Chonda Pierce bounces onstage in blue jeans, hands clapping as if leading a crowd at a rock concert. Her mostly female audience eagerly joins in—until the performer abruptly stops.
"That's all I've got; I don't have anything else," the Nashville-area comedienne shrugs. "I don't have no song."
Cheers erupt as Pierce—whose facial expressions are a vital tool in her repertoire—gestures and grins: "You are all so stinking funny. You should get out more, 'cause you're havin' a blast."
Then the mother of two launches into non-stop parody while poking fun at several audience members along the way.
"That is so precious," she says sweetly to a woman in a bright red fedora, "and your hat is as obnoxious as it could possibly be. Get your own video, OK?"
The former Minnie Pearl impersonator draws chuckles while describing shopping for supplies to outfit her new home, concluding: "I ain't no Martha Stewart. My idea of building a house is inchin' the trailer a little further down ... that works for me."
She also aims barbs at:
- Wal-Mart: "One hundred forty seven lanes ... and three of 'em are open ... and they want you to fill your buggy up and scan it yourself. Then I'd like workmen's comp and the dental plan."
- Fashion: "I went shopping for blue jeans, and some little whippersnapper in there is listening to [my] grunting and groaning [as I'm trying them on]. Finally little Susie May attendant comes in there and says, 'Ma'am, that's as high as they go.' "
- Parking: "That's a whole row for expectant mothers. ... Honey, if you can't walk yourself into the door, you don't need to be having no baby. ... You're going to have a toddler pretty soon—you need the exercise. ... What they need is menopause parking. That would save lives. That would bring peace to the world."
Howls of laughter and applause rocket across the auditorium before Pierce launches into a revised rendition of Martha Reeves & The Vandellas' "Heat Wave," singing of middle-age hot flashes and profuse sweating.
The mirth-filled scene symbolizes a new awareness in Christendom: It's OK to laugh. God loves His children and enjoys watching them have fun. More important, He can use humor to bring people into His kingdom.
A Growing Field
Pierce is one of more than 350 members of the Christian Comedy Association (CCA), a Southern California-based group that promotes clean comedy as well as fellowship among its practitioners. CCA President Dan Rupple also oversees Seriously Funny, which maintains a searchable database of 125 comedians, musicians, ventriloquists and theater/improvisational groups. A member of The Bridge Church, a congregation started by Florence Avenue Foursquare Church in Santa Fe Springs, Calif., Rupple says Christian comedy has moved light years ahead since the mid-1970s to become one of today's most popular forms of entertainment.
"It's getting more and more recognized in the church world, which is great," Pierce notes, echoing Rupple's outlook. "Anybody wants to be salt and light in a dark world."
That acceptance leads to weekly comedy bookings in hundreds of churches, including some who use them for outreach. Some examples of this trend:
- When Heritage Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky., wanted to spread awareness of its move to a new location in 2005, it booked comic Dana Daniels to attract residents of the community.
- In promoting its 2006 Praise Extravaganza in Orlando, Fla., New Destiny Christian Center featured comic John Gray alongside the guest speaker.
- On Bob Smiley's 10th anniversary in comedy, his booking agency issued a press release noting the occasion: "In the 10 years I've been telling jokes, I've seen laughter, tears, depression and rejoicing—and that's just at the United Airlines ticket counter."
Such kidding used to be frowned on in Christian circles, a combination of what Rupple blames on self-righteousness and equating seriousness with holiness. He is pleased to see piousness fade amid realization that amusement fits into God's kingdom.
"I think people who can laugh are people who know they're just a sinner saved by grace," says Rupple. "They don't take themselves too seriously. They know what they're made of and know they are in the hands of a loving God who has everything in life under His control."
Still, such recognition came slowly, according to Rupple. As a founding member of Isaac Air Freight, the groundbreaking Christian comedy group that toured in the late 1970s and 1980s, he remembers when Christian comedians were almost as scarce as beer at a church picnic.
However, a number of stand-up acts surfaced in the 1990s, says Rupple, naming such performers as Chonda Pierce, Robert G. Lee, Thor Ramsey, Mike Williams and Mark Lowry.
"Isaac Air Freight and Mike Warnke broke through the barrier of what's appropriate," explains Rupple, who now devotes his time to teaching, writing and producing such films as Thou Shalt Laugh. "I think we saw a whole new thing inspired by some of the pioneering we did. In the past five years, what we're seeing is as good as anything you'd see on late night television—Letterman or Leno or something like that."
