Christian comics prove clean humor's no joke Bible study goes digital
By Helen T. Gray
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Jeff Allen is doing what he's always dreamed of doing: making people laugh.
But his life has been anything but comedy.
It was a long, painful journey to where he is now, a comic with the four-man Apostles of Comedy, which appeared last Sunday at Grandview, Mo., Assembly of God.
The group is part of an increasingly popular genre of Christian comedians.
At one time, Christian comedy was looked at as an oxymoron.
"In the '70s and early '80s, some churches thought it was inappropriate and even sacrilegious," said Dan Rupple, past president of the Christian Comedy Association, whose membership is about 350. "By the 1990s, the church pretty much embraced it. Only very conservative denominations still may be hesitant."
He said the quality of Christian comedy is beginning to be on par with secular comedy, and more doors are opening in mainstream entertainment.
"The 'Passion of the Christ' created even more awareness that there's a huge Christian audience looking for entertainment that would not offend them," Rupple said.
Allen, 53, of Fairview, Tenn., has been a comedian for 32 years, performing in night clubs, including Stanford & Sons in Kansas City, Mo.
For a long time, he said, he was a heavy drinker and did drugs.
On nightclub stages, "I was a foul-mouthed, angry person who made people laugh," he said. "But off-stage, I hurt a lot of people, including my wife."
Therapy helped, and he went to AA meetings for eight or nine years. But he never understood "the higher power."
Allen said he had looked at Bibles in hotels but didn't understand the King James translation. A friend sent him an easier-to-read New International Version and Bible-based sermon tapes from his church. Allen didn't touch them.
Still, his marriage was rocky, and he was questioning if comedy was his total purpose in life.
For months, he and his wife, Tami, went their separate ways. On his 40th birthday, she said she was taking the boys out of town for the summer and while she was gone, he'd better listen to the tapes or she would throw them out.
"I opened the first envelope, and it was Ecclesiastes," he said. "That one 45-minute sermon summed up my life. It was all meaningless. Life without God would have no meaning, and without meaning there is no purpose."
He ripped open the other envelopes, listened to the tapes, some several times. He started reading the Bible and making notes.
"It was an awakening," he said. "One day, I realized there is a God. It hit me full force. I had blasphemed this God. I called the buddy who had given me the tapes and who had said he was praying for me. I was in tears. 'I have a problem,' I said.
" 'What's the problem?'
" 'There is a God.'
" 'I know.' "
About a month later, Allen went to Texas and attended his friend's church, Denton Bible. He met the pastor, Tommy Nelson, and gave his life to Christ.
When Tami returned, he told her he was a born-again Christian. She had grown up in church, and she and the boys started going with Allen. She also re-dedicated her life to Christ.
But Allen had a challenge. As he studied the Bible and became more involved as a Christian, he knew he would have to clean up his act.
"Then I realized we have a wonderful language," he said. "And there was not one routine I used to do in night clubs that I couldn't clean up."
Since then, he does clean acts in clubs and also performs in churches.
He used to have a preconceived notion that Christians were "killjoys."
In 2007, his manager, Lenny Sisselman, and filmmaker Mitchell Galin organized the Apostles of Comedy and produced a film of the group.
In late 2008 and the spring of 2009, the group had 31 dates. They did a small tour in January and are doing four dates this spring. They are putting together about 30 dates for the fall, Sisselman said.
"One of the things we struggle with is to call it clean comedy," he said. "It sounds like it is not going to be funny."
The culture has taken comedy entertainment "to a dark place," Sisselman said.
"Most people are amazed that these comedians can be that funny and clean," he said. "This is what we have tried to create, and we are very pleased with the comedians in the Apostles of Comedy."