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The voice of one joking in the wilderness
Contrary to popular opinion, comedians are not the prophets of the modern age, argues Andy Kind
Comedy is everywhere. The last decade has seen comedy reclaim its ascendant position within the secular arts and entertainment world. Live at the Apollo, Mock the Week, 8 Out of 10 Cats, Would I Lie to You, QI, Argumental, Celebrity Juice – few of these existed ten years ago.
And that’s just the tip of iceberg: within the last decade, the prevalence of comedy on our screens has led to a miraculous leavening in the crowd sizes at live gigs, while a mass ‘introdus’ of young comedians has been spotted crossing the red carpet into the promised land of the professional comedy circuit. Comedy is, for the first time ever, a viable graduate career for some.
This evangelisation of the nation’s collective funny bone has given rise to the propagation of a rather glib social meme, namely that comedians are ‘modern-day prophets’. Which, I say unto you, is utter rubbish.
I’m a professional comedian. I started doing comedy in early 2005 (just before the number of new comics being spawned reached plague-like levels and made getting any sort of stage time – let alone paid work – more difficult than an Israelite entering Jericho without musical accompaniment). I’ve performed at thousands of gigs, and been present at hundreds of others, and I can tell you, if you have ears to hear, that we comedians aren’t prophets. We’re not. Comedians are ‘yes men’, snake oil salesmen, conjurers of cheap tricks.
Surely, being a prophet means speaking truth to power, shaping future trends, saying ‘hold on a minute’ when the consensus is forming? I don’t see much of that from my position inside the glasshouse, I’m afraid. While we may have faith that comedians are the great truth-mongers of our age, it’s simply a faulty exegesis when you understand the jokes and jokers in their proper context. The notable exceptions are people like Mark Steel and Mark Thomas – acts who genuinely are using comedy to undermine the ground on which the high and mighty stand – and geniuses like Daniel Kitson, who shuns fame for the sake of beautiful art. But that’s a pretty meagre offering from the several hundred professional comedians currently working in the UK today, not to mention the thousands of hobbyists, wannabees and journeymen fighting for scraps under comedy’s top table.
So why aren’t there more comedians speaking truth to power?
Most comedy is reactive, not proactive, and it is always going to be if the comedian you’re watching believes that the primary purpose of comedy is to entertain. Because laughter is selfish; we only laugh at things that we recognise from our own lives. The biggest laughs at any gig emanate from the gags which make us feel most safe, most comfortable, most superior. Peter Kay’s nostalgic tales of childhood wrap us in cosy cotton wool; Michael McIntyre’s impeccable man-draw-style observation assures us that we are not alone in this world; Tony Hancock’s misery or Sarah Millican’s chirpily mellifluous self-deprecation make us feel like there’s always someone worse off than us.
We have almost no culture of comedy within the UK church
All laughter is based on recognition, and so a technically good comedian will simply tap as deeply as she or he can into what already exists within the audience’s psyche – and the closer you get to the core of their experience, the more they will laugh. It’s skilful and learned and the result of many, many hours of hard work, but it’s not prophetic. There’s no peril, no challenge, no encouragement to change. It’s ego-grooming, sound bitefilled politicking: tell them what they want to hear and they’ll love you. It’s a comedic prosperity gospel.
This psychological reality is the reason why so many comedians at all levels of the hilarious hierarchy can be heard hitting out at Christianity and heralding its demise. Our secular society has taught comedians to evolve in that direction. Comics of this ilk might think they are punching up into the belly of the religious oppressors, but most seem genuinely unaware that the choir to whom they are preaching have long since torn off their ecclesiastical robes and are all wearing T-shirts bearing Darwin’s face.
Simply put, Christianity is an easy target – a creative path of least resistance – and so comedians attack Christianity because it garners easy laughs from people reading from the same hymn sheet page of The God Delusion. Contrast that approach with Daniel or Ezekiel, and tell me where the truth/power dynamic lies in the routines of Ricky Gervais or Tim Minchin, brilliantly funny as they undoubtedly are. I’m not saying comedy can’t be used prophetically, brothers and sisters; I’m just saying that’s not its primary outworking in the Britain of 2015. Far from serving up Isaiah-like hammer blows, modern-day stand-up is all too often the opiate of the masses.
So where is our response? Like Daniel in Nebuchadnezzar’s court, where are the Christians in comedy to meet the challenge laid down by the Jim Jefferies and the George Carlins of this worldly world? Why aren’t there more Christians in comedy, or in entertainment generally? The answer is simple: because of you and me.
WHERE ARE THE CHRISTIANS?
Going into comedy is tough. No career advisor nor any sensible parent ever suggested entering a career where hard work is guaranteed but payment isn’t. In my first two years as a comedian I would have needed lottery funding to be scraping minimum wage, but you do it because you feel called or compelled, and you hope that people will start to take notice.
