Comedian Michael Jr. has done a lot of gigs in a lot of places, everything from hole-in-the-wall comedy clubs to The Tonight Show, Comedy Central, and Jimmy Kimmel Live. Oh, and lots of churches. As a Christian, he sums up his modus operandi like this: “If I’m in a club, my material has to be clean enough to work in a church. If I’m in a pulpit, it has to be funny enough to work in a club.”
Like anybody in his line of work, Michael Jr. wants to make you laugh. For years, that was his main professional goal. But not long ago, one gig in an upscale California club changed his way of thinking.
“I was praying before that show,” he says, “and God sort of changed my mindset. I went from wanting to get laughter from people to wanting to give people the opportunity to laugh.” After that same show, while hanging and laughing with some fans on the sidewalk out front, Michael Jr. saw a homeless man across the street–his in a neighborhood where that’s a rare sight. They made eye contact.
Michael Jr. says he asked himself, “How could I take comedy to him? What would that look like?”
What it looks like is what he did in the ensuing months, taking his routine to a youth prison in California, abused children in Colorado, a homeless shelter in Los Angeles, and those suffering with HIV/AIDS in Fort Worth, Texas. All of it was recorded for a new documentary, Comedy: The Road Less Traveled, which will screen in churches this fall before becoming available for general DVD sales after that.
For Michael Jr., the experience so powerful that he has worked such events into his regular schedule; he seizes every opportunity to take his comedy to these groups, which usually include people who need to laugh more than anyone. Such gigs don’t pay well, if at all; Michael Jr. sometimes even pays his own expenses to go to these places.
Christianity Today recently chatted with the comedian about the film, his work, and Christians’ sense of humor. (Click here and here to see a couple of his jokes.)
At the youth prison, one of the guys said, “When Michael Jr. made us laugh like that, he made us feel more human.” I was blown away by that, because I never thought they were anything but human.
At the Union Mission in LA [a homeless shelter], there was a meth addict on the front row. I remember him laughing really hard, hardcore belly laughter. I got a hug from him afterward, a hug like I’d never gotten before–like he was feeling some kind of release. When somebody in bondage starts to laugh, it’s like overcoming the devil. He didn’t say anything at the time, but when I saw him some months later, he had completely gone straight. He said that that [comedy routine] was the day everything changed for him. He said, “I am free,” and said he’s now a youth pastor down there. I was amazed.
And there was another guy down in Fort Worth at the HIV facility who said he hadn’t laughed in over 20 years. Can you imagine that? Twenty years.
Are you funny in person, or just on stage?
I’m not that funny in person. If I was at a party, I’d be off to the side, usually just watching people. My comedy is mostly just observational humor. I observe what people do, and talk about it in a funny way. It’s sort of a different kind of humor.
You say that when you’re in a club, your material has to be clean enough for church. And when you’re in a church, it has to be funny enough for a club. It sounds easier said than done.
Actually it’s really easy. Jokes just come to me, and I write them down. I send them out on Twitter and get some responses, and I kind of know before I go on stage what’s going to be funny or not. It’s just part of a gift or anointing, I guess. This may sound weird, like I think I know too much, but I just know what’s going to be funny. I may have to adjust my routine about where a certain joke goes in the set. It’s all about placement; it’s very strategic. But I’m pretty good at looking at the audience and knowing what materials will be appropriate. Also, I don’t really care that much about their reaction.
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