The first thing you notice at a Christian stand-up comedy gathering is that everyone is so damn nice. They are nice even when a dreadlocked Jew from Brooklyn steps on stage, clearing his throat, and starts telling jokes. I know this because that dreadlocked Jew from Brooklyn was me.
I was on stage at His Hands Church in Cobb County, Georgia, delivering a bunch of Jesus jokes I'd written in my hotel the night before:
"I used to play in a Christian punk bank. We were called the No Sex Before Marriage Pistols."
"I have an atheist friend. The only problem is, I don't believe he exists."
I had come here for the Christian Comedy Association's annual conference to learn everything there is to know about the sub-genre. Roughly 100 Christian comedians from around the country had gathered inside the church for the two-day conference, where there would be workshops, prayers, networking, and performances – all aimed at serving God through humour.
"All the jokes, all the workshops, all the meetings are nothing without the Lord by your side," said Kenn Kington, the CCA's president, who kicked off the comedy conference. "Let us follow you Jesus."
A Bible passage from Corinthians appeared on a large screen, and the comedians bowed their heads in a prayer: "Father, thank you for the way you gifted us… It's only through the gift of Jesus that we do this for you."
In this alternative comedy universe, Christian stand-up comedians are stars in their own holy stratosphere. Some have sold multi-platinum records, yet are virtually unknown to the mainstream comedy world. Their routines use all the same ingredients of stand-up, with one difference: Their comedy is a vehicle to serve God.
"I perform wherever I can," said a newbie comedian who had traveled from California to be at the CCA conference. "Youth groups, churches, open mics…"
"Do you do mainstream clubs?" I asked, as we congregated near the food table.
"Yes, but I have to plug my ears," he said. "Everyone is just trying to be dirty for the sake of being dirty. Even Chris Rock says you have to start out clean."
He had a point. Two nights before I arrived at CCA, I had gone to a comedy show in Atlanta where someone did a bit about his cat lapping up fresh cum after sex with his partner. There wasn't even a joke attached.
Christian comedy, by contrast, is squeaky-clean, Jesus-centred, and often tied to an inspirational message. There are, needless to say, no dick jokes. From what I'd seen, it's mostly made up of observational humor about things Christians do, like go to church or do chores for their wives. As Kington explained at the beginning of the conference, "Our entire purpose is so we can be around others who are doing this and see why God gave us this crazy gift. And that really is what this is."
Within the Christian comedy circuit, that crazy gift can mean good money. Headliners can reap $1,500 to $2,500 per church comedy show – which adds up, since there are more churches than comedy clubs. Comics can move up the ranks quickly, since there's a limited pool of comedians and each church has hours of programming to fill.
"Almost every year, there's somebody here that came just to learn about comedy and try to get bookings in churches because clubs are drying up," said Gordon Douglas, the CCA chaplain. "If you're doing this Christian comedy out of the love of God and because he called you to it, you will know his joy and peace."
I wasn't sure I knew what he meant, but I nodded.
"We do no different in the church world than what every evangelist has done since I was a kid," said Chonda Pierce, one of the biggest stars in Christian stand-up comedy. "They have a funny story at the very start – they're trying to capture the audience's attention so they can set them up and deliver their sermon. So that's what I do."
Pierce, who started her career as a Minnie Pearl impersonator, is now repped by the same manager as Billy Crystal and Woody Allen. Still, no one in Hollywood has heard of her because of this niche circuit. "I got an award this year as the most gold and platinum awarded female comic in history – in any genre." She recalls the award presenter leaning over and saying, "I've never heard of ya!"
It's not surprising. For the past 25 years, Pierce has been selling out shows in towns with names like Sedalia, Zionsville, and Silsbee. "In the Christian comedy world, as far as the church goes, being a woman is a plus," she said about the large ratio of females on the circuit. "To get a bunch of guys to come out and hear you is pulling teeth for a church. To get a bunch of women to come hear a woman comedian – they'll just come in mini-vans! My audience has the checkbook; your audience has to have permission to leave the house!"
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In the late 90s, Pierce held the very first CCA conference on her 100-acre farm in rural Tennessee (nicknamed "The Funny Farm"). A woman from LA participated in the gathering and asked Pierce how to get more comedy work at churches. "I said, 'Well, the first thing I'd start doing is wear a bra.' I was very sincere in saying that."
We all know that nobody is going to buy a ticket if all it says is: 'A Bunch of People Are Going to Talk About Jesus Tonight for $25.' – Chonda Pierce
For Pierce, being a Christian comedian means "at some point in the night, you want your audience to make a decision. That's what Christianity is: We have made a decision to believe Jesus."
