There are many things Evangelical Christians are good at, such as bake sales and talking to me on planes. They're less adept at other things, such as comedy and fighting lions. Christians aren't funny because they tend to be literal-minded. Also because they're sad about having had sex with only one person. So when Kevin Roose, author of the excellent new book The Unlikely Disciple, told me that Rick Warren's giant Saddleback Church has its own improv group, for the first time in my life, I felt my calling. I may not be the Woody Allen or Jon Stewart of the secular world, but in the land of the unfunny Christian, the one-joked Jew is king.
I called improv-troupe leader Ron Ruhman and asked if I could perform with the group at one of their monthly Saturday-night shows. He graciously invited me out. And then graciously asked me to try not to curse onstage. I arrived at the college-campus-size Orange County church on a Saturday afternoon. After being taught various improv games with the five members of the troupe, none of which involved the Bible or moral lessons, I asked them what the difference was between secular and Christian improv. "We're dirtier," said Jeremy Bryan Barnes. Then he explained why they weren't doing Christian comedy. "When we started, we'd get requests from groups to do jokes about Noah. But it wasn't fun. We'd work too hard to work in Noah. It's our job to entertain." Their goal, Barnes explained, was to give people a way to get friends to the church who have turned down an invitation to a service. This made sense until I thought about the kind of person who would say, "I'm not interested in eternal salvation, but I'd love to spend a Saturday night in a small conference room watching Christian improvisational comedy!"
After we prayed about some burgers and then ate some burgers, a troupe member took me to the worship center to see the end of the sermon being given by Warren, who apparently was our warm-up act. He did not make me laugh once. Then as the full house of 160 took their seats in a small meeting room next to the church, we gathered to pray about our performance. Preshow praying, as most professional comedians will tell you, is not quite as confidence-building as shots of Cuervo.
Here is what goes through your mind during 90 minutes of Christian improv: "No, no, can't say that, nope, maybe if ... no." In response to a game in which we had to communicate a murder scenario to one another in gibberish, our audience shouted its increasingly bland ideas with fervor: "Turtle!" "Balloon!" "IHOP!" "Bowling!" When one sinner yelled "Uranus!" our troupe member repeated it as "Urahnus." We even had to change the classic "guy walks into a bar, and the bartender says" scenario into "guy walks into a restaurant, and the manager says." This was one tight ahnus-ed group.
That said, Christian audiences will laugh at anything, since they are either so nice or so unaware of any entertainment other than Seventh Heaven. Puns proved to be a big hit, as was anything involving eating or pooping. My troupe mates were impressively funny within those boundaries, but after a while, I couldn't take the comedy shackles. During a version of the game Jeopardy!, someone shouted the answer "Milk!" to which I nervously buzzed in with "What is a movie they'd never play at this church?" To my relief, this got a laugh. So when we had to make up rhyming greeting cards for imaginary events and an audience member yelled out "Going to an improv show!" I said, "Improv is scary to do/ Especially when the whole audience wants to convert you."
Afterward, lots of supernice Christian people complimented my Christian-bashing jokes, including Tony Guerrero, Saddleback's director of creative arts, who also throws a jazz and Shakespeare festival at the church. I asked him what exactly the point of all this was, and he said, "If you look back in history, most of the arts were done for the church. All the music of Bach and Mozart was written for the church. We'd like it to be a hub for the arts again." Even back in the Renaissance, for every Michelangelo, there were probably five guys on a stage desperately trying to come up with poop jokes.
And while Saddleback gets criticized for being plush with its on-campus sand volleyball courts, skateboard park and concert theater and straying from its central missions of proselytizing and charity, I think it's great that the congregation is branching out. I want there to be more kinds of comedy and music and art. I'm just glad I'm not one of the poor Evangelicals who let themselves see only Christian versions of those things. Because I can't be there every month to save the show.