As a trial lawyer turned standup comedian and Baptist minister, Susan Sparks is America’s only female comedian with a pulpit. A North Carolina native, Susan received her B.A. at the University of North Carolina and a law degree from Wake Forest University.
After ten years as a lawyer moonlighting as a standup, she left her practice and spent two years on a solo trip around the world, including working with Mother Teresa’s mission in Calcutta, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, and driving her Jeep Wrangler solo from NYC to Alaska. Upon returning home, she entered Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where she earned a Master of Divinity and wrote an honors thesis on humor and religion. In May 2007 Susan was installed as the 15th Senior Minister of the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City. She was the first woman pastor in its 170-year history and she remains there to this day.
What was your hope with writing Preaching Punchlines: The Ten Commandments of Comedy?
I believe that smart, focused, joyful communication is a matter of life and death—especially in preaching. Who could forget in the book of Acts when Eutychus fell to his death from window because he was lulled to sleep by the Apostle Paul’s long and boring preaching.
Words can slay people’s spirit, eradicate their joy, gut their passion. Words can alienate, divide, shame, and destroy community. They can corrode budding spiritual seekers through boredom, irrelevance or confusion. Now more than ever, we need to harness the power of joyful words to heal our broken world. Preaching Punchlines was my humble attempt to do exactly that.
Why did you decide to break down your book’s structure through “The Ten Commandments of Comedy”? How did you decide each commandment?
Laughter happens when two unexpected ideas clash together. That is why I put comedy and the Ten Commandments juxtaposition. The lessons demonstrate how tools from my twenty years plus as a professional standup comedian and ordained preacher can transform our preaching and help us better honor this message of “good news.” Lessons include getting to the point (editing); framing messages that people will listen to, remember and share; finding your creative voice; authenticity in the pulpit; forming instant trust and rapport with your congregation or audience; and building bridges and defusing conflict. There are also QR codes throughout the book that link to videos or additional resources.
In your book, you share about using humor in sermons to better relate and connect with your audience. Why you think humor does this?
I believe that ministers and standup comedians have the same job. We both are called to stand in solidarity with people during the crazy, annoying times of life and the times of tragedies. When done right, both ministers and comedians make people feel a little less alone. That’s because when you laugh with someone, whether it’s a friend, stranger, or enemy, your worlds overlap for a split second, and you share something in common.
Preaching with humor also helps present important ethical and spiritual teachings in a fresh way that people will hear, remember, and share. One example is an Easter sermon I preached called “The King Lives.” However, it was not the standard expected Easter message. The sermon was based on a trip I took to Graceland and presented what Christians had to learn from Elvis fans; namely, Elvis fans believe that the King stills lives.
What can humor teach us about our faith?
Allowing humor and joy into our spiritual lives invites a more wholistic approach to faith. We can’t be whole if we don’t give God all the pieces – and that includes the tears, the anger, the fear, and the laughter. It’s all holy.
Ecclesiastes says that there is a time to weep, and a time laugh. Unfortunately, we’ve allowed the balance to get thrown off. The church is more about judgment and shame than joy and hope. Which is crazy since the word “gospel” translates to “good news.” Our places of worship have gotten too caught up in self-importance and solemnity; the idea that we must be serious in church to be serious about church. We must remember that we are children of a God with a sense of joy and humor. We are made in the image of the divine, and we laugh, therefore a part of the divine must also encompass joy and laughter.
In the end, the gift of laughter offers us two powerful tools to live our faith more deeply and authentically. The first is hope. As a cancer survivor I know first-hand that if you can stand in the face of crisis and find a way to smile or laugh, that is the moment you take life back and reclaim your power. Laughter also brings us empathy and forgiveness. Here is my entire philosophy in a nutshell: If you can laugh at yourself, you can forgive yourself. And, if you can forgive yourself, you can forgive others. With the tools of hope and forgiveness (as generated through the gift of laughter), we can face anything life throws at us.
To me, it seemed that one of your important points wasn’t that church sermons and Christianity can’t mix with comedy, but rather that Christianity has developed into bonding comedy with danger. Why is Christianity afraid of laughter? How can this be transformed?
