted by Mchelly at 5:23 AM on February 28, 2021 [3 favorites]

I too am British, and agree that the hegemony of the Church of England, its own specific history and the legacy of a specific class-based interaction with the clergy (upper middle class people really did use to invite the vicar for tea, because they were in the same social class) all played a huge part in creating this kind of figure.

It is also absolutely the case over the last 60 or so years England specifically has become a very secular country without any specific trigger event, and that also influences the depiction of clergy in sitcoms. The Church of England is in every locality in England and is both the default and ignored, in a way that is very different to the role of any particular denomination in the US.
posted by plonkee at 6:26 AM on February 28, 2021 [3 favorites]

I think American religious diversity is a big part of the answer, but not in the mere fact that Americans practice different religions. It’s the differences in how those different religions are practiced, which are significant. In England, Father Brown is a Catholic priest, but the Catholic and Anglican practices are similar enough that Anglican viewers can still watch and relate to their own experiences. In America, most people find the mere fact of kneeling during Mass absolutely incomprehensible. As a Catholic, though, I find Evangelical services incomprehensible - is it really just a guy talking for hours? That’s to say nothing of Presbyterians, Mormons, Quakers, and non-Christians. There’s a fair bit of Jewish clerical humor (Seinfeld did a whole show about mohels), but a lot of it goes over people’s heads because they have no concept of Jewish practices. (Incidentally, I do hear a lot of Catholic humor, but it’s usually written so that it’s kind of an Easter egg, no pun intended, for Catholic viewers that just goes unnoticed by others.)

I think there’s also a point to be made about the BBC and the Church of England both being nominally controlled by the state, but I’m not sophisticated enough to make it.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:06 AM on February 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Thing is, kevinbelt, to the vast majority of British people, spending an hour or more every week doing anything in church is pretty incomprehensible. We just don’t do it. So I don’t think it’s true that we’re all united over minutiae like whether to kneel, or who talks when. I honestly have no idea who kneels or doesn’t, who talks or doesn’t.

It often feels kind of hard to explain to Americans just how utterly secular contemporary Britain is, and this thread is proving no exception.

We don’t go to church. The comedy vicar is an abstract trope to us and nothing more. Like the Frenchman who wears a beret and has onions around his neck, or the cockney market trader.

We’re definitely not united in our knowledge of when to kneel in an Anglican ceremony.
posted by penguin pie at 7:41 AM on February 28, 2021 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Just adding a few memorable comedic characters to think about, there's Sally Field's Flying Nun, Christopher Lloyd's Reverend Jim (really, some sort of hippie seeker kind of character), and King of the Hill's Karen Stroup (originally voiced by Mary Tyler Moore). More recently, I'd suggest the fellowship teacher in Netflix's Teenage Bounty Hunters counts (the preacher has a more minor role). And while contemplating this question, I wound up reading a good portion of this 50+ page interview with William Christopher: "The Legacy of Father Mulcahy of M*A*S*H" published in Curtana: Sword of Mercy (A Journal for the Study of the Military Chaplaincy).

The general picture I get from those examples is maybe just ... they're pretty likable and not heavily stereotyped characters? William Christopher says in that interview that he got zero complaints about Father Mulcahy, and I'd guess that's a goal for a lot of shows--fits with a number of explanations above.
posted by Wobbuffet at 7:50 AM on February 28, 2021 [4 favorites]

Father Guido Sarducci.

Other than that there was one stock *joke* involving priests, in which a romantically frustrated female character calls up an ex from high school only to have him turn out to be an ordained priest, usually revealed visually for maximum embarrassment.

I remember one short-lived sitcom with priest character, but definitely not a buffoon. Other than that and the handful previously mentionined, every clergyman in a mainstream show I can think was played straight and could provide moral guidance (e.g., Little House on the Prairie.)

Verstegan makes an important point, especially with Catholic priests and the League of Decency. I would add that Catholic priests that did appear through the '80s or so were almost invariably ethnically coded (meaning Irish or Italian.) Making one a comic character would have been interpreted as a comment on not "clergymen" but on an ethnic group.
posted by mark k at 8:00 AM on February 28, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: In the sitcom Amen, Sherman Hemsley played the buffoonish deacon of an interdenominational church. It’s was a show with a primarily Black cast that was broadcast by NBC in a block with other shows that had Black casts, including The Cosby Show and A Different World.
posted by mr_roboto at 8:17 AM on February 28, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: verstegan's research about censorship sure seems like a strong answer.

