I’ve been a Christian doing comedy as a job for 10 years. Consequently, I get asked a lot if I’m a ‘Christian comedian’. How to respond? If I say yes, I get typecast according to the mental imagery that is conjured of cheesy pseudo-entertainers doing terrible gags about biblical characters. If I say no, people then worry that I’m going to be really rude. Either way, you lose work. It’s a no win and subsequently, a no fee situation.
The fact is, I am a Christian comedian in the way I think of it. But my definition of Christian comedy is alien to most other people.
A church puts on a comedy night and you get an invite that specifies a Christian comedian. Be honest: what would you expect? A searing yet side-splitting excoriation of North Korea’s human rights record? Or jokes about two disciples walking into a bar?
It’s the same with almost any prefix attached to the word comedian: gay, black, female. The adjective describes the person, not the comedy, but that’s not how punters perceive it.
We get manacled to these prefix adjectives when the only adjective we want in front of the word comedian is ‘funny’. Comedy has to be funny before it has the right to be anything.
Perhaps the worst label you can give art is ‘Christian’. It’s binding and pressurising and patronising, because art is just art. All truth is God’s truth. A comedian is just a comedian.
But our main problem is that we have almost no culture of comedy within the UK Church. There is no lineage, no inheritance. We had Adrian Plass, who is brilliant and iconic, but has never described himself as a comedian. And yet for so long, Plass was heralded (unfairly) as The Christian comedian. Then, for nearly a generation, there was nobody else. The alternative comedy movement started in the late 80s, blossomed, flourished and impacted society, and the Church had no response. So when people went along to ‘Christian comedy’ nights and saw family entertainers and magicians doing well, but not doing actual comedy, a disparity – a gaping chasm – appeared.
In any ministry your primary aim is to train up the next generation so they can stand on your shoulders. I started doing comedy in 2005, but there were no shoulders to stand on. There was, on the contrary, an excavated grave in which to stand. Tim Vine, Jo Enright and Milton Jones were already nationally successful, but they weren’t really doing church gigs – partly because that wasn’t a ‘thing’ back then. I, along with the likes of Paul Kerensa and Tony Vino, had to start from scratch; to create an origin story for Christian comedy – and by Christian comedy, I mean Christians doing really good comedy in churches; proper comedy. There were no real forbears, no culture. No concept.
A decade later and we’re still swimming against the tide. I’m 34 now, and I’m pretty decent at comedy. But the oral tradition that Christian comedy is not as good as secular comedy – a fact that is no longer true – has been passed down a generation, and so the young people, the 20’s/30’s at whom I primarily aim my comedy, often don’t come along because of the pre-conceptions they have of what it will and won’t be. And if they don’t come, they don’t correct their thinking, and the same message about the deficiency of Christian comedy gets passed to the next generation.
I’ve spent a decade waiting for people to understand that ‘Christian comedian’ isn’t a compound noun. But they haven’t. So what do I do? What do we do?
All any of us can do as artists is try to become as good as we were created to be, then a little bit better. We have to accept that people will never understand and they will always label and judge. I worry the evangelical Church of which I am contentedly a part will never properly support the arts because art is about questions more than answers, boundaries more than consolidation.
But we press on, so that the next generation of comics actually do have some shoulders to cry and stand on. And those comics are being born. They are on their way. Our origin story is spawning sequels.