SALT LAKE CITY — What do worship services and first dates have in common? They both inspire stand-up comedy acts, according to Greg Kyte, a comedian based in Provo.
"You'd be hard-pressed to find a comedian who doesn't do material about dating or marriage. Religion isn't quite as ubiquitous as that, but it's maybe the next closest thing," he said.
It would also be hard to find a comedian who hasn't worried about responses to a faith-related joke, he added. Religion is a sensitive subject, and people don't laugh when they're offended.
"Some of the best comedy comes from breaking taboos. But you've got to do it in a way that's truly funny" to your audience, Kyte said.
That qualification helps explain a recent controversy involving members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and comedian David Cross, who is known for portraying Tobias on "Arrested Development." Cross advertised his Aug. 22 show in Salt Lake City by sharing an image of himself wearing the faith's sacred temple garments, sparking an outcry on Twitter.
Cross didn't apologize because his core audience celebrates irreverence, other performers said. Comedians don't have a shared ethical standard, so they rely on their own instincts and fan responses to guide how they joke about faith.
"I'm not going to sacrifice my moral code for a few laughs," said Salaam Bhatti, a Muslim who launched his stand-up career while attending law school in New York City.
Faith and comedy
Kyte talks about faith in his act because it's a big part of life in Utah. He tries to acknowledge the prominence of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints without turning it into a punchline.
"Everybody here who isn't Mormon still has to interact with the Mormon faith a lot, so I talk about it," he said. "I try to make sure the jokes are structured in such a way that Mormons will feel good about themselves in the middle of it."
He'll soon launch a "Comedy Church" series in Salt Lake City, bringing together comedians to joke about religion without being mean. That's a difficult proposition, but he thinks it will pay off.
"There will be times in the show where we will cross lines for some people and for me," he said. "But I'll give notes to performers and we'll find a fun, comfortable place."
Kyte's desire to build a respectful environment comes from his evangelical Christian upbringing. Although he's no longer religious, he can appreciate deep faith.
"I know what it's like to come from a very religious place and I feel like, because of that, I don't want to be mean towards somebody else," said Kyte, who describes himself as agnostic.
It's common for comedians who were raised religious or currently attend church to take extra care with faith-related jokes, performers said. These comedians can visualize the people they might offend.
"I just want people to have fun. If it seems like it's something that's going to hurt people's feelings, then I'll avoid it," said Matty Litwack, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family, during a panel on religion and comedy at Religion News Association's annual conference in 2016.
Jenna Kim Jones, a Latter-day Saint who was on the panel with Litwack, said she wouldn't throw her own faith group under the bus to get a few laughs.
"It's a little bit complicated when you bring religion into your act," said Jones, who served as narrator for the film "Meet the Mormons." "It's something I believe in so I want to respect that."
Comedians learn to balance their own sense of what's funny with audience responses, said Bhatti. During his stand-up career, he avoided cheap jokes at another faith group's expense, but he didn't back down from sharing his own faith-related struggles.
"I've gotten blowback from Muslims for joking about my experience as a Muslim," Bhatti said. "I just say, 'Listen. This is what I've gone through. If you don't experience it, that's great.'"
Collin Williams, a Utah comedian known for tackling sensitive topics like suicide, said that being willing to take a risk and address controversial subjects can pay off in unexpected ways.
"I did (my show on suicide) for me, but people watching it have gained a different perspective on their friends' depression or (a) friend who wanted to commit suicide. It helped them," he said.
Al Fike has strong feelings about the relationship between religion and comedy. He thinks of his own career as a form of service to God and earned national attention for starting a Christian Comedy Night at an improv club in Dallas.
"My purpose in life is not to be a comedian. My purpose is to glorify God in everything I do," he said.
However, even Fike resists interfering with the comedy acts he finds offensive. He was horrified when one comedian he knew used a microphone to imitate nailing Jesus Christ to a cross, but Fike was still willing to watch his act and take notes on comedic timing and methods.
"It's hurting them, not me," he said, noting that irreverent comedians miss out on some business opportunities and the benefits of personal faith.
In general, there's little to be gained from trying to convince a comedian that he or she is being offensive, Kyte said.
"It's hard to have a deep conversation about another person's experiences and what's sacred to them and why it's sacred to them. It takes more than a typical audience member-comedian interaction," he said.
One benefit of Cross' controversial advertisement is that it helped some people avoid wasting money on something that would offend them, Kyte added.
"By tweeting that tweet, he's probably doing a service to anyone who was contemplating going to his show," he said. "He's not for everyone."
Cross has not apologized for his advertisement. Instead, he reshared the image, joking that the first 10 minutes of his set in Salt Lake City were going to be "on fire."
Ruth Watkins, president of the University of Utah, released a statement condemning religious intolerance, but said the show will go on. The school's Twitter account deleted its retweet of the image.
"The offensive use of sacred religious imagery in a tweet by David Cross promoting his performance at Kingsbury Hall was in opposition to the university's values of respect and inclusivity," Watkins said.