Despite a few recent Mbird nods, as of three weeks ago I had no idea who Nadia Bolz-Weber was. But she has come up in conversation, in text messages, and in my Facebook feed about a dozen times since then. So I decided to pay attention and buy her new book, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint. Because I’m always on the lookout for how the humorous dimension links up with the theological, I was pleasantly surprised to read that Bolz-Weber is a former comedian with some thoughts on how standup comedy is an attempt at telling the truth but from a different angle—from the underside of the psyche.
I’m only a few chapters into the book, so I am not ready to recommend it (or not) yet, but here at least is an excerpt from the second chapter that’s worthwhile for anyone trying to communicate some Truth and wanting an audience to actually listen, whether from a comedy club or another platform (perhaps a blog or a pulpit):
I was working at a downtown club as a standup comic. I was broken and trying to become fixed and only a few months sober. I couldn’t afford therapy, so being paid to be caustic and cynical on stage seemed the next best thing. Plus, I’m funny when I’m miserable.
This isn’t exactly uncommon. If you were to gather all the world’s comics and then remove all the alcoholics, cocaine addicts, and manic depressives you’d have left … well … Carrot Top, basically. There’s something about courting the darkness that makes some people see the truth in raw, twisted ways, as though they were shining a black light on life to illuminate the absurdity of it all. Comics tell a truth you can see only from the underside of the psyche. At its best, comedy is prophesy and societal dream interpretation. At its worst it’s just [dirty] jokes.
Bolz-Weber is careful not to glamorize the standup comedy world, much of which is indeed at its worst as she says. In fact, she goes on to explain why she did not remain a comic. Yet it’s clear this comedic background has fed her new life as a Lutheran preacher, and many people seem to be listening. Bolz-Weber is the founding pastor of the House for all Sinners and Saints, a mission church in Denver—a place where people are invited to be honest about their shortcomings and encouraged to show vulnerabilities so that God might meet them exactly where they are.
It was almost effortless for me to do comedy, because the underside was where I felt at home—there, everything is marinated in irony and sarcasm until ready to be grilled and handed to a naked emperor. I got regular comedy work, but never went far in the comedy world for several reasons. First, it was because I tended to make other comics laugh more often than actual audiences, whom I held in contempt (and maybe that’s why). Then there was the fact that I wasn’t driven to succeed: As soon as it became an effort, I backed off. But the most important reason comedy didn’t work for me was that I became healthier and just wasn’t funny anymore. Less miserable = less funny. In the process of becoming sober and trying to rely on God and be honest about my shortcomings, I became willing to show vulnerabilities. This made me easy prey in a comedy club greenroom, which is basically a hotbed of emotional Darwinism, so it wasn’t a place I really wanted to spend a whole lot of my free time.