Dept. of Entertainment
Standup for the Lord
How funny can a Christian comedian be?
by Adam Green
Most accounts of religious awakening feature a dark night of the soul, a moment just before God reveals his grace, when everything looks hopeless and faith seems impossible. For Brad Stine, a forty-four-year-old politically conservative, Evangelical Christian standup comic, that moment came at the end of the last millennium, when his agent and his manager both stopped returning his calls. For more than a decade, Stine (who was nine when he found Christ) had earned a decent living in show business—first as a magician, then as a clean, though not overtly pious, comedian, doing his bits in front of brick walls in clubs across the country. But his career had slackened, and his chances of making it to the big time—the “Tonight Show,” his own sitcom—had grown remote. Mired in depression and doubt, he started to question his most fundamental beliefs. As Stine recalls it, “I thought: Jesus, either you’re not real or I’m missing something.”
Then, one afternoon in the tiny kitchen of a one-bedroom apartment in Las Flores, California, where Stine was living with his pregnant wife and young son, he began to pray. He asked God to take over, to tell him what to do, offering to forgo wealth and fame in return for peace of mind. “It was Abraham and Isaac,” Stine told me. “I finally brought the knife down on my life and my career, and said, ‘I’m willing to sacrifice this thing. I’m willing to let go of what I love most—my comedy—in order to have God.’ ”
Later that day, he got an offer to appear on a televised Christmas special on North Carolina’s Inspiration Network, and he realized, he says, “I was a mainstream artist who wanted everything the secular entertainment industry had to offer, but he—God—had bigger plans.” Stine quit the club circuit, found new management, and started working a different set of rooms, bringing what he calls his “progressive, contemporary-style” humor to a new audience. The enthusiastic response showed Stine that he had at last found his calling—that his career had become a ministry. “What these churches are becoming, as venues, is sort of what those comedy clubs were in the seventies and eighties,” he told me. “It’s this gigantic market of people who literally have never had this before. I’ve been stinkin’ digging for years in this mine, and suddenly it’s like—oh-ho-ho-ho—I’ve struck the mother lode.”
Last year turned out to be one of Stine’s busiest ever. He played dozens of church dates, at five thousand dollars a show—more than he used to make in a week in the clubs. He recorded his first DVD, “Put a Helmet On!,” at the Thomas Road Baptist Church, in Lynchburg, Virginia—or, as he sometimes calls it, “Jerry Falwell’s joint.” He went on an eighteen-city tour with the Promise Keepers men’s ministry. He appeared on Pat Robertson’s television show, “The 700 Club,” and he entertained at private holiday parties for the staffs of Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, Falwell’s church, and Promise Keepers. Recently, there have been discussions about his performing at the Republican National Convention in New York, later this month.
Stine went back on the road this year to try out material for a second DVD. His first gig was in Estes Park, Colorado, a small town about forty miles northwest of Boulder, where he performed at the Y.M.C.A. of the Rockies for several hundred Christian men on a spiritual retreat. His Saturday-night and Sunday-morning shows capped a weekend whose highlights included a lecture by a motivational speaker, Dr. Steve Farrar, called “Men Leading the Charge: God’s Game Plan for a Man and His Family,” and a series of workshops, among them “Missions Awareness: The Muslim World,” whose moderator said, “9/11 is a natural outgrowth of what the Koran tells its followers to do.”
As he waited to go on, Stine paced the carpeted floor of a classroom in the auditorium’s basement. (The only things that Stine asks for in his makeshift greenrooms are a can of Mountain Dew and a Hershey bar, which he once heard was what David Letterman eats before he goes on the air.) Stine has shaggy, streaked-blond hair and thin, L-shaped sideburns, and he bears a striking resemblance to Denis Leary. He was wearing a patterned knit shirt, untucked, and dark wool pants, with black square-toed shoes. Just before showtime, Stine walked down the hall and peeked inside the auditorium. Hundreds of white men, wearing turtlenecks, flannel shirts, or crewneck sweaters, were holding their hands above their heads, palms up, and singing, “God is awesome in this place,” accompanied by a guitar-and-keyboard duo. “Whee—I’m going to put a nice, big damper on the experience they’re entering into,” Stine said. “ ‘You’re a Christian comedian? Where’s your puppet?’ If you grew up in the Church, it was not known for its stinkin’ high-quality entertainment. A pastor might tell a joke, and it usually began, ‘There were these two mules . . .’ ”
Then it was showtime. Accompanied by pounding rock music, Stine ran out, grabbed the microphone, announced that he was feeling crazy, and launched into his routine. His style is frantic, aggressive, and caustic, with echoes of Robin Williams, Sam Kinison, and George Carlin, who is his comedy hero. His frequent use of the word “stinking” makes you realize how often he would say “fucking” if he didn’t work clean.