She explained that could take the form of coming to Jesus, preaching the Bible, or loving one another as the Lord has loved us. "Whatever that is, we're going to have a moment of purpose." To her, the distinction is using stand-up comedy as a spiritual vehicle rather than using Christianity as the purpose behind her comedy. "We all know that nobody is going to buy a ticket if all it says is: 'A Bunch of People Are Going to Talk About Jesus Tonight for $25."
"People feel afraid of the title," Pierce said of being a Christian stand-up. "It grieves me when I realised later on that it was causing me limitations."
True, the mainstream comedy world doesn't know what to make of Christian comedians. A week earlier, I asked secular comedian Brendon Walsh his take. "It's the same thing that comes to mind when I hear the term 'Christian Rock,'" he said. "It's like something that this specific group wants, but they can't have the real thing because it doesn't agree with their beliefs. It's like being lactose intolerant. You still want ice cream because it's great, but you can't have it because it makes you shit your pants. So they make their own crappy version of it that won't make them shit themselves, but it's just not the same."
Comedian Doug Stanhope had a harsher take: "There is no question that religion is born in power and control," he said. Stanhope feels that this ideology spills over into Christian standup comedy. "Their followers are guilty of trying to find an easy answer, whether it's in a book, a sermon – or even a joke – rather than question the quandary of life on their own terms."
This view toward Christian comedy can make it difficult for Christian comedians to perform in secular clubs. It breaks Pierce's heart to see Christian comics compromise their material when they perform in mainstream comedy clubs. "Not only does it grieve me," she said, "but I think it also grieves the Father. I think he says, 'Please be the same person that you are.'" Fearless to the faith, Pierce doesn't compromise: "I tell the exact same jokes as I do at the Grand Ole Opry as I do at the First Baptist!"
For the most part, her comedy does crossover in the parts of the country where Larry the Cable Guy and the Blue Collar Comedy Tour would play. She's also toured with Wanda Sykes on a USO tour of Afghanistan – though she was strictly told not to talk about Jesus.
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Pierce was diagnosed with clinical depression after the death of her husband in 2014 and the recent suicide of a close pastor. She now uses her comedy at her ministry to speak to those who might be going through the same thing: "That's what the Lord had designed for me to do."
Because of this, she sees spirituality as intrinsic to her comedic success. "If you're here because you eat, sleep, and dream your craft, you are going nowhere. You might succeed for a while, but you will eventually crash and burn and have nothing," she said during one conference event. "Hold your path and deliver the best comedy that you can but don't forget your Father. I can't take you all on and change your career, but I can invite the Holy Spirit into your life and pray for you."
"A Christian comedian is someone who wants to honour God every time they go on stage," explained a man who goes by the name Nazareth. "You can be in a prison. You can be in a strip club. It doesn't matter. If you're performing, you want to honour God – then God will find a way to honour himself through that."
His favourite joke: "How do you get Holy Water? You boil the Hell out of it."
Born in Kuwait, Nazareth started his comedy career in the early 90s, performing in clubs alongside the likes of Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, and Kevin James. Then, three years into his stand-up career, he found his comedy calling: "I gave my life to Christ. I left the clubs and was going to go back to accounting. And God said, 'No, I want you to use this for me.' So I said, 'Can I honour you?' And he said, 'Yes!'"
In 1992, Nazareth fasted for 40 days, at which time, he says God told him to rent a stadium to put on a Christian comedy concert and start his production company: Comedy Crusades. Now, no matter where he performs – whether it's a mainstream comedy club or a corporate event – Nazareth uses the comedy stage as his pulpit to spread the word of Jesus.
"I've headlined the Tempe Improv on a regular night," he said. "I ended up giving an invitation to Christ at the event. Honouring Him allowed me to do it. When you honour God with your comedy, he will use you regardless!" He hopes to one day perform the Rose Bowl, alongside other Christian comedians.
Lord, I'm serious about this comedy. Would you please give me a gig? I need a gig on Sunday. – Nazareth
At the conference, Nazareth was leading a workshop on getting more bookings. Before he began, the comedians' bowed their heads again: "Father we do it for you and we do it for humour…"
For them, praying is not just a ritual – Nazareth says he's secured more bookings through prayer than anything else. He offered practical advice to the group: "Say, 'Lord, I'm serious about this comedy. I'm serious about this performing. Can you please open the doors for me? Would you please give me a gig? I need a gig on Sunday.'"
Through this method, Nazareth says he's gotten last minute gigs filling in for vacant pastors. "God opens the doors," he said. In the past, he's also played the "Jesus card" – telling everyone he's a Christian – as a strategy for scrounging up business. Once, he says, he told the man sitting next to him on an airplane that he was a Christian who performed comedy shows to spread the gospel. "I booked a $10K gig on the plane."
