“Help Me…” — The Prayer of Stand-Up Comedians Everywhere
The following is an excerpt from What’s So Funny about Faith: A Memoir from the Intersection of Holy and Hilarious by Jake Martin, SJ (Loyola Press 2012).
Since the age of four, when I would sneak downstairs, way past my bedtime, to the family den hoping to catch a glimpse of NBC’s cutting-edge sketch-comedy show “Saturday Night Live,” I had dreamed of going to New York and becoming a comedian. This was followed by years of classes, shows, and auditions; of waiting tables and answering phones to pay the rent; of going to sleep hungry and watching my friends pass me by while I bided my time in Chicago, hoping to catch that one break that would finally bring me to New York, with all its attached fame and glory.
Well, here I was, in New York, all set to perform on Saturday night. The punch line was that this was not quite how I’d envisioned it as a four-year-old — or even as a 24-year-old. There was that whole Jesuit thing: for the past seven years I had been a member of the Society of Jesus; I had taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. I lived in community, owned no property, did not date, and had to ask my superior for permission to come here. And finally there was the venue: the Creek in Long Island City was not exactly 30 Rockefeller Center, the home of “Saturday Night Live.”
“You’re up fifth,” the emcee told me. I nodded and went and looked for a green room, the waiting area where performers could prepare backstage before a show, but there was none. This was the minor leagues of comedy; such trappings were for bigger, better stages. I headed to my only place of recourse.
A men’s room in a bar might not be the most conducive spot for prayer, but it would have to do in a pinch, and this indeed was a pinch. The bathroom was about the size of a broom closet, but taking the tried-and-true Ignatian tenet of finding God in all things at face value, I got down on my knees on the dirty tile and began to chat with Christ.
I could boast of the fact that my spiritual life had progressed beyond the realm of “Dear God, please let me kill tonight!” — kill being the comic’s term for having a great show. I was now a professional pray-er of a sort. I closed my eyes and tried to ignore the smell of excess bleach that permeated the cramped space; I saw myself in God’s presence. My imagery in prayer tends to be similar to that of movies, so I pictured myself being shot by a camera from above as it zoomed up and out of the bathroom, out of the club, out of Queens, and on and on until I was but a mere speck in the universe, one teeny tiny piece of the vast expanse of God’s creation, but as necessary and as loved as I was infinitesimal.
On the cold, stained tile floor, I asked Christ to direct me and my thoughts and to help me accept whatever the outcome of the show might be. I then finished with the Anima Christi, a prayer commonly used by Jesuits and usually said at the end of each of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. I crossed myself and flushed the toilet — because for some reason I felt self-conscious about praying in the bathroom — and walked out ready to perform.
The emcee came up behind me and asked, “Do you want me to say you’re a priest?” “No.” I was not about to get into it with him about the logistics of Jesuit formation at this juncture and why, though I was a member of the Society of Jesus for close to seven years, I would not in fact be a priest for another four. Still, he had brought up a rather urgent dilemma that I had yet to resolve. Did I let my audience know that I was a Jesuit, or did I not mention it?
I’d come up in a tradition of comedy that believed in unflinching truth: I believed that humor did not have to be manufactured or invented but rather came from our honest appraisals of our own lives and the lives of those around us. Being a Jesuit was such a huge component of who I was that it seemed uncomfortable to talk around it. Still, my announcement that I was studying to be a priest had met with some pretty lukewarm responses from audiences in the past. Heading to New York that weekend, I was resolute that I would not mention it, that I was a comic like everyone else, and that, just as many of them never mentioned their day jobs in their acts, neither did I have to mention mine, however enormous and consuming that “day job” might be.
People came to comedy clubs to be entertained, not to be freaked out by priests in training. What I found after seven years of day-to-day living to be a pretty normal mode of operation was foreign and frightening for others. I was a vowed religious, and for some the mere mention of the word religion put them on edge.
As the emcee called my name, I still had very little idea of what exactly I’d do. But I did say a little prayer as I walked toward the stage, a very little prayer. “Help me,” said a very small voice deep from within. And as I began my set, it occurred to me that like everything else with comedy, it was not what you said but how you said it that made all the difference. It all depended on timing and delivery.
If I said my set was perfect, I’d be lying. It was too sloppy for me. I rushed through the last minute because I had such a good response to my talking about being a Jesuit — but comedy is not math and is not entirely reliant on precision. It is the most pragmatic of art forms, and at the end of the day the only thing that matters is if the audience laughed. I told the truth, the whole truth, and they laughed. They laughed!