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Whoa! That joke is so, so . . . clean

Steffon Vann need only look at his life for material. He has been a gang member, a high-fashion runway model, a gunshot victim, a college hoops star, a hosiery display merchandiser and a preacher's kid who grew up in Temple Terrace.

In his latest iteration, Vann, a standup comedian, lives for jokes that kill. He's been in the film The Punisher and recorded three seasons of BET's Comic View, a cable show featuring some of the country's edgiest comedians.

But Vann's subject matter sets him apart. In a genre dominated by ribald jokesters, Vann's routines are more Bill Cosby than Bernie Mac.

Sex, drugs and other off-color jokes were off limits in his Comic View performances, Vann said.

"I did talk about roaches," he said. "Obviously, that's stuff that people see."

Vann, 33, describes himself as a clean comedian. He brings his brand of humor to Without Walls International Church Saturday night with "Soulfunny," a family-oriented comedy show. Vann, along with Terri Crook, Goldiee and Georgette "GL" Douglas, are on the tour, which will visit several cities including Miami Gardens and Boston. Organizers plan to record the performances and use the tapes to pitch the program to television networks.

Vann wants "Soulfunny" to emerge as a staple of family-friendly network television.

"I want to compete with Comic View," said Vann, who attends Without Walls when he's not living in New York City or Los Angeles. "If Comic View can do it for their type of material, then why can't clean comedians?"

Vann got the idea for the project in 2004. He had just performed at Mega Fest, the annual spiritual convention in Atlanta sponsored by Dallas megachurch pastor Bishop T.D. Jakes. The convention, which regularly draws 150,000 people, featured a comedy show with some of the industry's biggest names, including Steve Harvey, Rickey Smiley and J. Anthony Brown.

While some of the comedians struggled to translate their jokes into family-friendly fare, Vann soared. He soon began booking gigs at churches and for companies with audiences that appreciate comedy sans vulgarity.

Despite the show's name and religious inspiration, organizers say "Soulfunny" targets secular audiences.

"It's just comedy for your soul," said Alex Simpson, executive vice president of Mufasa Management, which represents Vann and helped create the project. "We just don't want to lock ourselves into one segment or group because that's when we close doors. To be honest with you, Steffon said he only has about 10 minutes worth of material for church. There's another 40 minutes that he's going to find material to talk about."

Vann said he plans to draw from everyday experiences. He will likely talk about his days as a jeans model for fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger. At 6 foot 3, Vann said he commanded an average of $12,000 per runway show in the late 1990s. He worked and played alongside models such as Tyra Banks, Tyson Beckford, Shemar Moore and Naomi Campbell.

Even among the beautiful people, he found humor.

"I had a party at my house one time," Vann recalled recently in an interview. "I had some food, and because (the models) were so self-conscious, nobody ate. All you could hear were stomachs growling. It was just so funny to me."

Relationships, racial differences and music also provide fodder for Vann's routine. His act also includes dance.

Blend, the young adult ministry for Without Walls, will co-host the event. In anticipation, the group blanketed Ybor City with promotional fliers and ran commercials on several radio stations and Web sites.

"When Steffon brought the idea to us, we jumped on it simply because the idea was valid," said Jerrard Mack, Blend's president. "What if somebody were able to give us laughter and not resort to the negative? That itself has healing properties."

If "Soulfunny" succeeds, Vann envisions a nightly comedy show, a blockbuster DVD and a platform for clean comedians. Organizers said several television networks have expressed interest in the show.

Mark Schonbrun, a Tampa man who creates and produces family-oriented television programming on local public access television, predicts Vann will go far.

"Do you realize how hard it is to find clean comedy?" said Schonbrun, who plans to air portions of "Soulfunny" on public access. "There's such a vacuum. Steffon is pretty much out there standing alone other than Bill Cosby. He's seasoned. He's good at it. He'll do it in the first take."

Though confident about his idea and future - Vann wants to appear in more movies and have his own sitcom - reality keeps him firmly rooted. For proof, listen to him tell the one about the lady in the grocery store who recognized Vann from his television appearances.

"She said, "Weren't you on TV?' " Vann recalled. "At that point, I'm getting a little bit of the big head. I said, "Yeah, I was on TV.' "

"She said, "I knew it. Aren't you Tommy from Martin?' " Punch line delivered, Vann's lips part in a huge smile. His eyes dance and he laughs and laughs and laughs.

Sherri Day can be reached at sday@sppimes.com or (813) 226-3405.

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