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'Tis the season to be jolly

Mark Palmer and Rob Thomas tell Claire Brine why performing comedy in churches is a Christmas cracker of an experience

Laughter is a gift from God

IN a bleak midwinter ten years ago, a comedian was looking to spread some Christmas cheer. So Paul Kerensa – whose comedy-writing credits include the sitcoms Miranda and Not Going Out – set up a seasonal touring show and called it Comedians and Carols.

It does what it says on the tin: a selection of the UK’s best, clean comedians visit a variety of churches in the build-up to Christmas to deliver an evening of festive entertainment, interspersed with some jolly congregational carol singing. Previous acts have included Tim Vine, Miranda Hart and Jo Enright.

This year, while Paul compères the events, funny men Mark Palmer and Rob Thomas will be stepping into the spotlight, hoping for plenty of ho, ho, ho’s and ha, ha, ha’s.

 ‘Comedians and Carols is about getting members of the community together for an evening of fun, laughs and joy,’ says Mark Palmer, who first appeared at the event in 2012. ‘About three or four comedians are booked to perform some clean, family-friendly comedy, and between each act there’s a bit of carol singing.

‘The host – which is usually Paul Kerensa – kicks off the evening by getting people laughing and singing a Christmas carol together. Then he introduces the first comedian, who comes onstage to do a set. After that, the evening features another comedian or two, plus more carols.’

Mark explains that, as well as providing festive entertainment across the UK, the aim of Comedians and Carols is to invite into a church environment people who would ‘never normally set foot in the building’.

He says: ‘We’re trying to show people that church isn’t a sombre place where Christians hit newcomers over the head with Bibles. It’s a happy place. These events are for everyone, whether they are churchgoers or not. Sometimes families come along from different religious backgrounds, because the children know the carols from school. During the evening there’s no preaching and nothing offensive – it’s just a fun time to celebrate the joy of Christmas through comedy and carols.’

To help the audience get in the spirit, the churches try to create a Christmassy atmosphere.

‘People come along wearing their Christmas jumpers, hats and reindeer antlers – including the comedians,’ Mark says. ‘Some churches put out crackers for people to pull. There are Christmas trees and fake snow around, plus a manger scene. Christmas music might be playing when the audience arrives and sometimes the church band is on hand to accompany the carols. People come for a good night of comedy and find that by the end of it, they’re really in the mood for Christmas.’

While many people enjoy December for its twinkly lights, gifts and the opportunity for some quality family time, Mark sees the story of Jesus’ birth as being at the heart of the celebrations. He explains why comedy is a perfect partner for explorations of faith.

‘Christmas and comedy work so well together because they’re supposed to work together,’ he says. ‘In the Bible’s Book of Proverbs it says that a cheerful heart is a good medicine. I don’t think Jesus wants any of us to be miserable. Laughter makes you feel good, and that’s how God created us. He made us to feel joy and happiness. Because I see laughter as a gift from God, I would find it very strange if comedy and faith didn’t work together.

‘In my experience, the Christmas story is all about new life. My heart was massively changed when I became a Christian. I used to be in a very dark place. But because of Jesus’ birth, I could have a fresh start at life.’

Mark admits that before he became a Christian, his comedy had a different focus.

‘I didn’t care what I said,’ he recalls. ‘I didn’t care whether I offended people or not. But after I came to faith, I had a choice: Do I continue doing comedy? How should I do it?

‘I found my answer in Philippians 4:8, which says: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure … think about such things.” I saw those words as direction from God. It was as though he was saying to me that I could still do comedy, but I didn’t have to fill my set with vulgarity. I didn’t have to blaspheme or offend people.

‘Just as I had been reborn as a Christian, so my comedy had to be reborn. Today, when I’m writing my material, I try to steer clear of any subjects that might make people feel uncomfortable. That’s not what I’m about. I want to make people laugh and feel good about themselves. That’s what I’m interested in.’

 

 ‘IT’S harder to pull off a successful comedy night in a church than in a secular setting,’ says Rob Thomas, who also features in Paul’s line-up during this year’s Comedians and Carols tour. ‘In a comedy club, people have usually loosened up with a few drinks, they’ve paid for tickets and they’re totally up for a laugh. But in church, there can be a lot of tension and nerves, because the leadership team wonders if the comedy will be appropriate and the audience wonders if it will be any good. And tension and nerves are the antithesis of good comedy! So while I love performing in churches, I’d say it’s definitely a bigger challenge than clubs.’

Rob describes the comedy featured at Comedians and Carols as ‘good fun, inoffensive and for all the family to enjoy’. But he wants his set to be positive and life-giving wherever he is performing.

‘My jokes are never crude and I never swear, and that’s because I’m a Christian who tries not to do those things in real life,’ he says. ‘I find that the trick with comedy is to be yourself.

‘My comic style is quite energetic and physical. I have a few set pieces where I’m running around a lot. Most of the time I tell stories about growing up in north Wales, my university years and life with my kids – it’s all grounded in truth. Sometimes I’ll throw in some puns to break things up a bit. I’m the current UK pun champion, having won last year’s national championships run by the Dave TV channel. Whatever I say, I make sure my comedy is always clean.’

But that doesn’t mean Rob steers clear

 of tricky topics. He thinks comedians – especially Christians – should be free to address a broad range of subjects, including Brexit and sex.

‘Many churches run courses on marriage, relationships, parenting and money management, and these can be gritty subjects,’ he explains, ‘so I think Christian comedians should also be able to get laughs when they talk about these things. There’s no reason why their material has to be rude or upsetting.

‘Comedians should be free to say what they want onstage, as long as they are performing in an appropriate venue. I’m not against people creating darker jokes, but that doesn’t represent who I am, so I don’t do it. It’s unhelpful. I believe in God’s Holy Spirit, and that helps me to decide, in my conscience, what’s right and wrong.’

Rob feels compelled to take part in Comedians and Carols. He has performed at ‘loads of them’.

He says: ‘We are introducing churches to the fact that comedy is a great thing, that it can work in church, that it can bring people together and that laughter is a gift from God,’ he says. ‘The carol-singing adds an extra element to the evening, because when people sing “Once in Royal David’s City”, without a hint of irony, it’s really moving. There are some deep words in the carols, and they contrast with the laughter.’

While Rob sees Comedians and Carols as a ‘fun and unthreatening Christmas event’, he explains why he finds the season significant.

‘Christmas is a celebration of Jesus coming into the world, and Jesus is important to me. His death on the cross is why I’m a Christian and his resurrection is what sets me free from some of the things that stress me out. I believe Jesus is real and alive today. We need to pay attention to his birth and celebrate it, because the world is hurting.’

After spreading Christmas cheer throughout December, Rob is planning on spending the big day relaxing with his family. It’s a time of year he loves – and so naturally it features in his jokes.

‘My friend asked me if I had mulled wine,’ he begins. ‘So I thought about it for a few minutes … and gave him some wine.

‘This year, I’ll be spending Christmas in my new home, getting the log fire on and inviting everyone round,’ he says. ‘After we eat dinner, we usually go out for a walk, watch the Queen’s speech and then spend the evening playing silly games together. I love the trappings of Christmas. We’ve got something important to celebrate.’

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