Learning from Comedy

I once took a class on stand up comedy.   Comedy isn’t simply about the content of a joke.  It’s also about presence.

I found several of the rules useful for preaching – and even everyday pastoral care.  Not that life is always funny – but comedy is not merely about the amusing.  It may also be about seeing the absurd in the everyday, or pricking the consciences of the powerful.  I have often seen the mourning tell wicked jokes at a wake.  And laughter may be one way we heal.

Here are some basic rules I learned from class:

1) Be emotionally full.

No monotones.   Be present!  It’s hard to listen to someone who has no investment in what they’re saying.  It means speaking from your diaphragm, expanding your body, and standing straight.   It can be learned.

2) No place you would rather be.

Preaching is an honor.  People are giving you their time and attention.   It’s exciting to be before people, and they respond to your love and enjoyment of them.

3) Don’t get mad at the congregation.

It’s easy to look at the congregation and see sinners: those who don’t fulfill their obligations, refuse to tithe, misunderstand the church, and don’t provide any help.  Yet, they are there to hear you;  they are motivated by some love of the Lord or they wouldn’t be there.

4) Don’t get mad at yourself.

It’s not always going to be perfect.  Not every sentence you say will be coherent; you may go off track.  If they don’t respond, it might not be you.  If an idea doesn’t work, there will be another time.

5) Keep control of yourself.

Control means good timing; patience; and not crying when you get to a sad story.  Don’t let your frustrations or resentment overwhelm the Good Word you are offering your people.

One need not be funny in a sermon.  Not all priests have that gift.  But presence is a skill that all priests can learn, and can do so to their benefit.

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2 comments on “Learning from Comedy

  1. Laura says:

    Yes, and amen to this! I’m still working on the not crying part, something that frustrates me no end.

    I’d say the acting and improv classes I took at ACT were the best continuing ed classes I ever took–and frankly the best classes on pastoral care I had.

    Steve Martin’s autobiography “Born Standing Up” is one of the books I would include in my syllabus if I were teaching a class on preaching. Another is “Impro” by Keith Johnstone.

  2. padremambo says:

    I’m going to check out both! I think improv should be mandatory in seminaries. It’s done the same for my pastoral care – and my mental survival.

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