SAN FRANCISCO (RNS) It’s just another night of stand-up at the Punch Line, the comedy club where Robin Williams, Dana Carvey, Ellen DeGeneres and other luminaries of laughter got their start.
Then, to applause and laughter, Jesus takes the microphone.
“Man, this is weird for me too,” says comedian Matt Gubser, his long brown hair flowing freely over a white robe, scarlet sash and a pair of shower shoes. “To be in a room where I don’t recognize a single person. And you call yourself a Christian nation.”
Welcome to “Holiday Heathens,” a December comedy show staged by Ha Ha Heathens, a comedy group featuring humor by atheists for atheists.
“I am totally cool with hookers,” Jesus continues. “Fishermen and hookers. I got a whole fishnet motif going.”
This is Ha Ha Heathens' third year at the Punch Line, where the main section of tables and bar stools was full for the one-night event. The show features a half-dozen performers and has played in Sacramento and British Columbia. On New Year’s Eve, it returns to Los Angeles’ Steve Allen Theater.
The show evolved -- get it? -- from The Co-Exist Comedy Show, which featured a Christian, a Hindu, a Buddhist and an atheist comedian, Keith Lowell Jensen. Most of the audience were atheists, Jensen said, so he went on to found, produce and perform in Ha Ha Heathens.
“It made me realize there was a demand for this,” Jensen said before the recent show. “And the comics loved it. They had so much fun. It just tends to be a smart, fun-loving, passionate audience.”
Minority faith groups have long held their own comedy shows on or around the December holidays. This year, on the first night of Hanukkah, Chicago Jews could attend a special comedy night with Aziz Ansari staged by the Jewish United Fund; on Christmas Eve, New Yorkers can enjoy “Four and a Half Jews” at B.B. King Blues Bar and Grill.
Here in San Francisco, the Kung Pao Kosher Comedy has kept audiences laughing for two decades, a feat that organizer and comedian Lisa Geduldig attributes to the need of non-Christians to band together for their own brand of fun and celebration that doesn’t include Christmas trees or babes in mangers.
“I feel like it really provides a service, besides being a comedy show,” she said. “I mean, every December, I feel like I got off at the wrong exit the whole month. Where am I? This doesn’t pertain to me. But I think people who come to the show really feel a sense of belonging.”
But at "Holiday Heathens," the comedians and some audience members were appropriately skeptical about the need for a sense of belonging.
“Atheists don’t need a sense of community because we don’t need support for our beliefs -- they stand on their own,” said Mike Scaletti, perched at a front table with a pal. “But because religion is so well-established in this country, having an environment where you can make jokes about it is important.”
Everyone agreed that making fun of religion is one of the chief mainstays of comedians.
“It’s because comedy is about pointing out inconsistencies and religion is so incredibly flawed,” said comedian Jason Wheeler, whose set included a joke about atheist hell -- it’s like Catholic hell, but the Catholics are there constantly saying, “I told you so.”
The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest known for his appearances on "The Colbert Report" and author of a book on religion and comedy, said religion is “a perfectly legitimate target” for humor because “it can put us in perspective and thus reminds us of our own place in the universe.”
For the most part, the comedy of Ha Ha Heathens was respectful -- certainly no more offensive than the religious comedy of George Carlin, who routinely made fun of “the invisible man living in the sky.” Much of it was less offensive -- despite the four-letter words used by all the comedians except Jesus.
“It is not intended to be mean-spirited,” Jensen said before the show. “It is just us getting together and having fun -- and being better and smarter than everybody else.”
In his routine, Jensen -- whose tweed hat, pullover sweater and untucked shirttails lent him the air of a sit-com’s goofy next-door neighbor -- told of two Christian women who came to last year’s show on the recommendation of their hotel concierge. They had no idea what they were in for, he said.
“Afterwards, they came up to me and they showed me their crosses,” he said. “I asked them if they had a good time and they said, ‘It was very funny. We are going to pray for you.’”
It wasn’t only Christianity that took it on the chin -- Mormonism, Islam, Hinduism, Scientology, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Buddha, Pope Benedict XVI and Tim Tebow all got their chops busted.
“I know more about Dracula than I do about Buddha,” said Trevor Hill, the night’s second act. “Buddha, sure ... he may or may not have invented teriyaki, hangs out in Chinese restaurants with that cat with the waving hand. Buddha!”
And unlike some Christian comedy shows, there is no altar call, no plea to consider joining the clan.
“I don’t think we walk away from this show with ‘atheism is right,’" said Conor Kellicutt, the evening’s final act, who joked that he taught his daughter to roll her eyes like the girl in “The Exorcist” when people start to pray. “I think we walk away with ‘We had a great time.’”
KRE/AMB END WINSTON