KANSAS CITY, Mo.
Jeff Allen is doing what he's always dreamed of doing: making people laugh.
But his life has been anything but comedy.
It was a long, painful journey to where he is now, a comic with the four-man Apostles of Comedy, which appeared recently at Grandview, Mo., Assembly of God.
The group is part of an increasingly popular genre of Christian comedians.
At one time, Christian comedy was looked at as an oxymoron.
"In the '70s and early '80s, some churches thought it was inappropriate and even sacrilegious," said Dan Rupple, past president of the Christian Comedy Association, whose membership is about 350. "By the 1990s, the church pretty much embraced it. Only very conservative denominations still may be hesitant."
He said the quality of Christian comedy is beginning to be on par with secular comedy, and more doors are opening in mainstream entertainment.
"The Passion of the Christ created even more awareness that there's a huge Christian audience looking for entertainment that would not offend them," Rupple said.
Finding his purpose
Allen, 53, of Fairview, Tenn., has been a comedian for 32 years, performing in nightclubs, including Stanford & Sons in Kansas City, Mo.
His dream started when he saw comedians on television, and he asked his dad how one became a comedian. When he was 20 and living in Chicago, he heard about a comedy club.
He went, but it took him several months to get up the courage — and overcome stage fright — to perform on open mike night. He wasn't a hit, and the club owner told him he would never make a living doing comedy.
At this time, he was a heavy drinker and doing drugs. He quit his job and slept on friends' floors. He worked at comedy clubs for four or five years before giving it up and joining the Air Force.
The day before taking the physical, he got a call about a job in Cincinnati. Off he went. Then more offers followed. So did marriage in 1986.
A year later, he went into therapy, and he and his wife tried to resolve their marriage problems through counseling.
"We were having major arguments," Allen said. "I had a lot of rage in me and didn't understand it. But I stopped drinking and stopped drugs. I couldn't stay married and keep doing what I was doing."
On nightclub stages, "I was a foul-mouthed, angry person who made people laugh," he said. "But off-stage, I hurt a lot of people, including my wife."
Therapy helped, and he went to AA meetings for eight or nine years. But he never understood "the higher power."
He started reading about Eastern mysticism and told his wife, Tami, he was going to raise their two sons as Buddhists. She laughed and called him crazy, he said. He then started reading philosophy.
Allen said: "I wanted to know if God existed. I said, 'If you're real, reveal yourself to me.' "
Soon afterward, he met someone who also was doing comedy and was the first person to talk to him about the Bible. Allen said he had looked at Bibles in hotels but didn't understand the King James translation.
His new friend sent him an easier-to-read New International Version and Bible-based sermon tapes from his church. Allen didn't touch them. Still, his marriage was rocky, and he was questioning if comedy was his total purpose in life.
For months, he and his wife went their separate ways. On his 40th birthday, she said she was taking the boys out of town for the summer and while she was gone, he'd better listen to the tapes or she would throw them out.
"I opened the first envelope, and it was Ecclesiastes," he said. "That one 45-minute sermon summed up my life. It was all meaningless. Life without God would have no meaning, and without meaning there is no purpose."
He ripped open the other envelopes and listened to the tapes, some several times. He started reading the Bible and making notes.
"It was an awakening," he said. "One day, I realized there is a God. It hit me full force. I had blasphemed this God.
"I called the buddy who had given me the tapes and who had said he was praying for me. I was in tears. 'I have a problem,' I said.
" 'What's the problem?'
" 'There is a God.'
" 'I know.' "
About a month later, Allen went to Texas and attended his friend's church, Denton Bible. He met the pastor, Tommy Nelson, and gave his life to Christ.
When Tami returned, he told her he was a born-again Christian. She had grown up in church, and she and the boys started going with Allen. She also re-dedicated her life to Christ.
But Allen had a challenge. As he studied the Bible and became more involved as a Christian, he knew he would have to clean up his act.
"Then I realized we have a wonderful language," he said. "And there was not one routine I used to do in nightclubs that I couldn't clean up."
Since then, he does clean acts in clubs and also performs in churches.
He used to have a preconceived notion that Christians were "killjoys."
In 2007, his manager, Lenny Sisselman, and filmmaker Mitchell Galin organized the Apostles of Comedy and produced a film of the group.
In late 2008 and the spring of 2009, the group had 31 dates. They did a small tour in January and are doing four dates this spring. They are putting together about 30 dates for the fall, Sisselman said.
"One of the things we struggle with is to call it clean comedy," he said. "It sounds like it is not going to be funny."
The culture has taken comedy entertainment "to a dark place," Sisselman said.
"Most people are amazed that these comedians can be that funny and clean," he said. "This is what we have tried to create, and we are very pleased with the comedians in the Apostles of Comedy."
Clean AND funny
There are usually three generations at every event, Sisselman said, and "the young people are blown away by how funny it is."
"There are all different kinds of Christian music that appeals to different groups," he said. "But who doesn't like to laugh?"
The original four group members were Allen, Brad Stine, Anthony Griffith and Ron Pearson. The group today is composed of Allen, Griffith, Daren Streblow and Greg Lee.
All of them started in clubs and have appeared on television, so they have experience, Sisselman said.
One of his goals is for the comics to work in more mainstream settings, to mix it up between churches and venues outside of churches, he said.
"For years, the church never looked at comedy as a viable ministry tool," Allen said. "But look at what comedy does for the soul. Pastors are trusting it more. It really knocks the walls down. It's great that you can bring people to church and they can hear laughter."
Todd Matchett, senior pastor at Grandview Assembly, said this is the first time he's having comedians at the church.
"Too many Christians are not known for their light or their laughter," he said. "Many think Christians don't like to laugh. This gives us an opportunity to paint a different picture."