How much of your routine is planned vs. improvised?
Jeff: Maybe 95%. I don’t sit down and write a list where it’s word for word for word, but I’ve been doing it long enough that I know where I’ll start and where I’ll end it. I look at the clock and everything else comes along with it.
Sometimes the audience dictates that I do something different, if there seems to be a relationship forming, and then I’ll shift directions. But I know what I’m starting with and I’m ending with. But it’s all stuff I’ve done before.
How often do you add new material?
Jeff: I add it in when I can. Usually a routine is a mainstay and then you build off of that. I know Brad does it completely different than I do. I’m more of a storyteller with family observations. As my kids have grown up and moved out I’m running out of material. I’m over 50 now; I’m 52, so I’m throwing that in to see if people under 50 relate to it.
It seems to be going over all right because they have parents and realize that all of a sudden, there comes a point in your life where health becomes the topic of discussion at every meal. When you’re young, you can’t get grossed out fast enough to get away from the table.
Brad: I think most comics go in with the set that they expect to do. They have standbys that work, and they’re being hired to succeed; make people laugh and enjoy themselves. I think that a lot of times the audience kind of dictates it. Sometimes you get into a scenario where someone says something interesting or out of the blue something happens and you begin to comment about that. It becomes this sort of improv moment and kind of takes on its own life.
Then it becomes the focal point of the whole show. “What do you think about that, Joe?” You joked about him earlier and now he’s part of the show. Sometimes those improv moments are just for that moment and for that show, and you’ll never be able to use them again. They’re for that day, for that scenario.
Sometimes something comes up out of it that you realize is funny enough and large enough and you realize, “I could do this forever. This is a routine I have to keep control over and begin to build off.”
I think I’m a little more freeform than Jeff. I look for ways to improvise because I really enjoy that and it does make the audience experience feel unique. They realize this is just for them and it’s just for them. Something’s happening here that doesn’t happen all the time. And, like I said, that’s where a lot of my material comes from, that spur of the moment thing.
So I enjoy exploring that because maybe I just found another three minutes of material that I can use on my next project. So that’s fun.
You’ve gotta understand that this is materials we’ve done for years. It’s how we pay our bills. We know where they’re gonna laugh, and we know they’re gonna laugh, so it’s not quite as exciting any more.
So for a comic the only really joy left is something new and fresh and you realize there’s something new you get to explore. Or watching another comic bomb. Thoe are the only two things left for us to laugh at.
Jeff: My wife loves it when I tank. She has a very distinct laugh, and when I’m dying I can hear her in the back of the auditorium. She’s the only one laughing amongst the crickets.
Brad: That was always the case with open mic nights or other events. When the only other sound you heard was laughter from the back of the room, that was other comics laughing.
Brad, you said sometimes you do things you want to keep control over. How do you manage that? Are you recording yourself? Do you have a good memory?
Brad: If I were a professional, I’d be recording myself, but I don’t always. This is what’s so amazing that people don’t understand is that they usually do think you’re making up everything you do when you get up there. That’s always a misnomer.
The other thing is that you literally are so locked into trying to orchestrate this show – you’re one guy against 300 – 500 people. So even though everything seems to be very free-form and smooth, and you are, because you’ve done it long enough. But you’re always one step ahead of where you’re at, because you have to keep making sure that nothing gets off the track and you have to start over.
So oftentimes you’ll come up with a line or something gets said, and in your mind, you’re going “Oh, man, that’s good. I’ve got to remember that!” But you can’t for the life of you remember what you did because it came out of sequence, or it was so fresh that you can’t remember.
And I’ve got to keep entertaining. They’re not paying me so I can create my own set, they’re paying me to be funny. So unless you’re recorded, you’ve lost it.
And you don’t really want to record because you don’t want to have to a: endure listening to yourself through all that time where that spot was. And b: sometimes you hear it and try it again and it just doesn’t work the same.
Comedy is really a lot more precise and intricate and difficult than people realize for it work right. Sometimes something you instinctively know is funny as a comic, you can try over and over but you can’t make it work. You just hang onto that because you know there’s something there but you’re wrong. You believe in it, but you can’t find it.
I think [Jerry] Seinfeld said he’d give it three chances and then he’d throw it out.
Jeff: I was telling Brad last night about a story I’ve been working on for a long time but I couldn’t find the ending. I kept trying it and trying it, and finally the ending came.
