Christian comedian challenges believers with anger, sarcasm

Posted: Friday, August 29, 2003

BRENTWOOD, Tenn. (AP) Stalking the stage like a hyperactive child, spouting caustic jokes about airplane travel and bad drivers, Brad Stine starts out looking and sounding like a hundred other comedians.

But look in the audience on Stine's new DVD, ''Put a Helmet On'' (Perpetual Entertainment). The guy laughing in the front row a pew, really is the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

And when Stine talks about being afraid to fly after Sept. 11, he says he thanked God after landing safely. ''I'm a theist,'' he says. ''I do believe that there is an intelligent designer. I do believe that there is a purpose and value to life. And I do bring up God a lot in my shows.

''You know why? Because I miss him. I miss God in my country.''

Stine, 43, a veteran of the mainstream comedy club circuit, has taken to preaching to the choir. He's performing his Christian comedy act in venues like Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., where the DVD was filmed. He's also performing on this year's Promise Keepers tour, where men are exhorted to be better Christians.

Popular culture lionizes ''all the comics that are edgy, like Chris Rock, George Carlin, Dennis Miller,'' Stine said. ''They always curse a lot, they always say sexual things ... and they're rattling cages, smashing taboos. So I decided to go into the Christian arena and rattle their cages.''

Stine says he was embarrassed by the way Christianity was represented in American culture: ''We've come to say that Christianity comes in this spineless, milquetoast, aw-shucks Branson, Mo., 'Hee-Haw' comedy show mentality. And I say, 'Says who?'''

Falwell calls Stine ''a brilliant communicator, who differs from other Christian comedians because of his depth and content.''

''He doesn't mind getting controversial in order to jar people into thinking. But he's so gracious in the way he does it, that even those who disagree with him don't get angry,'' Falwell said.

Raised a nondenominational Christian in Indiana and Southern California (his parents divorced when he was a teenager), Stine started in show business with a magic act. He worked in clubs and added stunts like sword-swallowing and fire-eating. Gradually, he phased out everything but comedy.

He decided his act would have no vulgarity in keeping with his religious beliefs.

''It was hard ... but it forced me to be a better comic,'' Stine said. ''But look at a guy like Jay Leno or (Jerry) Seinfeld. They can do a dirty audience because if you're funny, they'll take you.''

Stine went as far as a comedian can go without scoring a sitcom or movie roles. He's headlined the top comedy clubs in the country, and his act has been on MTV, Showtime, A&E and ''Evening at the Improv.''

''I was a successful comic,'' he said. ''But there came a point where I felt something wasn't complete, and I prayed. ... The next day, I got a call to do a Christmas special for a Christian cable network. There were little subtle nudges that maybe I should do some work for Christians.''

He moved from California to Tennessee last year when he signed up with management and a talent agency that asked him to commit to the Christian market.

Other comics who concentrate on the church crowd Chonda Pierce and Mark Lowry are two of the most prominent use gentle humor to make their points.

But Stine's confrontational style is firmly in the tradition of comics like Carlin, Denis Leary and Bill Maher. His manic energy and speaking voice at times make him sound like Robin Williams.

''I'm kind of the antithesis of those guys,'' Stine said. ''I feel like I can compete with them, intellectually and comedically. I just happen to come from a different point of view.''

Some of his bits challenge his audience. He makes fun of Christians who think rock music songs contain evil messages when played backward, and people in Albuquerque, N.M., who burned Harry Potter books because they thought them evil.

Stine on book-burning: ''If Hitler tried it you might want to go in another direction.''

If those sentiments rub some Christians the wrong way, they're mature enough to at least respect his viewpoint and laugh anyway, Stine says.

''Sometimes anger is the best way to make a point,'' he said. ''Somehow satire and sarcasm, the tools of comedy, were stripped away from Christians.

''I say, 'No, we can use these too.'''

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