Ironically, at the same time clean comedy has skyrocketed, the off-color version in comedy clubs has been on the wane. Rupple attributes that to competition from cable TV and consumer disgust with its degenerating standards.
Robert G. Lee, part-time drama director at Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles, agrees, noting that one of his wisest decisions was leaving the club scene after their standards sank.
"They couldn't get the Seinfelds and Lenos," Lee says. "Go on down and you get guys who can't use humor; they just use profanity and dirty jokes. It's not the hot thing it was a decade ago."
Despite its reputation as combination stress reliever and light-hearted entertainment, comedy is serious business. Rupple sees it as the perfect vehicle for delivering sobering news, comparing today's comedians to ancient court jesters who couched truth in terms kings would accept.
"Some of the gospel is extremely challenging, knowing that we're marked by sin and separated from God," Rupple explains. "That's hard to hear. But when you can put in something as disarming as humor, I think it makes it palatable for the audience to hear some very difficult spiritual truths."
It also delivers unpopular messages, as Chris Vaughn discovered while leading a parenting and marriage seminar in Lynchburg, Va. The Atlanta-area comedian had parents rollicking in their seats, but he also used the occasion to challenge those who were ignoring their responsibilities.
Afterward, a man walked up and told Vaughn: "I loved you for 45 minutes; I thought it was the funniest thing I'd ever heard. Then I realized you were talking to me, and I don't like you one bit."
Other encounters end in powerful spiritual outcomes. Ron McGehee has performed regularly with the Gospel Comedy Slam, a traveling variety caravan hosted by comedian Lamont Bonham. In addition to numerous conversions, at one show a woman was healed of cancer.
McGehee had a more personal experience after performing one New Year's Eve at Knotts Berry Farm in Buena Park, Calif., near Disneyland. An 18-year-old man approached to say: "I want to thank you for helping me laugh again. My brother was shot three nights ago."
Taking him aside, McGehee used the tragedy to ask the guest if he had accepted Jesus so he would be sure of his destination when he died. The conversation ended with the man giving his life to Christ.
"That's why God has put me into these things," says McGehee, who attends King's Harbor Foursquare Church in Redondo Beach, Calif. "As much as you'd like to write a sitcom or an award-winning show, I don't think anything compares to that."
His wife, Kerri Pomarolli, echoes that thought. When she gave her first altar call at an Assemblies of God-sponsored community outreach in Modesto, Calif. Fifteen people responded.
"My comedy is a ministry," says Pomarolli, whose first book is titled, If I'm Waiting on God, What am I Doing in a Christian Chat Room? "I want to save souls through what I do. If I'm honored to be part of a show where people give their life to the Lord, it's serious to me.
"God took away the Hollywood mentality of thanking everyone because I want to be rich and famous," continues Pomarolli, who has performed on such programs as The Tonight Show, Living the Life and The Young and the Restless. "I want to be in Hollywood, because it's my mission field."
Laughter and Ministry
Chris Vaughn never anticipated becoming a comedian. Raised in a strict Pentecostal environment, he sensed God calling him to preach at a young age. Delivering his first sermon at 16, the erstwhile evangelist set out to save the world.
Something funny happened along the way, though. Without intending to, he'd say things like, "With every head closed and every eye bowed ... ." At staff meetings at Living Way Church, where he formerly served as senior associate pastor, Vaughn routinely cracked people up, prompting the senior pastor to ask, "Can you ever be serious?"
Finally, he decided to stop mixing ministry with comedy and rely on the latter for his living. Church foibles assure Vaughn continuing work. Take the Christian girl who once told him (quite seriously): "We don't believe in going to movies. We believe in going to Blockbuster."
Mixing imitations of such figures as Rod Parsley, Billy Graham and Hank Hill into his act, Vaughn just loves to make people laugh. Years ago, between steady jobs, he would go to the post office and try out new material on the staff.
"To make them laugh did something for me," Vaughn says. "The people I like to make laugh most are my wife and three kids."
There's more than just evoking laughs, though. Among his favorite scriptures are Proverbs 15:13, which begins, "A merry heart makes a cheerful countenance" (NKJV) and John 10:10, which talks about Christ coming to give us abundant life.
