ATLANTA Dressed in a sequined black French maid costume, comic Victoria Jackson was complaining about men in her squeaky high-pitched voice. "We get rewarded for big boobs in your face, but you can't see our souls," she said.
She paused, eyes wide, looking a little nervous: "I probably wasn't supposed to say 'boob' on Christian comedy night."
Well, she did, but nobody stomped out of the Funny Farm at the club's first Christian comedy night with Jackson, a lifelong Christian known as the ditsy blonde from "Saturday Night Live" from 1986 to 1992. She's still delightfully amusing at age 44.
The very phrase "Christian comedy" can be confusing. A few well-known comics such as Mark Lowry and Chondra Pierce started in the church and emphasize faith-based humor. But many are simply regular comics who found Jesus and went "clean." That means no cursing, no bathroom humor, no sexual terms.
But that still leaves a broad enough palette to include the conservative, satirical edginess of the frenetic Brad Stine and the speedy punch lines of ventriloquist Taylor Mason. ("You'd think that combining the words 'Christian' and 'ventriloquist' would be the kiss of death for my career," Mason jokes.)
Her breast joke aside, Jackson dropped a few of her edgier jokes from her repertoire after she began doing Christian comedy nights.
"I hate obscenities and heavy sexual references," she said. "I think it takes more talent to be funny without the shock value."
Catherine Dotson, a 31-year-old Christian who lives in Sandy Springs, Ga., didn't find Jackson's mild innuendo shocking. "I thought she hit close to home" with the "boob" line, she said. Dotson stopped attending regular comedy club shows a decade ago because she found so much of the material vulgar. "When I'm offended, I'm not entertained," she said.
Christian comedy as a genre is still in its relative infancy. A handful of artists delved into the arena in the 1970s and '80s, but only last year did a group of 30 comics form a Christian Comedy Association. Already, it has grown to 250 members, including two Atlanta artists, Kenn Kington and Anita Renfroe.
In decades past, many churches avoided or railed against popular culture. And some comics feel there's a subset of Christians who take their faith too seriously. "We call them the frozen Chosen," said Renfroe, who grew up in a family of gospel singers and fundamentalist preachers. "We hope they'll thaw out soon."
A new generation of pastors is embracing comedy, using it as an outreach tool to coax non-churchgoers into the realm. And unlike music, comedy can draw the whole family. "Music is a divisive factor," said Bill Gaither, the godfather of Southern gospel who filled Philips Arena last weekend. "Humor is uniting." For 15 years, Gaither has included comics in his act, boosting the careers of Lowry and Mason, among others.
Kington, a corporate speaker and comedian from west Cobb County, a year ago created the Ultimate Comedy Theater national tour, which includes a rotating roster of 10 comics who work both churches and secular clubs. He's been to Cumberland Community Church in Atlanta four times in the past year and has sold out the past two, selling 900 tickets each. He plans to add events in Roswell and Peachtree City next year.
The shows, which are specifically not labeled "Christian," draw 30 percent to 50 percent non-Christians or non-churchgoing Christians, Kington estimates. "It gives people considering going back to church a stepping stone inside the building," says Peter Grant, pastor for Cumberland Community.
Not long ago, many Christian comics were people who couldn't hack it in the unforgiving comedy club environment. "People doing the church circuit were mostly not very good," said Jeff Patterson, an agent who represents Christian comics. "They'd say a couple of corny jokes and a testimony and everyone would give them a standing ovation."
Pay wasn't very good either: "Who will work for $100? Only a bad comedian."
The quality is improving, Patterson said. It helps that veteran stand-up comics who discovered their faith such as Jeff Allen and Sherri Shepherd now straddle between religious events and secular comedy clubs.
Allen, who hopes to get a TV sitcom one day, said he once mocked religion in his act until he found Christ in 1996. "I used to throw stuff and spit at Christians. Jesus was the last place I looked for salvation," he said. "That's why I understand people who have no tolerance for me. I understand the prejudices, the misunderstandings."
Allen admits that it's easier to get a laugh out of a Christian crowd because they tend to be more polite than the drunken midnight club audience. "It's a double-edged sword," he says. "You can be lulled into a false sense of security. That's why I do some club dates, too."
And clubs are responding. The 320-seat West Palm Beach Improv launched twice-monthly Christian comedy nights 18 months ago on Mondays and Tuesdays. "I have four Jewish partners who said I was absolutely crazy," said Rene Harte, a co-owner who came up with the idea. End result: They sell out almost every show.
Now more than a dozen clubs, including the local Funny Farm in Roswell, are copying them.
So far, Harte's found 14 comics worthy of headlining at her club. "I stay away from church-preachy Christian comics," she said. "I lean more to former mainstream comics who have found Jesus."
Shepherd, now a regular on the ABC sitcom "Less Than Perfect," fits that role. Her stand-up act was heavily about sex in the early 1990s, but as she developed her relationship with God she struggled to give up what made her successful. "Fortunately," she said, "he gave me better material. I think people are way more accepting of Christian comedy than in the past."
For example, at Atlanta's non-Christian Laffapalooza comedy festival last year with host actor/comic Jamie Foxx, she found herself scheduled after midnight, following a stream of obscenity-packed comedians. "I told Jamie, 'That's just not going to work.' But afterwards, everyone said it was a breath of fresh air. I looked up at the sky and said, 'Thank you Lord!' "
Though "SNL's" Jackson is already a celebrity, no Christian comic has broken into the mainstream the way Amy Grant did in the Christian music world in the 1980s.
But ventriloquist Mason believes it will happen soon, perhaps with a national tour along the lines of the Kings of Comedy tour, which proved in 1999 that black comedians could fill 10,000-seat arenas and made a big star out of relative unknown Bernie Mac, now with his own Fox TV sitcom.
"Christian comedy is still a little under the radar," Mason said. "But it's on the verge of breaking big. I feel it."