But since you asked for counter-examples, the 1980s comedy Frank's Place featured a recurring character in the Reverend Tyrone Deal played by Lincoln Kilpatrick. Unfortunately it's been a long time since I watched it and that show has kind of disappeared down the memory hole, but IIRC he was a sort of huckster / comic type. Episode 10 The Reverend Gets a Flock is about him, and given the show's description ("While sitting out some bad weather, Bubba and Tiger recall the last time Reverend Tyrone Deal had a congregation.") I suspect it's more comic than reverent.

Frank's Place is an unusual show for various reasons but it was on primetime network so I think it counts as mainstream American.
posted by Nelson at 8:22 AM on February 28, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Was there ever a time when clerical characters were part of mainstream American comedy?

I feel like there were some, around the early 20th century - the writer James Thurber springs to mind, or some of the popular comic plays from that time, although of course I can't come up with a specific cite or example. (And Thurber himself & other comic authors of the time often wrote about their childhoods in small town America in the late 1800's, so that's even further back in time.)

Like people have noted above, the humor often derived from social class and "respectability" conflicts - the pastor/priest represents a certain level of class and social standing, the family is trying to present as similar, something goes horribly awry and they're scrambling around trying to hide the chaos from the clergyman.

Bouncing off some discussions in the FanFare threads on the WandaVision show, I think come the 50's and 60's the character representing high social standing and class and respectability that the main characters are looking to impress becomes the boss or an important business client. So, same humor dynamic but in a more explicitly capitalist setting.
posted by soundguy99 at 8:40 AM on February 28, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has Father Joseph, aka Father Brah, who is something of a bemused outsider who one of the lead characters, Josh, frequently goes to for advice on his ridiculous situations. Josh himself even considers the priesthood at one point.

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia has Father Matt, whose life and vocation are basically ruined by Dee.

Transparent had a female rabbi character. I didn't stick with the show for too many seasons but it was "darkly comic" so maybe it counts.

Young Sheldon has Pastor Jeff, a Baptist minister who is a regular part of the cast in a comedic way.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 9:09 AM on February 28, 2021 [6 favorites]

Best answer: In the early 70s, The Flip Wilson Show (variety program w/comedy sketches) had Rev. Leroy
Amen (1986-1991) had two 'vicar' main characters, Deacon Frye (Sherman Hemsley) and Reverend Gregory
The Cavanaughs (1986-1989) had a Catholic priest character, Chuck Jr.
Sister Kate (1989-1990, 19 episodes) ran an orphanage
Soul Man (1997-1998) had Dan Ackroyd as an Episcopal priest
Good News/The Good News (1997-1998, 22 episodes) centered around Pastor Randolph
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:03 AM on February 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Simpsons immediately comes to mind... the Flanders Family and Reverend Lovejoy are definitely a comedic depiction of religious Americans, and feature heavily on the show. Of course, that was one reason many Christian kids I knew in high school were not allowed to watch it! Most simple explanation is that religion is a third rail in American culture and until recently TV producers would simply avoid it.

Black sitcoms and comedy movies in the US seem less afraid to feature (and mock) religious figures (I'm thinking of Coming to America just now) and this indeed still gives white protestants the vapors (if they ever see them... many of the TV shows most popular to Black audiences in the US are virtually unknown to white audiences).

I scanned my memory for modern American comedy shows I watch with religious figures in them and (tellingly) only came up with two... Letterkenny's Pastor Glen and Pastor Nina from Kim's Convenience. They are both Canadian shows!
posted by lefty lucky cat at 10:15 AM on February 28, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Last Man Standing has Bill Engvall as a recurring character, a Catholic priest.
posted by yclipse at 10:18 AM on February 28, 2021

It often feels kind of hard to explain to Americans just how utterly secular contemporary Britain is, and this thread is proving no exception.

I might be off base here, but speaking as an American and a non Christian, I think the disjunction here might be partially down to the distinction between, for lack of a better set of terms, observant religiosity (going to religious services, praying) and cultural religiosity (a set of assumptions and customs based on a common religious background, and which are often so engrained that those in the majority may not consider them explicitly religious).

Americans are more likely to be in some way religiously observant, but I'd guess the British might be somewhat more likely to have a more hegemonic set of cultural assumptions around religion than many Americans? As example, I've been watching a British series recently that makes repeated use of the phrase "Christian name" for "first name," which obviously is not meant to carry religious connotations and which nevertheless stands out to me like a sore thumb every time I hear it.

