I am a performer. Oh, you thought I only told stories via text? No, I am a performer as well. And I am a professional performer now because I have now been paid to perform. And today, as I’m writing this, I deposited that in that $300 check into my nearly empty savings account.
In order to earn this check, it was a bit of a journey. What I was paid for was being the MC of my church’s first ever talent show. What this started off as was me approaching them and asking if I could have my own show. I wanted to raise money so that I could follow through with AMTC stuff I had pledged to do. The idea I put forward was that I would do a variety show, I’d make money off of whatever ticket sales there were, and I would even be willing to negotiate allowing them to keep a cut for missions. When I actually sat down with the head pastor, he said that he would get back to me about this sometime soon and brought up the possibility that I would just become their Funny Fiesta act.
Now, for those who probably don’t know what this is, Funny Fiesta is the pinnacle of their I Love My Church Weekend. They hire a professional Christian performer, typically a comedian, to come in and perform for the congregation after we’ve all eaten Mexican food. I went last year and we all were amazed as a comedic Christian magician entertained us. And all of a sudden, there was a huge possibility I would be the act. That is exciting. Like, I wasn’t going to be all gung ho and only do standup beforehand, but now to be the comedian being considered for the job, it made watching Blue Collar Comedy Tour DVDs every night as I fell asleep worth it.
But of course, nothing was set in stone, and without my control this thing morphed into a talent show. I mean, I’m proud to have gotten the ball rolling, but I can’t say I was like overjoyed that my vision for this got funneled.
But I was being paid to perform! I hadn’t been this happy since I got paid for my L.A. Affairs column, or when I got a play I was writing to be performed by my high school. This was big stuff.
The show happened, and I survived. Everyone who spoke with me said that they thought it was good, that they enjoyed themselves. And me, being a performer and a perfectionist, wanted to not believe them. Like, I don’t think that they hated the whole thing, or heck, even disliked everything that I did on stage, but I have a seriously tough time believing that on my first attempt to do anything like this was so unbelievably good.
… but I bring all of this up to ask one big question.
Do I want to continue to be a Christian comedian?
And my answer to that, surprisingly, is no. I do not. Not because of the comedian part, but because of the Christian part.
Now I know anyone who loves the Lord will have an aversion to this kind of statement. It’s the kind that makes you lean back in shock and declare, “Do you renounce your faith and turn your back on the Most High?”
And no. I’m not giving up religion or converting to a new faith. I love my G-D and I do not plan to give up my calling in life. But I do not think that it can go on this way.
Let me explain.
During my rehearsal for this show they had me go over some of my filler bits between acts. At one point, towards the end, I go into my personal story.
“Yeah, I just have to say that I love this church, and I really do consider it my family at this point. I grew up going to church with my grandmother at Valley Baptist, but then when she moved away after the fifth grade my mother and I began to attend Valley Bible. At some point when I was at my junior year in high school we just stopped going to church. And as someone who was given nicknames like The Bibleman or The Pastor, this was hard, because I impressed people with how much I knew in comparison with people my age and I needed to get spiritually challenged. I went two years without having a stable church group. Two years! I was so thirsty for spiritual knowledge that when the Mormons knocked on my door I was like, ‘Oh, thank you!’
But oh boy, was my grandmother not happy when she found out about this. She lived in Florida and she found out about this. She called me about it. She was like, ‘Really Ian?’
‘What? What am I supposed to do! I got nothing!’
‘There is a church right down the street from you. Just go there. I know you pass it everyday.’
So that Sunday I went in and there was a guy leading worship that morning named Ed. And he played so well and at one point between songs he said something to us he was so moved by that he came to tears as he said it. And I though to myself: Wow, what a beautiful, once in a lifetime moment that I just witnessed.; surely this is a sign I was called to be here.
… I didn’t know at the time, however, that Ed crying was a common occurrence, but, oh well, it got me here didn’t it? Alright everyone, let’s give a round of applause for our next act….”
Okay, you get the point. And I was really proud of this bit, and the other ones I did as well.
Until two separate people approached me and asked me, “Hey Ian, just wondering, but are you going to tell jokes at the actual show? Because you really should tell some jokes at the actual show.”
I was a little lost the first time, and a little miffed the second time.
“But I was telling jokes…”
At that point, they felt a little sad for even asking the question.
“Well, it’s just, we’re all old. You got to make these things a little more obvious.”