Those verses don't square with a legalistic upbringing where frowns were more common than upturned cheeks. As Vaughn studied the Bible in his teens, he came to appreciate God's joyful side, which he sees as every bit as real as His judgment.
Says Vaughn: "If you can laugh in the face of adversity and trials ... 'Count it all joy when you encounter trials,' as James says ... Laughter is one of the best forms of submission to God, knowing He is a good God who loves us and doesn't want us to walk in fear of Him."
Lee sees comedy as a divine mission, one that reminds people they need to laugh just as Jesus laughed. Laughter encourages people and makes them realize that life is not so bad, says Lee, who credits Bill Cosby's routines with inspiring his career choice.
God uses Lee's comedy in many ways. In addition to the atheist who accepted Christ after listening to one of his tapes, a woman in Atlanta told him, "I came to the church four years ago [to see you] and I said, 'If they have this kind of thing, they're okay.' I'm still here."
"I am a court jester," Lee says. "We're not held in as high esteem in the church as music and drama. Comedians aren't respected, but they're needed. Bringing mirth to people is a high calling."
Pierce achieved premiere status gradually, first working in college at Opryland while studying drama. After marrying and twice giving birth, she started spreading her wings, first with local church audiences and eventually recording a video.
Despite five Gold-selling videos and a list of accolades and TV appearances, she says the faith she learned as a young girl growing up in a Nazarene church still drives her.
"When you have a time in your life when you are far from God and know what it feels like to be redeemed, you just want to go tell somebody," Pierce points out. "That evangelistic seed was planted in my heart, to use my testimony to show what the Lord has done. And comedy is the best way to do that."
Despite prompting hilarious reactions, the blonde dynamo has a serious side as well. One of her acts included the admission that she was being treated with an anti-depressant for menopausal-related depression.
Although at one time that might have gotten her blacklisted in church circles, today it has prompted other women to write letters of appreciation for her honesty. Pierce says she never imagined she would start talking about it so soon, yet is pleased her admission has enabled others to reveal their struggles.
"While they're laughing and chuckling along, it gets people to thinking," she says. "Hopefully they'll lighten up on their brothers and sisters in Christ who have been down and in a dark place."
The Future of Funniness
Growing popularity and more avenues opening to Christian comedians prompt the question: Where is this field headed?
While Pierce doesn't claim a divine pipeline to the future, she prays clean comics continue to increase their professionalism while igniting such enthusiasm that even mainstream comedy clubs will book them.
"I'm praying I'm right, that the majority of America still enjoys good, clean laughter and the kind of laughter that leaves a good, clean taste in your mouth," Pierce says. "The kind you don't have to have a three-drink minimum to try to enjoy it."
While he foresees promising opportunities, Rupple thinks comedy will need to adapt to youthful tastes for quirky, fast-paced humor. The "godfather" of Christian comedy points to popular TV shows and movies that often appear to be random bits strung together, which he says appeals to today's brief attention spans. That can be a challenge for a 50-some year old, which is why Rupple is grateful his son is now his partner.
Along with the challenges, however, come wide-open vistas. No longer are a few powerful broadcasters in charge of media content; anyone with an Internet connection can create material to be downloaded on computers, cell phones, iPods and other devices.
"That can be very dangerous, because now you have a billion voices out there on the horizon, but it can also be invaluable to both the Christian comedian and the church at large in ministry," Rupple says.
Despite shorter attention spans, Lee thinks there will always be room for storytelling, which he says has captivated audiences for the past 2,000 years. In his view, God created people to desire stories. The Internet and iPods are simply a new way of delivering them.
Because of his belief in the power of stories, Lee is shifting his attention away from stand-up performances to writing in hopes of getting Christian views into more mediums. He penned scripts for several VeggieTales videos, including Sheerluck Holmes, as well as a feature-length film called Brother Bob, that is being shopped to several studios.
But to reach the culture, Lee asserts, movies and other media projects have to be on the same level of quality as The Passion of the Christ or "The Chronicles of Narnia" series. Fortunately, he thinks Christians are up to the challenge.
"Over the next five years, you'll see a lot of films with a Christian world view," Lee says. "I think you'll see a lot of dramas. I hope you'll see comedies, too. The way to break through the culture is comedy."
And that, folks, is no laughing matter.
By: Ken Walker, an award-winning freelance writer in Huntington, W.Va. He loves to laugh, which is why he enjoyed working on this story.