There are some places you just aren’t supposed to laugh: funerals, weddings, baptisms—to name a few. What do they all have in common? They all take place within the hallowed walls of churches.
To many people, church is just not funny. But some performers, like Joseph “Juice” Sutton, are changing that opinion one congregation at a time. “Sometimes it takes a while to get audiences to warm up,” Sutton says. “You’ll see them smile and look around because people were taught not to laugh at church. But eventually, they relax and have a good time.”
A relative newcomer by comedy standards, Sutton has been performing for just four years. But thanks to his work ethic and church-focused fan base, he has been able to support himself full-time for the past two.
For more than two decades, Christian comedy has been quietly growing in churches across the country, predominantly in the South. The key difference between church comedy and comedy-club comedy, aside from the venue not offering booze and the fact that the audience is dressed way nicer than in most clubs, is that the jokes are clean and there is a message that comes with the laughs.
It’s becoming big business. Nationally, groups like the Christian Comedy Association (CCA) bring together Christian comics from all over the country, helping to get them connected with church groups and gatherings interested in bringing laughs for the Lord. In fact, these comedians are commanding upwards of $1,500 to $2,500 per show, making it far more lucrative than a lot of comedians who are grinding in the more traditional club scene.
Locally, church comedy is still finding its voice. But it’s coming. “There are only, like, [a few] of us comics doing church comedy,” Sutton says of the local church scene. “Shed G is the pioneer locally, and he’s mentored me. Then you got a comedian named Jay Kline. He reached out to me and he’s a devoted Christian like me, and he wanted to get out and spread the word through comedy too. So he and I do a lot of shows together called the Brotherly Love Tour.”
Sutton’s venues range from places like the Greater Friendship Baptist Church in Minneapolis to the Hope Pregnancy Center in Willmar. According to Sutton, breaking into new venues can be tricky at first, because it’s uncharted territory.
“In the beginning, I was calling a lot of churches and asking if I could perform,” he says. “They’d want to know if I was going to be cussing or anything because that’s what they know comedy to be. But now, pastors talk to other pastors and more churches are actually reaching out asking me to perform for them.”
While Sutton performs almost exclusively in churches, a few comedians have their feet in more than one comedy arena.
Pierre Douglas is a co-founder of Baddies Comedy and a regular fixture at clubs like House of Comedy. A comedian since 2011, Douglas has found a home performing for audiences on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings.
“My first stand-up show at a church was at my home church Shiloh Temple [in North Minneapolis],” he explains of his entry into the untapped world of Christian comedy. “I hosted a show that they had, and it was so much fun and the material came natural because I grew up in church.”
As a working comedian, Douglas spends plenty of time on the road, performing in bars and clubs where the audiences are conditioned to laugh. But to him, the experience isn’t that different in the church.
“The crowds are the same; it’s just different material in a different setting,” he explains. “They all came to laugh and have a good time. In both settings, you need to be mindful of your words and try not to be offensive, but to be as relatable as possible while speaking about your life and your experiences. It’s not all Bible jokes in church.”
From how he isn’t really “saved” until about 11:45pm on a Saturday night, to giving a fake offering in a church basket, Douglas says that his act is just as relatable in churches as it is in clubs. “Church people are real people who go through real stuff and battle real issues,” he says.
While they may have taken different comedy paths, both Sutton and Douglas are similar in that their performing is based in faith. “I approach it [performing] all the same, minus maybe a shot before a comedy club set,” Douglas laughs. “I do say a prayer before either show, asking God to guide my tongue and my words.”
In terms of where church comedy is headed locally, much in the same way it has grown in places like Georgia and Texas, where massive comedy shows are taking place in mega churches and local venues alike, it’s gaining traction here, too. “Churches aren’t going anywhere,” Sutton says. “And there are a lot more churches than comedy clubs. I’d like to help other comedians do what I do and bring comedy to even more church groups.”
While other comedians are chasing bookings and hunting down comedy club managers, Sutton is finding himself more and more in demand, as are his fellow church performers. “I just booked two new shows for this Sunday,” Sutton shares nonchalantly. “As long as God wants me to keep doing this, I’ll keep going.”