And that was all the direction I was given. Which sucks, because now I’ve got to sit down and consciously restructure how I said something. With that bit above I decided that I wanted to add more to my story. I wanted to go into how every girl I dated ended up being a pagan. I wanted to go into how my best friend was an atheist. I wanted to go into how I developed this sort of Christian Hinduism worldview that I lived by because I had no one who challenged me on a spiritual level. I wanted to make this just a real look at my life, for people to laugh at things that I once felt were painful and for all of us to grow in a sense that night, to remind everyone there that their agreement to come together on a weekly basis wasn’t in vain.
But then, the night of the show comes around. Mind you, this is two days later since the rehearsal. I am pumped and excited and ready to shine. Despite having a slight headache that I apparently was able to hide the entire show, even when it was at “Kill Me” levels. But just before we start the show, I get approached.
“Hey Ian. You ready for tonight?”
“Yeah, I think so!”
“Okay, Ian, well I just have a couple things that we think you should know. First of all, you cannot mention the names of other churches.”
Now, that wasn’t too hard. I could always just describe the church instead or just sort of gloss over that and focus more on the journey itself.
“And,” she continued, “you cannot mention or heckle Mormons.”
After a slight pause I looked this sweet woman right in the eyes and I told her, “So you don’t want me to do this bit at all?”
“No, you can do it, you just have to remove all that stuff.”
“You know, first, it’s a little rough to hear this not when I said that bit but like five minutes before we open the doors and let people in. But second, did you not listen to the story? It kind of hinges on the stuff you’re telling me. Otherwise it’s a short blip about how I didn’t go to church for two years, then a man cried and I decided to stick around. No journey. No comedy.”
I knew that if they were uncomfortable with me even mentioning Mormons, they were definitely not going to be okay with me mentioning any other religious experience I endured, even the funny stories about interacting with Catholics or Pentecostals… I’ll save those for a future occasion, but you get the point.
She tries to say something but I beat her to it.
“Don’t worry, I’ll figure out something. I am a trained improviser.”
Luckily I never did have to figure something else out, because we started so late that we texted each other backstage and agreed that we would cut that bit to save some time.
But let’s get back to the question. Why did this make me want to stop pursuing Christian comedy?
I do not think I could sustain a living and a career on this level of censorship.
Think about it. Unless I am horribly misguided, I don’t think that I said anything offensive. I have learned that there is a time and place for everything, and in the church and in front of families is not the time to talk about sexual experiences in graphic detail, even if I could spin them hilariously. It’s also not the place to make fun of murder, rape, abortion, suicide, disease, or any other taboo subject. I get it. I am not Dave Chappelle or Lewis C.K. People did not come to see me and it’s on them if they get offended. I have a performer filter that is set to family friendly mode.
At least for when the context demands it. I’m pretty sure I’ve typed swear words here somewhere and that I’ve spoken about STDs with my close friends over ice cream. But I do not think I actually crosses some line of taboo topics but just being real. If anything, this is me giving my testimony, my story of how I came to the place where I was with my faith. But because I was in the role of a comedian and host of a Christian show, all of that was taken off the table.
Think about it. When the Christian label gets applied to something, it alters the way we view it. When we hear that this performer is a Christian artist, we instantly apply our expectations to it. It has to be about Jesus and love and that He saves and insert other clichés here. If a Christian artist ever made a song about how he used to do cocaine before he got saved, no Christian radio would ever play that song. That would be for the hardcore fans. I remember when certain songs were played on Christian radio that didn’t explicitly say anything about Jesus or G-D, like “Fireflies” by Owl City or “Cinderella” by Steven Curtis Chapmen, there is a bit of weirdness that no one can place as to why this song is playing. The artists is a Christian, sure, but can this really be considered a “Christian song?”
But, okay, that’s music. There are plenty of Christian comedian. And besides, that thing about music isn’t that bad.
Okay. Despite the fact that people avoid Christian music like the plague because they say that its sappy and sucky, let’s dive into Christian comedians. These guys are funny. I cannot deny that. But they are limited in their art. They cannot push past certain boundaries. Their comedy is expected to be clean and family friendly and tied in some way to the faith to be allowed to keep the label. Some guys can do a great job with it. I think that Tim Hawkins is the best example of a Christian comedian because he is a man of faith who mocks church stereotypes and just draws people in with his extreme weirdness and, to boot, he also does musical comedy. I love this guy. But not every guy is like that. So we are left with other Christian comedians who are not him trying to fill the other niches. I can recall a series called “Thou Shalt Laugh,” were they assembled an entire night’s worth of Christian comedians to perform. They made five of these things. I love the first two. The third one is the one that got me to stop watching. Not only were many of the acts not funny, but a lot of them actually talked about sexual content. However, they had to dress it up and dance around the issue in a scriptural way.