A lot of Stine’s material that night came from “Put a Helmet On!,” whose title refers to the weakening of the American character caused by such politically correct follies as mandatory helmet laws for bicyclists. Stine longs for the days when Christian values guided the nation and, as he jokes, the homeless were handed axes, pointed toward a grove of trees, and told, “There’s your duplex.” He aimed most of his barbs at liberals and unbelievers, but Christians took flak, too. He did an impression of a Protestant, whining, “Satan made me lose my job!” (“No—your incompetence made you lose your job!”), and made fun of churches that organize “Harry Potter” book burnings (“Here’s a good rule of thumb: If Hitler tried it—maybe go the other way”). A bit about Christians who need tabbed pages to find Genesis in the Bible led to some physical business about an ancient-days evangelist wrestling with a large scroll to keep it from snapping shut.
Stine tried out some new material. Like: “Jesus was an interesting cat, because he was God for thirty-three years, and he only told people about it for three. Don’t you think his friends had to suspect something?” And: “One of the great downsides of being a Christian is that my religion forbids me to hate people.” Beat. “Ohhhh, I want to hate people. That’s what’s so amazing about Christianity—it forces you to act against what your body wants to do. I want to hate! Not that anybody comes to mind right off the bat—France.” Most of this went over well, though a one-liner about Salvador Dali was greeted with puzzled silence.
Stine’s act is built around his rants, which often have the flavor of sermons. He rails against atheists, liberals, Darwinists, pro-choicers, animal-rights activists, moral relativists—pretty much anyone who doesn’t believe that the Bible is the literal truth—with a vitriol that seems to tap into his audience’s own resentments. “This country is changing,” he told the Estes Park crowd. “And there is, in fact, a civil war—of ideology. It’s real.” Stine said that in the future Christians could wind up being imprisoned just for expressing the ultimate tenet of their faith: Accept Jesus Christ as your Saviour or spend eternity in Hell. “Well, what are you saying—I should just believe in Jesus so I don’t go to Hell?” he asked, mockingly. Then he whispered, “Pretty much.” This got a huge laugh and a round of applause. “The message of Jesus never changes; the messenger does,” he said. “Sometimes he looks like me.”
Contemporary Christian comedy’s first real star was a self-proclaimed ex-hippie named Mike Warnke, whose act combined jokes, sermons, and hair-raising tales about his past as a satanic high priest. Between the late seventies and the early nineties, Warnke sold more than a million albums. But in 1992 a pair of born-again investigative reporters revealed that most of his stories weren’t true, and his career fizzled. The big names in Christian comedy today—Chonda Pierce, Ken Davis, and Mark Lowry—look like the churchgoing suburban moms and dads that they are. Their old-fashioned humor, which consists of mild gibes at Christian family life, musical spoofs, funny props, and inspirational testimony, carries a lingering whiff of the fellowship hall and the worship-center rec room.
Stine sees himself less as a Christian comedian than as a comedian who happens to be Christian, one to whom conservative, Bible-believing Americans, who “have never had their own George Carlin,” can point with pride. He also considers himself a subversive and a gadfly, in the tradition of Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and Bill Hicks. “Christianity has a lot more gray than fundamentalists want to think about,” he said. “And I’m exploring the gray. Until I run into black. Or white.”
Still, some of his biggest fans are members of the Old Guard. “I think he could even get a Muslim crowd laughing—though he might need a back door to escape,” Jerry Falwell told me recently. “He is cutting-edge, not in any way antiquated, and he has a contemporary look. He’s totally different from most religious comedians. Mark Lowry, who grew up here in our church, is a very bright boy, but he doesn’t try to do the heavy humor that Brad Stine does. Brad is a unique dispenser.”