No matter what faith, making a living as a comedian ain't easy. It involves the constant need of approval and a lot of rejection. In the Christian comedy world, Nazareth recommends a few pointers, such as "stalk your clients." Cracking the Christian comedy market is all about schmoozing – except it's done with pastors rather than booking agents. Nazareth suggested the strategy of Googling all the churches in a given area, and then to "drive to their church on a Sunday, shake their hand after the service, and sell them on your comedy."
When all else fails, Nazareth says to use God's forces, and prayer, to get the job done. For example, if James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, is appearing at a nearby church and there's a storm in his home base of Colorado, you should call the church and say, "If he wont be able to make it, I'm there!"
But most importantly: "Don't ever associate your calendar with your self-worth," Nazareth advised. "Times when I didn't have a lot of work I felt like a loser. Your self-worth is with God."
Unlike mainstream comedy gigs, where deprecation is part of the routine, there's a sense of resounding support within the Christian comedy circuit. "They don't really heckle in churches," said Brian Smith, part of the comedy musical duo Dave and Brian.
That's an advantage of performing on the Christian stand-up comedy circuit: Occasionally you get someone shouting out "Rebuke!" – an Old Testament reference to disproval – but for the most part, church crowds are good. Instead of drunk heckles, they usually show passive-aggressive disdain by plastering on a tense smile.
I asked Smith what made a successful Christian comedy routine.
"Talk about mother-in-laws," he said. "Talk about kids."
"What about shopping at Home Depot?" I suggested, remembering how many stand-up performances on the first night at the conference involved that hilarious scenario.
Smith added a big hackneyed Christian comedy standard: "Talk about the differences between white churches and black churches." That, he said, would bring down the house.
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Later at the conference, a comedian called Bone Hampton got on stage to provide tough love to the new comedians. You could tell Bone crushes it in any room he plays; he's even performed in a fair number of mainstream clubs, and has appeared on The View and My Name is Earl.
Bone takes a different attitude to the current biggest star in comedy: "This is the hardest thing I struggle with these LA comics: 'Louis CK is fearless; he'll say anything. I love Louis CK because there's nothing he wont say.' That doesn't make you better than us! Because there's some stuff you ain't supposed to say!"
Applause. There were a few shouts of "amen."
"There's some stuff the Lord would tap you on your shoulder and say, 'That's not on the stage I put you on! That's not coming out your mouth to my people!' That's the thing I say about being a Christian comic – don't get caught up with we wont say stuff. We don't do shock; we're not trying to shock people. We do funny!"
Metaphorically, Bone dropped the mic.
In the beginning, intent on learning all that I could about Christian comedy, I had signed up for the Christian comedy competition. Before I got onstage, I was nervous as hell. I couldn't do the joke about "having a threesome with a pair of Siamese twins attached at the vagina," or referring to the audience as "a bunch of divorced dads sleeping in a motel while their ex-wives are being finger-banged by a fitness instructor named Hovig." Cross those off the list. I had to make these people laugh with clean, crafted jokes.
Everyone got three minutes to perform their best material. There were jokes about weight loss. A guy pointed out that people abducted by UFOs are usually stupid. One woman pulled out a pair of electric nose clippers and proceeded to use the device. A bald guy put on his best Ching-Chong-Ding-Dong voice and performed an impression of a cat-eating chef at a Chinese restaurant. Another comic launched into a bit about how, when he was 16, he couldn't take his 19-year-old wife to prom – though he didn't expand upon getting married at 16, as if that was some sort of given.
I opted for silly, surreal religious jokes that I had written on a napkin: "I used to be a Mormon comedian. Here's a joke from my act, 'Take one of my wives, please… because I have several… because I'm a Mormon…'"
The votes were tallied, and – by the grace of God, I suppose – I had sealed my position in the big evening Christian stand-up comedy show.
The author performing his Christian stand-up routine. Video courtesy of J. Drake Productions
In the end, it was me, the Jew, who stormed the Christian stand-up comedy showcase. It was surprisingly fun – we were all just telling jokes, messing around on stage, and making people laugh. That's the world of comedy. Every good comedy set is like a religious experience, though mine just happened not to be attached to a big magical invisible man in the sky.
"I've never seen comedy done like that before," said a comedian from Des Moines after my act.
"Do you mostly perform at churches?" asked a comic from Philly.
Bone walked by. "Good job!"
It made me realise: This was really just a room full of other comedians, and comedians are all from the same island of misfit toys – God-fearing or otherwise. We end complaining about stuff, dissecting the crowd, and generally acting slightly jaded. And, judging by the amount of business cards handed to me, I think I could actually have a career on the Christian comedy circuit; all I would have to do is sign on the dotted line for Jesus.
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