One just talked about being “procreation.”
One addressed sexual acts as “Never Never Land” and “speaking in tongues.”
One spoke about the look in her husband’s eyes and how, as a sacrifice for her children’s good day, she said she would only take one leg out of her pantyhose.
These made it a really uncomfortable movie night with my grandmother. I still cringe when I try to watch that show again. However, just today I finally watched that Dave Chappelle double feature on Netflix and enjoyed the entire thing. Why is it that when the Christian comedian and the vulgar comedian talk about the same thing, I found one hilarious and the other uncomfortable. Because one is a comedian. The others were Christian comedians. And they have an expectation.
I think I finally understood why so many of my friends said that anything that was Christian in art was garbage when I got my hands on a piece of Christian literature called The Truth Twisters. The thing was so awful I didn’t come anywhere close to finishing it. Everything was awful. It was a book that interrupted it’s own story for the author to explain the plot, and it seriously instructed readers, “Don’t skip these parts, or you might not understand the plot or the message we’re trying to tell you!” Then why did you even write a fictional story in the first place? Christian authors have taught children morals without being insulting. I would totally give my future kids a Wally McDoogal book, despite it being a little childish, because they taught the lesson well and creatively. But also, this was a book for teenagers. Why would you think a teenager couldn’t get this concept that the author was trying to get across? They even went so childish that they created these caricatureish demons that don’t follow a single piece of actual doctrine. Truth Twisters was garbage, even if the moral was something that was extremely important.
However, I think what broke me was that it brought up concepts and it was refusing to commit. The main character is a teenage girl with a boyfriend. Now, the author describes how this main girl feels somewhat guilty, that she is going too far in her relationship with her boyfriend. However, the author makes no attempt to clarify with narration, dialogue, or action what this “going too far” means. This book, that thought it needed to hold your hand to understand the moral and made the enemy such cartoonishly evil and ugly decided that the best course of action when addressing something that young people actually struggle with was to keep it as vague as possible. What is going too far? Are they banging? Is she going down on him? Did like their covered up nipples brush during a make out session? Is kissing considered too far? I would ask if they were implying holding hands was going too far, but that would imply that the author was a hypocrite because that’s all he does to his readers.
But, as you see, he couldn’t dare to talk about sex. This was a Christian novel, not erotica. And that is a huge problem. Because mentioning sex at all removes the label when it is a part of something.
As a writer, I look out for writing opportunities and many Christian publishers come up in my search. I am usually disappointed in what I find, because what they accept tends to be extremely narrow. Typically your characters have to already be Christian. No conversion stories, no testimonies. No character who is of a different faith can be portrayed as a good guy, but if you make them the bad guy they also won’t accept you because that’s considered hateful. So really, no one who isn’t a Christian can be in the story. And you can’t mention sex, unless it’s by making the lovers an already married couple, but you still can’t mention it. You have to play coy and not say anything about that.
Now, I am not advocating for some hardcore Christian erotica to be published ASAP, I doubt I would even want to read it, but at this point you have to see that the Christian Bookstore industry would not accept any part of my story that does not fall into their already pure and blameless section, aka, the entire story.
But who has ever lived a life completely devoid of anything that I’ve talked about? Who has ever lived their life where they only knew the name of one church? Who has lived a life where they only were experienced to one worldview? Who lived a life where sex and death never were discussed or prompted curiosity? Who lived a life where swear words never existed? Who has lived a life completely devoid of what makes truly tragic art? If such a person exists, I feel sorry for that person, because he or she will not know what it is like to truly believe what they believe by choice, but by only having one option and being stagnant. Of course, I don’t want these things to happen, but they do and we need to express these things and understand them better.
I am not saying I don’t want to be a Christian comedian because I want to swear and talk about sex and make fun of people of different groups. No, I’m saying that I want to be a comedian, but who is a Christian rather than labeled as one. I want to stand before crowds and let them see the most vulnerable parts of me and allow them to laugh and learn. I don’t want to address my past experiences with death, sex, or other beliefs because I want to corrupt people, but because these things are a part of my story. They are my story. And to strip these things away means you really don’t want the view of what G-D did in my life, but an after image and me pretending that that’s how things always were.
I do not blame or attack my church for their desire to censor things at a family event, but I think that I’m going to want to try my next comical setting in a much more acceptingly raw environment.