Thou Shalt Remember Thou Art Creative

If you have made people laugh, you are a comedy writer. Sometimes people who haven’t written comedy before think of comedy writers as wizards, possessed of magical powers inaccessible to mere mortals. . . . comedy writing is work—nothing more, nothing less. And the harder you work at it, the better you get. . . . think of “comedy writer” as a hat, and put it on your head and keep it there. —Stephen Rosenfield, founder, American Comedy Institute

The question I get more than any other—more than “What’s the meaning of life?”, or “Why do people suffer?”, or “Why are the New England Patriots so . . . them?”—is “Can I learn to be funny?” Pastors love to throw out every imaginable caveat when they hear that I teach comedy to preachers: “Oh, I’m not really that funny.” “I don’t think I have much of a talent for comedy.” Or my personal favorite, “Don’t expect much.”

Well, brothers and sisters, let me pull back the curtain in front of the great Oz: humor is nothing but a learned skill. Ta-da. That’s it. (Sorry to disappoint those of you who thought you had the ironclad excuse. You don’t.) You put in the work, and you can do it. It is absolutely possible. And you start with yourself.

Work on Thyself

If you hear a voice within you saying, “You are not a painter,” then by all means paint, boy, and that voice will be silenced. —Vincent Van Gogh

There is one place where comedy and preaching totally and utterly diverge: the world of being surly. Surly works in comedy. Serious, somber, morose, or depressed works in comedy. It-does-not-work-in-the-church. (By the way, hyphens are a trick to emphasize words in comedy.)

People come to houses of worship not necessarily to laugh but to find comfort, to be lifted up. If the preacher’s expressions and mannerisms do nothing but mirror the pain in the pews, why would anyone ever return? Even Jesus’ most heartfelt words fall flat if uttered from a flat heart.

I said earlier that comedy is a learned skill, but I should say it’s a remembered skill. We had it at birth. According to studies, kids laugh approximately 400 times a day while adults laugh about 20 times per day. I’m pretty sure that’s why Jesus said we must become like the little children. They laugh more. They smile more. They don’t carry the weight of the world on their faces (unless they’re hungry or sitting in poop, which are legitimate reasons to scowl).

My comedy partner, Rabbi Bob Alper, shares a story in his act from the 1950s program The Art Linkletter Show. In it, a little boy tells Linkletter that his dog died. Linkletter says, “It’s OK, I’m sure your dog is in heaven.” The little boy then scrunches up his face and says, “What would God want with a dead dog?!”

Kids have an innate, yet fresh sense of creativity. When we were young, we were naturally creative, using the entire box of Crayola crayons to invent wondrous, colorful stick people, animals, and floating clouds. And why not? We are all children of an artistic genius. Take thirty seconds and gaze on these National Geographic photos of creation and tell me I’m wrong.

I’ve always believed that we most resemble God at the time we were handed out of God’s arms to our parents. This includes being honest, playful, and quick to laugh. But something happens between birth and, as some people refer to it, “maturity” (although I tend to think that kids are more grounded than us “mature” adults). Whatever you call the aging process, the fact is that over time the world closes in. Our shoulders droop under the weight of our lives. Our sense of joy gets squeezed out. And we slowly begin to believe all the chatter that says we should act a certain way, we should live a certain way, and, worst of all, we don’t deserve joy.

Jesus taught that “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24). You have to believe it to receive it. Before you take any steps toward studying comedy as a preacher, you have to believe that your own heart is worthy to receive joy.

Looking for the Funny

The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time. —Mary Oliver, poet

One of the greatest maladies in the clergy world (and frankly, the world at large) is that we have forgotten we can laugh. The world does its best to beat the joy out of us. But here’s the good news: it’s still there. We just have to find it. Every human being, no matter how crusty or cantankerous, has something that will make him or her laugh. Some people watch Saturday Night Live. Others read the works of David Sedaris. Still others binge on YouTube videos about cats. Whatever floats your boat. The point is that somewhere in this great big world, there is something that will make you laugh. Find it—and remember you can laugh. Once you do that, you’ve officially started your training in the craft of comedy.

A comedian learns to see the world through the lens of humor. Similarly, people who want to inject humor in their sermons or lectures need to train their eyes to see it and their ears to hear it. For example, musicians train their ears by listening to music. Chefs train their palates by tasting. Comedians learn by watching comedy.

These days there is no excuse. There are televisions, computers, iPads, iPhones, YouTube, podcasts, SiriusXM radio. Identify people who make you laugh. Adopt them as your virtual comedy coaches. Study what they do, how they do it, their topics, their delivery. Slowly, it will begin to sink in. You’ll start to notice comic things. You’ll laugh more. You’ll start to look for the funny.

It’s like buying a new car. For example, you purchase a red Toyota Highlander. After you drive it home, for the next few days, weeks, or even months, you start seeing all these red Highlanders on the road! Why are all these people buying my car? Then you realize that by purchasing one, you have attuned yourself to seeing red Highlanders.

It’s the same with comedy and humor. You can attune yourself to noticing funny things when it becomes a part of your life—when you “own” it. Then you are on your way to forming your own unique voice and perspective.

. . .

Exercises

1. Do you believe that you deserve joy?
2. What makes you laugh? Who makes you laugh?
3. How many times do you laugh during any given day? How much do you laugh at work versus home? Why? Is this something you want to change?
4. How do you shake things up? Where are you most inspired?
5. What artists do you enjoy watching or listening to? What can you learn from them as a preacher and a budding humorist?

This post originally appeared in chapter 1 of Preaching Punchlines: The Ten Commandments of Comedy by Susan Sparks, a trial lawyer turned stand-up comedian and Baptist preacher. 

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