Allen, 52, tells audiences that he and his wife, Tami, lock themselves in their bedroom late at night for some private time-to eat the junk food they keep squirreled away from their children.
He claims they have three kids, ages 25, 19 and 8. There’s quite an age-gap between the 19-year-old and the 8-year-old, he admits.
Punch line: “Yeah, we ran out of brownies one night.”
That always slays the crowd.
Except that Jeff and Tami only have two children.
“I made up the 8-year-old,” Allen says. “If it’s a good enough joke, I’ll lie.”
The paradox is that, otherwise, the successful comedian’s act is based almost completely on truth. Allen does observational humor about his real-life experiences as a husband, father and every-man, in the tradition of Bill Cosby.
And his ultimate purpose is to share an even larger truth: his faith in Jesus Christ.
Allen is just one of many popular comedians who also are serious Christians. They perform in secular halls, in comedy clubs and at corporate conventions, but also in churches and as opening acts for big-time Christian-music artists such as Third Day.
In recent years, Christian comedy has become increasingly visible. There’s even a Christian Comedy Association that has more than 300 members, about 30 percent of whom are full-time performers.
That group’s annual conference offers workshops for aspiring comedians and opportunities to establish professional contacts. It draws several hundred participants.
“There’s a lot more interest today,” said Justin N. Fennell, 46, a Florida-based comedian who helped found the Christian Comedy Association.
One of its goals is to help aspiring Christian comedians hone their acts.
“We say it doesn’t have to be filthy to be funny,” Fennell said. “But it had better be funny. In my opinion, it should be superior because it’s Christian.”
For Christians in the comedy field, gaining widespread acceptance took a long time. Only a few decades ago, Christian leaders resisted the idea that the church was an appropriate forum for comedy.
And secular agents, promoters and TV executives didn’t think comedians who were overtly Christian could be funny or draw big audiences.
Today, at last, Christian comedy has come into its own.
The field is so large that many Christian comedians specialize in appealing to certain market niches. There are comics who perform almost exclusively for men’s groups and others who perform for women’s meetings or youth audiences.
A few specialize in parodies of popular songs. One guy, Nick Alexander, is referred to on-line as “the Catholic ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic.”
In other words, Christian comedians’ shticks are as varied as those of secular performers.
So are their backgrounds.
Fennell was trained as a minister and later worked as a fund-raiser for a Christian college, which required a lot of public speaking.
“I found out if people laughed more, they gave more,” he said.
So he told jokes. Gradually, he found himself more in demand as a humorist than as a fund-raiser.
“I just kind of went where the doors opened,” he said. “I didn’t really have an agenda as some do.”
He combines his comedy work with evangelization.
One recent Sunday evening, he headlined a “Pot-Luck Laughter” event for a church in Augusta, Ga. The church usually doesn’t have Sunday-night services, he said, but because the meeting featured a comedian more than 300 people attended, many of them un-churched visitors.
Secular folks who otherwise might be leery of religious services will come to hear a comedian, he said. During the ministry period at the end of his act, many made public decisions to devote their lives to Christ.
Allen, on the other hand, set out early to forge a career in comedy. He’s one of those guys you’ve probably seen-he’s appeared on Showtime, VH1, Comedy Central, the Odyssey Channel and at Bill Gaither’s “Homecoming” events, among many other places-but can’t quite attach a name to.
“I look like everybody’s uncle,” he said.
Allen began his career as an angry, hard-drinking performer whose act was riddled with profanity and ugly on-stage revelations about his troubled marriage. He stayed on the road as much as 228 days a year.
He joined Alcoholics Anonymous and, after several years in the program, began asking questions that organization’s traditional appeal to a higher power.
An acquaintance gave him a Bible, as well as religious tapes that included a series of sermons by the Rev. Tommy Nelson. Allen and his wife separated and were nearing divorce. He found himself alone, listening to Nelson’s tapes on a boom box.
Sermons on Ecclesiastes touched him. The writer of Ecclesiastes talks about the vanity of striving for worldly success. The author’s suggestions for true happiness are, in Allen’s very loose paraphrase: “Eat Rocky Road and drink Dr. Pepper.” In other words, just enjoy the simple life and everyday pleasures.
“I was blown away,” Allen said.
He embraced Christianity. Along with Ecclesiastes, Job became his favorite book of the Bible back then. Many readers consider both books depressing.
“I was a happy guy to be around,” Allen said.
Still, he found his rage unaccountably had disappeared. He didn’t feel the need to swear on-stage anymore, yet discovered that his act was as funny as ever. He became a gentler and more understanding husband; he and his wife reconciled.
Over time, he moved his family to the Nashville area and cut back his touring schedule to roughly 120 shows a year.
Currently Allen’s part of the “Apostles of Comedy Tour,” which also features Brad Stine, Ron Pearson and Anthony Griffith, who co-starred on “The Bernie Mac Show.” They’re playing to large audiences in secular theaters and big churches alike.
“We like the churches because you’re a lot more comfortable sharing your faith in the church,” Allen said.
Another reason churches are preferable, he said, is that the audiences’ attitude toward performers is much different than what comedians encounter in secular venues.
“People want you to succeed,” Allen said of religious audiences. “It’s a different mindset.”
Apostles of Comedy Tour: http://www.apostlesofcomedy.com
Christian Comedy Association: http://www.christiancomedyassociation.com