BEFORE starting his career in stand-up, the Revd Ravi Holy, Vicar of St Gregory and St Martin, Wye, “couldn’t imagine anything worse than standing on stage, trying to make people laugh and them not laughing”.
Today, he is part of a trio of clergy embarking on a tour of comedy festivals, and is convinced that this is part of his calling.
His signature joke is around his name — “Pastor Ravi Holy” — the result of a legal name-change about 25 years ago. “I genuinely believe that this is part of my calling to do comedy,” he said this week. “God knew that back in 1991, when he told me to change my name.”
Last month, he performed as part of White Collar Comedy at the Leicester Comedy Festival, alongside the Revd Dr Kate Bruce, an RAF chaplain, and the Revd Maggy Whitehouse, an independent priest currently serving in the Methodist Church.
It was after seeing a report in the Church Times about a stand-up course for clergy (News, 11 April 2014) that Mr Holy started to pursue comedy. It had helped to reassure him that comedy had “rules” that anyone could follow.
“What I found liberating about the class was that it’s a question of just letting your inner voice out, describing your truth, and then using certain techniques,” he said. “The basic engine of most comedy is that you make people think you are going to the left, and at the last minute swing to the right, and that jolt is what makes people laugh.”
It had often proved difficult to convince a crowd that he was truly ordained, he recalled: one fellow comic was persuaded only when it emerged that her cousin was a fellow priest in Mr Holy’s deanery. When it came to audience responses, “it helps that the bar is very low,” he observed. “They are going ‘This is obviously going to be rubbish’, so if I am even vaguely funny, I have already massively exceeded their expectations.”
Dr Bruce began doing stand-up four years ago after completing a Ph.D. research in which she repeatedly read that “all preachers can learn from the art of stand-up comedy.”
“I thought, if I really want to hone my skills at communication, maybe the way to do that is to step out of church and into a comedy club and see if I can do it,” she recalled. She wrote a script, “Woman of the Cloth”, and performed it at the Dog and Parrot in Newcastle. Afterwards, a young comic asked for a selfie with her, explaining that “My dad won’t believe a vicar came to our comedy gig.”
Performing had given “more of an edge to my preaching, more willingness to go off script and work with the congregation”, she said. “All the time I was thinking: ‘A lot of people I want to connect with won’t ever come to church. . . Where are these people?’ And some of them are in comedy clubs. Well, if you aren’t going to come to church, I’ll come to you.”
She observes that, “at the end of the day, Christianity is a comedy. That is the high point of comedy in the best sense of the word: ultimate restoration, John 20 . . .”
While teaching workshops on Judaeo-Christian history, Mrs Whitehouse was repeatedly told that she should do stand-up. She went on a course in 2014, “simply to prove to myself that I wasn’t a comedian”, but by the end of it had been booked to perform. The next year, she did a stint in Edinburgh — a “bucket list” item after being diagnosed with cancer — and the year after reached the final of the Funny Women competition.
It was her bishop, the then Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd David Goddard, who encouraged her to wear her clerical collar while performing. He told her: “This is your ministry.”
It was best to go on earlier, she said, before people got drunk. It was also “very important not to be fluffy”.
The comedy circuit was “very atheistic,” she observed. “But I have always found people to be 95 per cent really respectful, but then I am an older woman, I am 62. Sometimes I am aware that I am mummy or grandma, and other times I am just ‘good god, she’s old, we can’t say f***!’”
“I really love God, but I have problems with religion, and usually people will relate to that,” she reflected. “Someone did come up and say, ‘I’m not sure you like God,’ and I said, ‘I didn’t do well tonight, then, because I love God. . . I do a lot about the fact that I believe God is big enough to be God of the whole universe, not a tribal god only focused on the people who believe in him.”
Comedy was like salt, Mr Holy suggested. “You don’t want too much of it.”
“One of key elements is surprise. . . I would see that as a key Christian principle: ‘the wind blows wherever it pleases.’ The Holy Spirit is unpredictable, Jesus is unpredictable, and God is unpredictable, and Christian ministry should be unpredictable. I will sometimes just do a sermon where there are no jokes or levity at all, as I want to keep people on their toes.”
Their next gig is at the Bath Comedy Festival on 10 April, and they also plan to do a week at Edinburgh in the summer.