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Church clean & club funny

Entertainment | They stay up late, earn but a little, chase laughs in small towns, and all because they believe in the growing entertainment niche known as Clean Comedy

Issue: "Orphaned no more," July 30, 2011

LIMA, Ohio-Clayburn Cox admits to growing up poor. So poor, he says, that instead of the deodorant called Sure, he could afford only the deodorant called Perhaps. Instead of "I can't believe it's not Butter!" he had to settle for "I can't believe we can't afford I can't believe it's not Butter." He could use only a generic weight loss program called food poisoning. And he never felt like a million bucks. Instead he felt like a coupon.

When Cox admits this to a group of strangers, they laugh-which is just what he wants.

Cox, 31, is one of 13 contestants at July's Clean Comedy Challenge in Lima, Ohio. The comedians, many of them Christians, descended on this tiny town for three nights of competition billed as church clean and club funny.

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The event's founder, Leslie Norris Townsend, says this is the only event like it in the country. She hatched the idea two years ago after attending a convention for Christian comedians. The week was full of seminars on how to be funny and how to get gigs. But Townsend says it lacked what up-and-coming funny people need most: stage time.

So inside the Chippewa Room of a Howard Johnson Hotel, contestants from seven states are taking the next step toward becoming stand-up artists. This is admittedly a long way from the big time. But the comics seem so addicted to any limelight that at least two are willing to miss their wives' birthdays to chase laughs in Lima.

Some are brand new to the comedy world. Others have spent a decade telling jokes. Throughout the weekend they use one-liners or longer narratives to poke fun at marriage, weight gain, reality television, homeschooling, church matchmaking, and politics.

Nearly all of them gulp down water to battle the dry mouth and nerves before heading to the stage. They all learn that handling a joke is like holding a Fabergé egg. And when a flat joke is met by silence, the comedian's pain soon becomes the audience's too.

Risking rejection is worth it because the growing entertainment niche known as Clean Comedy is catching, they believe, as audiences tire of mainstream comedians who grow raunchier and raunchier. Videos of Christian comedian Tim Hawkins receive more than 23 million YouTube views. A DVD series titled "Thou Shalt Laugh" is on its fifth volume. One Wichita, Kan., church has started the "Kingdom Comedy Club," which hosts nationally known Christian comedians. And a series of Christian comedy shows started by a campus minister at Arizona State University is four years later attracting more and more students.

For the country's only Clean Comedy competition, judges this year include a cruise ship entertainment booker, a California-based producer, and a couple of clean comedian pros, like Dennis Regan. Regan has had multiple appearances on the Late Show with David Letterman-the holy grail for comedians-and throughout the weekend contestants reverently refer to his "four Lettermans." Everyone is dreaming that Lima somehow one day will lead to Letterman.

Video shot by Michael Williams/Genesis Photos for WORLD

But the competition's first night did not go so well for Marty Simpson. The 39-year-old from Columbia, S.C., took up comedy three years ago. A former high-school football coach, Simpson yearned for something to give him the same pregame butterflies, and found it in comedy. He has performed in churches and clubs in 10 states. "Comedy is the best bang for the buck," he says. "You stand up, grab the mic, tell a joke, and the audience laughs."

In this competition, Simpson, once a quarterback, did the equivalent of throwing an interception: He debuted a brand new act with a new character on the challenge's first day. Acting like a coach, Simpson took the stage with a whistle around his neck. But when the first 45 seconds went by with zero laughter, Simpson couldn't remember the rest of his new material.

"I was left with sweat beads on my head," Simpson said, and five minutes is a long time to sweat on stage. "I'm just glad it's a three-day competition."

The next day the judges, seated American Idol style, say Simpson did not fully commit to his new character. "Why are you doing comedy?" asks judge and talent manager Jan Maxwell Smith. "Until you figure it out none of this will really matter."

"At least I am positioned for the most improved award," Simpson cracks.

For last year's challenge winner, the answer to the judge's question is simple. Jonnie Wethington says the laughter is like "tiny hugs from strangers. There's a 7th-grader inside all of us who wants that."

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