The divine comedy

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Ladies and gentlemen, I’m an atheist. I’m a total cliché of what the media makes the typical (moderately) liberal youngster out to be. My Sunday rituals consist of watching new episodes of “The Simpsons” and catching up on the previous week’s “Conan.” No church or bedtime prayers for me. I’ve tested the holy waters a couple of times, but I always came to the same conclusion.

As a kid, my parents would take me and my sister to Ash Wednesday, an event I dreaded each year. I’d endure the singing of tuneless hymns then wait in a line for an incense-scented man to trace an ash cross on my forehead. I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or fall asleep, both of which would have been wildly inappropriate.

After the service my mom would take us to run errands with her, and we would reluctantly walk around in public, resisting the urge to manically scrub the ashes from our faces out of embarrassment and itchiness.

It’s safe to say that in my house we practiced a “Monopoly” version of Catholicism: you could make up the rules as you went along and no one actually read the fine print. “You don’t have to do lent until you turn 13.” “You guys don’t have to go to Palm Sunday with me but put the palm leaves above your door.”

After the early years of the occasional evening masses, my grandmother bought me a beginner’s Christian Bible, complete with annotations and anecdotes proper for a preteen girl — “thou shalt not cheat on tests or touch yourself.” The Christian church services were less snooze-worthy for a young mind, but none of it ever truly made sense to me. There was no humor in any of it, no beckoning light for me in the house of worship.

People go to church because their faith is a definitive, irreplaceable part of who they are, but going to church only made me question who I pretended to be. I had no interest in getting closer to God; I just wanted to get the hell out.

The one constant that has shaped me, strangely enough, has been comedy. At a time in my life when I was bingeing “Seinfeld” in its entirety and devotedly watching “Family Guy,” I began delving more into comedy and discovering more about the people actually making it. With my cartoon universe trivia strongly intact, Seth MacFarlane became my fast favorite. I saw him on “Real Time with Bill Maher” in a panel discussion on topics including gay rights and atheism. He was so open about his atheism without being condescending — the same can’t be said for Maher. It seems rather ordinary, but his appearance made me realize that I wasn’t a liberal ass for being an atheist. (Many anonymous eggs on Twitter categorize MacFarlane as a liberal ass but I beg to differ.)

It was after that episode of “Real Time” that I at last dropped the bomb on my family: “yeah, I’m an atheist.”

From there, I revisited the Marx Brothers films and read up on “SNL” lore. I examined the lines that should and shouldn’t be crossed when it comes to jokes. Comedy became a part of my life force.

Fast forward nearly a decade to 2016. Some family members still give me lighthearted shit for not believing in a higher power. I periodically have to restrain myself from telling Maher-level liberal atheist jokes.

I had a particularly poetic experience this fall in New York City. It was my first time visiting the city, and of course it was a wondrous whirlwind of a week. My mom and I had just enjoyed a piece of cake from Magnolia Bakery, and we were killing time around Rockefeller Plaza until we checked in for a taping of “Late Night with Seth Meyers.”

Within the same few blocks as 30 Rockefeller Plaza is St. Patrick’s Cathedral. My mom was thrilled at the sight of it and we marched on over to the gothic-looking structure so she could take some pictures. I thought it’d be just a neat little outdoor photo opportunity, but what I didn’t know was that you can go inside the church and admire the windows and such. I hesitantly walked in and immediately became anxious. I couldn’t be welcome here. It felt like I was exploiting the sacred building for my own pleasure, when there were people lighting candles and kneeling within its walls. Patting my mom’s shoulder I said “go ahead, I’m going to wait outside.” I returned to the church steps and watched yellow cabs whiz by, in disbelief that I was actually in New York, a city overflowing with life.

I paced the steps and stared at the buildings, looking toward 30 Rock, a building where comedy history happens every day. As my mom was having a religious experience in the cathedral behind me, I was having one outside. I thought of all of the amazing things that have happened in those hallowed halls. Norm MacDonald told the “fake news” there. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler became America’s sweethearts there. Justin Timberlake put his “dick in a box” there. Seth Meyers told the nation about the birth of his first child there. It’s a place of huge laughs, surprising intimacy and pure magic. 30 Rock is a comedy temple, a culmination of what comedy can be.

Real church is boring anyway. At least at 30 Rock they let you laugh at the funny parts. 

Danielle Gutierrez covers comedy. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @dmariegutierrez.