I really enjoyed the clip on YouTube with your exchange with Tim Conway.
Nazareth: I come from a culture where we have great respect for our elders. But my nature as a comedian is to fight back, so when I was on that show with Tim Conway, I was between a rock and a hard place because he was picking on me. He's an older man and I respect and love him so I was lost for words. Normally it's not something that happens to me.
But I thought you responded nicely with your quip about Corona being Spanish for "hearing aid."
Nazareth: And I also regretted that later. I thought I should never have said that. But, like I said, that's the comedian in us wanting to respond that way.
When you were a kid, were you the funny one in your family? Did your comedic nature show itself early?
Nazareth: It did come very naturally to me. When I was three years old, my mother would pay me to tell jokes to the relatives she didn't like. She'd call me into the kitchen and say, "Go tell them jokes. I don't want to sit with them. I'll pay you a denari."
A Kuwaiti denari was about $3, so I was making a lot of money when I was a child and we were living in Kuwait. So at three years old, I was trying to be funny and tell jokes to them. So then I connected it to myself and thought, "I can make people laugh."
But I didn't tap into it until I was running the Los Angeles Marathon in the late '80s. I never thought I'd finish a marathon, but when I did, I sat there and thought, "What do I want to do in life? Even if I never get paid for it, I'd still do it to the best of my ability."
Comedy was the first thing that came to my mind.
What were you doing at that point?
Nazareth: I was an accountant for a major corporation. I was the funny guy in the office. I was never the clown, because those are two different things.
True comedians are very dramatic people offstage, but we do a joke when there's opportunity. People always assume we're funny because we throw funny jokes and they laugh, and that's how we're remembered. But we're dramatic people.
So I wasn't the class clown, and when you're in a room, I'm not the one who's going to start telling jokes.
So after the marathon I decided to go to a comedy club the next day. I went to Hollywood and signed up at an open mic night. I started from that moment on. I was up at midnight before nine drunks and they were laughing, so I knew I could do it. From that point on, I've been on stage.
Within a few months, I became a regular at major comedy clubs, and for three years, I was doing very well. There was a hope for a sitcom and lots of things were happening. But I was not a believer yet. I came from a Christian background, Greek Orthodox Palestinian, but I was not a believer.
How did you become a believer, and did you have a comedic breakthrough after that?
Nazareth: You know, it's interesting. I wasn't the dirtiest comic in the club, but I was dirty. I was not the drunkest guy around, but I was drinking. I was intrigued by a comedian who was very clean. He didn't smoke and he didn't drink, but he was very funny. He was a Japanese comic, and I watched him and told him, "there's something different about."
He said, "Why don't you come to church with me?"
I said, "I don't go to church, I'm a Christian." He invited me to a Baptist church in Southern California, and I thought it wasn't a church. I said, "Where are the pictures?"
The pastor was teaching on giving and screaming at the congregation saying, "You need to give. You need to give to church." And my friend was sinking in his seat and apologizing for bringing me to the wrong service, but he said it was the pastor's last week, so not to worry about it.
But you know what? I went home and thought there was something about that pastor and I'd like to see where he was at. I found out he moved to a church that was closer to my house and so I went and saw him. From that moment on, that day my friend invited me, until a month later that I saw that pastor, I could not escape God.
I would walk into the office and people would say, "You need Jesus in your life." I'd walk into the grocery store and people would point at me, the cashier would point at me, and say, "You need Jesus, man." I was scared. I'm not Pentecostal, it was too much. I couldn't go anywhere without this heaviness that I needed to give my life to Christ.
One day I was at a party. I was sitting at somebody's house, and I said, "You know, God, if you're the God those boring Christians say you are, I want to be like them. They are free." I saw freedom that I came to the U.S. for, and I wanted that. I wanted to be free like they are. That's when God got hold of my life.
I went to the church where that pastor was and I ran forward and gave my life to Christ that day.
That's fascinating, because a lot of Christians would react the way your friend did, and apologize for bringing you at the wrong time to their church. But it doesn't matter, because when God gets hold of your heart, He gets hold of it.
