The Divine Comedy Within The Young Pope

The show is funny because it's about the power of humor—and the absurdities of faith.

Gianni Fiorito/HBO

One of the funniest moments of recent TV memory comes in the second episode The Young Pope during a tense meeting between Jude Law’s Lenny Belardo—Pope Pious XIII—and a cardinal who opposed his ascension to the papacy. Belardo asks the cardinal whether he is a homosexual; the cardinal, after a long and pained pause, answers yes. Belardo, silent, reaches to the button beneath his desk that sends a signal to his staff that he needs an excuse to end a meeting.

Into the room comes the papal secretary, Sister Surree. Chipperly: “Time for your snack, Holy Father!”

Belardo lets out a shocked snort of laughter and tries to stifle it. His voice exasperated, unbelieving: “My snack?”

“Yes, Holy Father, your snack.”

“Right,” he says, nodding. “That’s what she calls it. I have to have”—pause—“my snack now. Goodbye, your eminence.” The cardinal, knowing his career to have suddenly and unceremoniously ended, kisses the pope’s hand and leaves.

There are many, many amusing moments in The Young Pope so far, but this might be the best. Belardo has taken pains to seem inscrutable and unswayable; early on, the fact that he’s “a man of little appetite” strikes church officials as ominous. But sweet Sister Surree is apparently not in on the act. Her suggestion that he’s a child who needs to drop everything for snack time is totally wrong, and very hilarious.

Most importantly, though, it’s hilarious to the pope himself.

In the time since it premiered on HBO earlier this month, Paolo Sorrentino’s tale of the Vatican suddenly overtaken by a 47-year-old American who loves Cherry Coke Zero and cigarettes has puzzled viewers about what level of irony it’s operating at. “How Funny Does the Young Pope Want to Be?” asked The Vulture TV Podcast, summing up the primary question confronting critics of the highly stylized, often surreal-seeming drama.

The answer to that question is at the heart of the show’s genius. The Young Pope doesn’t satirize the Vatican; rather, with its meticulous attention to costuming, casting, and ritual, it aims for something close to a realistic depiction. It’s Belardo the character and Sorrentino the filmmaker who are funny. The two each bring keen perception, wit, and a flair for surprise to an unchanging, ancient place. The fundamental concern here is faith’s ludicrousness—both its rococo trappings and its colossal influence on individual lives. Belardo and Sorrentino embrace that ludicrousness fully, wringing from it both laughter and terror.

That Belardo crawls out from a pile of babies in the opening dream sequence of the series suggests, among other things, that being young is more than incidental to this young pope. He brings to a millennia-old institution the eyes of a child; for him and for the camera, there is nothing rote about the cardinals lined up in symmetry, the nuns playing soccer, the magnificent frescos and gardens, the outrageous papal vestments. Humor naturally arises from such a setting when seen fresh—especially when seen from behind the scenes, with holy men and women wielding iPads and wearing novelty t-shirts—perhaps for the same reason that a “a priest walks into a bar” is a cliche.

But the show’s novelty isn’t simply a matter of perceiving anew, it’s also a matter of making something anew. Belardo realizes the extent to which the church has become rote and furniture-like to both those within and outside, and he seeks to re-exoticize it. So he admonishes his cook to ditch the familiar tone she’d grown accustomed to using with previous popes; he refuses to have his image commodified on knick knacks; he keeps the world and his advisers guessing as to his intentions. “Mystery is a serious matter, it’s not some marketing strategy,” his mentor, Cardinal Spencer, tells him. But Belardo’s path to mystery involves copious amounts of unseriousness.

Within the safe space of humor, he tests dangerous ideas, as when he confides that he doesn’t believe in God and then says “just kidding.” Through the entertaining power of humor, he gives his testimony more bite, as when he tells his confessor, “I was praying so hard I nearly shit my pants.” And through the luxury of humor—the fact that he is allowed to crack wise when others must remain solemn—he repeatedly asserts his dominance. “I’m not the one dispensing jokes in the Vatican anymore, Your Holiness, now it’s you,” Cardinal Voiello, the Vatican’s increasingly exasperated secretary of state, tells him. Belardo spits back,“First of all, I suggest you recover as soon as possible your legendary fake courtesy. And secondly, my jokes contain the truth.”

Sorrentino’s camera largely lives inside Belardo’s head, which means the filmmaker needs to be as funny as his protagonist. Whether with incongruous soundtrack choices, skewed angles, or jarring cuts between scenes, the show keeps the viewer off-balance and ever-guessing. You can see the blurring between filmmaking sensibility and Belardo’s interiority in the bizarre closing of the latest episode, when the Prime Minister of Greenland dances carefreely to rock music alone in an empty room as facts about her country flash across the screen. The best interpretation I’ve got is that the sequence is the Pope’s flight of fancy, perhaps a sublimation of sexual desire (along the lines of “think about baseball”) or perhaps simply a vision of a life less encumbered than his own.

All of this means that The Young Pope is a machine built to deliver surprise—and surprise is, of course, the essence of comedy. But because comedy is not necessarily the end goal of either Belardo’s or Sorrentino’s mischievous style—newness, wonder, and mystery are—surprise infuses even the most dramatic scenes. Which perhaps explains some of the audience’s confusion about how serious the serious stuff really is.

It’s fair, certainly, to ask whether we’re witnessing parody: Take, for example, a moment in the fourth episode where the pope spies on the laywoman Esther having sex and implores the Virgin Mary to grant her a child, sternly and repetitively ordering an unseen presence in the sky to do his will. But what else should earnest, desperate, stark-serious prayer look like? Belardo may not be certain God exists, but that uncertainty has only made the question of the divine all the more urgent to him. Even if the young pope and The Young Pope are aesthetically irreverent, deep down they are filled with reverence—fear and desire for something beyond this life.

Even within the show itself, this merging of sensibilities—heavenly yearning meets worldly quipping—can breed misunderstanding. In a scene from the most recent episode, Esther speaks with Cardinal Voiello. When she suggests she can sway the pope’s opinions because “he respects me,” Voiello puts his hand over his mouth and muffles a giggle.“I was about to laugh, but I stopped myself because I have a certain class,” he says. “We seriously doubt that the pope even respects God.” He’s wrong—we’ve seen the pope passionately beg repentance from above, we’ve seen his compassion for Esther, and we’ve begun to get the sense that he may even have divine powers. But Voiello has conflated impishness with impiousness. For once on this show, he’s heard a joke where there isn’t one.