The Saints Come Laughing In
Try an internet search for “faith + Stephen Colbert” (the late-night comedian) and you’ll come up with more than 4 million hits. Try again with Jim Gaffigan, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Steve Carrell, Bill Murray, and you’ll get a few million more.
And those are just the famous comedians who profess Christian affiliation. Countless others, not so famous but still drawing large crowds, are either completely transparent about their Christian faith or incorporate it into their comedy routines. Phil Callaway, John Crist, Chonda Pierce, Judy Savoy, Adrian Plass, to name a few, riff mostly about the idiosyncratic behaviour of church people.
Those who usually avoid incorporating Christian content in their routines, like Canadians Matt Falk and Leland Klassen, still say faith informs what they choose to joke about.
Stand-up is of course renowned for crudity, so the decision to be a “clean comic” makes you an anomaly. But that doesn’t bother Matt Falk at all.
“There’s a Downton Abbey quote that vulgarity is no substitute for wit,” he says. “If you can come up with a way to present the joke without swearing, then you’ve crafted a better joke.”
But why is faith so funny?
Comedy thrives in subcultures – just look at the dominance of Newfoundland comedians in the Canadian sector. In a big-picture view of the secular world, Evangelicals are definitely a subculture.
Judy Savoy, a semi-retired Nova Scotia writer and actress (find her on YouTube and Facebook), grew up in the 1950s and ’60s when the comedy circuit belonged mostly to Jewish comedians, she says.
In what was then “a predominantly Christian culture, they used humour as a way of connecting,” observes Savoy. “Here’s a fun fact – while Jewish people account for under 2.5% of the American population, about 70% of the American comedians are Jewish. Then Steve Martin came along, and one reviewer said he was probably the first white middleclass guy to make it as a comic.”
In the late 1990s, as Saskatchewan comedian Leland Klassen (www.LelandKlassen.com) was emerging on the circuit, he billed himself as “Canada’s only Mennonite comedian” – a subculture with very different traditions than the dominant Canadian culture at the time, he says.
“On the Prairies, Mennonite is like ethnicity. I’m really evangelical with Menno roots, but stopped using the term because people were just confused by it – although to be successful at comedy you must be true to who you are. Audiences want to know who you are, what you feel about stuff, because that makes your comedy unique.”
Today, evangelical is funny, especially when combining a modern lens to the literal understanding of the Bible stories. Think about it – a burning bush and a skinny teenager killing a giant are pretty good comic material.
Other stories even have intended humour in them, says Alberta funny man, Phil Callaway (www.PhilCallaway.com). “Like Elijah facing off with Baal’s priests telling them to pray louder, because Baal is probably on the toilet.”
Add modern illustrations and those same stories go to a whole new comic level. Cuyler Black, a full-time pastor (formerly of London, Ont., and now in New Jersey), enjoys a thriving side hustle in Christian cartoons. In his Inherit the Mirth comics (www.CuylerBlack.com), he takes a Bible story and adds modern captions to convey something offbeat, bizarre and wonderfully ironic. Some have called them “The Far Side meets the Bible.”
Though secular folks may not get Black’s references, modern Christians sure do. Take, for example, animals walking two by two into the ark – except the beavers who are muzzled and strapped into a dolly. Or Noah’s wife asking Noah whose idea it was to place the animals alphabetically, pointing to an empty ant jar next to the anteater cage. Or the Birds of Pray, heads bowed, asking “Give us this day our daily worm.”
Savoy, as well, mines the Bible for her sketch comedy: in her hands, the story of Mary’s Martha takes on an uncanny resemblance to Martha Stewart – imagine Jesus telling a Martha-Stewart type that Mary has it right. Or Savoy will present Eve with an overbite and an attitude problem about the onerous task of populating the earth.
Others slyly insert faith into their verbal jousting. Gaffigan, who grew up Roman Catholic in Indiana, pokes fun at his weight, his love of food, and being the only person in New York with five kids – pretty normal stuff. But at the end of one of his specials, he announces he’s going “to talk about Jesus,” a line that gets deftly rolled into a joke: “If you said to the pope that you’d like to talk about Jesus, he’d say ‘Easy freak, I keep work at work.’ ”
Colbert, who grew up Roman Catholic in South Carolina, is probably the most outspoken proponent of faith on late-night. He hosts the biggest celebrities, engaging in friendly theological banter with some especially if they’re atheist, like Ricky Gervais and Bill Maher.
