John Crist has comfortably rooted himself in the world of Christian comedy, crafting niche-specific jokes that kill with the straight-laced Colorado Springs crowd. Yet somehow -- miraculously! -- he's also cultivated a respectable reputation in Denver's underground community, where the dirtiest of the dirty are constantly in search of socio-political boundaries. After recently appearing on the Fine Gentleman Club's comedy podcast, Too Much Fun, Crist will be hosting the first round of the Funny Final Four this Wednesday at Comedy Works, assembling a team of his favorite local comics to compete, tournament style.
We recently caught up with this standup diplomat to chat dirty comedy, the Denver scene, and why so many have a knee-jerk response to "Christian comedy."
Westword: I hope this don't offend you -- and I'm sure you get it all the time -- but when I first saw that you were marketed to churches as a clean comic, I'd casually written off the idea that you could be any good. Are you constantly having to address that when playing mainstream clubs?
John Crist: Yes, but that's because I don't want to be a "Christian comedian," or a "clean comedian" or a "corporate comedian." I'm with you in that those dudes suck. As a Christian, I know that anything associated with us in comparison with the mainstream is terrible.
It's weird, though. I've been traveling on a tour bus doing two shows a night. Tonight I'm playing in Missouri before 2,500 people -- at $35 a ticket, you can't ignore the financial impact of that.
So you're doing the Christian circuit to make money, while performing secular gigs on the side? Didn't Five Iron Frenzy have the same tour model?
Yes! I can't believe you just dropped that name. But yeah, 100 percent. It's really hard to make a living as a standup comic. You've been around the scene long enough, you know these guys are sleeping on couches, bumming rides from people. It's because I'm clean that I can make a living. I just did a show with Josh Blue at Zanies in Tennessee, and that's where I'd like to be, but they only paid $700 to go out there for the weekend, and I had to fly myself out. So at this point I can't make money [in clubs], but those church gigs, one of those can pay all your bills for the month.
But I assume you're not doing this just for the money, that you're a clean comic by nature and this is a scene that is looking to pay big bucks for a clean comic.
Oh, yeah, I love it. People always ask me, "How do you write only clean jokes?" And the thing is, I don't have any dirty jokes. There aren't all these jokes I'm thinking of where I'm like, "Oh, man, I wish I could tell these but I'm a Christian." But whether it's clean or dirty, all we're both doing is making observations. A funny joke is a funny joke. Everyone loves to laugh; it doesn't matter who you are.
And your material works right alongside acts like Sam Tallent or Josh Blue, who are a little more NC-17. What do the churches think of you performing in clubs?
If you look at my website, I try and have a balance. You'll see some churches in there, and you'll see some clubs. The church crowd thinks it's awesome that I perform at mainstream clubs.
Do they think that it's an opportunity for you to evangelize to people?
Probably. And while I'm outspoken that I'm a believer, you can ask any comic in Denver that never once have I been like, "Hey dude, here's a tract." I'm not trying to convert people. I want to be funny and respected as a mainstream comic just like anybody else.
Growing up in a religiously conservative home, were you ever exposed to subversive comics like Bill Hicks or Richard Pryor?
Yeah. Every kid wants to rebel against their parents and do their own thing at some point, and for me that was when I started getting into comedy. You're actually going to make fun of me for this, but if anyone ever asks me who my favorite comedian is, I always say "Katt Williams." And he probably has the dirtiest jokes I've ever heard in my life.
But there are times now when I'm in a comedy club and I still don't get some of the jokes. It's usually either a drug or sex reference. Somebody the other night was talking about a...roach? Do you know what that is? It's like the leftover of a blunt or something?
Sure. A blunt or a joint.
Yeah, and I'm 28 years old, so it's kind of embarrassing that I didn't know that. But if I don't get a drug or sex reference, I'm okay with that.
But it does make you somewhat unique. Sometimes it is exhausting listening to one comic after another talk about sleeping till noon, smoking a bowl, trying to find sex, then discovering something depressing about themselves through rejection.
That's a great point. Some times people ask me, "Why do you take your material into secular clubs?" But what you just said is exactly why. You got seven comics who will, like you said, talk about waking up at noon and not showering -- and it's refreshing to have someone tell jokes about home-schooling.