Nazareth: Yes. You can be talking about anything and it doesn't matter. God wanted to get hold of me. Even to this day, this pastor and I are still friends. He moved to Hawaii, but we're still friends. He left the church many years ago and I went to Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa after that.
When I became a believer and went forward, I said, "That's it. I'm quitting comedy." I called my Jewish manager and told him I couldn't use him any more. He asked why, and I said, "I'm quitting." He asked why and I said, "I'm a Christian now and I can't do those things any more."
He said, "But we've got sitcoms and other things going. You can't quit." And I said, "I can't do it any more. I'm quitting comedy. I can't do that." I didn't know what kind of jokes I could tell. I didn't know what I could say.
Then my pastor came and said he heard I was going to be at the Improv at Irvine and he wanted to come see me. I told him he could, but let him know the other two comics who were going to be with me would be dirty. So he said, "That's OK, we can plug our ears," and I said, "No, don't worry about it."
So he said we could do something at the coffee house at our church. I said, "I'm not going to do comedy at a church," and he said, "Why not?" I said, "I'm a comedian!" and he said, "Let's try it." So I said, "Ok, but don't invite anybody. Just bring the people you were going to bring to the Improv."
That day 400 people showed up. The church was only 300 members, so it was God's blessing. One of the deacons was praying and said, "Please God, use Nazareth for Your glory now. Use him for Your side of comedy," and that moment was one of these revelations where I said, "I could do that for Him."
From that moment on we started the first Christian comedy club. It was called the Christian Comedy Club, in Tustin, California, and I started looking for every comedian that I worked with that was remotely Christian. I called Brad Stine, Paul Aldrich, a couple of others, and asked them to come do the comedy club.
Then I started inviting non-Christian comics to the church to perform. Of course I was filtering their material, but I wanted to introduce them to Christians. I would tell my church people to make sure they hugged the comics before they left. It was amazing to see these comedians crying because no strangers had ever hugged them before.
So with that, we started the club. Then a couple of years later we started something called Comedy Crusade, where we booked other comedians for churches, and I started doing churches. So I ended up going to youth meetings and prisons. I joined Chuck Colson and started going to prisons and bringing inmates to Christ through comedy.
Did the comedy club at the church keep going?
Nazareth: It did for a couple of years, but we eventually had to shut it down because we'd do it for a love offering and there was no love in the offering, so we couldn't maintain it. Then our church had a split, the pastor left, and we had to close it. My career was starting to pick up, so I started touring the country doing Christian comedy.
How long ago was that, that things were picking up for you?
Nazareth: That was back in 1992 – 95.
You still do a lot of churches, don't you? I think you came to our church in Visalia.
Nazareth: The Central Valley in California is my biggest market. When I was doing my Proud 2 Be American tour, we came into Visalia, Clovis and Fresno a lot. I think this is the new Bible belt of California. My manager lives in Visalia, and one of the guys that used to tour with me, Jared Mac, lives in Three Rivers. It's a big Christian area, and the churches are booming in that area. A lot of people are moving into that area.
I've been to 49 states, but I started marketing to California only because I have three children I want to be home with at night. I can drive to Visalia, do a concert, and get back home by 1:00 in the morning, and get up in time to take my kids to school. To me, that's very appealing.
What does it take for someone to get you out of the state, then? Do you do any dates out of California?
Nazareth: I did some out of state in 2006, 07, and 08, and I'll do some in 2009. Of course, it has to meet my minimum requirements for me to be able to afford to go and to leave my family for it. I would go right now with the right invitation.
I used to do the love offerings for many years, but right now I do an honorarium. When we fill up the dates, we have to make sure the mortgage and insurance are paid. I used to do love offerings, but I have to be a good planner and a wise provider for my family. Of course, my honorarium is a lot less than many Christian comics because it's still a ministry to us. I'm not saying that it's not for them, but we do have low rates.
