A Priest, a Rabbi, and a Pastor Walk into the Pulpit: What preachers can learn from stand-up comedians (Part 1 of 2)

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What preachers do is more than a little bit crazy. “The foolishness of our proclamation,” as Paul put it, is quite literally all that we have to offer, and it is a strange enterprise.

Preachers proclaim forgiveness.
Preachers dare to speak with the power of God’s Word, and in God’s name.
Preachers speak truth to power.
Preaching — its task, its goal, the practice of honing it — is a peculiar vocation; almost unique.

I am going to make the assumption that many (if not most or all) preachers want to improve, they want to grow as orators, hone their craft; they want to be the best that they can be in service of the Gospel. And again, most preachers have had our influences; homiletics professors, books about preaching or by great preachers, preachers whom we have heard and seek to emulate. But the time may well come (and perhaps already has for you) when one needs to look outside of the discipline itself in order to advance one’s practice of discipline; think of it as interdisciplinary reflection.

So where can the preacher go for help? “Who else stands up in front of a room full of people who have nothing more in common than that they are seated facing in the same direction,”1 and starts talking to them?

While there may well be a number of options (from sports commentators to news anchors, perhaps even to politicians), I would suggest that the preacher can find no better rhetorical kin than the stand-up comedian.

Preachers and Stand-ups

What preachers do is more than a little bit crazy, or as Chris Rock puts it, “freakish.”

“The ability to talk to a lot of people is freakish. It’s more freakish than being able to run fast, or dunk a basketball, or any of those other things. It’s freakish. Do you think Superman could talk to a thousand people? … [to] get their attention … he has to bend something first. But to just get up in front of a thousand people and start talking … .”2

Preaching and stand-up have this in common: the challenge of standing in front of a bunch of folks — many of them strangers — and trying to reach them, touch them, move them, never knowing what you will get from them in response.3

More than simply sharing a rhetorical challenge, comedians and preachers occupy a similar cultural space. The culture in which we live, and the context in which we practice our wild vocation, need our attention, in order for our message to come through as authentic, and relevant.

As I have urged elsewhere, “the church must speak in a fashion that is faithful to Scripture and tradition, but in a register that is fitting to whatever context in which it finds itself — in a way that translates the gospel message into language and symbols that can be understood.”4

Comedians are, more and more, being taken seriously.

The “fake news” as Norm Macdonald called it, which started out on Saturday Night Live as “Weekend Update,” was social commentary masquerading as a news program. This masquerade has become, in a very real sense, a legitimate means of delivering the news. From The Daily Show to the Colbert Report and now to Last Week Tonight, comedic takes on the news have become the primary or only means by which many get their news. Period.

It follows, it seems to me, that we might learn something about the art of preaching, from the art of the stand-up comedian. I would like to offer two initial observations.

1. The comic (and theological) intrusion

If the key to comedy is timing, then its beating heart is surprise.

Cicero talked about “expectation” in comedy, for Descartes it was “surprise,” for Kant and Hegel, “incongruity.” Regardless of the particular term one uses to get at it, the fundamental building blocks of comedy are the juxtaposition of incongruities. Comedy at its most fundamental, is the sudden resolution of a shared expectation into something totally other, or nothing at all. The resolution, or transformation of expectation is a different way of perceiving and understanding reality.

As Peter Berger puts it, “The comic experience provides a distinctive diagnosis of the world. It sees through the facades of ideational and social order, and discloses other realties lurking behind the superficial ones.”5

This is precisely what God’s Word does.

The incongruity (incongruities!) of the life of faith — a dead man has risen from the grave; this man is not just a human being, but God as well; and that this man’s death … his death means that your sins are forgiven, his death means that you have life — is laughable. Ask Sarah, or Peter, and one out of two thieves on the cross.

The Gospel is the great incongruity of creation, yet it is our task as preachers to aid in its intrusion into our world, and to change the way people see themselves and their neighbors as a result.

2. Truth-telling

Stand-up comedians are relentless truth-tellers. Most (if not all) comedians practice truth-telling; they are not just telling jokes, they are getting at something deeper. In 2011 HBO aired a special called Talking Funny, which was a conversation about comedy between Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Ricky Gervais and Louis C.K. Louis C.K. had this to say about the purpose of comedy:

“A great thing about comedy is taking people to places that they have fear and foreboding, and making them laugh in that place. I think you help them.”

Louis C.K. excels at this. No subject is off limits, as an object of laughter and of exposition. Race, relationships, sex and sexual violence, language itself, nothing is off limits. As a comedian, Louis C.K. often climbs inside of an issue or an idea and makes mock of it, exposing it for what is.6 Louis calls a thing what it is, shows a thing to be what it is, and allows us to face it head-on.

The task of the preacher is remarkably similar. In fact, it may be identical. The task of the preacher is to tell the truth, to expose sin and death, to proclaim Law and Gospel, to preach Christ and him crucified to a world that too often does not know him. This, according to Martin Luther, is what defines the Theologian of the Cross, “A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.”7

This is what many comedians do, with more fearlessness and abandon than many preachers dare.

We preachers could do worse than to learn from their example.


1 Louis C.K.

2 “Kids Need Bullying.” Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. http://comediansincarsgettingcoffee.com/chris-rock-kids-need-bullying

3 As Kennan Ivory Williams put it on Inside Comedy with David Steinberg (Showtime), “I’m a black kid from the projects standing in front of white people from New Jersey — what are we gonna have in common?”

4 Rolf and Karl Jacobson, “Everyone who hears will laugh with me: Humor and Telling God’s Truth.” (Word & World, 32:2, 2012), 107.

Peter Berger, Redeeming Laughter: the Comic Dimension of Human Experience (Boston: De Gruyter, 2014), 34.

6 http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=louis+ck+sn%3b&&view=detail&mid=968FF4B91A5A96867F09968FF4B91A5A96867F09&rvsmid=10B3C2842AD2CE84A2F910B3C2842AD2CE84A2F9&fsscr=0&FORM=VDFSRV

7 Martin Luther, “Heidelberg Disputation,” Luther’s Works vol. 31 (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1957), 52.