I love that comedy is one of the last outlets of completely free speech. If you want to make a rape-joke, you're more than welcome to. You can get up there and say whatever you want. And if that's the case, then I should be able to talk about what I believe. I'm not shoving it down people's throats, or judging them, but I'll be honest about who I am. And the Denver comedy scene has been really supportive. The Fine Gentleman's Club are all great guys -- we're big fans of each other.
Sam Tallent from FGC recently said to us that "making fun of John Crist for being a Christian is the hackiest thing you can do as a comic." I'm curious about how this became an issue in the first place: Is it that we unfairly dismiss Christian comics the same way we do Christian rock, or is it that the material of that genre is reliably terrible?
I would say that the stigma is completely justified. I'm about to do some church shows this weekend, and these crowds, they're the most overly supportive crowds that you've ever seen in your life. They give standing ovations. They explode over the most mildly funny thing. And that can make you complacent.
There are a couple Christian comics that I think could succeed in the mainstream, but by and large, it's not good comedy. It's like, "Hey everybody, what's with church pews being so close together?" So I have to stay connected with the mainstream so I don't get lazy with these over-supportive crowds.
So mainstream clubs sharpen up your material?
Oh, yeah, and if you come from a mainstream club and do a church, people are like, "This is incredible!" They think it's the best thing that ever happened.
It seems like that dynamic is analogous to the underground comedy scene, in that many people want to support a comic for being local, and want to support the local scene because it's where they live, without ever taking a critical look at how good or bad the comic is. Just like many churches will blindly support a Christian comic simply for existing.
Yes, like if you're a lesbian, you have to like Melissa Etheridge. She's on our team kind of thing, you have to support her. Or like a black comic, or a Latino comic, any comic with a hook, if you're on that team, you have to support it.
And these people that live in the suburbs with three kids, and don't want their kids around drugs or cursing, they want to laugh, too. They're not like "I hate laughter, I hate fun, I just want to judge everybody." They're not like that.
Do you ever write material that specifically appeals only to a church-crowd, that wouldn't work in a mainstream club?
I have probably an hour of jokes like that. I was raised in the church, went to a Christian school, I used to work for Focus on the Family, I used to work Chick-fil-A, bro -- anything you hate about Christianity, I got it.
You sporting a Jesus fish tattoo somewhere?
Oh yeah, I got bible verses in Greek on my back, a fish on my ankle.
No, I'm kidding.
I always have to ask when talking to a comedian.
As you should.
I'd never make fun of Christianity. If a comic is making fun of something like Jesus on a cross, that's offensive to me. As a believer, I can't sit back and laugh at that. But at the same time, I will be the first guy to make fun of Christians for being judgmental, or make fun of Christian comedy. Because I'm on that team. It's like a black comic making fun of how black people act -- I couldn't do that, because I'm white. So if a mainstream comic is making fun of Christianity, he's against it, but in the church I can make fun of Christians.
What is an example of that?
Oh shoot, I write for this blog called Stuff Christians Like, it's basically a satire blog on Christians.
I have a joke about the story of Job, from the bible. I say, "As Christians, the first thing we do whenever we have trouble is compare ourselves to Job. This guy lost his home, his family, lost all of his possessions, his health and his wife -- you overdrafted your checking account." It's making fun of the way Christians are always like, "I've been reading Job lately, and I can really relate because my coffee was lukewarm this morning." Now, if I did that joke at Comedy Works, nobody would get it, but in a church it kills.
I had this one joke I was warned by a pastor not to use anymore. It was about me trying to join the church leadership team, and the pastor asked me, "John, do you have any leadership skills?" And I said, "I've been leading girls on for years." Now, that's not a great joke, but he said it was inappropriate. Or there was this one where I was asked if I had any spiritual gifts, and I told him, "My girlfriend says I have the gift of tongues." That's probably the dirtiest joke I have. I would never say that joke in a comedy club, but in a church I kind of want to get under their skin a little bit, push the envelope. But only at church.
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John Crist will be hosting the Funny Final Four Round One at Comedy Works, 1226 15th Street, on Wednesday, February 20. Tickets are $12 (18+). For more information visit www.comedyworks.com