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.
"Nothing happened, except this squirrel stopped by. PFFFTTT. 'Are you OK little buddy?'" Then, with a scrunched, childlike face. "He's like, 'You almost killed me...And now I can talk.'"
After the show, Stogner does an interview. She talks about the hunger that's out there for comedy devoid of vulgarity. A middle-aged couple approaches. "That was really great. Really great," the woman says. "I was crying I was laughing so hard." --Paul Kix
HIGHLAND PARK BANK employee Ann Strain volunteered for the International Rescue Committee after seeing the acclaimed documentary Lost Boys of Sudan. "I walked out in tears," Strain says. "I felt I needed to be doing something."
Founded in 1933, the non-profit IRC (www.theirc.org) finds new homes for people fleeing persecution. After 9/11, refugees handled by the Dallas IRC plunged from 500 a year to 125. In recent months the numbers of émigrés has rebounded; the local office will resettle 450 this year.
"But even though arrivals are up," says regional director Lisa David, "we haven't been able to increase our staff." The IRC relies on volunteer mentors to bridge the gap.
Refugees come to Dallas from trouble spots around the world. But they all have one thing in common: culture shock. Refugees from less-developed countries must even adjust to novelties like indoor cooking and plumbing. "We're looking for people with patience," says David, who started as a volunteer.
For three months, Strain and grad student Erica Sewell have been mentoring the Fima family--Joseph, 44, Rozita, 34, and their two grade-schoolers. Sudanese, the Fimas spent three years in an Egyptian refugee camp. Their biggest problems: finances and transportation.
"I have been amazed at the myriad of things they need help with," Strain says, "like how to tell the difference between oven cleaner and spray starch, how we greet each other on the phone. All the little things we take for granted every day."
Sewell, who sees the Arabic-speaking Fimas almost daily, says the language barrier poses the biggest challenge. But the payback is a new look at her own country. "I see the States through their eyes when they run into problems with the system," Sewell says. "It's been an amazing experience."
When Allen's Carly Patterson won the gold medal in the women's gymnastics all-around in Athens, she became the first American to do so since Mary Lou Retton in the 1984 Olympic Games. As such, her legacy is assured. Just as the 16-year-old Patterson grew up wanting to be the next Mary Lou Retton, now girls all over the country want to be the next Carly Patterson.
They're all calling World Olympic Gymnastics Academy (or WOGA, as pretty much everyone refers to it), the 10-year-old gym in Plano where she trained to become a champion. Since the moment the medal was draped around Patterson's neck, the phones haven't stopped ringing. They want to train with WOGA owners Valeri Liukin (a gold medalist himself) and Evgeny Marchenko (Patterson's coach).
"It's crazy, but I mean, it's good crazy because, obviously, that's what you want," says LaNae Taylor. Taylor's daughter, Allison, competes alongside Patterson at the elite level, so she volunteers as the gym's media coordinator. "I know that class enrollment has gone up by--last time I heard, and that was a couple of days ago--500 new class students. Which means the very beginning kids, everything from 3 years old and up."
As Taylor says, it's a great way to celebrate WOGA's first decade in business. But some of the calls are starting to concern her. It's one thing when she fields a call from a mother in California with a daughter who competes at Level 7--gymnasts start competing at Level 4 and work their way up to Level 10, then make the jump to elite--wanting to know if she should move the family to Plano to train. It's quite another when she gets a call from the "psycho parents" of a 6-year-old in Georgia wanting to know the same thing.
"I forwarded it to the gym, but I wanted to go, 'She's only 6. You might wanna give it a little more time.' But you don't wanna respond that way, because this may be a kid with tons of talent. Maybe, maybe not. I always joke with Allison's coach, 'A lot of people think you walk through these doors and magic WOGA dust comes down and everybody's gonna be a champion.' That's not how it works. There are too many factors that go into it." --Zac Crain