The Ha-Ha-Hallelujah Comedy Movement

At Christian Clubs, Humor Is Heavenly

By Natalie Hopkinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 20, 2004; Page A01

So it begins, down a narrow side street in a Beltsville strip mall, the type of place to get your acrylic nails filled, tighten up a fade haircut, and pick up all kinds of useful accouterments for a dollar. Across the street young men are pawing nudie magazines, but prayers can be said for them later.

Step inside the tiny storefront, where opening night for Synergy, a new comedy club, is in full swing. "Child? What about going through two services with a girdle on?" asks the voluptuous Miss Clareese as the spotlights in the dark room illuminate her mismatched thrift-store outfit, feathered hat and Mr. T gold chains.

Miss Clareese, aka Roxanne David, mines material for her act at her day job at a middle school cafeteria. (Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)

"Martin Luther King say we free. Abraham Lincoln say we free. Why would I let Lane Bryant put me back in bondage?"

Rick Younger lumbers onstage and sighs loudly. He stares blankly at the crowd for a few awkward moments, then sighs again. "I guess you're wondering, 'When is this guy going to get to work?' " he says. "I'm just like you. I don't get to work as soon as I get to work. Right now I'm checking e-mails, hanging out by the water cooler . . . "

Sean Sarvis's black T-shirt is a few sizes too big and his matching baseball cap is rocked to the back. "I'm too nice to be an usher," he tells the audience. "The ushers are the thugs of the church, keep it real. My mother is a nice person, but when she puts on those white [usher] gloves" -- he pumps his fists in a boxer's stance -- "she be like, 'Somebody, you gon' get me wrong up in here!' "

Laughter is still bouncing off the club's four dark blue walls when fluorescent lights flick on in a blinding white flash. "And now it's time to give," Sarvis announces. He cues the deejay, and the theme music from "Sanford and Son" pipes in over the speakers.

"Back row, stand up," Sarvis says, and several chuckles erupt in anticipation of the next punch line. His face turns to stone, and this time, he adds a little bass to his voice. "Back row, stand up!" he barks.

Nobody's even thinking about trying to get him wrong up in here. Row by row, the audience marches to the stage and drops singles, fives and checks hastily made out to Synergy Ministries -- $1,260 by the end of the night. He's joking, but it's no joke. This is the house of the Lord.

You can call them "inspirational," "alternative," "Christian" and even, as some of them plead, "just clean." They are the dozens of comedians working the Washington area's gospel comedy scene. For years, these comedians have been performing at churches, community centers, parties and weddings. But now a small circuit of Christian comedy venues has popped up, struggling to make a go.

"God gave us the gift of laughter," says Erik Sellin, who with wife Kimberly took out a second mortgage on their College Park home to open Synergy on July 9 in the mall at Route 1 and Powder Mill Road. "These guys are using their talents for Him."

For the past nine months at Hyattsville's Gospel Live restaurant, comedians have been joking for Jesus while patrons dine on "right righteous crab cakes" and "sing praises T-bone steak" during "Holy Comedy" nights hosted by comedian Nita B. The four-year-old restaurant also hosts Christian-themed music and poetry and open-mike nights. Whether Christian comedy will take off "remains to be seen," says owner Donte Gardner. "We have to get some of the bigger promoters on board, then we can really see it go."

At the monthly Psalms 117, a Christian coffeehouse in Silver Spring, comics spread the Word alongside spoken-word poets in front of 80 or so people. Psalms recently leased a comedy space of its own in Lanham for an eight-month weekly trial, but didn't get a consistent enough crowd, says owner Carlana Acker.

"The Christian market is so funny," says Acker, a corporate travel agent. "Some of them would rather support secular stuff than Christian events. You are dealing with a very wishy-washy crowd."

And since last fall, gospel comics have performed at Jay Cameron's Christian Comedy Central in Clinton. When it opened, it regularly filled the venue's 200 seats each month, but now has gone to a quarterly schedule.

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