‘There’s a Purpose Behind the Funny’

A STAND-UP GUY: Michael Jr. says his approach to comedy didn't change after he became a Christian; his faith just gave him more important things to talk about.

Comedian Michael Jr. was a newcomer to New York City in 2001 when veteran comic George Wallace caught his show and gave him his big break. That same night, his manager invited him to church. He’s been mixing funny and faith ever since. News & Religion editor Christine A. Scheller talked to Michael Jr. about his work and that of fellow comedian Reggie Brown. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

URBAN FAITH: We recently interviewed Reggie Brown about his Obama impersonation at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans. Do you have any thoughts on his performance?

MICHAEL JR.: I don’t think enough people knew he was an impressionist. Some people look alike to some people, let me just say that. There was at least a percentage of people in the audience that really thought that was [President Obama]. Then when they hear what he’s saying, nobody wants to look like they’re dumb. I think what he was doing was some funny stuff.

Do you do race jokes in your routines?

Not really. I’m an observationist, so I notice some things that people do like if two white guys are walking down the street right toward one another, they make eye contact. They have a tendency to smile and tilt their heads down towards one another. For black people, we do the opposite. We frown and tilt our heads up. I actually do those motions on stage and it’s like an “ah ha” moment for everyone in the audience, because everyone has seen that before, but very few have really acknowledge it. Comedy’s best friend is tension and there’s a little bit of tension there already, so I look for something that’s a little harder to get at and try to make that funny.

Your BlackBerry video is really funny. It’s not about race, but it’s a smart use of it.

We wanted to make it feel like it was the real deal. If you look, I never laugh in the whole thing. There’s literally nothing funny being said; it’s just visually funny.

At what point did you become a Christian, because one of your routines is about learning how to pray?

I grew up in Michigan, but then I moved to New York. I got a place to live and I started hitting the clubs. I performed at one club, The Comic Strip Live, and George Wallace walks in. He sees my show and he walks up to me afterwards and says, “You’re really funny. Let me ask you a question: Why don’t you curse?” I was like, “I don’t know. What if my grandmother walked in or something?”

He laughed and said, “I’d like you to do a show with me and my best friend.” I go to do the show and I don’t even know who his best friend is. It’s me, him, and Jerry Seinfeld. After the show my manager said, “Michael, you wanna’ go to church with me tomorrow?” “Church? I just got two standing ovations, why do I gotta’ go to church? That don’t make sense.”

I went to this church called the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, New York, and this dude is up on stage talking about Jesus. He ain’t screaming. He ain’t yelling. He ain’t got no perm. He’s just talking about Jesus. He did an altar call and I was like, “Nah, I don’t know what this is about. I gotta’ read the pamphlet first.” So I told myself I’d read the whole Bible before I went up to the altar. I didn’t know the Bible was that big. It took three months. I went up to the altar. Now I understand some stuff. I used to just think I was funny, but now I understand that I’m funny for a reason. There’s a purpose behind this funny. I don’t just happen to be funny.

Did becoming a Christian change how you thought about and performed comedy?

I just got broader. I got more knowledge, more understanding about myself and the value of other people as well. My comedy was pretty much the same. It was always clean, so I just went up on stage and talked about the same things, but from the abundance of the heart the mouth will speak. As I started getting the Word in me and the truth, being in different atmospheres, being in different churches I started to notice different things, so naturally that’s what you’re going to start talking about.

You made a documentary called The Road Less Traveled about doing comedy in jails and shelters. Are you still performing in those places?

We’re in the process of solidifying a non-profit. Initially it was something that I felt in my heart clearly that we should do it. We filmed it, but it was all new then. I just performed at an abused women’s event. We do that type of stuff as much as we can.

What is the key to getting people laughing when their life circumstances are challenging?

The whole reason why I did the film was that I understood that when a comedian gets on stage he wants to get laughs from people. God changed my whole mindset, like Romans 12:2. Instead of going up there to get laughter from people, God said, “Go up there and give them an opportunity to laugh.”

Now when I go to these homeless shelters or wherever I’m going, I’m not trying to get anything from them. I’m just trying to give them an opportunity to laugh. When you’re giving somebody a gift, it’s different, because now they’re like, “Wow, is this for me?” And they’re much more willing to receive it as opposed to me trying to take something from them.

What do you have coming up?

In September I will be filming my first comedy special, and we’ll put it out on DVD. That’s pretty exciting.  I’m writing a comedy film right now, which is exciting. I’ve never written a full length film before. It’s about two little kids from a black family and a white family that live right next door to each other and they end up agreeing to visit each other’s churches. We’ll see what happens as the comedy ensues because of the differences. At the same time, some ministry will go down as well. I don’t know what that is yet. I just do the jokes and then God shows up for the rest.