And he saw that it was funny ...
PEKIN, Ill. — There were no two-drink minimums at the First Baptist Church of Pekin. It was the first-ever Comedy Night at the church, a few hours southwest of Chicago, and on this October Saturday there were no drunk hecklers stumbling in the aisles, no cigarette smoke. The church foyer was a Christmas-like array of green Sprite cans and red Kit Kat wrappers.
High above the pulpit, Jeff Allen’s image projected onto two screens — bulging eyes, raised brows, comically pursed lips. “The world’s funniest, most-inspiring comedian,” it read next to his face, a dead ringer for fellow comic Tim Allen’s. (He insists they’re not related.)
“My son comes out modeling the jeans he bought. Sixty yards of denim hanging off him! Huge clown jeans,” said Allen, pacing with microphone in hand. “First time my wife washed it, she threw her back out dragging it out the dryer. Six months she’s walking around like Quasimodo. People in church go, what happened? ‘Denim injury. Now excuse me, it’s my turn to ring the church bells.’”
Allen shuffled across the stage hunchbacked and the 250 people inside the church roared. Between laughter, one woman could be heard saying, “That’s so true!”
The term “Christian comedy” draws interesting reactions from the nondevout. Lightweight, ironic, corny — Allen has heard them all. But it’s a label the 55-year-old has accepted, and in turn, Allen has carved out a living this past decade performing almost exclusively in churches.
In the comedy world, R-rated acts are the rule — Comedy Central’s “Roast of Charlie Sheen,” in which the troubled star was profanely skewered about his sex life and drug addiction, attracted 6.4 million viewers when it premiered in September. But Allen is a big enough name among Christian stand-ups that he’ll book 80 gigs a year in front of congregations, earning in one performance the equivalent of two weeks headlining a nightclub. Allen said he grosses six figures annually. Said Dan Rupple, honorary chairman of the Christian Comedy Association, “It’s the big ignored revenue stream within American entertainment.”
Still, “Christian comedy” is a label even the comics it applies to wrestle with. They view the term as both a benefit and liability: necessary when marketing to their core audience, but burdensome when seeking acceptance from mainstream comedy fans. Viewers of Comedy Central might assume Christian comics proselytize, referencing Jesus every third sentence.
“What you’re talking about with Christian comedy is clean comedy,” said Bert Haas, executive vice president of the Zanies Comedy Club chain. “It’s about nonoffensive material ... not going up there to pound the pulpit.”
There was a time when the pinnacle of stand-up comedy was appearing on “The Tonight Show” and performing seven minutes for Johnny Carson. Then came the likes of Lenny Bruce and Andrew Dice Clay, who nudged comedy toward the “seven words you can’t say on television” model.
What Christian comics yearn for, said stand-up Anthony Griffith, is Johnny Carson-appropriate humor once more. Bill Cosby and Jerry Seinfeld would be considered Christian comedians today.
“That’s the big misconception, that we’re going out with Bibles,” said Griffith, who toured with Allen several years ago in the Apostles of Comedy tour. “Christians have financial, marital and kid problems, and those are places we can joke about too. We’re the same as any other comic, the difference is it’s in a Christian atmosphere.”
One of Allen’s first DVDs was “Happy Wife, Happy Life,” a fitting title for an act mining much of its humor from domestic life. His wife, Tami, and two grown sons are frequent subjects. He has bits about seniors speeding in golf carts, receiving a 12-gauge shotgun for his wedding and adventures in roasting chicken. His act rarely veers into politics, though he’ll throw in wisecracks about President Barack Obama, depending on the room.
Allen grew up an atheist in a religion-indifferent household. His father aspired to be a painter but could only support his family as a construction worker. The only time his father was happy was when they listened to comedy records together, Allen recalled. Allen could recite Woody Allen and Cosby recordings verbatim.
He graduated (barely, he said) from high school and soon after began performing stand-up professionally in 1978, hopping between smoke-choked clubs in indistinguishable small towns. Allen remembered a series of dates at an all-night disco, where showtime was 2 a.m. The travel and menial pay were humiliating — “I was baby-sitting drunks,” Allen said — and soon the road took its toll on him in the form of drugs and alcohol. He called this period in his life “angry and bitter.”
Both his finances and marriage fell into disarray. Allen was close to filing divorce papers, he said, when his wife had a change of heart. Then Allen said he began reading Ayn Rand and listening to Bible study tapes.
There wasn’t one moment of epiphany that led to his conversion. It was a slow build that culminated Aug. 17, 1997, the day Allen said he gave his life to Jesus Christ.
In the 1970’s, Dan Rupple helped form what was considered the first Christian sketch comedy group, “Isaac Air Freight.” Rupple went on to work for CBS Television, becoming in the 1990s a West Coast supervising producer for “The Late Show With David Letterman.”
After he left Letterman, Rupple found himself in Nashville, Tenn., in 2002 at a gathering of fellow Christian comics. (Among the 35 or so in attendance was Allen.) The group decided it would form an organization to help members network. Rupple was voted its founding president.
One issue came up: what to name the group. The comics’ concern was that including the word “Christian” might pigeonhole the group, stigmatizing it among the larger, secular audience.
“We finally decided (to go) with Christian Comedy Association,” said Rupple, now the group’s honorary chairman. “It’s a two-edge sword. On one hand, the fact that you’re a Christian comedian, you’re embraced by the Christian community. But I think it could sometimes be detrimental because of a lack of awareness among mainstream venues in what we’re going to do.”