Divine Comedy : When Stand-Up Goes to Church, It's a Squeaky-Clean Routine

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stand-up comedian Robert G. Lee, picturing himself running into Old Testament figures in heaven, imagined that Moses might still be grumbling: "We wandered the desert for 40 years. Every day a million people would come up to me and say, 'Are we there yet?' "

An audience of 900 adults in the pews roared with laughter.

Welcome to comedy night at Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Encino, where Lee's Moses bit laid them in the aisles.

Then they guffawed at Lee as a robed "monk" reading from the "Book of Bob"--"Stop thy bellyaching: He, for one, is tired of it"--and applauded another comic's rendition of the church camp song, "Kumbaya," in the styles of Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and others.

Sure, these are inside jokes--appealing primarily to Christians who normally treat such subjects with utter seriousness.

But Bel Air is one of an increasing number of Protestant congregations turning sanctuaries into temporary comedy clubs featuring modern-day jesters with squeaky-clean routines, in part because comedy-starved Christians are reluctant to go to nightclubs where racy material is the norm.

The emergence of stand-up comics who profess an evangelical or charismatic faith appears to be overcoming deeply rooted fears, in many churches at least, about mixing the silly and the sacred and making a mockery of things holy--at worst, committing blasphemy.

Lee, one of television's busiest warm-up comics for sitcom studio audiences, is affiliated with Clean Comedians, a La Mirada-based booking agency for two dozen family-oriented entertainers, most of them Christian. Vineyard Church in Anaheim, Calvary Church in Santa Ana and Shadow Mountain Community Church in El Cajon are among those that have welcomed the family-friendly jokesters.

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Lee produced and headlined the two-hour show Sunday at the Bel Air church on Mulholland Drive, where he and his wife are members and Ronald and Nancy Reagan were once regular worshipers.

Using comic exaggeration, Lee has told other audiences that Bel Air Presbyterian built an oval pew for the ex-President and put jelly beans by his hymnal. But, he said, the Secret Service-installed metal detector at the sanctuary entrance meant long, amusement-park lines outside:

"There was a sign at the end: You are now 45 minutes from (the) sermon."

In his routine Lee also points out the difficulty of getting some biblical concepts across to children in Sunday school: "Love your enemy . . . the meek shall inherit the earth . . . the dead shall bury the dead--try teaching this with finger puppets."

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On March 4, Lee will join four other comedians for a Gospel Comedy Night at West Angeles Christian Fine Arts Center in Los Angeles' Crenshaw District, the third in a series of laugh nights sponsored by the church-related center.

"I think the churches are hungry for this right now," said Lee in an interview at his West Hills home. "A huge segment of society can't go to comedy clubs because of the cussing, racy jokes and insults to their religion."

Lee, 38, said he believes that jokes about religion took a mean turn after the late-'80s televangelist scandals involving Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. "Everyone was given free rein to make fun of Christianity," Lee said.

The Indiana native said that his attempts to make it as a nightclub comedian were difficult because of his spiritual outlook. "If you make fun of Christianity (in nightclubs), you get laughs," he said. "But if you have fun with Christianity, it doesn't play as well."

Lee found a television niche, and steady work, in off-camera, pre-taping jobs telling jokes to warm up studio audiences, starting with "The Golden Girls" and lately with "Wings" and "Step by Step." In between, he has done warm-up work for "Family Matters," "The Boys Are Back," "Designing Women," "Roseanne" and the final episode of "Cheers," among others.

With the possible exception of the raunchy "Married . . . With Children" sitcom, which Lee also did, most show producers want the warm-up comic to keep the audience in a good mood with clean, inoffensive humor, he said.

That doesn't mean church audiences are easy to please, said Lee, who recently was in Phoenix to entertain a Youth for Christ conference and Seattle for a New Year's Eve church event.

"Christian audiences can be unforgiving if you are perceived as mean," he said. "In that case, you're done."

Lee acknowledged, however, that some jokes get laughs because they make fun of something, even on the Christian laugh circuit.

For example, Sunday night, Lee joked about different views of what heaven was like. "You can become a Mormon. You die, you get your own planet. But then you might have to share it with some of the Osmonds, so I guess that isn't so good."

Lee said that in reviewing the commercial videotape made of his performance at Bel Air, he will decide whether to cut some jokes in order not to offend a wider audience.

Another comedian appearing with Lee at Bel Air, guitar playing Paul Aldrich of Arleta, sang a song satirizing the theory of evolution, despite the fact that many Presbyterians are not creationists.

Aldrich also took on the bizarre elements in nursery rhymes and children's songs, wondering what deranged person wrote "Rock-a-Bye-Baby"--what lunatic would stick a cradle in a treetop?--and whether Mother Goose was on LSD when writing "Hey, Diddle, Diddle." Looking for hidden meanings in "Here a chick, there a chick" in "Old MacDonald's Farm," Aldrich remarked, "He had babes all over the place!"

Aldrich ended with "Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub."

"All right, that's enough," he said to laughter and applause from the pews. "We've got a lot of pastors out there getting pretty nervous."

After the show, however, church secretary Doreen Palmer of Sierra Madre said she was pleasantly surprised that the comedians "didn't slam anybody." Her friend, X-ray technician Margaret Turano of Pasadena, said the church-sponsored program was a refreshing, clean-cut alternative to smoke-filled comedy clubs.

"There was nothing risque or lewd," added Jim Bel-Cher of Chatsworth, who attends the Church at Rocky Peak, where he takes part in humorous skits to illustrate the sermon. "I think the church is ready for humor that has truth to it."

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In a similar vein, Pasadena Covenant Church has enlisted stand-up comic Kris Strobeck, a member of the congregation, to write skits for the worship service. Strobeck, who has performed in Los Angeles clubs and cable TV comedy shows since 1989, was profiled in the Feb. 6 issue of Christianity Today, an evangelical magazine.

Patricia Marine, a staff member at Vineyard Church in Anaheim, said she has taken her non-Christian father to three religious comedy nights, including one at the fundamentalist-oriented Biola University in La Mirada.

"He thoroughly enjoys them," Marine said. "It helps bridge the gap between the church and the world."

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