Could you have made Jesus laugh? “I think so,” says Jeremy McLellan. “I think God thinks I’m funny.”
And what about Muhammad? “I don’t know,” he replies. “It says in the Koran that he would laugh and people could see the back of his teeth. So I assume he had a good sense of humour. I think he would have come to my shows.”
McLellan, 34, is among the rising stars of American stand-up: he has more than 600,000 Facebook followers and in 2017 was named as one of the “New Faces of Comedy” by Just For Laughs, the world’s biggest comedy festival.
A year later, he was received into the Catholic faith.
Catholicism is at the heart of all he does, including his routines. The fusion of faith and fun is evident even from his choice of Genesius as his confirmation name, in honour of the Roman martyr and patron saint of comedians – but not without a few reservations. “He got killed for the room,” McLellan deadpans. “It’s not what you want as a comedian.”
Behind the quick-fire wit is a deeply serious and intelligent individual whose journey into the Catholic Church has been several years in the making.
Raised in a conservative Presbyterian household in Charleston, South Carolina, he became intellectually convinced of the truth of Catholicism after reading about the Church while at college.
On graduating, he worked for three years with adults with learning disabilities at a L’Arche Catholic community in Chicago, and toyed with the idea of conversion; but it was only when he went home and began to do stand-up that he took the leap of faith.
The catalyst was his growing Muslim fan base, which threw up questions that caused him to think more deeply about life. Yet the decisive factor was a hunger for the Eucharist. “When I felt that urgency and I reflected that Catholicism wasn’t a theory of the Eucharist, it was the Eucharist, I thought, ‘Oh, I need that,’” he recalls.
At the same time, his experiences in L’Arche were shaping him as a comic. The “gift” of working with disabled people and learning to “enter into their world” prepared him for the stage, he says, by teaching him to “make peace with uncertainty”.
McLellan’s Muslim fan base has helped him to challenge prejudices and push boundaries “in the service of what is true and what is real”.
“I am a pretty conservative Catholic,” he says. “The sort of liberal way of building bridges with Muslims I am not a big fan of, and a lot of Muslims are not a fan of that either. There is a lot of talking down, and saying ‘they are just like us’.
“What I like is that Muslims, for the most part, are asking the exact same questions about modern life as conservative or traditional Catholics are … How do you pass on the faith? Is modernity something that is hostile to traditional ways of life or can it be adapted? What happens when the extended family collapses? They see the way we treat our old people and how insane that is.”
He continues: “They might be able to notice things and say this is something in our culture that is poisonous and we say, ‘Oh, really?’ and then it turns out that it is.”
The evidence suggests his brand of humour is building bridges faster and more strongly than many more fashionable endeavours. Three years ago McLellan played to six sold-out houses in Lahore, and last year toured the UK with six Muslim comics, performing at 19 venues in as many nights.
Principally, comedy is of course about making people laugh, but to McLellan it is also a Christian vocation. To him, stand-up can make people feel less lonely and “happy in a full sense”; it can humble and unite souls. Good comedians are to McLellan “ambassadors of a messy reality” rather than peddlers of chaos.
So which religions make the best comics? McLellan does not rate atheist comedians, whereas Jews, he points out, were pioneers of stand-up in the US. He considers Catholics the sharpest of all. “I think I am funnier since I converted.”
Because of the pandemic he is unable to tour, meaning that his fans will have to rely on the internet. But he fears that stand-up comedy “will be the last thing to come back”.
“Think about what happens in a comedy club,” he explains. “Your goal is basically to get everybody together in a tight space and get them to cough. It’s not really coughing but laughter is the same thing. How are we going to get that back? It is sad to see because we need it now more than ever.”
Jeremy McLellan can be supported online at Patreon