Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Deacon Gray's "Revival (Of The Fittest)"


I feel bad for Deacon Gray. He's a comedian who also happens to be a Christian. Some people refer to him as a "Christian comedian" which I guess is technically correct, but it's also a bit misleading. For some reason we feel compelled to put comics who also profess to be Christians in that "Christian Comedian" box, yet you never really hear other comics referred to as Bob "The Agnostic Comic" or Frank "The Greek Orthodox Funny Guy." One of the reasons I'm wary of such labels is because there is a difference between a comedian who is a Christian and "Christian comedy."

A huge difference.

As someone who grew up as both a Christian and a comedy nut, it didn't take me long to differentiate between the two. Comedians who are also Christians are just like any other comics: Some are funny, some not so much. Regardless of someone's religious affiliation (or lack thereof), if a comic is funny, they're funny. If they're not so funny, then they're not so funny. It's not about their preferred religious label. When it comes down to it, did they make me laugh?

"Christian comedy" is something entirely different. If there's one thing growing up in the church taught me about comedy, it's that you don't really have to be that funny as long you speak loudly, you've got a Southern accent, and you have frosted tips (this rule applies to both sexes). For guys, it's a bonus if you have a goatee and wear a shell necklace. How ironic that Christian comedy is more about the image than the content.

Which all brings me back to my original point (did you think I'd ever make it back?). I feel bad for Deacon Gray because I think it's pretty accurate when I say that when someone hears "Christian" in the comedy world, they automatically think "Christian comedy." On his new album Revival (of the Fittest) , Deacon Gray proves why making such an assumption makes an ass out of you and Balaam.

It's obvious Gray has spent his fair amount of time in the church and his familiarity has given him a fresh outlook for his arsenal of wry observations. His comedy doesn't come at the church institution but rather emerges from the inside out. The interstitial sketches between his live comedy take the aspects of organized religion that so need to be addressed -- mega churches with directories more complicated than the Mall of America, homophobia, Christian radio, and yes, Christian comedy -- and gives them exactly what they have coming.

It should be noted, though, that Gray's comedy is neither mean-spirited nor hateful. He's not attacking the church as much as he's just sitting them down and saying, "Seriously, you guys? Do you even realize what this looks like?"

Not all of the in-between bits are as solid as his stand-up, but they serve as nice palette cleansers and take us on a journey about Gray who, having realized he's been mistaken for a "Christian comedian," tries to figure out how to deal with the fact he's been booked at a church and the navigation of the publicity stops that go with it.

As a stand-up comedian Gray is very friendly and approachable. It doesn't take one long to see that Gray hasn't come to the party with ulterior motives. All he wants to do is make people laugh and the crowd immediately latches on to his every word. Three of Gray's brothers are preachers (something that, because the album appears to be culled from different performances, we're told no less than three times -- one for each brother!) and this is perfect fodder for Gray's comedic sensibilities. Whether he's snickering at the pop-culture misinformation he's feeding them or explaining why he hasn't had hot turkey in years (think about it), Gray is the perfect foible for his sanctified siblings.

For me, the real highlights of the CD came not when he was doing material on/about the church but when he shared a couple of correspondences he received. The first is a holiday letter written to him by his mother and as he reads it aloud, he can't help but titter at the unintentionally funny things she's decided to share. Gray wisely saves the other communique, arguably his strongest bit, as the closer of his show. It's a list he received from a client of words he cannot say while onstage at an upcoming corporate event for fear of insulting the employees. As the words -- identified only by their first letter -- continue to be listed off, it got so ridiculous I nearly laughed my F-ing A off and P-ed my pants.

One track in particular stood out to me. It's a pre-produced piece done more in the vein of NPR than stand-up. It tells the story of a family vacation Gray and his family took when he was younger and its poignancy is nothing less than beautiful storytelling at its finest. And, as a guy who's spent the last 12 years in radio, I can't not mention how much I love Gray's This American Life/Book On Tape-like voice. Please tell me he's also doing voiceover work and making millions of dollars at it.

Revival (of the Fittest)  is a fun album that should break Deacon Gray out of the "Christian comedian" box and land him directly where he belongs: With monikers and descriptors that are much more fitting, like
  • Storyteller.
  • Funny guy.
  • Friendly.
  • Welcoming.
  • Insightful.
  • Witty.
  • Christian.
  • Comedian.

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