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.
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."
But Wethington also has another calling. He's involved in college ministry at a Nashville church. Not long after he started doing comedy, the church's leaders asked him to make the weekly announcements every Sunday in a fun way that would help the congregation of 400 pay attention.
Today Wethington doesn't care if he gets paid at a comedy club or not. He uses those jobs in the secular world to sharpen his funny bone for church performances: "I don't want to be that guy with 25 minutes of communion wafer jokes."
Wethington is alluding to the dominant stereotype that Christian comedians aren't funny. When C.J. Harlow, a contestant from Kentucky, performs at comedy clubs on nights that include secular comics, he says he often feels like he's "in a gunfight with a knife."
"Everyone else is super dirty so maybe I'm the light in the middle of all that," he said. Harlow, 38, started doing comedy four years ago after thinking about it for a decade. A former Marine, he first used his routines to entertain fellow soldiers with nightly skits while deployed to Somalia. During his first gigs back home he took note cards on stage to read.
"I don't have dogs, kids, or a wife," he says as a way of explaining why he decided to try life as a full-time comedian. "I have a picture of a plant, but it died."
Last year Harlow performed from Florida to Rhode Island, but made only $15,000. He keeps a tent, sleeping bag, and an air mattress in his car, and sometimes on the road the car becomes his bedroom.
Proverbs may say that "a joyful heart is good medicine," but churches and comedy often make strange bedfellows. Comedians mostly make fun of things and jokes usually are birthed through dark times, and often at the expense of others.
A recent job at a Christian college for Harlow included a contract warning that he could forfeit his pay if he used jokes that included bathroom references or the word hell. A popular story among the comics here is that organizers at a church event once told a comedian that she couldn't use the word pantyhose.
"The church has always been so worried you will offend somebody," says the Clean Comedy Challenge organizer, Townsend, who in 1996 came in second place in the stand-up comedy category of Star Search. "I believe that Jesus would have a smile on His face most of the time. He would be going to comedy clubs."
Harlow believes there are valuable ways for comedy to reach churchgoers. He used to struggle with marijuana addiction and sometimes incorporates that into his jokes. He believes that being honest about it and including it as part of his comedic testimony may touch people in the audience who are struggling with the same thing.
Cox, whose poor man routine ultimately wins him the challenge's championship trophy, is a public high-school teacher. He was able to share his Christian testimony to many of his Auburn, Ala., students for the first time when they came to his performances at a local coffee shop.
While Cox and others see the audience as a mission field, Simpson believes he also is called to minister to other comedians. When an alcoholic comic said he couldn't get sober living at his parent's house, Simpson invited him to live with his family. That comedian spent 21 clean days with Simpson, Simpson's wife, and two children. He now has been sober for 20 months.
The ongoing challenge for Christian comedy is how to define clean."Some may do a Viagra joke and call it clean because there are commercials on TV about it," said Regan, who served as one of the judges.
At its most basic level, clean comedy means zero curse words and vulgarity. A comedian for nearly 25 years, Regan used to get laughs using dirty words sprinkled throughout his jokes. Once he tried telling the exact same joke with all the bad language taken out, and the audience didn't laugh.
"For the most part comedians don't do clean because it is very hard," Regan said. "But if you work to do things in a more thoughtful way, you will become a better comedian."
Regan said the clean comedy field was so small two decades ago that he knew all the comedians. Now it's crowded. Simpson compares it to where Christian music was about 30 years ago-a niche market with a handful of not widely known artists. Today Christian music spans genres and can be bought in most stores. The comics at July's comedy challenge are hoping they can catch what may be a coming Christian comedy wave.
So they spend the weekend honing their craft: They work on how not to forget jokes, how to keep a safety parachute of laughs to pull if an act is bombing, and how to handle another not infrequent hurdle: hecklers in the crowd.
Though he didn't win the competition after his rocky first night, Simpson takes solace in the fact that the judges said he had one of the best sets on the final night. That performance included a sound-effects-heavy story about putting an electric collar on his barking dog. Response to that set boosts Simpson enough to head over to a nearby restaurant for open mic night. Never mind that it's nearing 1 a.m. and he already has spent the last three days telling jokes.
"I think the ministry of laughter is coming, " Simpson said before disappearing inside the restaurant to grab the microphone-and hope for more laughs.