Anyway, if there's any truth in that, it seems potentially relevant in that shared cultural assumptions are also a fundamental building block of comedy.
posted by eponym at 10:26 AM on February 28, 2021 [12 favorites]

Best answer: Your question is really fascinating to me as an American who tried to show my dad “Father Ted”
There is kind of a side-point here in that British comedy vicars are, I believe, uniquely English. Father Ted and co were Irish priests - and in Scotland we have ministers such as Rikki Fulton's "Reverend I.M Jolly" - it is not just the labels but also the roots of the comedy that go in different places in different parts of the British Isles - a glum Presbyterian or befuddled Irish priest would not really resonate as English characters.

With respect to American religious characters in comedy - that might be part of the issue for lack of translation too. If you depict a priest - then you will lose the people who are used to rabbis or imams or whatever else - and that could be a large part of the audience.
posted by rongorongo at 11:13 AM on February 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Americans are more likely to be in some way religiously observant, but I'd guess the British might be somewhat more likely to have a more hegemonic set of cultural assumptions around religion than many Americans? As example, I've been watching a British series recently that makes repeated use of the phrase "Christian name" for "first name," which obviously is not meant to carry religious connotations and which nevertheless stands out to me like a sore thumb every time I hear it.

Anyway, if there's any truth in that, it seems potentially relevant in that shared cultural assumptions are also a fundamental building block of comedy.

I think this is probably true but it's hard for us to notice. Funerals of public figures take place in a major CofE church, nativity plays happen in most state primary schools at Christmas, none of us go to church but a vicar in a dog collar would be instantly recognisable. We don't have a tradition of separation of church and state (in fact, we don't separate them), instead we just ignore the church. And since it's the historically wishy-washy CofE that kinda works.
posted by plonkee at 11:14 AM on February 28, 2021 [5 favorites]

I was also gonna mention the lady hip-priest on the Canadian show 'Kim's Convenience', she's more like a straight-support who bounces off of the Mom's insecurities, but mostly plays it pretty subtle.
posted by ovvl at 11:49 AM on February 28, 2021

I think there is something to the fact that there’s no state or default church in the United States- there’s no casual shared cultural religiosity. The idea of separation of church and state and religious freedom and diversity is something you learn starting in kindergarten in the US when you’re making pilgrim hats for Thanksgiving. I find the casual mixture of church and state really weird when I read or watch things set in British schools, for instance, and the idea of a sort of default pastor character would just not make any sense in a US setting. If I’m not explicitly Baptist, I would never interact with a Baptist preacher unless I wanted to, or maybe lived in a town so tiny that everyone belonged to the same church. Even really small towns in the US frequently have multiple Protestant church options, though. And that’s not even getting into black vs. white churches, Catholicism, Judaism, etc. etc.
posted by MadamM at 12:04 PM on February 28, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Two that came to mind:
- Rev. Jim on Taxi
- Father Frank Hargis on Just the 10 of Us
posted by chiefthe at 12:23 PM on February 28, 2021

Best answer: In 1997, Dan Ackroyd played an Episcopal priest in the TV show "Soul Man." He was a comedy vicar -- a bemused center-of-sanity reacting to the eccentrics around him. The show lasted 25 episodes despite pronounced suckage.
posted by Performing Without Annette at 4:04 PM on February 28, 2021

Response by poster: These are all great answers: I've marked as bests the ones that illuminate the American side of the question and the "comedy vicar function", but I've learned something from everyone. Thank you.

I'd agree with the British answers that the C of E is very much in the cultural background, and that modern English sitcom vicars are an amalgam of Agatha Christie vicar and younger people slightly out of sync with the modern world or those around them. (A good example is the vicar in Keeping Up Appearances, who is gradually traumatised by his interactions with Hyacinth.)

I'm also intrigued by soundguy99's suggestion that the comic boss / client occupies that role in the US during the company-man era of the 50s and 60s.
posted by holgate at 4:48 PM on February 28, 2021

I’ve been trying to think of comic-strip clergy and failing. Not even Family Circle?
posted by clew at 4:59 PM on February 28, 2021

Ooh, comic strips - I'm pretty sure Family Circle had an occasional bit on the church steps after service or with the pastor dropping by, but I don't think he was a recurring individual character.

