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Stand-up writes divine comedy

23 May 2014

The comedian Paul Kerensa - a guest at the Church Times Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature - has two distinctive audiences, Sarah Meyrick discovers; but he manages to keep both amused


WHEN we meet, Paul Kerensa has just performed in front of 350 clergy as the evening entertainment at a diocesan conference.

The stand-up comedian and comic scriptwriter has gone down a storm. He has judged his audience of priests very well: his set includes a host of biblical in-jokes, as well as plenty of humour at his own expense - as ginger-haired, a maths nerd, a newish father, and a Cornishman.

The crowd loves him. Better still, instead of leaving the moment his gig is over, he has happily propped up the bar, stayed the night, and is now so busy chatting to delegates over breakfast that he almost forgets our meeting.

The Hayes Centre, in Swanwick, may not be the Hilton, but it is a definite step up from some of the places he has slept in, in his life as a stand-up comic.

"There's a sliding scale," he says. "When I started out in my early twenties, I'd stay on floors. Once, it wasn't even a living-room floor, but a kitchen floor." The lino was not especially comfortable; he remembers being woken up at 3 a.m. bythe promoter's wife, home from a night shift, in search of some bread to de frost. "It wasn't the sound of the toaster that woke me, but the freezer door being slammed into my head."

Kerensa has a whole series of anecdotes along these lines, many of which he tells in his first book, So a Comedian Walks into a Church, published last year by DLT. The blurb describes it as "a tale of two circuits, of pulpits and bearpits" -the premise being that his life as a comic means taking the stage on a Saturday night and communion on a Sunday morning.

Because he is constantly on the road, he (and we, the readers) never quite know where he is going to end up next.

INTERWOVEN through the various anecdotes of chaos and misunderstanding is the story of his courtship of Zoe, now his wife; their wedding; and the joys of parenthood.

The book, subtitled Confessions of a Kneel-down Stand-up is funny enough to be chosen by The Independent as one of its top comedy books of 2013. He has now followed it up with Genesis: The Bibluffer's Guide (Book 1 of an optimistic 66-part collection), which introduces us, among other things, to: The Jeremiah Kyle Show (Abraham and Isaac make an appearance); Noah's "ARKEA" instruction manual; and Joseph's turn as project manager on Pharoah's Apprentice.

But, while he is thoroughly at home with this clergy crowd, the Christian audience is not Kerensa's primary focus. He is, first and foremost, a comedian and writer, who happens to be a Christian.

Although he makes no bones about his faith, his Confessions is not aimed exclusively at a Christian audience, and his professional ambitions are certainly not limited to the religious sector. He has won a number of mainstream comedy awards, and is represented by a mainstream agent.

Comedy, he says, found him. "I tried acting, but I wasn't very good. But I was always sending jokes to radio shows." After acquiring a degree in theology at the University of Nottingham, he went to the Guildford School of Acting. He was accepted, he says, because they had a spare place. "Fourth soldier from the left" was the sum of his achievements.

"THEN I saw an advertisement for a six-week stand-up-comedy evening class," he says. "Everyone else was there just for fun - apart from the one guy who thought it was pottery." But Kerensa knew that he had found his calling.

He spent the next couple of years doing open spots, and temping to keep the wolf from the door. He kept turning down permanent jobs where he temped, and doggedly held his nerve while he continued on the comedy circuit.

"Sometimes, you end up driving to Newcastle for a five-minute open spot where no one can hear you," he says. "I just kept filling my diary, and going on the road."

His breakthrough came with a couple of competitions in 2002. He was a finalist in the BBC New Comedy Awards (then on BBC Choice, now BBC3), and he won ITV's Take the Mike, which he describes as "comedy X Factor" - even though it was broadcast on a Tuesday night at midnight.

The prize was £1000, plus an agent, plus an appearance at the Montreal Comedy Festival. This meant a sudden leap in the quantity of material he had to produce. "Five to ten minutes is easy," he says. "Ten to 20 is tough - and now I was looking at 20 minutes to half an hour. It's a big jump."

None the less, he was launched. Alongside the comedy circuit, which inevitably takes him away from his home in Guildford, he is a well-established comedy writer. He writes from home - or, just as often, from motorway service-stations ("I have a particular affection for a Harvester").

He has written for the long-running BBC sitcom Not Going Out, starring Lee Mack, and claims credit for introducing Miranda Hart to the cast, before going on to become one of the main writers for her multi-award-winning show Miranda. (There is an excellent anecdote in the book about accidentally writing the same joke for both shows.)

Life now is a mix of secular gigs and church events, just as it is a mix of pitching ideas, and writing to commission. He currently has three different pitches on the boil.

BEING commissioned to write a second book by DLT came as something of a relief, he says, because, unlike his sitcom work, there was at least some guarantee of publication. As it happens, five years ago his idea for a sitcom involving a vicar was turned down by the BBC, who assured him that no one would be interested.

So, how does he get it right, as a Christian in a famously tough world? "You have to be true to who you are. At the same time, you have to play to the audience. And you never know who's going to be there." In Confessions, he presents just this dilemma: after a rough gig, when he has dealt with a heckler rather brutally, he is acutely uncomfortable when he encounters a couple of members of the audience in church the next morning.

"Anyway, God is there. So my ideal is working towards a set at all my gigs that is clean." It's not a matter of looking for "Christian" jokes: "Most of all, I need to be funny. If I'm going to talk about foodbanks, I need killer jokes about foodbanks. It's all possible, but it's a long process."

Is there anything we cannot laugh about, I wonder. "In theory, there's comedy in anything," he says. "But the problem is that people can be glib. There are comedians who think it's being edgy to come up with rape jokes. I think it is edgier to be clean on the comedy circuit. But in the end you have to be entertaining."

Kerensa tests his material, in order to find out what works. He is well aware that some jokes sit better in different contexts. He thinks that Christians will have individual thresholds that they will not cross; his threshold comes the nearer he gets to the cross.

KERENSA's parents are not churchgoers, "but they sent me to church as a form of free child-care", he says. "They were rather surprised when I joined the choir, and Scouts, and loved it." It was on a canal cruise run by the Christian youth organisation Pathfinders that the penny dropped for him.

"It was gradual, but it was the Bible studies, the freedom to talk with the leaders, the things you wouldn't normally find in church - the chance to discover [faith] on your own terms."

Today, he and his wife are part of a small congregation, where a third of the congregation is under five; ("so it's literally growing," he says).

Meanwhile, life is full. He is enjoying the chance to do his bit to tackle the current climate of biblical illiteracy, and is reasonably confident that there will be a Bibluffer's Guide to Exodus, even if all 66 books might be a bit ambitious ("for starters, 2 John would be more of a pamphlet").

"My ideal day has me alt-tabbing between projects, so I can write a longer bit of prose for a book, then a gag or two for Not Going Out. For TV writing, I'm a hired hand, and need to be able to turn that hand to anything; so, in the past year, I've been contributing lines to house-share sitcoms, zombie-apocalypse and alien-invasion comedy pilots, and an educational website about Welch's oxbow lakes.

"I love the fact that every day is different."

Genesis: The Bibluffer's Guide (Book 1 of an optimistic 66-part collection) by Paul Kerensa is published by DLT at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.09). The Church Times Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature takes place at Bloxham School, Oxfordshire, from 30 May to 1 June. To book, phone 0845 017 6965, or visit www.bloxhamfaithandliterature.co.uk.

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