It's as if aliens with no conception of how human humor works had decided to mimic 'Saturday Night Live,' but without any cursing. Like aliens, the participants have a kind of emotional impermeability to them. It's fascinating to watch, but also...
All the great men of history have had their escape valves, their private passions. Einstein played the violin. Disraeli wrote romantic novels. Napoleon used to rub two ferrets covered in sulphur together until one of them caught fire. So it is with the head of Narconon International, Scientology’s notorious drug-rehabiliation wing.
His name is Clark Carr, and when he isn’t fooling around with e-meters, he's part of Laughworks, which claims to be a comedy group of some kind and also features the woman who used to voice Cubbi in Gummi Bears.
The guys and gals in Laughworks have been taking their laugh-an-hour routines around the Scientology world for the last decade, but of late they’ve gone quiet. Clark in particular has been busy defending his organization from charges that it routinely took out credit cards in the names of people it was supposed to be helping. All that changed last Tuesday, when Stand Up for Valley Org took to the stage in LA. As the name suggests, it was an entire evening of Scientologyl comedy devoted to raising money for the San Fernando Valley Scientologists' plan to build an Ideal Org, which is a deluxe kind of church.
Scientology comedy means no swearing and no sexual references, just a bunch of high-ranking Scientologists standing in a hall trying to tickle your funny bone. Happily for them, the San Fernando Valley Scientologists had a trump card: the voice of Bart Simpson, Nancy Cartwright. Plus the mediocre standup Elvis Winterbottom, the downright awful comedy songster Evan Wecksell, and, of course, Laughworks.
Laughworks isn't just not funny; the sketches are so unfunny that they achieve a kind of power in their unfunniness. They deliver what addicts would call a moment of clarity—moments when you can see not only the futility of your own choices, but the futility of your personal universe, and you resolve to change yourself at an atomic level. They continue performing, and recording and sharing, their "comedy" when most people would have quit many times over. It's sort of awe-inspiring, but also awful to watch.
How unfunny are they?
It's as if aliens with no conception of how human humor works had decided to mimic Saturday Night Live. Like aliens, the participants have a kind of emotional impermeability to them. The motivations of both the characters and the performers are totally mysterious, which makes it fascinating to watch, but also completely unwatchable. There’s just nothing human inside to feast on. Not a morsel of self-doubt, no flickering pilot light of human engagement. They load the program. They execute the program. Program executed.
What else is in the Laughworks repertoire?
Well, there is a sketch about their witness-protection program:
It seems that along with curse words and nudity, punchlines have been banned by the church's authorities. But skits that remind people of the most common media tactic for interviewing cult survivors are perfectly OK.
Also OK by the church, but not OK with anyone else, is this:
Clark Carr is a tall bald man you can see in this picture from way back in the day. It features Clark telling an addict that he has a scientific method that will liberate him from his drug prison.
His sketches are less funny than that:
If comedy is the ratcheting up of a superficially logical paradigm toward a counterintuitive end, then this is certainly comedy.
If comedy is funny, then this isn’t that.
Unfortunately even Laughworks’ pièce de résistance is stranded in similar territory. It strives to blow your mind, but instead lands in that awkward and very underpopulated place midway between Jean-Paul Sartre and Larry the Cable Guy:
“Any resemblance with the human condition is purely coincidental.” The audience of Scientologists knows that pseudo-profound zinger only too well. Note the knowing chuckle they offer: not so much laughter as collective affirmation that they’ve cracked it, that they've figured out what the really big secret to it all is, buddy. They know how to escape the box, thanks to the teachings of Hubbard, and I guess... that's... humor? To them? Maybe?
Follow Gavin on Twitter: @hurtgavinhaynes