Barney Google and Snuffy Smith definitely has a recurring preacher character, but I dunno that he really fits into a common trope of clergy characters, he's kinda just there to reinforce the idea that Snuffy Smith is a ne'er-do-well.
posted by soundguy99 at 5:58 PM on February 28, 2021

the comic boss / client occupies that role in the US during the company-man era

BTW one generalized, not-necessarily-comedic interpretive framework for that role--the external observer, sometimes a sort of "busybody," whose awkward intrusion signifies order and moral judgment or for whom we "maintain appearances"--is given here, in this clip from Žižek's The Pervert's Guide to Ideology: "What is the big other?"
posted by Wobbuffet at 5:58 PM on February 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

"So I don’t think it’s true that we’re all united over minutiae like whether to kneel"

So, I know this, and I did a pretty lousy job of making my point. My answer is more about the past than the UK of today, which is not only secular, but also to the extent that there is religion, a lot of it is non-Christian. By no means did I mean to question that. But like, 50 years ago, or 75 years ago (wow, 2021 is much later than I imagine), your grandparents' or great-grandparents' generation probably had some shared experiences with the Church of England, and that's where the trope took hold in the culture. From there, it became a cultural thing that transcended actual religious practice. Older generations had some awareness of vicars and their foibles, and then their children might have had some exposure to the church, but also knew about vicars from TV, and then their children just had the TV. By the time we're to the point where nobody goes to church, it doesn't even matter anymore. Kind of like how Hollywood kept making movies in which American heroes defeated Russian bad guys well after the end of the Cold War. 1999 Americans didn't care about fighting Russians, but by that time that's just what movie heroes did, so everyone overlooked the fact that it had stopped having wider cultural resonance. Does that make sense? (Or at least, more sense than my original answer?)
posted by kevinbelt at 6:03 PM on February 28, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: And joining the dots, I think verstegan nails it: the Television Code, the small-screen counterpart of the Hays Code , stipulates that "...ministers, priests and rabbis portrayed in their callings are vested with the dignity of their office and under no circumstances are to be held up to ridicule."
posted by holgate at 7:04 PM on February 28, 2021

In 1997, Dan Ackroyd played an Episcopal priest in the TV show "Soul Man."
Episcopalian-ism is an interesting aspect of the question. Both Scotland and the USA have Episcopalian churches - and these are sort of related to each other and also to the Church of England. They are also somewhat "catholic-lite". The adherents of both churches have had quite strong correlations with the elites in society in the past - but the American Episcopal church is far bigger than the Scottish one. The Scottish Episcopal church has priests, deacons, primuses, canons and bishops -(but no vicars).

Anyway: No person in their right mind would create a Scottish Episcopalian priest a comedy character because it would confuse the hell out of audiences everywhere. But in America: slightly more likely.
posted by rongorongo at 1:30 AM on March 1, 2021

Re: for perspective on the secularity + ubiquitousness of vicars in the C of E, I'd maybe consider comic writer P. G. Wodehouse, especially his Jeeves & Wooster and Blandings Castle stories (set amongst the upper class & minor nobility in (vaguely) the period between the two World Wars.)

Bertie Wooster (part of the "young idle rich" set) seems to have about a dozen public school (in US terms, very expensive private school) or university pals who become country village vicars at one point or another - younger sons of minor nobility or wealthy mercantile/industrial families who haven't come into their inheritance yet, or who don't actually inherit much of anything because younger sons or the family has lost most of its money. They're culturally expected to Do Something, because they're the upper class, and they need some income to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads, but actually going out and finding a job job would be too crass, or they're uninterested in joining the family business (or barred from it, because the older generations won't let go of the reins and view these sons as wastrel fools.) IIRC, at least of couple of these vicar characters bounce around a bit - when they're in good standing with their families they get an allowance and don't do much of anything, when they're on the outs with families and need money they go hunt up a village vicar gig. (Also, it seems these vicarage positions are granted by the local landed gentry, rather than the vicars being hired by the local congregations or appointed by some central C of E authority.)

I've no idea to what extent Wodehouse may have originated or popularized this sort of character, and of course I assume some of this is exaggerated for comic effect, but I think it's pretty clear by the early 20th century there's a not uncommon perception that "vicar" is far less of a religious calling and more of a sort of genteel occupation appropriate for the upper class. I don't think we really have anything similar in the US.

(In comic character terms, in Wodehouse's stories these vicars are often the romantic leads - the comedy is from the various schemes & shenanigans Bertie & Jeeves get up to to connect these vicars with the girl they're in love with and/or to get approval from the girl's family.)
posted by soundguy99 at 6:53 AM on March 1, 2021

the comic boss / client occupies that role
I think this is on to something. Whether or not they have working class roots the vicar counts as gentry. This, plus the religious responsibilities of vicars means they have a kind of built in antagonism to other character's more profane concerns. Plus the vicar's profession constrains them to be right acting, so there is scope for them to be tied up in amusing knots. And without a really basic underlying attitude as to the uselessness of religion I don't think the humour would be as gratifying.
Father Ted's a funny case, in that the more Catholic or Irish you are or have been, the funnier it is. Because it's not even that exaggerated, and some of it is a bit too on the nose to watch comfortably these days.
posted by glasseyes at 7:08 AM on March 1, 2021 [2 favorites]

soundguy99 again I think that's really perceptive. There's more diversity in CofE now and they take social action more seriously than they did but that class dynamic is still part of the cachet of the role whatever the vicar's origins as I said above.