At my events, we sell tickets. If someone invites a friend to come, the friend's ticket is cheaper, as a ministry and outreach. The highest my tickets go are $15. They're $10 in advance, and if you want to invite a friend it's $5, sometimes $1. I try to make it feasible for them. And sometimes I return the check to the ministry. I'll say, "You guys need the money much more than we do," and I hand it back.
You've obviously learned a lot, and you've been doing a comedy a long time. In the video clip with Tim Conway, you mentioned that you're no longer able to run through airports if you're running late. Have you seen people's response to humor change since 9/11/01?
Nazareth: Of course. I remember the first three months after September 11. I had to watch every word that came out of my mouth. There were so many jokes I had to drop. I almost quit. When I saw the planes crash and heard there were Middle Eastern people involved, I said, "That's it, Lord. My career is over," and He said, "oh, no, it's not over."
That's when the Proud 2 Be American tour was birthed as an outreach ministry. I did it to tell people I love this nation, and I'm proud to be an American, but you need to give your life to Christ. We were selling out when musicians weren't, and that was really nice. It went on for several years, and many people came because they were proud to be an American.
Now, eight years after September 11, if I went out with the Proud 2 Be American tour, I couldn't sell out half of the arena or concert halls. It's different now. Are people proud to be American? I don't know.
But I did have to be very careful where I went and who invited me and what I was saying because I'm a Middle Eastern American and have a Middle Eastern accent. But once I was on stage for two minutes, and people saw my heart, it was disarming for them, and they'd say, "I love this guy."
That's why I don't tell people I'm a Palestinian right away. Once I go on stage, it's disarming and they love me. Once they love me, I can share Christ with them and tell them anything.
Who are your hardest audiences to play to, and how long does it take you to gauge their responsiveness?
Nazareth: I've really been fortunate because when I started doing comedy, there weren't many places you could do it, so I'd go to junior high groups and prison death rows and do it. I would do IRS banquets and even do Congressmen's fundraisers. So I had to learn to please every different group, from senior citizens to singles. I learned right away because of the need to continue in the ministry, so I haven't had a hard gig in many, many years.
I would avoid junior high if I could. If I had to, I'd do it.
God sent me to places like Tupelo, MS, and southern Alabama and Louisiana, to audiences that have never seen someone like me before, but they still laugh. My first joke is "I'm from the Middle East, but ever since September 11th, I feel so Mexican." That right away tells people what I'm dealing with and it disarms them.
I truly believe it's the hand of the Lord that gives me favor with the audiences. I could go to a comedy club in Hollywood and it could be the hardest audience, and God would give me favor and they would laugh. It's just favor from the Lord when I'm on the stage.
The hardest audience ever, the hardest gig I've had in years was in Martha's Vineyard. I was touring with a Jewish rabbi and I went on stage first. I did not say that I'm really a Greek Orthodox Christian that became a believer in Jesus Christ. I didn't say that. I said, "I became a believer in Jesus Christ," and that stopped the laughter. It was a Jewish audience and they thought I was Jewish and became a Christian, and that is unacceptable.
I was shocked because normally I get big laughs. I looked at the rabbi and he was shocked because normally I get big laughs from that, and he didn't know what was going on. So when he went on, he said, "Nazareth was born a Christian. He's a Christian Palestinian, and was never an Orthodox Jew," and they said, "Ahh!" and started shaking my hand after that.
Was the rabbi a comedian too?
Nazareth: Yes. In fact, we do a tour that the New York Times wrote about. We called it One Christian, One Muslim, One Jew, and it was a Jester of Peace, comedy for different faiths. I was the Christian, the rabbi was the Jewish comic, and there was a Muslim comic. We're all comedians and would do universities around the country. It was very funny.
Even though we didn't discuss it during our tour, I still get calls from the rabbi when he's having a tough time. He'll say, "There's something about you, Nazareth."
So I can tell that Christ is using that in a different way. I'm not saying I'm any good at all; it makes me more vulnerable because I have to respond in a Christian way and be polite because God is using it to reach them. I'm open. I'll go anywhere and speak to any audience.
