Bob Smiley's 'Christian' comedy draws laughs without guilt
NORTH ADAMS — Bob Smiley knows that being billed as a "Christian comic" may turn away some potential audience members, but it's a label he wears with pride.
"A lot of people hear `Christian comedian,' and they think, `Oh, great, when is he going to bring out the puppets?' kind of thing, but it's legitimate stand-up," Smiley told The Eagle during a recent telephone interview. "It's always going to be clean, and at some point, I'm probably going to mention that I'm Christian and talk about my faith a little bit. That's where I get the title `Christian' before the comedy part."
On Saturday night, Smiley will perform at the First Baptist Church of North Adams with fellow Christian comedian Mike Hickman. While some comics might be sweating out a church set, the venue won't alter Smiley's act.
"I'm not changing my material to go into churches. It's always clean, and it's funny enough to do in a comedy club," he said.
Smiley devotes much of his material to stories about his family. A recent bit, for instance, described his wife's maternal instincts. She tends to fling her arm across the passenger seat when she brakes.
"She's got 'mother arm.' I wasn't even ready for it. I woke up in the backseat," Smiley said during the performance. "I love 'mother arm.' It is safer than any air bag, and quicker."
The comedian doesn't tell stories about his wife or children onstage without their permission. His children actually relish their inclusion in his shows, he said.
"I've even had one of my kids do something very weird and then stop and go, `OK, is that good enough to get onstage?'" Smiley recalled, "because all their friends like to watch my stuff."
During Smiley's youth in the small town of Era, Texas, his father, Dale, was his earliest comedic influence.
"My dad is extremely funny. He was my principal and then my superintendent, so he would come and eat lunch with me, usually like 2 or 3 times a week," Smiley recalled, "and everybody would come and sit at our table during lunch because they wanted to hear me and my dad. We would just kind of recap the morning. We would just be funny. We would just riff."
Comedy was always part of Smiley's life; it's how he made friends, he said. But he didn't think he had a future in stand-up.
"I didn't know that there was clean comedy out there. I was pretty much a Christian all my life, so I didn't want to do stand-up in bars and clubs and have that lifestyle," he said.
He pursued a teaching career instead. During his junior year at Abilene Christian University, however, a stand-up competition's pay-out appealed to him. He ended up winning it.
"I won, not even because I was good, but everybody else was so bad that I kind of stood out," he recalled.
Later on in life, that triumph would pay off even more. In the early 1990s, Smiley received a call from a college classmate who had since become a Christian singer's road manager. He wanted a comic to join them on the next tour and thought of Smiley for the gig. Smiley had only ever done three stand-up sets at that point: the aforementioned stand-up competition, a fraternity show and a youth group set.
"It definitely wasn't my plan, but I got this huge opportunity and saw that it might turn into something, so I just went for it," Smiley said of his career.
The comic has been hitting the road for 24 years now, he said. Until last year, he had visited every state except Rhode Island. But he was recently driving through Rhode Island with comedian Tim Hawkins, so he asked Hawkins to pull over.
"I got out, and I told some jokes to some people on the street corner just so I can say I've performed in Rhode Island," Smiley recalled. "So, I count that."
Smiley likes seeing multiple generations at his performances.
"Last week, I looked out and in the front row was a grandmother sitting next to her grandson, and he was Goth. He had all the face piercings. He looked like he fell face-first into a tackle box," Smiley said. " ... I was looking at him, and I was looking at his grandmother, and I was like, `Man, you don't get two different generations like that,' but they were sitting there, laughing together."
Smiley believes that his clean comedy, as well as Hickman's, allows for a guilt-free experience.
"We're going to bring a really funny show that you can bring your neighbors or your family to," he said, "and everybody can laugh and not feel bad about laughing afterwards."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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