By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
IT'S NOT EASY to keep reading, is it? You see a headline about some Christian comedy night and you're thinking, "There's no way that's funnier than Senate testimony on C-SPAN." Maybe you're right.
But try to keep reading. You're this far already. Here, we'll even give you the payoff, right at the top: Christian Comedy Night is funny, regardless of religious beliefs.
Sure, Christian rock blows. The Left Behind series is tortured prose and clichéd plots. Mel Gibson should stick to war movies. But Christian comedy, eh, not so bad.
Because, at its best, it's not Christian comedy. It's clean comedy. It's secular, socially progressive, have-you-ever-noticed comedy. The sort of comedy Bill Cosby would do. The only difference being some--but not all--of the Christian guys include in their bits the word "Jesus."
"We always just encourage people to come see for themselves," Al Fike says. Fike started Christian Comedy Night a year and a half ago at the Addison Improv. The club's owners wanted a night, once a month, that offered something different. Fike lived in Richardson and had worked the Christian circuit for 30 years. "It was a good fit," Fike says, "It's like I say on my Web site [alfike.com], I want to make clean comedy the norm and the dirty stuff as taboo as smoking in public."
Christian Comedy Night is a hit in Dallas. Seven months ago, Fike took it to Houston. It's caught on there. A few weeks ago, he expanded into San Antonio. L.A. and Chicago are next, he says.
It isn't a barnstorming troupe he has. Rather, in each city, there are local comedians Fike knows who want to do clean, maybe even Christian, stuff. When the Christian Comedy Night comes up in their respective cities, Fike is master of ceremonies, and the comedians step before the spotlight.
But it has to be funny. Fike's protective of his brand. It has to be clean, too.
He screens the comedians he doesn't know. He asks for their tapes or finds out when they're performing next. Then he gets marm-ish. If there's a four-letter word or a three-letter word or any sort of questionable word or physical act, Fike doesn't consider the comedian.
"It doesn't have to be Bible humor," Fike says. (But it doesn't hurt.) "It's just got to be clean. Just entertaining."
Somehow, it is. Sometimes.
"I'm telling ya', y'all need to pray for me." This is Denzel Snipes at a packed Addison Improv a few weeks back. He's in his thirties and is all beer belly and nervous energy. "I just found out I had the virus. I have the F-A-T virus." Decent laughs. "But I like being fat. Because there's no pressure. See, when you skinny, you're worried about getting fat." Beat. "But when you fat and you gain weight, you still just fat. I tell y'all somebody better pray for me."
This is how most of the routines go. Fat jokes, relationship jokes or work jokes followed by a sly reference to church, to prayer, or the Good Dude.
"By a round of applause, how many of y'all have bad credit." Still Snipes. The crowd's loving him, but only a few applaud. "Just the black people in the back, huh?
"I think there should be black soap operas." Waits for laughs. "Young and the Restless" would be called Young and Arrested. That's not funny, quit laughing." Beat. "General Hospital would be called Parkland." Huge laughs. He has to wait to finish the joke. "All My Children would be called"--and here he takes on an accent--"Those Ain't My Kids." People roaring.
Sure, not everyone kills. (And yes, Christian bits can "kill.") There's a preacher's wife who's unpolished and an impressionist who gets only pity laughs, but there's Ms. Vickie, who's appeared on BET's Comic view. "My name is Ms. Vickie, and I'm single with four kids. They think I'm at Kroger right now." And there's Linda Stogner.
Stogner may be the best of this Christian bunch. She's a producer at the Backdoor Comedy Club in Dallas. After the show she'll say hers is a comedy of ideas; she's not here to minister, as some are. She is a Christian, though.
Stogner's petite, and on stage her voice quivers from nerves. She looks as if she needs to use the bathroom. "I'm a little weird, can you tell?" she croaks, her eyes huge and her frame fairly shrinking from the spotlight. "Because you're looking at me like everyone does at the family reunion.
"One day my car wouldn't start and so I had to use those jumper cables. Have you ever used those, sir?" She eyes a man seated at the table nearest the stage. She gets no response. "See that," she says with a nervous laugh. And then, in a lower register, "I'm working the crowd."
The car battery bit continues. She makes as though she's shocking herself, the nervous energy exploding into onstage violence. Belly laughs for that one. She then sets the car batteries on the ground.