Are there other comics that you watch and follow? Do you ever take in another comic's act for entertainment?
Nazareth: I don't watch comics who are at the same level as myself. I was the president of the Christian Comedy Association for two years, and we had 300 comedians during that time. I watch the classic comedians, and they're not necessarily Christians, but I watch them because I want to learn from them and learn how they do comedy. People like Richard Jeni who committed suicide last year. I watch Cosby and Jay Leno. I watch for their style.
With YouTube, I can go back to the '70s and '80s during the early part of their careers. I watch to see how they improved.
When I write a bit then I see a comedian doing a similar bit, I would just avoid it, and cut the bit from my show. That's not fair to cut my bit because of that, so I avoid watching other comics because of that. It sticks in your head when you hear someone else do something, so I just don't listen.
Are there places or situations you really like to draw humor from? Current culture, things you see around you?
Nazareth: My new project that I'm writing right now is cultural. There are really only two cultures in the world: the western individual culture and the eastern collective culture. This new DVD will be about that.
I've been here in America for 25 years, and I'm fortunate because I am in this mix of cultures. My family are Middle Eastern, I have a Chinese sister-in-law, my best friend is Asian, and so I'm watching all these different cultures in the United States.
So I'm watching how they all interact. It doesn't matter what part of the world you're in, you're either one culture or another. One example is how we take vacations. Individual Westerners take vacations and go where there's nobody around. They go camping, go to secluded places. They're individuals. We go visit relatives on our vacation.
When Westerners turn 18, they move out on their own, and don't even have a roommate if they can afford it. We live together and can't get any jobs because every application has a question about the name of the nearest relative not living with you, and it's none, because we're all living together in one house.
It's about stuff like that, done with humor and lots of punch lines and jokes. A lot of people have responded that they really like it because now they can understand some of the differences and are able to witness to other cultures because of my 10 – 15 minute bit.
That's what I really enjoy about good comedy is that it makes you think differently about situations.
Nazareth: I do it in a humorous way and show that in the collective Asian or Middle Eastern culture, you cannot be direct. I would never approach you directly and say something to you. So when people see that in my comedy, they understand that they cannot be direct in their approach to witnessing, but have to be indirect in order to not be offensive.
My main goal is that people would laugh, but at the end they'd know the difference. At the end I talk about God being a collective culture. He wants us to be close around Him; He wants us all to live together in His house, dining together.
Do you have advice you give younger comics who are beginning their careers? Anything you wish someone would have told you when you started?
Nazareth: I am the mentoring director and was the president of the CCA until last January. We also have the Comedy Crusade Academy where we continue to teach comedy. When I'm not traveling a lot, we teach classes, so I have two things for newer comics.
I tell them to write every day and find a place to go out and perform. If you don't do those two things, you're not a comic. I get so many calls from people who tell me they've been writing for years but didn’t have the guts to go onstage and perform it. Well, you have to have the guts. You have to force yourself to do it.
I remember when I started, I wanted to do a bit, so I stood on a table and told the whole restaurant. Those people were laughing so hard the manager just stood there and couldn't stop me. I was so driven to do comedy. I tell them if they don't have the drive they aren't going to make it because they have to have the drive. There are too many comics out there.
You can change a death row inmate's heart through it. I hugged a death row inmate when he was crying saying he needed Jesus. I reached his heart through comedy and it changed his life. It's powerful. Laughter is so powerful. Right now I totally believe it is the number one communication tool that's reaching people for Christ. Pastors know it, and they're using it to reach people. You ask them what they remember about the sermon, and they'll tell you the funny story he told.
I enjoy hanging out with other comics, but we're not telling jokes when we're together. We're intense. We have a saying that the one who's telling jokes is the one we're telling to leave. We're talking about our careers and lives, and in the midst we're laughing really hard. But if someone comes in and wants to tell jokes, we're just not interested right now.
You can buy Nazareth's videos at ChristianCinema.com (Free to Laugh, Bananas Comedy) and you can learn more about Nazareth at his website nazarethusa.com.