The Preacher as Last Comic Standing?

by Alyce McKenzie

Preachers hear lots of feedback after they preach.

“You could be a hypnotist; you have such a soothing voice.” (Is this really a good thing?)

“I like your new robe.” (If you can’t say anything good about the sermon, mention the robe)

“I couldn’t hear a word you said” (This is why we should have had the sound system replaced and not just “repaired” by a church member’s uncle’s son-in- law)

Another comment often heard by preachers is “You could be a stand-up comedian.”

What is the appropriate response to such a comment?

“Thank you, I think.” (Sounds insulting to the compliment giver)

“Not if my family wants to continue eating on a regular basis,” sounds like false modesty. (or maybe just realism)

“Thanks be to God!” sounds blasphemous.

I am a fan of the show Last Comic Standing.  I wouldn’t stand up in a pulpit and recommend to parents that they have their children watch it, because it is, of course, often profane and vulgar. But for me, stand-up comedy is a fascinating genre – both because of its delivery and its content. Preachers can learn some positive lessons, as well as some cautionary tales, from stand- up comedians.

Ways Preaching and Stand-up Comedy are Alike:

Both involve a strong sense of vocation willing to ignore sensible advice from others that maybe something else would be a more prudent pursuit (more lucrative, less stressful, etc.) We’re familiar with what people give up to pursue a preaching ministry. We may not be as familiar with the jobs, time and normal lives people give up to pursue the vocation of comedy.

Both preaching and stand-up comedy involve the reality of careful preparation and the appearance of spontaneity.

A comedian who forgets her next joke and pulls her iPhone or (God forbid, an index card) out of her pocket to look it up is dead on the stage.  It’s not so bad when you’re a preacher. You can consult the old school index card stuck in your Bible and continue your train of thought without the whole room getting off at the next stop. But for both comedians and preachers, it takes a tremendous amount of work to make one’s delivery look effortless.

This is why, when I’m the guest preacher for a week and preach every morning at 8:30 am, I can’t stay out till midnight eating pie (though, believe me, I would love to) or meet a conference attendee for an early breakfast. I’m internalizing my message and need alone time.  Content is not enough. Delivery is integral to the message.  Careful preparation maximizes the artist’s ability to connect with those to whom she or he is speaking.

Comedians and preachers both need to manage their insecurities and ego needs, or their addiction to affirmation will assassinate their art.

Both can get that needy light in their eyes like an American Idol contestant waiting to hear from Simon Cowell. It’s the look that says, “My whole life has been a lead-in to your opinion of me and my whole future rests upon your opinion of me. Please, oh, dear God, please, think I’m as wonderful as I’m afraid I’m not.”

Comedians who show their neediness are “trying too hard.” The secret to being funny is, of course, good material that connects with the experience of your particular audience. The deeper secrets are confidence and timing. By confidence, I mean not just the appearance of indifference to whether or not people laugh, but the real indifference to whether or not people laugh. If they don’t laugh, they are comedically challenged. You’re not. You continue to love them, but with a tinge of pity.  Under no circumstances do you doubt the essential ridiculousness of life, of which their not laughing at your carefully crafted remark is just another example.  Under no circumstances do you doubt your role as the reliable purveyor of the gift of comedy to them. Hold your head high as your witticism hangs like expelled gas in the air of the sanctuary.  The comedian who stands on the stage with the needy glint in his eye is on the verge of a slow and painful death in front of others. The preacher who preaches with that needy glint in his or her eyes, heads to the back, ostensibly to shake hands and greet worshipers, but actually to beg for biscuits like a pathetic little dog.

In both comedy and preaching, humor is a gift that potentially has healing properties. In the case of preaching there is heightened danger that it could also have hurtful properties.

Both preaching and stand-up comedy rely on what I call the “knack for noticing,” the habit of close attention to inward life and life around us. In stand-up comedy, the comedian derives her material from being on the lookout for the absurd and the ridiculous in life within and around her and then hyperbolizing it to the breaking point.

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