So you were doing it live?
Jeff: Oh yeah. I’ve got an hour to fill. See, when I started out as a comic, I was bad. In retrospect I always felt bad starting out.
I look at guys starting out as comics who were very funny from the minute they hit the stage, just starting out. They were playing it safe. It would be like a boxer who was in the ring for years who never got hit. Then one day they try something not safe, it wouldn’t work, and they would stink. It would be like getting hit.
I always stunk. So it didn’t matter that I would try a bit and it would tank. I was used to tanking for 20 minutes. One of the things I noticed when I started getting more successful and the money went up. I felt obligated to be more funny, and I got kind of caught in this trap where I wanted everything to work and started playing it safe.
I thank God I’ve since gotten away from that.
But I would tell this story and one day the ending came. I called my wife and said, “I finally got an ending.” She’s been married to me for 24 years, and she’s been pummeled.
It’s very funny when we watch comics on TV. She’ll say, “I’ve heard that, I’ve heard that.” She’s very critical.
See I’m an easy audience. I love to laugh. So you have to lose me as a comic.
And when they do this “zoom” thing over the head like you didn’t get it, nothing irritates me more. I want to stand up and go, “I got it! I just didn’t think it was so funny. It wasn’t clever. So please, don’t insult the collective group as a whole. When we all get up and walk out, it’s because we collectively decided we didn’t like it.”
Brad: We got it, and now we’re letting it go.
Jeff: That’s right, and it’s trying to find a home. A buddy of mine delivered a great line, but nobody laughed. So he goes, “I want you to understand that that went right past you. It’s gone. It went out the door, it’s on the street. You ever go outside and see those people laughing for no apparent reason? They just got the joke that you let get out of the room.”
That’s the way I like to look at it.
What made you keep going if you stunk?
Jeff: I don’t know if I was a sadist or a masochist, but somebody was getting punished. It was either the audience or me. I knew I could be funny. It was stage fright.
I believe at that time, even though I didn’t have a relationship with God and didn’t believe in Him, that God had His hand on me. I tried to get out of the business 5 or 6 different times in my 20s and 30s, but something always came up.
I was going to join the Air Force. I was one day from taking the physical and a phone call came in. Of course, being the impulsive, irresponsible twit that I was, I didn’t tell the Air Force. I just left. I didn’t show up for the physical.
So I look at that point in my life, and I wonder if I had gone into the Air Force, after those 6 years, would I even be in comedy?
There were other times in Los Angeles that things weren’t going well and I’d decide to get out of it. Then a couple of weeks later a phone call would come in. So I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, it just sort of took me a long time to get on God’s path.
The first night I did comedy, I went home in tears and punched a hole in the wall. What she said to me was, “What made you go back?”
Most people when they are that punished would say, “That was a bad experience, I think I’ll avoid that.” So I’m either a sadist or masochist. I don’t know.
Brad, your website says you “singlehandledly created a comedic genre that is unapologetically Christian, conservative, and crossover.”
Brad: Well, my publicist said that.
It’s kind of hard to talk about yourself as a product, but in some respects, that’s kind of how you are. It’s what you bring to the table.
For the Apostles of Comedy, I assume (I never really asked why) they invited me partly because within the Christian comedy community, I’m considered the edgy, in-your-face guy. Compared to contemporary comedy and what goes on in comedy clubs, I’m Soupy Sales.
But in our subculture, we’ve been trained that you’re not allowed to use sarcasm as a tool, you’re not allowed to explore dangerous places. All those things that make comedy great and give it the ability to comment on social issues in a way that isn’t considered “politically incorrect” or inappropriate. Basically, you’re not censored. You’re given free rein as a comic to do that.
As a comic and as a Christian, I wondered why I wasn’t giving myself the same kind of latitude that the rest of the culture gives comics. What I’ve discovered is, and I think it’s unfortunate, but maybe if I have any value to the Christian culture other than laughter, it is in renewing their mind.
I’ve discovered that I believe the church in America, and I’m not speaking of the persecuted church. They’re different than us. They’re not safe and secure in their homes.
But we are trained to judge content over context. And so consequently Christians are uneducated in nuance. They’re uneducated in depth and in the arts. They’re uneducated in seeing that what you say is not nearly as important as what you mean.
Jesus, who used stories and allegories, kept you guessing about where this thing was going. You had to dig in and educate yourself, and once you do, you have a better in understanding what is being told.