Stine was born in 1960 in Bremen, Indiana, the second of four children. His father, Jerry, was an auto-body repair-man with show-business aspirations—as the front man for a combo called the Regents, he sang at local bars and night clubs. He was not particularly religious. Stine’s mother, Nancy, was a housewife and a devout Christian. Stine got his first taste of an audience’s laughter in kindergarten. He and a classmate had been chosen to improvise a puppet show. His partner opened with “Let’s play hide-and-seek,” and Stine replied, “O.K., you hide, and I’ll start counting—one, three, nineteen, thirty-two . . .” As Stine remembers it, the bit killed.
When Stine was eight, his parents got divorced. Then they got back together, and moved to Southern California, where Jerry hoped to pursue a singing career. The Stines split up again, this time for good, and Brad decided to stay with his father, whom he worshipped. Stine’s mother, who had returned to Indiana, sent him a magic set for his thirteenth birthday, and he became an accomplished sleight-of-hand man.
Jerry eventually went into business with his brother Chan, a restless schemer who ran ringtoss and basketball-shot concessions at carnivals throughout the Midwest. Stine joined his father on the road for a summer. He thought they were a team, but then Jerry remarried and went back to fixing cars. “Apparently, I wasn’t a priority,” Stine told me. “Whatever we had—or I thought we had—ended then.”
Stine decided to become a professional magician, and managed to get work doing closeup tricks at bars and restaurants in Southern California. He also started teaching himself sideshow stunts, such as eating fire and chewing razor blades, and he put together a comedy act. Whenever the laughs seemed to be getting thin, he would say, “I’ll do anything to make you like me—who wants to see me swallow a sword?” The climax of the routine was a stunt that Stine called “Nose Floss.” It involved inhaling a long piece of string up his nose, pulling it out of his mouth, and tugging it back and forth.
In the late eighties, Stine hooked up with a manager named Chuck Harris, who was known for his eccentric client list. (His latest discovery is a man who has had himself surgically altered to look like a cat.) “Brad played a tape of his act for me, and the back of my hair went up,” Harris recalled not long ago. “It was the worst piece of crap I had ever seen.” But, he said, “I saw the budding of a genius. The man is a genius.”
Harris landed his client a spot on a nine-month cross-country college tour with two other young comedians, Craig Anton and Emery Emery. (“It was stinkin’ brutal,” Stine recalled.) Stine’s colleagues admired his manic energy, though Emery resented his boasting that he didn’t need to rely on four-letter words to get a laugh. (“I think flossing your nose is every bit as shocking as talking about pounding some cunt in the ass,” Emery said recently.) Harris also got Stine his first real comedy-club gig and his first television booking, on Showtime’s “Comedy Club Network.” But when Harris’s assistant moved to a talent agency, Stine followed. Harris was devastated. He told me, “I don’t think Brad thought I was gay, but he could never understand the great love and passion I had for him.”
Stine continued to work, in clubs and on television, but he struggled to define himself as a performer. He dropped the props and the magic. He grew his hair long; he cut his hair short. He took acting lessons and auditioned for sitcoms and movies. He even dusted off his sword and his nasal floss. One night, after a club gig, Stine had a drink with another comic, whose act focussed on her identity as a lesbian. When he told her that he was a Christian, she said, “There’s your hook.”
These days, Stine’s career is under the guidance of Mike Smith, an avuncular Oklahoman in his mid-fifties, who runs an artist-management business out of Franklin, Tennessee, a well-heeled suburb of Nashville. Smith handles contemporary Christian entertainers, among them a “rap core” quintet called 38th Parallel, whose music fuses heavy metal and hip-hop with a Gospel message. Smith oversees every aspect of his artists’ careers, from their wardrobes to their personal development as Christians. “I’m basically representing ministries that deliver the Gospel in unique ways to people who might not otherwise receive it,” he told me over lunch recently.
Smith had Stine meet with Jerry Falwell, who gave him his blessing to tape a live show at his church. Then, instead of approaching one of the “big three” contemporary Christian labels, Smith released the edited result, “Put a Helmet On!,” on his own label, Perpetual Entertainment, whose motto was “Worship is a lifestyle.” So far, “Put a Helmet On!” has sold about forty thousand copies.
