VATICAN CITY—As Pope John Paul II enters his 26th year as pontiff, the world is stopping to reflect on the legendary funnyman's career as one of the most influential performers in modern history. Standing staunchly against contraception and women's equality right through the turn of the 21st century, the pope and his quirky, deadpan comic persona still entertain audiences around the world.
Revered by multiple generations for his weird and wonderful wit, the 83-year-old pontiff is perhaps the best-known stand-up alive today. Throughout an amazing two and a half decades as head of the Catholic Church, the pope has produced, in both his live appearances and his published works, a treasure trove of humor second to none.
"I can still remember seeing him do his classic 'Galileo' bit in the early '90s," said fellow comedian George Carlin, referring to the pope's 1992 declaration that the church erred in condemning Galileo. "Here was this man, appearing on televisions around the world, making a proclamation that the sun does not move around the earth. I laughed until tears rolled down my cheeks."
"No one could touch the pope," Carlin added. "Hell, no one even tried. He was in a class of his own. One of a kind."
Born Karol Joseph Wojtyla in Wadowice, a town 35 miles southwest of Krakow, the pope did not have an easy childhood. In what may have contributed to his desire to inspire laughter, he faced many early hardships. His mother died just a month before his 9th birthday, and only three years later, his brother died of scarlet fever. The pope began his religious career shortly thereafter, studying in an underground seminary in Krakow. He established himself in the Krakow scene and was awarded an archbishopric in 1963. He made cardinal in 1967.
Among the works to give the pope his first taste of fame was his 1960 treatise Love And Responsibility, in which he defined a "modern Catholic sexual ethic." It was here that the pope developed his oft-repeated chestnut that the only acceptable act of sex is one intended for the creation of a child.
"The pope would always lean on his material about sex," director Woody Allen said. "He had this crazy, special way of looking at the world. I definitely count him among my influences."
After years of working the smaller cathedrals, the pope's hard work paid off. On Oct. 16, 1978, he was chosen to head Rome's most venerated comedic institution, the Vatican.
"No one else is still doing what the Vatican does," comedian Don Rickles said. "They may not be as big as they once were, but they still surprise—like that bit a few weeks ago, where they said condoms don't prevent AIDS. Was that improvised?"
After 25 years at the top of his field, the pope still draws a crowd. On Oct. 19, he presided over the beatification of Mother Teresa. More than a quarter of a million people flooded St. Peter's Square to witness the stunt, in which the pope declared that the hard-working, benevolent nun had performed miracles and possessed supernatural powers.
The pope has created more saints and beatified more people than all the previous popes combined, and no other pope has toured as extensively as he has. The quintessential showman loves to take his act on the road. He's entertained audiences in 117 countries and met with hundreds of world leaders, including dictators Augusto Pinochet and Fidel Castro.
"John Paul is the hardest-working pope in history," actor Jonathan Winters said. "He's an inspiration. And not just for other comedians like myself, but for everyone, from theologians who will never be ordained because they're women, on down to the little children in the crowded ghettos of Third World cities who heed his message about the evils of contraception. Let's not even go into the gays in Boise."
Since his first trip back to Poland in 1978, the pope has performed in front of millions of loyal fans all over the world.
"People would wait in line for hours to see him," comedian Joey Bishop said. "And he never failed to deliver. He'd be out there working the crowd—shaking hands, kissing babies. Wherever he went, they loved him."
The pope has also been lauded for his ability to think on his feet. Throughout his many years in the business, the pope has often been called upon to deliver a comeback when questioned about acts committed by the Catholic Church.
"John Paul II has riffed on everything from the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition to the treatment of Jews and blacks," actor Bob Newhart said."He's always had a unique ability to come at things in an unexpected way. I saw him last year on TV, talking about those molestation scandals. His main message was that Catholics shouldn't lose faith in the clergy. Hilarious! Now, I would've gone straight to some kind of apology to the victims, but I guess that's why he's the pope."
The master of the lightning-speed one-liner produced a string of memorable side-splitters earlier this year. When meeting with the Dutch ambassador to the Vatican, he referenced the country's laws governing same-sex unions. Condemning the laws, the pope said that sexual relationships are for "men and women whose love will yield children," and characterized gays as deviants who act contrary to "natural law."
Despite suffering from debilitating Parkinson's disease, the pope shows no signs of toning down his act. With his trademark wit, the pontiff recently announced that, in spite of his failing health, he will remain pope "as long as God wants."
"There will never be another Pope John Paul II," said comedian Jerry Stiller. "He's truly one of a kind, straight out of a time and place that no longer exist."