I’ve gotten away with things that no one has ever gotten away with in the Christian community as a comic. When I say, “gotten away with,” that puts up all the “Christian radar.” “Ooh, what’s he mean? Is he a heretic?”
No. I’ve never done one routine that was for the sake of irreverence. It was to try to make a point. It was about “what am I saying? What does this mean? Is there something to learn from this?” Can we be wise enough as Christians to realize that comics are the ones that God allows to do this? We’re the prophets.
We’re the freaks. The ones people come and say, “we don’t like them. We want to throw stuff at them, but dang it, we gotta listen!”
We’re here for that reason. In my specific case, it is to deal with the culture of political correctness and secular humanism. I talk passionately about the Judeo-Christian values and I believe in that. And yet I have to be consistent as an artist to also point our political correctness, which is legalism. It’s heresy in that we demand Christians to be of dogmatis, our orthodoxy, our denominationalism, our traditionalism. So it teaches us to fight each other rather than fight for each other. That’s what legalism is.
Consequently, it doesn’t allow the Baptists to say, “I don’t buy into some of these idiosyncrasies of these charismatics, but dang it, we’re all on the same journey. We’re all followers of Jesus. I need you in my tribe.”
Not to mention, there are people that don’t want anything to do with us that you’re going to reach. There are people that I will connect and communicate with, non-believers as well, that most Christian communicators can’t. So that should be respected and appreciated by somebody who believes in and prays for me. That doesn’t mean I won’t screw up.
Jeff does so much about his relationship with his wife. I don’t do much of that, but it’s an incredibly important topic to deal with because everybody understands it. You’re either married, have been, or have parents. It’s the human condition.
Anthony is black, so he can come from that culture of being an African-American and Christian and what that can be like. He can deal with that issue.
Ron has another way of discussing who he is. So let us have all the flavors that Christians come in. Let us grow enough to understand that I may not like this guy or dig his music, but he’s on my team, and it is essential that we support these guys. And I’m not just talking about us, but any Christian that’s in the arts that’s a believer.
We go to the concerts and buy their tickets and buy their stuff, not just so these guys can make a living, which is nice. I want to feed my kids. But if you aren’t changing culture by giving your gifts and what God has given back into this, so we have a chance to go out to the nation and talk to people, then you’re going to get the culture you deserve.
Christians are real good at going out and putting up a sign saying, “I hate this.” I say here’s a better protest: go invest in something you believe! There’s a protest.
You know how the world judges? The bottom line. You show them there’s a revenue stream to this Christian comedy thing, you’ll have an atheist with a studio at the front of the line saying, “How can I get a piece of this action?”
Jeff: Look at “The Passion of the Christ.” It rocked a lot of foundations. I always respected Hollywood because they’re an easy animal to figure out. It was always about the bottom line, the tickets sold. They don’t have an idealogy or an agenda. It’s about money. There’s no moral foundation that drives them.
Brad: They don’t get in a room and talk about how they can oppress the Christians. But there is a spiritual battle that happens in the souls of people. They do not understand our worldview, so oftentimes they don’t bring in that thing which would be friendly to Christians simply because they don’t understand it. It’s sort of foreign to them.
Jeff: Consequently, they mock it. You mock what you don’t understand.
When you’re with an audience, you’re shaking their foundations at times. Are people receptive to it, or offended?
Brad: Everything I’ve ever tried to do, there’s a reason behind it. So if there’s a through-line to my show, it’s teaching the non-believers that we come in packages they’re not used to, and we’re not the caricatures we’re been created by the media. And we have something good to say – that’s my mission to non-believers.
God has also called me to give laughter to believers. We need laughter and joy because we have a lot of pain and we don’t admit it. But it’s also to renew the mind. Like I said, we come in a lot of packages, and some of us are eating bugs and wearing camel’s hair. That’s the way it’s always been. And we’re supposed to realize there’s value in that.
There’s a reason why some of us are freaks, and it’s because we can get into places others can’t. My last album, “Wussification,” for example, has a particular routine that deals with the scatological word for passing gas. It is so innocuous to me. I say the word, and the point I’m making is some people say, “Oh, I don’t say that. I say ‘toot.’”
I’m kind of joking with our culture about where our battles are. It’s not normally used in a sermon, but I say, “Folks, this isn’t a curse word. There are worse words in the Bible than this word.” So it’s really representing something we’re not comfortable with. Now this is all true.
