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Church clean & club funny

"Church clean & club funny" Continued...

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

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.

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