HOME > RESOURCES > FAITH TODAY > ARTICLES > 2006 > July/August Issue
Faith Today - Archival Site

July/August 2006 Issue

Stand Up For Jesus
By Jeff Dewsbury

Canadian Christians Get Serious About Being Funny

Stand-up comedian Leland Klassen gets a good laugh right off the bat as he takes the stage and proudly announces to the audience that he’s Canada’s only Mennonite comic. He then launches into a bit about the misconceptions surrounding Mennonites — how they often get mistaken for the Amish and Hutterites, and their ways.

“This spotlight uses electricity. You gonna be okay with that?” he says, mimicking a stagehand’s misguided question. Then Klassen goes into hysterics, races around the stage and shouts his answer: “Shut it off! Shut it off! You’re stealing my soul!”

Humour and faith have always had a somewhat uneasy relationship. While one believer finds comfort and joy in satirizing elements of the sacred, another is offended by any sentence that puts a punch-line where he believes an “amen” should be. And the area between those two poles contains more grey than a January day in Vancouver.

Despite the pitfalls, there are comedians in this country who see their vocation as a gift from a God who knows the value of a good joke and has given us the ability to laugh at all the qualities that make us human. As they constantly search for the humour in humanity, they enjoy a vocation that regularly witnesses the link between laughter and God’s character.

Stand-Up and Be Counted

While Klassen’s moniker, The King of Clean Comedy, might give the impression he plays it safe by preaching to the choir, so to speak, that’s not the case. The 34-year-old from Abbotsford, B.C., will perform more than 70 shows this year, and many of those will be in mainstream comedy clubs where anything goes to get a laugh.

While gigs in churches are often more encouraging, as audiences are a little less critical in “the house of the Lord,” that’s not the case in the clubs where only results count. “They’re there to laugh. If you don’t make them laugh, they let you know,” says Klassen, who credits that pressure with helping him to be at the top of his game.

Beyond stand-up, Klassen is about to begin shooting Pressin’ On, a comedy show with a recurring character named Pastor Nelson. He’s also working on a new project with VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer, whose new website www.jellyfishland.com will host a number of new comedic characters in different genres, including puppets.

Though he tailors his act for church or ministry outreach events, Klassen doesn’t want to be the kind of comedian who needs his audience to be versed in “the lingo about churchy stuff” like quirks about specific denominations and their practices. He does, however, stand out among his peers in the clubs. “I know I’m an ambassador for Christ and, though I might not say it explicitly, the audience knows there’s a difference, a positive approach to what I do that sets me apart,” he says. “I know the other comedians watch me too. They watch what I say and do.”

Does God Belly-Laugh?

That’s not to say clean comedy can’t have an edge or go beyond simply being innocuous. Comedian Irwin Barker of Vancouver describes some comedy as “clean, yet pointless, like a bus-stop in the rich part of town.”

Barker — who is also collaborating on Pressin’ On — has been a regular writer on the CBC-TV prime-time mainstay This Hour Has 22 Minutes for the past three seasons. He has a philosophical view of comedy and its various manifestations. The 51-year-old performs stand-up on TV, radio, in clubs and at corporate venues. He sees laughter as a powerful redemptive force. “Humour is part of what makes us human. It helps us to make sense of the world and to have mastery over the things that frighten us,” he says. He believes comedians perform a similar role to clergy in society as they help people wrestle with flaws and inconsistencies in the world around them.

In a set from the Winnipeg Comedy Festival (which aired April 22 on CBC-Radio), Barker takes a look at “youth today,” including a bit about two teenage boys whose mother chauffeured them on a drive-by shooting. While the subject matter is dark, Barker used the news item — which originally carried a headline blaming the incident on the mom’s role as a single parent — to satirize the stereotypes of single parents. He lamented the fact that the mom in the story “has to try to be both mom and dad to those kids” and ends up “doing Dad’s job” by taking them on a shooting spree.

Barker, who was a single parent himself, says he grew up in the Church but “got a long ways away from it” for much of his adult life. The past five years have been a time of spiritual renewal for him, and his relationship with God has, once again, become the centre of his life.

Though his brand of comedy has never been offensive or raunchy, he is now known as a comic who can discuss matters of faith in secular venues and still be funny. Because of this, CBC-Radio has enlisted him to comically debate Jewish comedian Simon Rakoff in a segment unscrupulously named “Master Debaters.”

“I didn’t come up with the title,” laughs Barker.

His social and political commentary and theological explorations have given Barker a reputation as a cerebral comic. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that he has grappled with the question “Does God laugh?”

“Laughter comes out of surprise, but the element of surprise is incongruous with omniscience. You can’t be surprised and all-knowing,” he reasons. “It would have to be a pretty good joke.”

Graceful Laughter

Humorist Phil Callaway doesn’t know for certain if his parental foibles have made God laugh, but there’s a good chance they have. The author of a long list of books — including Parenting: Don’t Try This at Home, Laughing Matters: Learning to Laugh When Life Stinks and the novels The Edge of the World and Wonders Never Cease — Callaway’s approach to humour blends real life misadventures with spiritual insight.

