By John Armistead
Class clown. Loose screw. Gear missing in the brain. "Far side" moments.
This is how Christian humorists described themselves. They are in the ministry of laughter, and they take their work seriously.
Created to laugh
Tim Wildmon, vice president of Tupelo-based American Family Association, is the author of a new book of Christian humor, "I Wonder What Noah Did with the Woodpeckers" (Promise Press, 238 pages, $14.99).
What exactly did Noah do about the woodpeckers?
"This is a question that's never been really addressed in the Christian community," said Wildmon. "I respect Dr. Billy Graham greatly, but I've never heard him address this. I've called his office, but he won't call me back. C.S. Lewis never wrote about it. The failure to answer this question is a glaring weakness in our theology and doctrine. I felt someone had to take it on."
Like most Christian humorists, Wildmon often finds it difficult to give a straight answer to a simple question. He knows the straight answer, but in his mind he sees another answer, one that is slightly askew.
"There's about five percent of us out here who have a warped view of the world," he explained. The subtitle of my book is 'Tales from the Far Side of Christian Life.' Like some people have Kodak moments, I have a lot of 'far side' moments."
Wildmon's book is a collection of 27 stories about such matters as children and parenting, marriage, church, the St. Louis Cardinals and fishing.
"I enjoyed writing something that makes people laugh," he said. "You can poke fun at yourself and say something people can relate to - 'Been there, done that.'"
Wildmon believes that God created people to laugh.
"Laughing is one of the emotions God gives us to help us keep sane and cope with some of the hardballs life throws our way," he said.
Wildmon thinks that the "stiff upper lip" style of doing Christianity is dying.
"Those who think you have to be super serious about everything related to the Christian faith have a wrong view of Christianity in my opinion. If you hold to that, you're going to have a very short list of friends before long."
A specific Christian application is appended to each of Wildmon's stories.
In the writing process, however the story always comes first.
"A lot of times I really have to reach to find the moral," he said. "Actually the stories would work for themselves, but I try to add a moral because of my audience."
Humor lowers people's defenses.
"Norman Lear was a master of using humor to wrap a message," Wildmon said. "He would use Archie Bunker or Maude to send a message. You can use humor to deliver a message that people wouldn't come to a church to hear."
During the week J.J. Jasper is an American Family Radio personality, but on weekends he is a stand up Christian comic. He had just returned from a cruise, Sea Jam '98, where he was the opening act for Dove and Grammy-winner Bob Carlyle.
"I guess I've been making people laugh as long as I can remember," he said. "When I became a Christian I thought I was going to have to be like Billy Graham and wear a suit and tie. I was delighted to see that I could do humor. I love the Lord and love making people laugh."
Jasper performs at banquets and college campuses and multi-denominational Christian events. His video "J.J. Jasper: World Tour," taped at Tupelo's Lyric Theater, is selling well. People who've seen it in Australia, Europe and around the United States have contacted him.
"I love to see people laugh so hard they're in tears," he said. "It just gets tough for people living day to day, and laughing is a good gift God gives us. One of my favorite verses is Proverbs 17:22, '"A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.'"
Good, clean humor is long-lived, according to Jasper.
"Look at the 'I Love Lucy' and Red Skelton shows, or the Three Stooges, or Barney Fife. But, the world tells us humor needs to be objectionable. I'm thankful to be a part of G-rated humor. It indicts us as a society that people expect comedy to be offensive. One reason I'm getting so many calls is that there are so few Christian comics."
Jasper recognizes that there are still a few church people around who frown on his line of ministry.
"You still have the misnomer that people think if you're a Christian you can't laugh in a church setting and have to have a long face so long you could suck golf balls out of a gopher hole," he said. "We need to lighten up."
Jasper is continually surprised at how many doors are opening for him to do his comic routines.
"I'm having fun," he said. "I can't wait to see what the Lord has up his sleeve next. I got in trouble being the class clown and now I'm getting paid for it. God has a good sense of humor."
A missing gene
The Rev. Joe McKeever is pastor of First Baptist Church of Kenner, La. He is also a cartoonist whose work appears in many religious publications. His seven books of cartoon collections, published by Baker Books, have sold over 300,000 copies.
"When my mother wanted to work, she put me at the kitchen table to draw," he said, "and when I went to the first grade I could outdraw all of them, and ever since I've always been able to outdraw any room of first graders."
McKeever speaks at many church banquets where he tells stories and calls up people out of the audience and draws caricatures of them.
"I had a preacher tell me, 'Have you ever noticed how preachers who can't preach have a gimmick?' I told him I'd be happy to give him drawing lessons."
What does it take to be a cartoonist?
"A warped sense of humor," he answered. "There's a bent, a missing gene or something that causes you to see things like this. I've gotten in trouble in elementary school and high school and college and in seminary."
The drawing for McKeever comes first, then the punch line.
"I sit down and draw something in kind of an unusual setting and then drop in in the desk drawer," he said. "Occasionally, I go through and pull out all those pictures and try to figure out what she's saying to him or what he's saying to her."
For example, he drew a picture of a preacher in his suit and tie sitting on the floor with children. They're all working with crayons and paper.
"I had no idea what this guy was saying. Occasionally, I'd pull it out and look at it. Finally, he told me what he was saying. He's saying to the children, 'OK, that takes care of Sunday morning's sermon, let's work on Sunday nights."