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Catholic Comedian Promotes ‘New Evangelization’

By Denis Grasska

SAN DIEGO — Some people seem to think that taking their faith seriously and having a sense of humor about life are mutually exclusive.

To them, Catholic comedian Judy McDonald says, “You’ve got to be kidding me!”

“Everything we have is from God and, of course, God gave us a sense of humor,” said McDonald, 37, a lifelong member of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Vista. “He gave us this ability to laugh at certain things, because He thinks certain things are funny.”

Referencing one of the Holy Father’s many comments about Christian joy, she said, “I don’t understand theology as much as I would like to, but I think ‘theology of laughter’ is something Pope Francis is into.”

McDonald sees her stand-up routines as a way of participating in what Blessed John Paul II called “the new evangelization,” the Church’s effort to re-evangelize those who have heard the Gospel but have rejected it or turned away from it, perhaps because of poor catechesis.

When hired for a gig, she said, event organizers typically are interested not only in her comedy chops, but also in whether she is able to “deliver the message.” On stage, the Gospel is not something that is ham-fistedly tacked on to the end of an otherwise secular routine. From the outset, her audiences know that she is “a Catholic comedian,” she said, and her comedy and her Catholic message go hand in hand.

“Laughter is the great communicator,” she said. “It just drops barriers, and people relax.”

She explained that, if the audience accepts that she has been honest with them about funny and embarrassing moments in her own life, like the time she accidentally got ashes in a kid’s eye on Ash Wednesday — a second-grader who “had to wear a pirate patch for a couple weeks after” — then they know that she would never lie about something as important as Jesus’ love for them.

The openness and authenticity of her comedy gives her credibility in the eyes of her audience.

Just as good priests use their homilies to explain the Gospel through the prism of their own life experiences, she said, good comedians devote much of their stand-up routines to simply talking about their own lives.

A professional comedian for about 20 years, McDonald describes her comedic style as “very observational.” If Robin Williams and Bob Newhart adopted a child together, she quipped, “I think it would be me ... but less hairy.”

McDonald’s first foray into stand-up comedy came unexpectedly in 1994, during her freshman year at the University of San Diego. She was serving in student government at the time. A comedian had been invited to perform on campus, but the warm-up act had not arrived. She was asked to fill in.

“I was too dumb and young to be scared,” she recalled, “and I talked and they laughed.”

The $50 she received for her performance convinced her that she might have stumbled upon a potential career. She began performing regularly as an opening act on campus and, later that year, she made her debut at The Comedy Store in Hollywood, where she received a standing ovation.

At one point, she was driving up to The Comedy Store as many as three times a week to perform.

Since her graduation from USD in 1999, McDonald has worked in Catholic youth and young adult ministry as well as comedy. While working for The Gathering, a multi-parish Catholic youth ministry in La Jolla, from 2000-2003, she also was performing at The Comedy Store in La Jolla.

“It was cool because I really started to minister to comedians,” she said, noting that many comedy performers are “just really depressed people” and in need of such outreach.

McDonald herself suffers from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and, for the past year and a half, has been assisted by a service dog named Daisy. The 4-year-old yellow Labrador retriever even accompanies her on stage.

Highlights of McDonald’s career include appearing on comedian Dennis Miller’s CNBC show and opening for such comedians as Paula Poundstone, Caroline Rhea and Mark Curry.

Since 2003, McDonald has taken her comedy on the road, traveling throughout the world and appearing at Catholic parishes, youth conferences, retreats and other forums. For the past three years, she has also had a part-time job maintaining her parish’s Web site.    

The product of a churchgoing Irish-German family, McDonald said that her parish pastors have always been like “older brothers” to her, that she and her mother both have keys to the parish church, and that she suspects that her mother “sweats holy water.” (Her mother is also her manager, a position for which she does not get paid; McDonald quips, “She’ll get her reward in heaven.”)

McDonald prides herself on being “a clean comedian” who does not use “F-bombs” or other crude language in her act. Admitting that she once may have used the word “damn” on stage, she said, “That is technically in the Bible.” (Based on that criterion, she suggests that “whore of Babylon” and “ass” might also qualify for the list of Bible-friendly cusswords.)

As a comedian, McDonald does not just want to make people laugh. She wants her comedy to be “healing” as well.

“If I can make someone who hasn’t laughed in several years laugh ... that is the best gift in the world for me,” she said.

When her shows are over, she gladly sticks around to chat with anyone who wants to speak with her.

“That’s what I’m there for,” she said.

As for how long she will continue as a professional comedian, McDonald said, “I tell God all the time, ‘If You want me to continue doing this, get me more shows; if You want me to stop, stop the phone from ringing.’ But the phone keeps ringing, so I keep going.”

For more information on McDonald and her comedy, visit www.judymcdonald.net.

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