Most stand-up comedians are simply out to make you laugh. Some claim to be doing more than that.
Mark Steel: The left wing stand up comedian addresses an Anti- Austerity rally. He regularly uses his newspaper column to critique the Government.
Mark Thomas: the comic turned investigative journalist has forged a career in biting political satire. Walking the Wall told the story of his ‘extreme ramble’, walking the entire length of the Israel/Palestine security wall.
Russell Brand: the comedian and actor has become known for his outspoken views, including politics, revolution, pornography and God.
This is even more difficult within the Christian world, because the Church doesn’t support the arts anywhere near as much as it should or thinks it does or, actually, as much as it wants to. Of course, we pay lip service to the concept, complaining about how few positive Christian role models there are on TV or in the media. We’d love there to be more Christian screenwriters, playwrights and actors. But nothing comes from nothing; nothing ever could (Julie Andrews taught us that in The Sound of Music). If we are not birthing and nurturing artists from within the Church, where are they supposed to come from? Does a magic stork drop them into The Comedy Store dressing room through an open window?
One problem, I think, is that we see the arts as an evangelistic luxury. It’s nice to put on a Passion play every other Easter (using volunteers from the congregation) or to stage a comedy night as ‘something a bit different’. But we don’t really see the arts as missional – a way of impacting society and changing lives. We never quite get around to believing that something doesn’t need to be explicitly evangelistic to still be missional and have worth. Some of us do. But not enough.
When it come to my own profession, we have almost no culture of comedy within the UK Church – there is no lineage, no inheritance. We had Adrian Plass, who is brilliant and funny and iconic, but who has never described himself as a comedian. Yet for so long, for lack of anyone else, Plass was heralded (unfairly) as the Christian comedian. Then, for nearly a generation, there was nobody else.
The alternative comedy movement started in the late 80s and early 90s, blossomed, flourished and impacted society, and the Church had no response. Churches would rather do something safe like a barn dance or a pie-and-pea supper or another barn dance because the first one went so well, rather than risk something as socially volatile as a comedy night as part of their outreach. You see, nobody gets offended at a barn dance.
And here is the rub: churches don’t champion the arts because art isn’t worried about offending, and Christians take offence too easily (some have just taken offence at being told that). Too often, we judge the moral worth of something before we judge its creative worth. If it offends us, it can’t be any good. And so any artistic colour gets drained away into a black-and-white legalism.
We don’t want creative pioneers. We say we do but we don’t, not really, because they take us into territory with which we aren’t familiar or comfortable. Really, what we want is people to guard the picket line of acceptability. We say we don’t, but we do. But if you don’t champion the place of the arts within the Body of Christ, if you don’t encourage young Christians to pursue the calling God has put on their hearts, if you don’t train up your creative troops to stand and fight, then why on earth would you – would we – expect to see the Church being anything other than routed in the world of entertainment? Ironically, the practice of training up Christians to impact the arts is not itself an art, but an exact science.
The exception is worship music. Churches use worship every week and so its value is much more visible. We’re great at discipling worship leaders, which is fantastic, but a myth is then created that Worship is King and its exponents are the Great Creatives of the Church. And yet, ironically, of all the Creative Arts, worship music has the least crossover into the secular world. Now, don’t get me wrong: I love worship music and worship leaders – it’s a great skill and a fine calling. But is worship or creativity confined to music? Is playing an instrument more of a gift than crafting a play? Is music more valuable than laughter? I don’t think so.
We see the arts as an evangelistic luxury
How can we impact the arts if we’re not using them ourselves? The analogies are myriad: if we curse the branch, we won’t see the fruit; if we cut the river of talent off at the source, we will never flood the arts for Christ. We’re deluded if we think otherwise. We pay lip service when what we really need is to be offering real service to our creatives.
However, I’m delighted to say that this trend has been slowly changing over the last decade, and we are collectively starting to grasp that comedy (for example) can be missional. We are, praise God, starting to show up; churches are beginning to understand comedy’s prominence in the secular world and are adapting their outreach to fit; we are evolving. As a result, Christians are starting to take to the stage and give comedy a go, and the number of Christians within the stand-up world is ten times what it was back in 2005. There are fine acts like Mark Palmer, Paul Kerensa, Tony Vino, Jo Enright – as well as the godfather trilogy of Milton Jones, Tim Vine and John Archer. And there are young Christians – lots of them, girls and boys – joining the throng every year. The Lord is adding to our number.
Things are changing. Aslan is on the move, as they say. And if you can be patient with us, if you can pray for us and support us, then I don’t think it will be very long before we reap the harvest. This generation shall not pass away before the UK Church is producing a much more robust, visible response to the atheism-heavy comedy that’s currently on offer.
Let’s call that a prophecy, shall we?
Andy Kind is a comedian, author and incoming creative director at Westwood Christian Centre, Huddersfield
Follow Andy @andykindcomedy