“Humour is a link in the chain of grace. People who laugh with you trust you. It’s a sacred trust,” says the author, who is now finding an audience beyond the realm of Christian publishing. The longtime resident of Three Hills, Alta., is increasingly being asked to speak at corpor-ate venues where, he says, he offers a message of hope to people overburdened and stressed by the rigours of life. While he doesn’t want to tune out secular audiences by being overtly spiritual, he infuses his humour with truths that are based on his values.

Recently, he spoke at the graduation of a group of soon-to-be funeral home operators. (“I didn’t even know there was a school for that type of thing before this,” he confides.) While the whole subject of a career in “dealing with the dead” is rife for one-liners, Callaway, in his own understated way, was able to make the graduates both laugh and think about their future careers without coming off as flippant. His parting words, “Live your life so the preacher won’t have to lie at your funeral,” got the biggest response.

Callaway says the power of words, both good and bad, has been evident to him throughout his life. He recalls growing up as a skinny kid who was bullied a lot. “At one point, I realized that I could use my tongue as a weapon. I could slay kids with my words.”

Whether or not his father was motivated by Callaway’s new-found penchant for verbal salvoes, he’s not sure, but the senior Callaway promised his son a watch if his son would read the entire book of Proverbs. “I started reading the verses about the tongue, about being a mocker and scoffer,” he says. It was a turning point in his life. He saw the opportunity to use his gift with words to encourage others instead of cutting them down.

When he turns his critical eye to himself, Callaway says he finds a lot of funny mater-ial. “When I think of my fallen state, I don’t have any other response mechanism,” he says. “Sometimes I simply have to laugh.”

Back to the Garden

“If you can’t laugh at people like Adam and Eve and Noah, there’s a problem,” says Judy Savoy of Halifax. She wrote and stars in the one-woman show Get Me Back to the Garden, I’m Chokin’ on the Weeds, which has been successfully running in venues across North America since 1998.

Savoy, who sums up her show by saying she’s “taking the humanity in the Bible and exposing it,” has been in a broad range of performing and writing roles in theatre and on television, and has even done several tours of duty as a weather broadcaster.

The 54-year-old comic actor counts Carol Burnett as her greatest on-stage influence. Get Me Back to the Garden wasn’t intentionally written to encourage Christians or to reach unchurched people, but it has succeeded in doing both.

“I didn’t write it to preach, to evangelize or any of that. I just wrote it,” remarks Savoy. The show has proven its versatility, however. Last September it played at the Atlantic Fringe Festival in Halifax, while it continues to be a popular choice for churches hosting dinner theatres.

In a culture that is increasingly biblically illiterate, Savoy knows there are segments of the population who don’t fall into the right demographic to understand the humour. “If you’re under the age of 35 and not a Christian, you likely won’t get it,” she says.

Just for Laughs?

Churches are increasingly looking for comedians to headline outreach events targeting their communities. “We have more and more pastors who want to take a chance,” says Savoy. “Christians are going on the Internet just to find comedians.”

Master juggler Bob Cates of Kitchener, Ont., and Vancouver-based juggling comedian/magician David duChemin, also known as The Rubber Chicken Guy, are both big draws for ministries wanting high quality, funny entertainment that carries a message. Cates recently performed at a venue in Niagara Falls where more than half of the 400 people didn’t attend church.

Maintaining two professional shows – one secular, one with a Christian message – can be a challenge. “I do keep a tight watch in wanting to present the gospel clearly and accurately. And, sometimes, I find it at odds with the entertainment,” says Cates, who often plies his trade as the feature act on cruise ships. He freely admits that, because of pacing and timing, adding a gospel presentation to his secular act – a frantic mixture of comedy, dangerous feats of juggling that include fire and frantically spinning plates on poles – is not always a natural fit.

“As a comic, you always want to push the limits, but the problem with Christian comedy is that you don’t want to bite the hands that feed you,” says duChemin, who has been performing full time as The Rubber Chicken Guy for the past 12 years. DuChemin’s act includes a secular version he performs in public schools, where kids are encouraged to be virtuous and to develop good decision-making skills. “Your faith often determines what venues you do,” he says, adding that he prefers community and church events to comedy clubs where the “atmosphere is adversarial.”

God’s Gift of a Good Joke

It may sound paradoxical to say Christian comedians take their vocation seriously, but it is true. After all, they do spend more time than most examining the human condition and all its frailties.

“Laughter is part of the image of God in us. It’s something He gave us to cope. Comedy and tragedy: there’s kind of a thin line between the two,” says duChemin. “Our spirits need to be released to laugh.”

Or, as Callaway puts it, “The greatest punch-line in all of history is that Jesus could love a guy like me enough to die for him. It’s a reason for laughter and rejoicing.”

Jeff Dewsbury is a freelance writer whose byline has appeared in Outdoor Canada, Boys’ Life, Canadian Family, the Vancouver Sun and a number of other publications. He lives in Langley, B.C.

Other Articles
July/Aug 2006 Issue

Cover Story
Stand Up for Jesus: Canadian Christians Get Serious About Being Funny

Feature Article
Woman Offers Inspired Leadership in Two Armies

From the Editor
A Time to Laugh

The Gathering Place
An Integrated Faith

Ask a Theologian
Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?

Copyright ©2016 The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. All rights reserved.