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Laughter's divine to comedian

In a colorful bathrobe, fuzzy slippers and a wig with curlers, she hits the stage with a skillet in one hand and New Testament in the other.

As a bluesy song blares the virtues of the modern-day Christian woman, she struts, slaps her dust mop like a guitar and twists her vacuum cleaner hose around her like a boa constrictor.Meet Kay Dekalb Smith, "the Carol Burnett of Christian comedy."

"I feel like laughter is the tool that God has given me to pierce the heart. . . . It's my mandate from God," Smith says in a rare serious moment.

Her housewife skit, for instance, is a modern take on Proverbs 31, the Bible's listing of the qualities of a godly woman:

"She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also."

That intimidates most women because it describes the ideal, Smith says. But her jazzy translation elicits a different reaction.

"Women in the audience just come unglued when I do this," says Smith, who finishes the routine wearing a coat of armor.

"My interpretation says that today's godly woman may have to juggle kids, jog to work and keep a busy schedule, but she's still a woman who very much needs her Heavenly Father."

Compared to Carol Burnett by a pastor early in her comedic ministry, the 43-year-old redhead performs 100 shows a year at churches, conventions, universities and other events worldwide.

"When I started out years ago, religion was very serious and I couldn't even call myself a comedian," Smith says. "But today, humor is alive in the church. People are all worn out. They want to laugh."

Smith grew up in Harts-velle, Ala., with hilarious parents.

"I was raised in one of the few functional families that are left," she says, laughing. "My parents experienced the joy of the Lord daily."

A 10th-grade teacher observed her animated conversations and encouraged her to develop impersonations. She began performing at age 16 at Hartsvelle's "nightclubs."

"You know, the Rotary, Kiwanis and Lions clubs," Smith deadpans, in characteristic Southern drawl.

At 17, she wowed judges at a Miss Alabama Teen-Ager pageant with her impression of Shirley Temple and was second runner-up in the national contest. She was Miss Birmingham the next year.

The pageants gave her poise and stage presence. But her best education came at Opryland USA theme park in Nashville, where she performed two years as a singer, dancer and impersonator.

Smith studied speech and drama at Samford University but quit with her parents' permission in 1974 to explore her talent in Nashville. In the next 10 years, she did radio, TV commercials, performed with Anita Bryant and volunteered at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital, where she performed room-to-room.

She married husband Ed in 1982, and they have two daughters, Allie and Evin, ages 10 and 14. Her family provides most of her comedy material.

"Allie came home once from church, where the choir had sung, `Celebrate! Jesus is Exalted!' She went down the hall singing, `Celebrate! Jesus is Exhausted!' and didn't have a clue. She does stuff like that all the time," Smith says.

Her act includes songs and stories about balancing the checkbook, hot flashes, her dislike of cooking - "My family always knows when dinner is ready because the smoke alarm goes off!" - and chasing her daughters through the house with a fly swatter once when they refused to go to bed.

A gifted soprano whose first church solo was at age 2, she does an hourlong spoof on church choirs and sprinkles other routines with songs like "Lord, Change My Spouse" and "I'm a Minister's Wife."

Her pastor, the Rev. Richard White of the First Baptist Church of Franklin, applauds Smith for presenting a spiritual message "without cramming anything down people's throats."

"Kay helps people not to take themselves too seriously and, at the same time, to take God more seriously," White says.

Smith says audiences respond because she's honest.