The philosopher Voltaire wrote, “God is a comedian playing to an audience who is afraid to laugh.” Historically, Christianity and the church has tended to label humor and laughter as evil – a sign of the fall. But as the theologian Conrad Hyers pointed out, it’s the absence of humor that is the problem, for that absence signifies the pride that caused the fall. Bottom line, humor threatens power. If we laugh in holy realms, God forbid that might mean there is some wiggle room in the dogma. Yes, humor can be dangerous . . . but so can sanctity.
How can we, as a people of faith, believe that our own heart is worthy to receive joy, as you mention in the early pages of Preaching Punchlines?
To paraphrase Erma Bombeck, think of all the women on the Titanic, who, on that fateful night, said no to dessert.
Okay, so we may not be on the Titanic. But sometimes life can make us feel like we are sinking, whether it’s under the weight of stress, work demands, family issues, medical problems or difficult people. Sadly, thanks to low self-esteem or high self-doubt, some of us don’t believe we deserve to be happy.
Many of us are walking this earth physically alive but dead of spirit, operating at the level of our social security number—existing, rather than living. But time is ticking . . . As the words from the Jewish Talmud warn, “when we are called to our maker, we will each be held responsible for all the opportunities for joy that we ignored.”
One of the best ways to remember our blessings is to start our day with a prayer of gratitude. The actor Denzel Washington once suggested a great way to ensure that prayer happens. He explained that you should put your shoes way under the bed at night because then, you’ve got to get down on your knees each morning to find them.
As Jesus taught, “I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow!” (John 15:11).
To flip the perspective a little, how has being a Christian effected your experience as a stand-up comedian?
I’d like to tweak the question and answer it from a more general perspective: How can religion elevate comedy to its highest and best use? I have been privileged to be part of a twenty-year comedy tour called “Laugh in Peace” staring, me, a standup Rabbi, and a Muslim comic. Appearing everywhere from The World Bank Headquarters in Washington, DC to the Palestinian Fest in Houston, Texas the goal of the tour (which started right after 9/11) is to build bridges and reconcile differences through humor.
In the show, Rabbi Alper explains about the differences in language and culture: “After three years at seminary I took a year off, to study in Israel. I had some Biblical Hebrew under my belt, but it was difficult during the first weeks. For example, I can still see the look on the cab driver’s face when we pulled into our neighborhood and I said to him, in my Hebrew, ‘BEHOLD! Here I descend.’”
I talk about the sometimes-limited worldview of Christians — especially Baptists: “One nice thing you can say about the Southern Baptists is that their theology is always short and sweet. Like their idea of heaven: ‘You ain’t Southern Baptist? You ain’t coming.’ That’s like 6.5 billion people not coming. If you look at a world map, that’s every landmass on the face of the globe … except Texas and Alabama.”
Alternatively, Azhar Usman rifts on what it’s like being Muslim in America: “It’s nice to be back home in America, where I get dirty looks for being a Muslim. I was just overseas, and it felt totally different: people hating me just for being an American. I felt so patriotic.”
Our audiences span every imaginable face: Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Atheists. And for two short hours, the differences are forgotten, and we all laugh together. Given the current headlines, it’s hard to imagine a message the world needs more.
As you were published prior to the pandemic, how do you think your approach to Preaching Punchlines would have changed if you wrote it now?
Not at all. In fact, I created a free YouTube course called “Preaching in a Pandemic.” It takes the same lessons from the book and applies them to virtual preaching.
Finally, do you have any suggestions on how we can stop burying our own punchlines?
Of all the times we need to share our punchlines – to share joy – it’s now. For sharing joy can literally change the world.
Psychologists and scientists as far back as Charles Darwin have argued that emotions can be regulated by behavior. We usually think the opposite—that we smile when we are feeling happy. But science has shown that we can create happiness by the act of forming a smile. Translated: we can change our inward emotion by changing our outward expression.
Consistently reminding ourselves to smile throughout our daily lives may eventually change our hearts. And when our hearts change, the way we encounter the world changes. That is when we can truly begin to affect those around us. The Benedictine Nun Joan Chittister once said that we have to the potential to be the human beat of the heart of God. Being conduits for God’s joy is the way to bring that heart to life.