Next, Smith got in touch with the Promise Keepers men’s ministry. Started in the early nineties by a former University of Colorado football coach, the group holds cathartic, rock-and-roll-driven conferences (they don’t like the word “rallies”) at arenas around the country. Men are urged to reclaim their roles as leaders of their families and “take back the nation for Christ.”
The Promise Keepers tour last summer introduced Stine to as many as fifteen thousand keyed-up Christian men at a time, in many crucial regional markets. In the fall, Stine went back out and played church and meeting-hall gigs in the suburbs and rural areas outside these same cities. This time, men who had seen him at Promise Keepers events came with wives, children, friends, and other members of their congregations.
To help harness the marketing power of the Evangelical grapevine, Smith brought in a booking agent named Charles Dorris, the head of the Christian-entertainment division at the William Morris Agency, which has had an office in Nashville since 1973. He also hired Bob Elder, a seasoned “life-style Christian” marketing consultant. Elder told me that his job is to look at the market and ask himself, “Where’s God moving in product?”
Smith points to Christ’s injunction, in Matthew, to be the salt of the earth, and cites a book by the late sports-television executive Bob Briner called “Roaring Lambs,” which has become something of an industry bible. Briner takes Christians to task for hiding out in a religious ghetto rather than going forth into the mission fields of mainstream arts and entertainment. “We all live in this little thing that we’ve developed here, and we’ve built walls around us,” Smith told me. “And every once in a while we’ll lob a hand grenade over the wall—protest an abortion clinic or shoot a doctor or something like that—but we’re not impacting culture.”
Two years ago, Stine moved his family to Brentwood, Tennessee, an affluent bedroom community about fifteen minutes from Nashville. Stine, his wife, Desiree, and their two kids, Wyatt and Maycee, live in a thirty-eight-hundred-square-foot neo-Colonial on three-quarters of an acre. When Stine and Desiree met, in the early nineties, she was working as a bartender in Laguna Beach and, though a Christian, was deeply into astrology. Stine had just reached the end of what he calls his prodigal journey—drinking, chasing women, smoking dope. These days, he sometimes has a few glasses of wine with dinner or a pint of Guinness after a show, but otherwise, Desiree told me, “he is so stinkin’ holy it’s disgusting.” Desiree is dark-haired and attractive. Before she met Stine, she spent five years with Wild Mick Brown, the drummer for an eighties hair-metal band called Dokken. This prepared her for being married to a “road dog and moody artist like Brad.”
Stine is an avid and eclectic reader. He owns several editions of the Bible, including “The Message,” a modern paraphrasing that renders, for example, the familiar words of Psalm 66, “Make a joyful noise unto God, all ye lands,” into “All together now—applause for God!” He also owns books about theology, such as C. S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity,” and about politics, such as “Death by ‘Gun Control’: The Human Cost of Victim Disarmament.” But most of his shelf space is devoted to books about magic, magicians, and sideshow performers: “Magic by Misdirection,” “The Odds Against Me,” “Circus of the Scars.”
For a while, the Stines attended the People’s Church (formerly First Baptist) in nearby Franklin, whose five thousand members can worship, see a production of “Godspell,” go to singles events or divorce support groups, or meet for a latte on its hundred-and-twenty-acre campus. Desiree joined a Bible-study group and started to become part of the church community. But her husband has never felt comfortable in megachurches and prefers his religion intimate and unadorned. Back in California, Stine went to a small nondenominational church in Orange County, whose senior pastor had run topless bars in Hollywood before he was saved. Stine described it as “just the Bible, Jesus, and you.”
Stine doesn’t hang out with Nashville’s other Christian comedians, nor has he joined the Christian Comedy Association. He’s trying to do something new and doesn’t want to be lumped with the others. Stine told me that his life is sometimes lonely, that he feels like an outsider both in the mainstream and among fellow-Christians. The payoff will come when he’s backstage at the “Tonight Show”: he’ll take out an old night-club shot of his father, who died six years ago, and say, “Well, Dad, we made it.” But, as Stine told me many times, he is battling a “liberal-biased media-entertainment structure.” He figured that after having proved himself as a standup for nearly two decades, the only conclusion he could draw from his not being asked onto the “Tonight Show” was that the powers that be were determined not to give airtime to anyone with a conservative or Christian message. I noted that for most of those years Stine had kept his religious and political views to himself. Stine conceded that I might have a point and said that if he gets to perform at “the stinkin’ G.O.P. Convention,” the “Tonight Show” brass will have to pay attention.