In one of Colbert’s conversations with Maher – another born-and-raised Catholic – Colbert implored: “Come on back, Bill. The door is always open. Admit there are things greater in the universe than you.” A little more witty repartee, then Maher accuses Colbert of lecturing, and Colbert responds in a nearly unctuous tone: “lecture? … That was an invitation.”
From a Place of Pain to Joy
Some draw from personal pain. Chonda Pierce, who went from doing impressions of Minnie Pearl to now sold-out halls at the Grand Ole Opry, mines her personal life. About her mom: “Today I wanted to talk about things that scare you to death so I thought it appropriate to talk about my mother.” Her husband, who can “suck the walls through his snoring.” And more recently about her clinical depression. Defending the use of medication, she says “diabetics take insulin so they can eat cake … I don’t see any difference with anti-depressants.”
Then she homes in for the kill on the stigma of drugs within the Christian community, rationalizing that “God is bigger than what’s going on with my brain,” then goes for the laugh. “[God] knew menopause was going to come along … that’s why Eve had to leave the garden.”
In a recent Atlantic Monthly article about comedy’s dark side, psychologist Daniela Hugelshofer was quoted as says “humour acts as a buffer against depression and hopelessness.”
Phil Callaway knows a thing or two about this. The Alberta writer/comedian, who also hosts a five-minute radio spot called Laugh Again, grew up with a mother who suffered from deep depression. His first comedy performance came when he was five: “If I could get my mom laughing, she’d get up and make lunch or do something normal. That shaped my comedy – because I realized that I could pull people out of insurmountable hurts.”
He admits comedy has been a coping mechanism to deal with trauma – first with his ill mother, then later with his wife Ramona’s seizure disorder, and then with the diagnosis of Huntington’s in his wife’s family. In one year, he lost five people from that disease. “In the telling of my story, I expose my own wounds. It’s difficult to have witnessed your wife’s seizure Number #522, or family members dying of a rare disease, and you’re up there talking about it and making people laugh. Comedy felt a little hollow and superficial because of what we were going through personally.”
What kept him going, though, was the belief that “life may be falling apart at edges, but not at the core, because there at the core I’m loved by God.”
Callaway’s transparency about these family tragedies, and his ability to transcend them through hope, has created a solid fan base. Random people tell him their tragic stories as well as their stories of healing and hope. After one show, a woman came forward, lifted her sleeves and showed him scarred arms from cutting herself. “She told me she wouldn’t be alive if I didn’t do what I do,” he says.
“One man told me he hadn’t laughed in three years since his wife and child died in an accident. These are the people I try to remember when I’m performing because you have no idea what someone in your audience is going through.”
Laughter as Healing Power
In Niagara Falls once, a man wandered into a show Callaway was doing for a group of 400 women. The man had gotten lost in the large hotel, but followed the sounds of laughter. There, he listened from the back of the hall. Afterward, he told Callaway his Christian parents in Boston had been praying for him to “come home [to the faith]. That wouldn’t have happened if Christians weren’t laughing,” Callaway says. “We need to make sure we are people of joy.”
While it may seem cruel to laugh at tragedy, the difference for Christians is the hope at the centre of it all, Callaway says. “Hurt and troubled people often find a way to make light of situations. The difference for Christians is the hope that we have.”
But in order to impart hope, you need to first enter “territory that is truly risky,” he adds.
That is echoed by Penn Jillette, a magician and outspoken atheist, who was quoted in a Wall Street Journal article on comedy. “We have no problem having Christian comics and atheist comics … but somebody whose major thing is in flux and growing and questioning and changing, that is huge.”
Although Judy Savoy’s humour doesn’t come from a “hurting place,” she says “it is cathartic. Something in me is released and there is healing in comedy for both comedian and audience. Comedy is to look keenly and closely at something someone does and turn upside down or look at in whole new way. Like Jerry Seinfeld – he takes ordinary things and makes them funny. You end up laughing at things you yourself say and do, and that’s a good thing.”
In fact, Savoy sees laughter as the result of the Holy Spirit: “The bubbling up laughter is what happens with the Holy Spirit, my experience is holy laughter.”
