A Catholic Colbert report

For Catholics raised during the head-spinning days after Vatican II, few things inspire flashbacks to the era of flowers and folk Masses quicker than the bouncy hymn "The King of Glory." But what was a goofy nerd doing on Comedy Central, belting out this folk song while doing a bizarre blend of Broadway shtick and liturgical dance?

"The King of glory comes, the nation rejoices! Open the gates before him, lift up your voices," sang Stephen Colbert a decade ago, in a video that is now a YouTube classic. "Who is the King of glory; how shall we call him? He is Emmanuel, the promised of ages."

Inquiring minds wanted to know: Was this painfully ironic comedian mocking trendy Catholics or saluting them? Was he outing himself as a Christian? Was he praising Jesus or risking a lightning bolt?

Legions of 40-something Catholics have strong memories of the first time they saw this clip, said Diane Houdek, managing editor of Something in Colbert's performance told them that this was not a random gag.

"Stephen walks this thin line," said Houdek, who runs "The Word: A Colbert Blog for Catholic It-Getters" in her spare time. "He isn't afraid to be critical when it comes to matters of faith, but when he does it's always clear that his critique is from the inside. ... He'll push things pretty far. He'll dance right up to that line, but he will not cross it. He will not compromise what he believes as a Catholic."

Colbert, of course, became the star of The Colbert Report, the fake news show in which he plays a right-wing egotist (think Bill O'Reilly of Fox News) named "Stephen Colbert." Religion plays a major role in the show and there are moments when he speaks sincerely in his own voice.

That's what happened last week when his alter ego came to Washington, D.C., at the invitation of Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security. His testimony mixed satire ("I don't want a tomato picked by a Mexican. I want it picked by an American, sliced by a Guatemalan and served by a Venezuelan in a spa where a Chilean gives me a Brazilian") with serious information about the plight of farm workers.

Colbert lowered his mask when asked why this issue mattered to him, slipping in a reference to a Gospel of Matthew parable in which eternal judgment awaits those who deny compassion to the poor and defenseless.

Some of America's least powerful people, he said, are "migrant workers who come in and do our work, but don't have any rights as a result. And yet, we still ask them to come here, and at the same time, ask them to leave. ... You know, 'Whatsoever you did for the least of my brothers,' and these seemed like the least of my brothers, right now."

It helps to know that Colbert was raised as the youngest of 11 children in a devout Irish-Catholic family in Charleston, S.C. Then his physician father and two brothers died in a plane crash and their joyful home plunged into grief. Colbert soon lost his faith.

Years later, a sidewalk volunteer in Chicago handed the young actor a Gideon Bible and something clicked. Today, he lives a private life with his wife and three children, but he never hides the fact that he teaches children's Sunday school.

As he told Rolling Stone last year: "From a doctrinal point of view or a dogmatic point of view or a strictly Catholic adherent point of view, I'm the first to say that I talk a good game, but I don't know how good I am about it in practice. I saw how my mother's faith was very valuable to her and valuable to my brothers and sisters, and I'm moved by the words of Christ, and I'll leave it at that."

But there is more to Colbert's faith, and his theology, than that, said Houdek. For starters, a Jesuit serves as the show's chaplain.

"There is evidence of his faith all through his work, if you know what to look for," she said. "This is what makes him so unique, in the extremely secular world in which he is working -- Comedy Central. Yet he keeps doing what he does night after night, because he never comes off as preachy."

Blonde, female, Christian, late-night comedian

It's no surprise that Victoria Jackson watches "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," the latest slice-of-elite-life offering from Aaron "West Wing" Sorkin.

After all, one of the main characters in this drama set inside a late-night sketch comedy show -- a fictional West Coast version of "Saturday Night Live" -- is Harriet Hayes, a blonde, female, singing comedian who is a born-again Christian.

This got Jackson's attention real quick.

"I'm the only blonde, female, singing, born-again Christian comedian in the history of 'Saturday Night Live.' I'm pretty sure there's only one of me," said Jackson, in the high, child-like voice that is her trademark. After watching the pilot episode, she asked her husband, "What's going on? Was that me?" It was, she said, "Pretty strange. It hit close to home."

Jackson knows enough about the struggling NBC series to know that the pivotal romance between the Hayes character and the "East Coast liberal Jewish atheist" writer Matt Albie is based, in large part, on the real-life romance between Sorkin and the Tony Award-winning actress Kristin Chenoweth, an outspoken Christian.

"It's hard on a very private level," Chenoweth told the Toronto Star. "I once told Aaron, `Unless you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior, then get the hell out,' and he laughed for two minutes. Then I see it on the show in a different way. ... I went on The 700 Club to promote an album of Christian songs I had recorded and, yes, Aaron and I argued about that. But it doesn't mean I want to watch that disagreement flung up on the screen for all America to see."

Chenoweth stressed that the character "is literally me and some of it is not me at all."

Jackson feels the same way. She has seen scenes that appear to have been based on events -- on-stage and off -- during her SNL seasons from 1986-92, when the "Tonight Show" veteran worked with Dana Carvey, Julia Sweeney, Dennis Miller, Nora Dunn, Mike Myers, Jan Hooks, David Spade and others. Take, for example, that "Studio 60" pilot that focused on a comedy sketch entitled "Crazy Christians."

That was the name Jackson assigned to a sketch she was asked to perform, leading her to plead for relief from executive director Lorne Michaels. He heard her out and assigned another actress to do the part. The sketch bombed in dress rehearsal and vanished.

"It was a legitimate sketch that was making fun of what they called extreme Christians," said Jackson. "You know, there are Christians out there that make life rather embarrassing for other Christians. ...

"Now I can make fun of people who have a Jesus toaster and Jesus salt and pepper shakers and Jesus napkin holders. That's fair. But this time they wanted me to kneel down in a comedy show and pretend to pray -- to get a laugh. I just couldn't do it. I told Lorne that I thought I'd start crying or shaking. Prayer is real. I think prayer is talking to God."

Jackson said it's important that her colleagues worked with her and tried to respect her beliefs. Still, it was sometimes hard to do comedy when few -- if any -- of the writers truly understood her faith and, thus, her strengths as a comic.

"Studio 60" is doing a good job of showing this kind of tension, she said. It also helps that Harriet Hayes is not being portrayed as "one of those Christian clich