Throughout the winter and spring, Stine went on the road and refined his new act. He was accompanied by a wry, efficient young man named J. R. Montes, who used to manage a band called Zona 7, which he described as “a Hispanic Christian Linkin Park.” In York, Pennsylvania, Stine performed at the Praise Center, a hangar-size nondenominational church and television-production facility in the middle of an open field. He had been hired by a local Christian broadcasting entrepreneur, talk-show host, and weight-loss-formula salesman named Jerry Jacobs, who didn’t appear to be a regular user of his own product. Jacobs was hoping to interest Stine in his plan to produce a late-night comedy show, which, he explained, would be “similar to ‘Saturday Night Live,’ only without all the ah-moral tendencies.” He said, “I can’t say, ‘Live from York—it’s Saturday night,’ because my lawyers told me that wouldn’t fly. But I can say, ‘We’re in York, and we’re live, and it’s Saturday night.’ ”
For thirty dollars a head, the crowd at the Praise Center got to eat chicken, watch promotional videos for “The Passion of the Christ” and Promise Keepers, and listen to Jerry Jacobs give a fund-raising pitch for his television ministry. By the time Stine took the stage, they were ready for a few laughs. “Relax,” he told them. “You’re going to Heaven—enjoy yourselves!” A new bit about Adam naming the animals in the Garden of Eden went over well. So did Stine’s pro-Bush sentiments. “I thank God we’ve got a Texan in the White House,” he said. “You’ll notice the terrorists didn’t attack Texas.”
Outside Asheville, North Carolina, Stine performed at the Arden Presbyterian Church. His dressing room had a rocking chair in it and a sign on the door that read “Brad Stine (Tonight, nursing mothers in case of emergency only).” When Stine ran onstage, the audience jumped to its feet and cheered. For the next hour, Stine moved deftly between religious and political rants (he got particularly exercised about the divorce rate among Christians) and comic business, making the transitions with lines such as “And that’s the problem with these secular humanists.” He also hit a few cultural hot buttons.
Judicial activism: “When they turn around and try to reframe what the Founding Fathers intended for this country, it drives me out of my mind. If Thomas Jefferson were alive today, he’d be sooooo . . . old.”
The Second Amendment: “Guns don’t kill people. Bullets kill people.”
Gay marriage: “Guys want to marry other guys?” Beat. “Cowards!”
Stine wishes that his beliefs didn’t force him to take positions that sometimes hurt people’s feelings, but in the end, he says, “truth trumps everything else.” As a comedian, Stine believes that he must expose cant, hypocrisy, and false ideology; as a Christian, he must spell out the dire consequences awaiting those who fail to recognize the wrongness of their thinking.
“The reckoning day for people like this is going to be more horrific than we can imagine,” Stine told me one afternoon. “And I take that seriously, because I care about people, and I want everybody in. Let’s all get along and go to Heaven, where we’ll dwell with a loving father—God—who won’t leave us, and won’t get divorced, and won’t do all the horrible stinkin’ things we see in this world. Well, I believe it’s going to happen. And I want to be there.”
Earlier this year, Stine flew to New York for a meeting with the former president of the Gospel Music Association, Frank Breeden, who is now the entertainment director for the Republican Convention, and Stine’s agent, Charles Dorris, who is on the G.M.A.’s board of directors. Breeden had already given Stine a boost in 2002 by hiring him to entertain at the G.M.A.’s annual Dove Awards, the Grammys of contemporary Christian music. Now he was talking about bringing Stine back to New York to perform at one of the events or parties connected to the Republican Convention, or maybe at the Convention itself. They also discussed plans for Stine to go to Washington, D.C., to meet with some Republican Party grandees.
A month later, Stine and Mike Smith flew to Washington. In a cab heading toward Pennsylvania Avenue, Stine admitted that he was a little nervous. “This is kind of my ‘Tonight Show,’ ” he said. “These are people who can make things happen for me that I’ve never even imagined. They’re the gatekeepers.”