In all my years in the uk, I've only been in church for weddings, or to look at the architecture. Not a single other service, not even a funeral, and I think this is the norm. Royal watchers from abroad must have a different impression of what it's like here but then the royal people's grandma is head of the institution so no wonder their life events are marked by church services. As soundguy says there is a link between being upper class and the CofE also.

Forgot to add, yeah I think in Austen the position of vicar is under the control of the local aristo? A likely young clergyman with good connections might be recommended to a good living, whereas someone without connections might be consigned to a difficult, poor one, with a horrid uncomfortable vicarage.
posted by glasseyes at 7:21 AM on March 1, 2021 [2 favorites]

Don't know when that system ended though.
posted by glasseyes at 7:26 AM on March 1, 2021

A likely young clergyman with good connections might be recommended to a good living, whereas someone without connections might be consigned to a difficult, poor one, with a horrid uncomfortable vicarage.

Yeah, in at least a couple of the Wodehouse tales it's kind of a combo - the young vicar needs to impress the local aristo so he'll be granted a good vicarage position, which in turn will grant him the income and social standing so he'll get approval from the aristo family to marry one of the daughters.
posted by soundguy99 at 7:43 AM on March 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

Seinfeld regularly featured religious figures in a joking manner.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:17 AM on March 1, 2021

There's a beautiful duo of minister and rabbi in Gilmore Girls--apparently the population of the town is too small for either of them to have their own church/synagogue, so they share a space and are great friends. This scene is their peak; they pop up again at random intervals throughout the show's run.
posted by dlugoczaj at 9:28 AM on March 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

I've no idea to what extent Wodehouse may have originated or popularized this sort of character, and of course I assume some of this is exaggerated for comic effect, but I think it's pretty clear by the early 20th century there's a not uncommon perception that "vicar" is far less of a religious calling and more of a sort of genteel occupation appropriate for the upper class

Note that England has been the home of many highly inventive vicars - George Garrett who designed the worlds fist steam powered submarine, Tomas Bayes - with his theorem, William Clarke who invented the beach holiday, Samuel Henshall who made the first corkscrew, William Archibald Spooner with his.. well you know... and onwards to modern figures such as Richard Coles, keyboard player for The Communards. The Church of England has long provided a genteel, comfortable, socially connected and fairly tolerant living for individuals who like to pursue eccentric sidelines. These people make for good comedy characters.
posted by rongorongo at 11:30 AM on March 1, 2021 [3 favorites]

Advowsons were gradually snuffed out by legislation that started in 1898, afaict, so Wodehouse is maybe anachronistic? (No!)

Anthony Trollope is the surviving novelist of vicars, I’d say, moderately conscious of the conflicts between the worldly and spiritual incentives of the system. He’s always able to see an existing structure as good even if it isn’t true, though. Gaskell and Yonge have vicars seen from poorer points of view and they care a lot more about whether the vicar takes care of souls.

Come to think of it, Victorian fluff set in the medieval period loves an interfering comic monk - Friar Tuck or some Thomas Love Peacock characters- maybe English sitcoms have vicars out of a massive continuity.
posted by clew at 12:13 PM on March 1, 2021 [2 favorites]

One of the things I've noted in terms of American media and religious figures is that there are warrior priests that don't translate quite as well - my Australian students are always confused by the Reverend in The Searchers for example. There are soldier priests but not bombastic warrior figures who are religious authorities in quite so many other film cultures.
posted by geek anachronism at 9:44 PM on March 1, 2021

Best answer: The 90s show Picket Fences had two figures who I think would meet your definition.
posted by Candleman at 12:40 PM on March 6, 2021

The original 1961 Parent Trap (Hayley Mills) had Reverend Moseby, a quintessential “bemused outsider”.
posted by misterbrandt at 7:24 AM on March 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

The movie 'Keeping the Faith' comes to mind, though in this case the clerics are the main characters and the part of the bemused outsider is played by the Indian bartender (with the fun line about his religious/cultural background'.

Father Brian Kilkenney Finn: You're a Sikh, Catholic Muslim with Jewish in-laws?
Indian Bartender: Yes. Yes. It gets very complicated. I'm reading Dianetics.
Father Brian Kilkenney Finn: Don't blame you.
posted by TwoWordReview at 1:50 PM on January 13

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