Laughter lessons: a comedy watchlist for Pope Francis

<span>Giving the audience a grin … Eric Idle and Graham Chapman in Life of Brian.</span><span>Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy</span>
Giving the audience a grin … Eric Idle and Graham Chapman in Life of Brian.Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

A hundred top comedians are generally considered a tough crowd, but Pope Francis had them rolling in the aisles at the Vatican on Friday, with jovial praise for their profession.

To “laugh at God” was fine, he explained, in the same way “we play and joke with the people we love”.

“While communication today often generates conflict,” the pontiff continued, “you know how to bring together diverse and sometimes contrary realities. How much we need to learn from you!”

The church has been the source of a great deal of humour over the ages – not all of it welcomed at the time by believers. Here we look at some of the most successful comedies for Pope Francis – and his disciples – to contemplate.

Life of Brian

All study of religious irreverence must begin with Monty Python’s satire about Brian (Graham Chapman), born to Mandy (Terry Jones), in the stable next door to Jesus – prompting considerable confusion. Now considered one of the finest films ever made, it was banned for blasphemy in 1979 across much of the world, including Ireland and Italy. This proved commercially invaluable. In Sweden, its posters read: “So funny it was banned in Norway.”

Father Ted

Among the pope’s congregation was Ardal O’Hanlon, best known as endlessly bewildered Father Dougal in Channel 4’s surreal sitcom about three priests exiled to remotest Craggy Island. Despite their almost total lack of faith, both Dougal and Ted (Dermot Morgan) share a benign decency (money resting in bank accounts notwithstanding) which made them that rare thing in the mid-90s: much-loved high-profile priests.

Now a key comfort watch for many (Maurice Gibb was buried with the boxset), Ted has long since overcome its early controversy. Plus, as its creators once reassured a real priest, it was never intended to be representative. “Lads,” he told them, “you don’t know the half of it.”

Derry Girls

Also in attendance on Friday was Tommy Tiernan, who features in Lisa McGee’s show set in a girls’ Catholic school during the Troubles. The headmistress is the withering Sister George Michael (Siobhán McSweeney), who drips contempt for pupils and priests alike, and only became a nun for the free accommodation.

Sister Angela’s Girls

If that all proves too pointed for the pontiff, he might prefer this soapy Italian series in which an ex-con nun doles out frank advice to young hotties lodging in her convent. Angela’s faith is sincere, though her methods – think slapping local playboys – less conventional.

Sister Act

Whoopi Goldberg is a regular visitor to the Vatican: last year she petitioned Pope Francis to cameo in the third Sister Act film, continuing the adventures of a nightclub singer who seeks refuge from the mob sequestered in Maggie Smith’s nunnery. Goldberg reported that despite being “a bit of a fan”, Francis said he’d have to check his schedule.

The Pope Must Die

Released in the US as the marginally less sacrilegious The Pope Must Diet, this surprisingly tame comedy sees maverick priest Robbie Coltrane accidentally installed in the Vatican. It was released a year after Nuns on the Run, with Coltrane and Eric Idle struggling to suppress their criminal tendencies and heterosexual stirrings beneath enormous habits.

Bruce Almighty

Nothing to trouble the devout in this jolly Jim Carrey romp about an avaricious anchorman offered the chance to play God for a week. Amusing moments conclude with a respectful moral about converting sin into an appreciation of life’s small joys.

The Invention of Lying

This smart and subtle Ricky Gervais comedy is set in an alternative reality in which fibs don’t exist. But when one man works out how to lie, he cooks up the concept of religion to comfort his dying mother: “It’s not an eternity of nothingness. You go to your favourite place in the whole world and everyone you’ve ever loved will be there. And there’s no pain.”

Good Omens

The series based on Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s novel about a bickering angel (David Tennant) and demon (Michael Sheen) teaming up to avert Armageddon portrays heaven and hell as petty bureaucracies and flawed humanity as the universe’s only hope. A mixed message for Christianity, but uplifting seen through the right lens.

The Vicar of Dibley

“You were expecting a bloke: beard, Bible, bad breath. Instead, you got a babe with a bobcut and a magnificent bosom,” declares Dawn French at the start of Richard Curtis’s sitcom. Forged in the heat of the Anglican church agreeing to ordain women, it has since become one of their most effective weapons. Geraldine Granger’s language may be irreverent but you could never doubt her commitment – three consecutive Christmas dinners included.