Their first meeting, at a Cosí restaurant near the White House, was with an assistant from the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives named Catharine Ryun. Then, in the Hart Senate Office Building, they met with Mark Rodgers, the staff director for the Senate Republican Conference. Later, Rodgers, a protégé of Senator Rick Santorum, of Pennsylvania, told me that he became interested in Stine after his brother-in-law played “Put a Helmet On!” at a family gathering.
Stine and Smith met me for dinner at the Capital Grille, a clubby steak house on Pennsylvania Avenue. Smith—who said, “Man, this place even smells conservative”—was in a buoyant mood. He had just learned that Stine would be receiving the Gospel Music Association’s annual Grady Nutt Humor Award, named for the late comedian Grady Nutt, who was known as the Prime Minister of Humor on “Hee Haw.”
But Stine was more excited about his meeting with Mark Rodgers. He reported that Rodgers had told him, “We can fill you in on the issues and beliefs that are important to our Party and our President, and use you to disseminate our information.” In return, according to Smith, Rodgers offered to “network Brad into all kinds of stuff” and to introduce him to some of his intellectual heroes, including Phillip E. Johnson, the author of “Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds,” and Chuck Colson, the Watergate conspirator, who now runs a prison ministry. “Watch out, Al Franken,” Stine said. “There’s a new sheriff in town.”
This summer, Stine is back on tour with the Promise Keepers, giving the men thirty minutes of new material and a chance to buy his new DVD, “A Conservative Unleashed,” which he shot in April, in Knoxville. The cover shows Stine clutching at a microphone as he is being yanked offstage by, one assumes, the liberal entertainment élite. Both the DVD and Stine’s first book, “Being a Christian Without Being an Idiot: Ten Assumed Truths That Make Us Look Stupid” (which was vetted by Promise Keepers board members), are being distributed by divisions of Warner Music Group.
Sales of the DVDs—and of T-shirts and baseball caps—have been brisk at Promise Keepers events. The organization has started to provide Stine with two bodyguards, who flank him as he signs autographs. In Albany in early June, amid all the guys lined up to meet Stine was a sober-looking middle-aged man who handed him a DVD to sign and said, “My name is John Rowland. I’m the governor of Connecticut, and I’m a big fan of yours.” (This was a few weeks before Rowland resigned.)
In his set, Stine hit some familiar notes. “I’m a conservative, I’m a Christian, and I think the United States is the greatest country that has ever existed on the face of the earth!” he shouted, provoking one of four standing ovations. “And, because of those three belief systems, when I die, by law, I have to be stuffed and mounted and placed in the Smithsonian under the ‘Why He Didn’t Get a Sitcom’ display.”
As it turns out, Lou Weiss, the chairman emeritus of William Morris, watched Stine’s DVD not long ago and said that he’d “never seen anything as out-of-the-box as this young man.” Weiss, who started in the mailroom at William Morris in 1937, has handled Joey Bishop, Buddy Hackett, and Alan King, among others, and he helped launch Bill Cosby’s television career. Now he wants to build a sitcom around Stine, as a put-upon Everyman. The star’s Christianity, Weiss says, will not take center stage. “I respect everybody’s beliefs,” he told me recently. “But putting religion jokes on television is a good way not to be on television anymore.”
Weiss’s view fits with the election-year marketing strategy of Stine and his team, who want to emphasize Stine’s politics more than his religion. Stine has chosen to distance himself from Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, not because he doesn’t respect them but because their names suggest evangelical intolerance. The entertainment lineup for the Republican Convention won’t be announced until later this summer, but Stine is still in the running. And there has been talk of sending him out this fall to stump for President Bush. “I’ve got the ear of the White House—or at least the ear of the people who have the ear of the White House,” Stine said. “This is much more than I ever anticipated when I thought I could learn how to swallow a sword.”
Stine has faith that his journey is being guided by the hand of Providence. He addresses this subject in one of his new routines, which makes fun of bumper stickers that read “god is my co-pilot.” He says, “I think a good rule of thumb is, if God’s in the car, Let. Him. Drive. He’s got insurance. He can talk his way out of tickets. He can knock the radar gun back a couple of notches—nobody’d know.” He goes on, “ ‘God is my co-pilot’? For crying out loud, this guy is taking charge, and he’s toting God around, like God couldn’t handle himself!” Then, for the punch line, Stine does his God impression: “You take the wheel—I’m not familiar with this area.”