Laughter & Religion
An interview with cartoonist Dan Reynolds
By Kevin T. Di Camillo
Dan Reynolds is many things: a candidate for the diaconate, a comedian, a cartoonist, a cancer survivor, a loving husband and father. But when asked to describe his life in one word (or more), he simply said, “Joy.”
As a cancer survivor myself, as well as a man considering a vocation to the Order of Deacons, I’m not sure that “joy” would have been my first word! But Dan Reynolds takes humor seriously. And to Dan, “Joy is not just a three-letter word: It’s short for Jesus, Others, [and] Yourself.”
I asked Dan point-blank, “Did Jesus ever laugh?” He responded without a moment’s hesitation: “Absolutely! Jesus was fully human and fully divine! And laughter is unique to mankind — no other creature that God formed ‘gets’ humor, but Jesus did. He must have!”
This led into my next query: “Did Jesus have a sense of humor?” To which Dan said, “Yes — but a lot of Jesus’ sense of humor has been lost over the ages. Humor doesn’t always translate from one culture to another over time particularly well. But when Jesus replies to the Pharisees’ disciples and the Herodians, ‘Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s’ (Matthew 22:21), he is clearly being clever, if not funny.”
It’s worth noting that Shakespeare’s “comedies” aren’t particularly “funny” by today’s standards — and Dante’s epic Divine Comedy really isn’t funny at all. Comedy changes over time.
Dan also pointed out, “Look at how Jesus renames ‘Simon’ as ‘Peter’ and states, ‘Upon this ‘Rock’ I will build my church’ (Matthew 16:17-18): This is a pun on the word Cephas which means both ‘Rock’ and ‘Peter.’” In this instance Dan is in good company: James Joyce, perhaps the greatest writer of the 20th century, also found this pun hilarious.
They say that humor is the best medicine, and Dan agrees. When he was diagnosed with stage 2 testicular cancer in 2008, Dan handed out his cartoon greeting cards to others undergoing chemotherapy. “It seemed to bring joy and put a smile on the faces of the other patients, which picked me up.” Further, he noted that “this was the best of times and the worst of times. While my body was feeling the ill effects of slowly being poisoned by the chemotherapy treatments in a race against the cancer, at the same time, my spirit was being infused by God’s grace and a new joy was welling up within me.”
Dan — who refers to his “act” as “divine comedy” (an obvious nod to the great epic poet Dante noted above) — says he’s been cranking out cartoons since he was 30. Before that, he never even knew how to draw. Within two years, he had submitted some of his cartoons to a national greeting card company and ended up creating the best-selling card in the country.
“The challenge today, after 26 years,” he notes, “is trying to come up with something funny — and different! — every single day.” He considers his major influences to be Gary Larson (The Far Side) and Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes). Dan also loves to create pastel paintings of his favorite saints, such as the Virgin Mary, John Paul II, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Mother Teresa.
But perhaps this isn’t so odd when we consider Dan’s circuitous route to his vocation as a husband, father, and deacon-to-be. After college, instead of pursuing a career, Dan “entered the United States Navy and was honorably discharged four years later as a petty officer in 1985.”
The serpentine route to today continued. He worked for the City Youth Bureau, creating youth activities for 22 years. This involved working with the public sector, which Dan said was good training for the work he presently does at his parish — Divine Mercy Parish in Central Square, New York — where he coordinates parish life activities. “This will also serve me well as a deacon,” he added. (He is expected to be ordained in 2020 for the Diocese of Syracuse in New York.)
Dan may have “always” been a Catholic, but he told me, “I went from being just a nominal Catholic to an active one once I was married: I realized — slowly — that there was a vision for me and my work as a cartoonist and budding comedian. It was as though God was turning a light on, but slowly, and by small degrees.”
More and more Dan began to “understand” comedy. “What gets people’s sense of humor — what gets them to laugh — whether it’s in my cartoons or my jokes — is that they are expecting one thing but you deliver them another. I call it going from ‘Ah!’ to ‘Ah-HA!’ to ‘Ah-ha-ha-ha!’ and ultimately to ‘Ah-ah-Amen!’”
Not that it’s always been one big boatload of laughs for Dan. As a fellow-survivor of testicular cancer, I agree with his summation that “we really can’t understand all the reasons for suffering, but it does give us a better and deeper appreciation of life itself.”
And it doesn’t stop there: “In my faith I can have the reassurance that — like when you are a little kid riding in the car with your parents — you just trust that they know the way, that they will get you there safely. That’s how it felt, lying in that hospital bed. I felt like I knelt next to Jesus when he was in Gethsemane and I prayed with him. And God’s response was simply a very comforting: ‘No matter what happens, I’ll be here.’”
Mercifully Dan is still here, too, along with his cartoons and his stand-up routine, the Divine Comedy presentation. In this presentation, Dan combines his Catholic faith, cartooning, and humor, revealing how laughter and joy are gifts of God that can enrich our faith life.
“It’s part of God’s plan,” Dan said. “It’s no coincidence that God made the mouth to point toward heaven whenever we smile.”
Dan’s goal is to help bring about a new awareness of the connection of faith, humor, and joy by doing his presentation all over the country for whomever contacts him. “Joy,” Dan says, “is an intimate part of what Pope Francis desires for the Church — mercy, Divine Mercy.”
“Ultimately,” Dan said, “even the fear of death — during those dark days of cancer — could not put out the light. And that — that was total grace.”
To invite Dan Reynolds to perform his Divine Comedy presentation for your church or school, contact him through his website: DivineComedyDan.Weebly.com or email him at DivineComedyDan@gmail.com.