Now is the joke about flatulence the point? It’s funny, but the deeper place is, where are you going to draw the line in the sand as a Christian? Is this what matters to you? Is this your fight, or is it the fact that people are dying from hunger and Christians are going to jail in China? Which one of these is really so crucial to American Christianity that we’d rather split up a church or not support fellow believers over a word rather than what they’re able to be in the culture?
There’s a major ministry that had a problem with that particular joke. And I’m thinking, “You know, that’s fine if you choose to set your parameters there. It’s your ministry, your call.” But the problem is not that we have denominations in this country, it’s when they refuse to work together. That’s a sin.
So I see some people where they’re in a position where they’re really affecting culture to a certain degree, certainly Christian culture, who would say, “You know, maybe it’s really not our thing, but there are a lot of people who would appreciate this and resonate with this.”
You know who was great at that, amazingly enough? The late Jerry Falwell. My first album was done at his church, Thomas Road Baptist Church. “Put a Helmet On” was the name of the album. He was sitting on the first row.
Now I’m edgy, and this venue hadn’t seen me yet, and as conservative as he was, the one thing he was good about was saying, “I may not get it, but if it reaches people for Christ, then I’ll support it.” dcTalk had music he didn’t get, it wasn’t for his generation. But he decided to realize it wasn’t his season. He knew “There are other seasons out there I’ve got to support.”
I don’t get the music the 13-year-olds are listening to now. Does that make it illegitimate? No. Am I supposed to like every music that every comes out? Every book? Every movie? No. But I sure hope that if it has contextual value, I never get too old to allow that to be part of the community. Otherwise we’d have no voice left for the culture.
If you’re in the Christian subculture in America, that goes with the territory. But maybe as the culture becomes less and less tolerant of Christians, maybe we’ll find out how desperately we need each other.
Jeff: I get emails, but I respond only to the ones…
Brad: About me. They don’t like me. They say, “We sure like you better than Brad Stine.”
Jeff: That are on the material. I’m always interested in how they perceived it. If I’ve learned anything as I’ve gotten older, it’s to process information differently.
The last one I got was from a guy who said he thought picking on my wife for 20 minutes was excessive. So I asked him when I crossed the line. Was it 9 minutes, 8, 7? At what point?
And my last line is always: Sometimes you need to lighten up, just a tad.
I do a thing about an effeminate flight attendant, and it was basically about a voice I needed to recall a few minutes later. It was either that or an ethnic voice, and I don’t do dialect very well. So it was just a high-pitched “Hi everybody, I’m Russell.”
So this lady got in my face about what parents of gay children might feel about that. If you could explain to me if there was any malice toward any group in that, then please do so.
I said, “If you think an effeminate flight attendant is a stretch, then you haven’t flown.” So again, lighten up just a tad.
But if I got a multiple pile of emails on one particular email, I would look really hard at the particular routine, because my goal is not to offend. And if they’re losing the point because they’re being offended by it, if they’re shutting me off because of one thing I’m saying, then maybe I need to look at myself.
I’m not that married to my art to where I can’t change a word of a particular thing. I ask myself, is it such a priority about who I am and what I am that it has to stay?
So I looked at the lady and said, “It’s staying, I’m not taking it out.” And I haven’t heard another word since. You know, it’s just one person.
Brad: I said something in a recent routine that I think could apply more to Christians perhaps than secular people, even though it was thrown more toward secular humans. Someone said, “You Christians, you know you’re not supposed to offend people.” And I said, “No, we’re not supposed to maliciously offend people. We’re not better than anybody, but if the truth offends you, that’s your problem.”
The truth is supposed to offend you; that’s how you know you don’t have it. So even Christians whose entire foundation of what we believe is what Jesus said, “I am the truth.” Not a truth, not a philosophy, not a constant, not a point of view. “I’m the truth from which all truth derives. If truth exists, it’s because I’m here.”
So we’re driven as Christians by one idea: truth. So everything I do may not be in the format that everyone’s not comfortable with. You may want to eliminate it so you don’t have to deal with it. Maybe you’ve got a problem and this truth can heal you and help you grow. If nothing else, how about teaching you grace?
Jeff: And the truth is “The Apostles of Comedy” is $19.95. Thirty shekels. That’s all it is.