Callaway concurs, saying he’s always surprised by how “incredibly hard” Christian audiences laugh. “Maybe it’s because people forgiven have a sense of grace that allows them to laugh. Maybe it’s because Jesus paying the price on a rugged cross, gives me the freedom to laugh.”
Falk, too, sees the healing part of laughter – and of his calling as a comedian. “To bring people together and help them laugh … bringing joy and healing are things comedy does beautifully. It tears down walls like you wouldn’t believe. When someone laughs their defences are down, a beautiful seed of hope and love can sprout.”
Sometimes it’s about putting your own vulnerabilities out there, to draw people in – Klassen, for example, makes fun of the oversized hands God gave him. “When I look at these ridiculously sized hands, I think Lord this is pretty funny. Now. But those same hands triggered real body image issues growing up, especially for skinny kid in an alpha male world. But God created me this way and has a purpose, and maybe it’s to let others know you’re still loved with issues like this.”
Laughter as evangelizing tool
Given Colbert’s massive popularity -- CBS ratings put The Colbert Report as the network’s number one show – he has a captive fan base to share his faith. And share it he does. Millions watch as Colbert talks easily open about it – even once reciting part of the Nicene Creed. In television’s extremely secular environment, it beggars belief that openness about being Christian is allowed and yet the network execs leave him alone.
Klassen expresses astonishment at this: “Colbert uses his position to evangelize. It is amazing. A regular person can’t do that – this is powerful.”
Of course there is a long history of using humour to convey a deeper truth about reality and Christ. Christian writers such as Flannery O’Connor, G. K. Chesterton and even earlier St Philip Neri (a 16th century Italian priest) who said “a joyful heart is more easily made perfect than a downcast one.”
Theresa of Avila, too, is often quoted for her humour. Once, after hearing Jesus say to her, “This is how I treat my friends,” she apparently retorted: “If this is how You treat your friends, it is no wonder You have so few.”
Given the Christian commission to preach the gospel, each person must use their individual gifts to decide how that will look, Savoy says. “I’m always thinking, as a comedian, how can I tell people about the good news of Jesus without coming across as preachy? It’s not about pushing on the current issues but about meeting and getting to know Jesus. That’s hard to do if the Jesus you portray is stiff and two-dimensional. The joyous Jesus is another element in a complex personality.”
Evangelizing, in its own right, can be very funny. Yvonne Ogri, for example, is a 35-year-old Nigerian-American Christian, actress, and writer. Her sassy TEDXtalk on waiting ’til marriage has garnered her over 1.6 million views. It was so cool that my fallen-away-from-the-faith daughter stumbled on it, and passed it on not only to me – but to all her friends. That’s evangelizing. Funny is evangelizing.
As Callaway says, “I’ve yet to meet someone who wouldn’t listen to a person who has made them laugh.”
So Why Don’t Christians Laugh More?
Most of the negative emails coming to Christian comics are from other Christians. Some of that, Callaway thinks, comes from fear: “We believe we’re marginalized, and persecuted, and we have to promote the right message. Maybe if we laughed a little more we wouldn’t be so marginalized.”
Looking back on his childhood in the church, Callaway says he remembers thinking, “These people are cranky, and the preacher is talking heaven, saying we’re going to be all together there. Well I did not want to spend all eternity with these people.”
Falk gets the emails too – early in his career he did a piece on his own baptism which he had treated with careful respect. “We have become incredibly sensitive, convinced there is a war against us, that if we don’t fight for every single one of our rights we’ll lose them. Jesus faced a hostile world for speaking truth, and He didn’t say, ‘This is my right,’ and ‘How dare you take Christ out of Christmas.’ We take up arms out of fear of losing, but we’re sure going to lose if we do it that way.”
Cuyler Black says, “You cannot grow a church with sourness. There are times to be sober and sombre, but for the most part church should be a sanctuary of joy. And we have the most reason to be lighthearted. When the enemy makes us sourpusses, it gives the impression we were baptized in lemon juice – that’s not going to attract anyone to the faith.”
One time, a woman in California wrote Callaway an irate letter about there being no record of Jesus laughing in the Bible. His response? “Evidently you have never been camping with 12 men.”
This article won second place in the non-fiction features category of Canadian Christian Communicators 2020 awards.
Alex Newman of Toronto is a senior writer at Faith Today.