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.
"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.
"Right now, Christian comedy is in its infancy," says Cameron. "But I think over the years, people will be able to receive it. If you only know Coca-Cola, you aren't going to like Pepsi."
The comedians say the genre is more than just about filling clubs and making money. "It's almost like being a preacher," says Howard G., the 37-year-old Baltimore comedian/actor best known for commanding local TV viewers to "kiiiiiss my bumper! Just kiss it!" on those Senate Auto Insurance commercials. But at weddings and area churches and recently at Synergy, his alter ego, Grandma G., cross-dresses in schoolmarm glasses and a gray wig for his Christian comedy act.
"We go out, we minister to the people," Howard G. continues. "We tell our story. We tell our experiences. God can use you in many ways."
These days Grandma G. is getting much more work than Howard G., he says -- "more audiences and reaching a broader and larger audience."
Other comedians give convincing testimonies that describe a righteous path to comedy. Take Miss Clareese, aka Roxanne David of Springfield. Fourteen years ago, she was an assistant manager at Pizza Hut. One Kids' Night, the clown didn't show up and everybody looked her way. "Absolutely not," she told them -- at first. Then she relented, and put on the honking nose, painted her face white and stepped into the floppy shoes.
She was transformed. "This whole other person came out," recalls Miss Clareese, 48. "I don't even know who that was. The clouds opened up," she says, adding heavenly sound effects: "ah-aaaaaaah!
"The Lord blessed me, Miss Clareese."
She keeps a day job in the cafeteria at a local middle school, where she gets plenty of material ("What is a 'time out'? . . . I didn't know Jesus was real until I got a whuppin'. ") By night, she hits the gospel comedy circuit, which is bigger now than it has ever been. "Gospel comedy is about to blow up," she says.
Of course, God helps those who help themselves, and that's why Sarvis, perhaps the area's most popular gospel comedy host, called together a dozen promoters and comedians for a Gospel Comedy Summit last month to huddle on the best strategy to bring the field forward.
The group is in the middle of a lively discussion at T.G.I. Fridays in Greenbelt about threats facing the fledgling industry. First up: Too many comedians are temporarily cleaning up their act, taking Christian comedy gigs and that good church money, but aren't really committed to spreading the gospel. They are taking good work from the faithful.
"You can't straddle the fence because your cell phone isn't ringing," complains Charles Kane, a Washington promoter. "Then everybody's jumping on it because their career isn't jumping off."
Other questions fly fast and furious around the table. What if you take a church gig, then turn around and do a raunchy show at a secular nightclub? Won't Christians call you out? And do Christian comedians even belong in a secular nightclub?
"But He might call you back into the [secular] club," says comedian-actress Platinum, aka Marilyn Franklin, a native Washingtonian who last weekend debuted "Naomi's Story," a gospel stage play at the University of Maryland.
Sarvis, a comedian from Fort Washington, agrees. "Jesus hung out with nobody but pimps, ho's and -- "
" -- and tax collectors," Miss Clareese finishes.
On the far end of the table, near the restaurant entrance, a handful of comedians are conspicuously quiet. Truth be told, a few of them would probably tell jokes in a Safeway parking lot if it would get them a paycheck. They came to the summit to learn how to break into the Christian market, but it's beginning to feel more like an ambush.
Joe Recca, a Baltimore comedian, is the first to speak up. "I do comedy," he says, "and when I get booked for it, gospel comedy."
Platinum shakes her head. "We gon' have to pray for him."
Later, as the meeting continues, Platinum stares across the table, then asks Recca point-blank: "Are you saved?"
Recca stammers, then allows: "I believe in Jesus."
Platinum leans in closer, and lays into him rapid-fire. "Do you recognize Jesus as Lord-and-savior-who-died-on-the-cross-for-our-sins?"
More stammering. "That's how I was raised," Recca says. "I just do clean comedy."
Sarvis looks on at the exchange knowingly. Once upon a time he was just like Recca -- only a whole lot racier. He did BET's "ComicView" and opened for most of the well-known potty mouths, your Bernies, your Cedrics, your Mo' Niques. But he grew up in the church, and when he overheard some kids repeating one of his cruder jokes, he knew his mama raised him better than that.
Since the 33-year-old father of twins converted to being a full-time Christian comic, God has provided. "I take care of my needs and some of my wants," he shrugs. "I'm paying child support."
Synergy was a long time coming. Even before they met in a Christian singles Internet chat room several years ago, Erik and Kimberly Sellin had the same vision.
Kimberly, now 29, was a single mother and had spent time studying pre-med at Ohio State -- "a real party school." She wished there was an alternative to the smoking, the drinking, the drugging and decadence that accompanies the club scene. "You can have all the fun without the vices," she says.
Erik, 31, believed the same. He went to Central High School in Capitol Heights and started spinning Christian house, trance and electronica as DJ Rapture Man while earning a communications degree at James Madison University.
Two years ago, the two began a ministry by holding Christian raves at churches and VFW halls around the mid-Atlantic region, featuring DJ Rapture Man. The first party drew six or seven people, mostly their friends. Through aggressive marketing on college campuses, music publications and the Internet, the raves grew, and their most recent one had more than 100 people.
They decided they needed a place. Last year, they saw an ad for a retail space in Beltsville. It was close to a porn store and across the street from a strip club.
They didn't have a whole lot of money. Erik is a Web designer and Kimberly watches their two children and works part time as a surgical assistant. But God has blessed them -- the value of their College Park home had increased significantly, so they could take out that second mortgage.
They signed the lease for Synergy last December.
After that, they ran into roadblocks. Getting the proper zoning approval ended up being a seven-month battle. Then they had to face the reality that, at 1,400 square feet, the space might be too small to have a rave.
But it's funny how God works.
By March, Synergy had still not opened its doors and was burning through the Sellins' home equity loan. One night the couple decided to check out a Christian play at Erik's old high school. Sean Sarvis happened to be the opening act. "We 'bout died laughing it was so funny," Kimberly recalls.
"There was no cursing, no degradation of women, no inappropriate racial jokes," Erik says. "It was laughing at ourselves and not laughing at others."
The meetings with Sarvis were a formality. He agreed to host a comedy show on Fridays and open mike nights on Sundays. "That's God's timing right there," Erik says.
"We just trust in Him and we're praying about it, that He will bless it," Kimberly says. "God doesn't let you get so far just to let you down."
The fluorescent lights are up inside Synergy after the first show on the venue's first night. The capacity crowd -- about 80 people -- streams out the rear door so the people lined up on the sidewalk outside can take their places.
Sawida Kamara, a 26-year-old project manager, walks out wiping laugh tears from her eyes. "It was totally hilarious," she says. "Clean, but fun."
"We'll be back," adds Erica Kennedy, a 30-year-old editor from Bowie. "We'll bring more friends."
Some of the comedians are selling tapes and CDs at the back, and Sarvis is back at the mike, cracking jokes about bootleggers. "You'll know you'll want to buy them," he says. " 'I don't need to be going over there. . . . You got Kirk Franklin?' "
Erik Sellin is standing at the DJ booth when a patron stops by on the way out. "Good first service," the man says. Then, in a flash, he joins the stream out the door.