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Laughing in Church

Tony Romeo’s sermons have been making people laugh for the past 35 years. But two and a half years ago, he decided to take his skills beyond church doors. Today he can be found in comedy clubs around New York City, where he makes friends and learns new skills that enhance his ministry as a pastor.

RD: Tony, tell us a little bit about yourself, your Italian background and your family.

TR: My father came from Italy in 1922. He left the Catholic Church as I understand legend when he was in a confessional booth in Rome and the priest made a wise crack and my father punched him through the veil. The priest fell over and my father left the Catholic Church soon after.

We had a great family life and it was kind of crazy with sarcasm all the time. I think if you read the Bible it’s full of great humorous insights and statements by Jesus, ironic statements given to his disciples. I just love the idea of comedy. I use it in my sermons not because I’m telling jokes, but because life itself is pretty funny.

RD: For how long have you been a pastor and what did you do before that?

TR: I really come from the advertising world. I was a creative director for DDB Worldwide up until about two years ago, but I’ve been preaching in churches for the last 35-40 years. For the last 10-15 years I’ve had a dual career as a full time advertising creative director and also as a pastor of churches. Currently I’m starting a new ministry called REACH-NYC, and that’s an idea to plant unconventional churches in the New York City area that don’t have a typical service or sermon or a typical behavior code.

RD: What happens at REACH-NYC during a given service?

TR: Right now we’re just starting out, but we sit together at the Adventist Book Center on West 40th Street and folks wander in occasionally. We’re negotiating with a Presbyterian church on E. 42nd, and once we get that venue secured we’ll go out and produce material to try to get people to come to some of our meetings. Meetings will feature a band we’ve already put together and relaxed conversation. Last week I gave a little talk on John 1 and we spent a nice hour and a half just talking about that.

RD: So if preparing for REACH-NYC keeps you busy during the week, when do you do your comedy?

TR: The comedy is done usually once a month as I get time. I have appeared at the Carolines on Broadway, Comic’s Comedy Club on W. 14th Street, and the Gotham Comedy Club on E. 23rd Street. Since I’m new to the profession I don’t have any delusions of getting on the David Letterman show, but I do have a following now and a lot of people from my church and advertising past show up. The last show I did was on June 30th and we had about 175 people in the audience. I appear with some of the comics that are known throughout the nation. The comic who ended the show last time was from 3rd Rock.

A couple weeks ago I met a Baptist minister and we had a nice conversation about life and how we relate to Christianity and comedy. It was nice to meet her because a lot of people in the church just think that what I’m doing is totally wrong and sac-religious.

RD: Well it’s certainly an unusual combination to be a pastor and a comedian. What does your audience make of it when they find out that their funny guy is also a pastor?

TR: One Adventist lady gave me a six-page single spaced letter of Ellen White quotes saying that I was destroying young peoples’ lives, but then other people love the idea, especially people out in the so-called “world.” They like that a pastor can come into a comedy club. I can work into a church or into the world and feel very comfortable as a clean comic. I don’t think one has to go to church to be in an environment that is uplifting. As a matter of fact, sometimes going to a comedy club is more uplifting than going to a church.

RD: You brought up just briefly at the beginning Jesus and his use of humor in the Bible. Are you inspired in your work by some kind of relationship between laughter and theology?

TR: To me there’s something almost comedic and also kind of strange about some theologians dragging out a woman caught in adultery and throwing her at Jesus’ feet. And then he sarcastically turns to them and says, “If anyone has no sin cast the first stone.” And they leave. I don’t think Jesus was being funny, but he was showing the strangeness of human behavior toward certain people.

And then there’s the time when Christ used a few fish and loaves of bread to feed the masses. I think the shock of the disciples must have been outrageous. We read it today in our comfortable chairs and say, “Oh yes, Christ made some fish and some bread to feed the people.” But there must have been tremendous joy and laughter and happiness when he did that, and also shock.

As I read the Bible, I smile at Christ’s attitude and openness to the variety of people in his own world, and I think the same people walk the streets of New York City and the world today. They’re the same people that are in trauma, the same people that don’t need to be condemned, and the same people that could use a laugh.

RD: So when you’re doing a gig, then, what are some of the things you talk about to make people laugh?

TR: I open with my glass eye. I tell people I was fortunate enough to lose my eye when I was 15 years old, and then I tap my eye, which kind of stuns the audience.

Then I talk about my experiences having an Italian father. My father invented the phrase “When you see something, say something,” because whenever we went on trains and the subways he had a habit of actually speaking to people, sometimes telling them very unflattering things. If he saw a girl with a short dress he would actually tell her that the dress was too short, saying “You should be ashamed of yourself, you look like a prostitute.” And I kept telling him, “Dad, don’t say anything.” And he said [with a thick accent], “No, I gotta say something. I see something, I gotta say something.”

So I talk about that in my act. I also recently invented a t-shirt that has, “I should be ashamed of myself” printed on the front. Once I was coming back with an Adventist teacher who had just been fired rather unceremoniously by a pastor and she was crying and I said, “You know, we have to invent a t-shirt that you give people who hurt other people.” And so now I give it out during the late moments of my comedy act. I just pick out somebody like, “The guy who invented Facebook: you should be ashamed of yourself!” I pick out somebody in the audience and say, “You look like a guy who has a Facebook, here’s a t-shirt for you. Nobody really cares you’re baking a cake at 2:00 in the morning.” That kind of thing.

I also have a part in my comedy where I break into a pastor who’s yelling and condemning people from the pulpit. And I say, “Isn’t it odd that Jesus loved everyone and yet ministers keep yelling and screaming hate from the pulpit?” Again people roar with laughter, maybe because of the way I do it, but I think more so because of how it relates to what they’ve experienced themselves in childhood.

RD: You said you’re new to comedy. Where do you plan on going with it? What relationship will it have with your REACH-NYC ministry?

TR: I’ve been doing comedy for two and a half years and I’m still taking courses with Cory Kahaney who just recently appeared on the David Letterman show. I don’t know if I’ll ever get on a big stage someday to do comedy in front of thousands of people at a time, but I do want to hone my craft as far as how I get to the point. There is a combination of advertising, religion and comedy that is all wrapped up together. How do you “sell” Jesus? What’s the best way to make it powerful to people that don’t even want to hear it? Because if you say that you’re religious, suddenly people hear organists playing and they see a priest with a miter hat. They might see candles burning. That’s not the religion I want REACH-NYC to portray. When people come into our particular venue I want to give them breakfast. I want to sit down in a natural venue and have a conversation about life and what Christ can do.

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