Comedy The Road Less Traveled
"Catch them with the comedy; keep them with the Truth. I thought that was a slogan, but I found out it was an assignment."
- Comedian Michael Jr.
Little did fourteen-year-old Michael Jr. know when he accepted a dare from a friend to provide the entertainment during a technical glitch at the cinema, that he would be where he is now, sharing the stage with the likes of the comic greats like Jerry Seinfield, George Wallace, Jay Leno and Chris Rock.
As a young teen, and long before Michael Jr. became a Christian, he made a pact with a friend that the two of them should refuse to curse because it just wasn't an intelligent way to communicate. The threat of corporal punishment kept them accountable to the pact. "If I cursed, he would be able to hit me in the stomach really hard and vice-versa," Junior explains.
On the day that the movie screen blanked, the dare to go up and tell a joke to the entire audience prompted the middle school student to move from his spectator's seat to center stage. However, in that moment the only joke Junior could think of was a dirty one. Since he couldn't pass up his friend's dare, but didn't want to get punched by his other friend for cursing, on the way down to the front he cleaned up the joke.
"There were like 400 disgruntled people in this theater when the movie stopped. However, when I told the joke and everyone laughed," remembers the comedian, "seeing their reaction gave me this ultimate high-not that I've ever done drugs before.
In retrospect, Junior recognized the purpose in what he was doing. "I could clearly see that this was God saying, ‘This is what I have for you to do,' even before I came to Christ."
Laughter that Moves You
He's been compared to old-school Cosby mixed with the ease of Dave Chappelle. You might have caught him on Comedy Central, BET, Jimmy Kimmel Live! or The Tonight Show. You wouldn't notice it overtly from his spoof of MTVs Cribs or his "hard news" interview with the Easter Bunny, but his comedy is far more than just another way to exercise your gut. His innovative approach to his gift moves the audience to stretch and think about life on a whole new God-level, whether they realize it or not.
Before his standup debut at the movies, the comedian says he's always had a strange ability to take the mundane and ordinary, flip it upside down and wrong-side out, and etch out life truths. It really seems effortless; that's why he knows it is a special God-designed insight.
That insight has helped Michael mold his approach to comedy that packs a punch into the punch line. "If I have a good hour, I will ask some questions," says Junior. "Then the audience gets really relaxed. Most answers are funny but every fourth one is serious." Unlike fellow comics, Junior isn't afraid of silence. In fact, he likes incorporating quiet moments into his shows. "Stuff can be way too noisy. I like just getting the audience to a place where they are still and contemplating in silence. I also move really slow, where I don't even give them the punch line so they can fill in the blank."
Whether in a Vegas club or a church rally, this approach helps Michael Jr. administer the Truth everywhere he finds his feet.
Laying the Path
Michael Jr. was well into making a name for himself in the industry before he realized something was missing from the journey. The Grand Rapids, Michigan, native had moved to New York to jumpstart his career. "I was doing a show at the Comic Strip Live. It's a really hard club to get into. Somehow I found an in, and the manager was going to take a look at me. The manager asked me if I wanted to go on before George Wallace. He's a big name-he should have gone on before me. It was clearly God."
Even though the other comedians were cursing all around him, Junior went on first and got two standing ovations. After the show, George came up to Michael to ask him why he didn't curse. "I didn't want to tell him that I did not want to get hit by my friend in Michigan, so I said, ‘It's just in my makeup.' George said, ‘You are really funny. I want you to do a show with me and my best friend Jerry Seinfeld.'"
After the curtains closed on the show that night, Junior's manager approached him out of the blue and invited him to church. Michael's memories as a seven-year-old being dragged to church by his grandmother came flooding back. "I was thinking, Are you kidding me? Did you just see what happened out there? I got two standing ovations. I don't need church. Church is for sick people-for someone who is about to die or someone on drugs." Because the comic always heard those kinds of testimonies-and that wasn't his story-he didn't think he needed Jesus .
Made in Grand Rapids
Then the big day came. "[My manager, his wife and I] went to Christian Culture Center in Brooklyn. The pastor wasn't screaming or yelling. He didn't have a perm and he was making all kind of sense. He talked about Jesus very simply and did an altar call."
Junior was not one of those "swayed easily by the altar call" types. In fact, he told himself that he would read the entire Bible through before he made any decisions. "I always joke-the Bible was made in Grand Rapids and so was I. However, at the time, I didn't know the Bible was so big. Then this lady I didn't know gave me a Bible out the blue.
When Junior finally completed his cover-to-cover read, he turned his life over to Christ-and in the process developed a deeper understanding of his comedic gift. He realized that as a comedian, he wasn't called just to be another funny guy. He was called to be "funny for a reason," which became the title for a comedy CD that Junior put together that incorporates a salvation message as the final track.
"The message comes from the comedy. Comedy is just the seasoning that gets people thinking about Jesus," says the comedian, who, according to his Facebook, turns 107 this January.
Bringing Light and Laughter to the Road Less Traveled
Michael was determined to be more than a person of positive influence in professional comic circuit. He was standing backstage getting ready to go on and do a set when a switch flicked that brought greater insight to his journey. His mind-set changed from just getting a laugh to giving his audience the ability to laugh. "When I figured out that I really had something to give, I really want to go out and find people who really need this. That's what the Bible is all about."
Focusing on purpose inspired Michael Jr. to take comedy and the message of hope to the places that no comic has ever gone before. Moving out of his comfort zone, he felt compelled to make a documentary, Comedy on the Road Less Traveled, on his adventures taking his comedy to those who need it the most.
Michael has taken his comedy to people in many dark and hopeless places-to homeless camps where people live in the woods, to rescue missions, to an HIV facility, to Skid Row in LA, to adult and juvenile prisons-where there is a lot of depression and suicidal thoughts. "We just went in there to provide some kind of joy." During his set at a facility for drug-endangered youth, Michael gave an altar call. Thirty guys came forward to accept Christ.
Your Time to Stand Up
For people who feel like God may have them pursue comedy as ministry, Michael advises to check the reasoning behind it. "You may need to be a really funny pediatrician to help kids be okay with going to the doctor." He also suggests taking the Real World University Purpose Questionnaire, by following the links at his Web site, michaeljr.com. The test is specifically designed to help someone get a much stronger grasp for what students are gifted to do in comparison to what they feel they want to do.
Michael children's book, The Parts We Play, wraps up his philosophy on how everyone has unique giftings that fit into God's divine plan. He reminds kids that no matter who they are, they will always have really important parts to play in life.
Wherever you are in your journey, Michael encourages you to seek the wisdom of godly mentors and supportive people who can give you both spiritual and professional feedback, encouragement, and direction. "It is critical. That's what keeps me on track," says Junior. Besides his friend from Michigan that kept Michael committed to keeping the words of his mouth clean, Junior relies heavily on the counsel of his spiritual mentor at his church in California.
He also knows the importance of keeping God's Word at the forefront. Proverbs 3:5-6 propels him forward daily: "Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight" (NIV).