So what is it about nuns that makes them such queens of comedy on stage and screen?
Consider “Sister Act,” a Broadway musical version of the same-titled movie hit, which tours to the Paramount Theatre next week.
Here we have Delores, a club singer (played by Whoopi Goldberg on film, and Ta’rea Campbell in the touring musical) who witnesses a murder. For her own protection, the police hide her in a convent where she masquerades as a Catholic nun.
It’s a classic fish-out-of-water comedy, with the jaded Delores in wisecracking contrast to the obedient, unworldly nuns who are headed by a stern mother superior. In the end, of course, mutual respect and warmth develop — and Delores turns the convent chorus into a rousing soul-music choir. (Note: the stage show has original music by prolific Broadway-Hollywood composer Alan Menken.)
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“Sister Act” isn’t, certainly, the only conventional convent farce to strike theatrical gold. Remember “Late Night Catechism,” the impishly nostalgic, interactive visit with a substitute teacher in a parish catechism class? It’s been produced in numerous cities and it ran for years, literally, here at ACT Theatre.
Even more popular is “Nunsense,” an irreverent revue set in a Catholic school, with sisters reflecting on their lives and foibles in song. It’s logged one of the longest runs in Off Broadway history, has had at least 8,000 professional and amateur productions worldwide, and spun off six sequels — including “Nunset Boulevard.”
Not counting Christopher Durang’s scathing satire, “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You,” these amusements mentioned are meant in good fun, and portray the Catholic Church in a fairly favorable light.
And clearly there’s something about nuns that brings on the giggles for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The quasi-medieval “penguin” garb — tunics and veils — are incongruous. The virtuousness, sexual and otherwise, of Catholic sisters is fodder for countless naughty jokes — compounded by the inappropriateness of a nun character telling (or singing) them.
Fact is, stereotypical nun humor derives more from images of nuns in the 1950s (and further back) than in current times.
These days you’re more likely to see American nuns in pants and sneakers, than in the flowing black habits and peaked headdresses of stage nuns. Nuns often share communal houses in the communities where they work, rather than living in convents.
Yes, they still take vows of celibacy and poverty.
But many nuns are highly educated, well-traveled and sophisticated, not naive and cloistered. They don’t all teach or nurse, but may run organizations that promote social welfare or legal and economic justice. And there are outspoken, controversial activist nuns like Sister Simone Campbell, who led a recent bus tour to protest the effect of Republican Party economic policies on the poor.
One wonders, then, if nuns get a hoot out of the old-fashioned images of their kind that dominate entertainments like “Sister Act.” Perhaps they do, and it’s perfectly fine that we do, too. As long as we remember that “Sister Act” is an act, not a true reflection of the real American nuns among us.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org