Comics Show Faith in Religious Humor

Article excerpt

Trina Jeffrie knows that church folk fill pews for more than preaching and singing. As Sister Cantaloupe, a rotund church mama wearing a flowery dress, cat's-eye glasses and floppy sneakers, she entertains with gospel comedy.

"The only way church people could get comedy was to listen to [secular comedians]," says Miss Jeffrie, 38, of Dallas.

"Now they have myself and a couple of others [performing gospel comedy], and they're craving it," she says, referring to her best-known colleagues Johnathan Slocumb, Broderick Rice and gospel singer Vickie Winans.

Based on her latest album, "Laffin Out Loud With the Lord," Miss Jeffrie's comedy tour comes to Marymount University in Arlington at 7:30 tonight.

This blossoming genre - marked by its expletive-free, black-church and lifestyle-related jokes - has always been around, Miss Jeffrie says.

"The pastor cracks jokes in the pulpit," she says.

Even so, gospel comedy faced opposition from older church members who felt the jokes were blasphemous.

"Gospel comedy was a no-no in the church," says Miss Jeffrie, who began her comedy career in 1986. "A lot of the older saints didn't think you should laugh in church."

She found that by amusing the pastor she could win over many of those opposed to her humor. "If the pastor laughed then they would laugh," she says.

Mr. Rice, at 34 a 13-year veteran of gospel comedy, says he combats arguments against gospel humor by quoting the Bible.

"In Ecclesiastes it says `To every thing there is a season,' and there is a time to laugh," the College Park resident says. "If laughing is wrong then I don't believe God would have published it in His book."

Miss Jeffrie says gospel humor has another kind of stigma, too.

"When I say gospel, people are turned off because they think I'm coming to preach," she says. "They automatically assume I couldn't be funny."

Miss Jeffrie, a Carol Burnett fanatic, modeled Sister Cantaloupe after a character on TV's "The Carol Burnett Show."

Rapping new lyrics to popular gospel tunes, joking about hair weaves and dieting, and sharing anecdotes about different types of church folk, the modern Moms Mabley entertains anywhere from sanctuaries to college fraternity and sorority "step shows. …