Stand-up comedy that’s a stand-up act? In this 2012 comedic world of shock and smut, there are, indeed, living, breathing comedians cleaning house on the laugh track to success. You know the big-timers: Brian Regan, Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Gaffigan, Bill Cosby. But what if we told you that dozens of LDS folks are bringing the funny to the fold and to the masses?
And we’re not talking “a guy walks into a (juice) bar” funny. We’re talking comedians inspired by their faith to be cleaner and cleverer than they have to be. All of these comics are in different stages of their careers, have different styles, and have different comedy dreams. But they all share one passion: Make ‘em laugh.
LDS Living caught up with a handful of these LDS comedians who are making their mark in the comedy world. Read on to find out what it’s like to balance comedy and religion, what comics are really like when they’re off stage, and what advice they have for aspiring comedians who want to be both funny and faithful.
A Peculiar People
LDS comedians—like all comedians—are hardly cut from the same cloth.
Jason Hewlett grew up making his lips dance. Lisa Valentine Clark worked overtime to make her siblings laugh. Stephen Jones was the charming class clown who never got in trouble. And Steve Soelberg was the non-comedian.
“I’m not the loud guy from high school, I’m not the awkward Woody Allen guy, I’m neither too tall, short, fat, or thin. Oh, and I’m white and nice,” Soelberg says. “It really is a horrible combination for a person trying to get known in this industry.”
But that’s exactly it: When it comes to comedy, there is no “type.” There’s talent, originality, desire, and a ridiculous amount of determination.
“The fun and infuriating thing about stand-up is that it is very up and down,” says Jenna Kim Jones, a script production assistant for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and a part-time stand-up comedian. “Some days, I’m on top of the world—my career can’t be stopped! And some days I feel like I am going absolutely nowhere. It’s the occasional highlights (like opening for Jim Gaffigan in 2010) that keep me in the business.”
Even if there isn’t a mold, there is a common code among these LDS entertainers: keep it clean.
But it’s a punch line easier said than delivered.
Funny vs. Faith
Hewlett knows big. He’s got a big mouth (his observation, not ours) with which he crafts funny faces and belts impressions.
He’s had a big career, performing for more than one million people around the globe. And he’s got a big testimony of staying grounded to his faith, even when presented with morally questionable offers that would have made him even bigger.
“[When I turned down offers,] many said I missed a great opportunity to influence millions in the name of the Church,” Hewlett says. “But I’d rather keep my standards I know to be true and leave a legacy of faithfulness for my children than possibly lose my chance at spending eternity with them because I was willing to dip my toe in the waters of compromise.”
For Bryson Kearl, a performer with The Left Field Comedy Stand Up in Utah, faith has kept him on his comedy toes.
“Being LDS has kept me focused on writing legitimately funny things—not just taboo topics that get a rise out of people,” he says. “Also, it’s easier to tell jokes you know your mom won’t be ashamed of.”
And Heath Harmison, a comedian from Boise, Idaho, says writing clean material has made him a better comic—and a happier dad.
“There’s something so satisfying about being able to perform in front of my kids and not worry,” he says. “I actually pray about my material and ask for guidance in creating content that is both enjoyable and appropriate.”
Which is not to say it’s always been a barrel of laughs.
“I don’t pretend like I’m this perfect person,” Harmison says. “It hasn’t always been easy to reconcile these two worlds. I’ve struggled and I’ve made mistakes, but I’ve learned from them and tried to change.”
This crossroads is a common one for LDS comedians. Not only is there a temptation for low-brow comedy, there’s an enormous amount of travel and alone time (which doesn’t always lend itself to raising a family), and compensation is decidedly meager when you’re starting out. Plus, there’s the potential for ego inflation.
“You feel like a rock star up on stage,” Harmison says. “And that mentality can go straight to your head.”
But all these LDS comedians concur: A foundation of values is imperative to keeping yourself in check when the laughs get loud and the lines get blurry.
Joke’s on Us
So what’s it really like to be a comedian? Let us count the stereotypes . . .
1. Are all comedians weird and quirky?
Nope. In fact, Clark cringes when she hears the word comedienne.
“It brings images of a loud woman with a frizzy perm wearing a bolo tie in front of a fake brick wall complaining about men and childbirth,” she says.
The mother of five and co-founder of the improv group The Thrillionaires would rather be known as an actress who doesn’t take herself too seriously.
“I just observe what I see and I love to people watch,” she says. “Real life is funny.”
2. Are comics always hilarious?
Not so much.
“People always come up to my wife and say, ‘I bet it’s crazy living with this guy!’” says Stephen Jones, star of the viral BYU Old Spice-inspired commercial as well as a member of The Left Field. “They think I’m always at my house tap dancing on the table.”
“I am on when I need to be,” Hewlett adds, “but I can’t keep that up. I am always happy, always smiling, always friendly, but not always on. I used to feel everyone expected me to do the show off stage, too. I tried to accommodate. Then I got burned out. Now I wiggle my nose when they ‘tell’ me to do it (they don’t always ask politely), and then I refer them to YouTube.”
3. Is performing comedy really as fun as it seems?
That’s a yes.
“Besides my wife, kids, and the gospel, nothing feels better than getting on stage and making someone laugh so hard they snort or pee their pants,” says Harmison, whose career highlight was performing at a comedy festival in Scotland. “Both have happened at my shows. I’m still waiting to make a woman laugh so hard she goes into labor. That’s a goal.”
“It’s incredible to think people will pay me to do the things that landed me in the principal’s office as a boy,” Hewlett adds.
As for Soelberg? He’s partial to the undeniable connection humor instantly creates.
“Humor connects people so quickly, almost as fast as music,” says Soelberg, who has been doing stand-up part time for four years. “Think of how loved President Hinckley was and how one of the first traits people will always remember was his sense of humor. It is a quick human connection that is so important to every relationship in our life.”
Come One, Come All
Clean comedy isn’t just for Mormons. When you’re funny enough, a good clean time can be had by all.
“Funny is funny,” Stephen Jones says. True comedy success comes down to originality—and deciding what type of comic you’re going to be. Do you want your comedy to be a part-time or full-time gig? Is LDS-centric comedy your thing? Or do you want to appeal to all audiences while maintaining your morals?
The laughter’s the limit.
“Yes, it’s difficult, and yes, it’s challenging, but even more than that, yes, it’s possible to be a huge success by keeping it clean,” Hewlett says. “People all over the world love clean comedy, want it, appreciate it, and pay a lot for it. I have made my hallmark that of being clean, and I receive incredible compensation for it. In other words, I call it my chance to pay a bigger tithe.”