Carol Howard Merritt: Homiletics and Humor


What I've learned about preaching by watching comedians

I was at a youth retreat and a senior in high school asked me, "Who are your inspirations when it comes to public speaking? I mean, you've told us how you felt called by God and how the church influenced you. Who influenced you outside of the church?"

I said two things: TED Talks and comedians.

It's interesting that we think about abandoning sermons, as TED Talks gain popularity by trying to imitate a good sermon. (Likewise, it's odd that we talk of abandoning membership when the rest of the world is discovering it. I'm now a card-carrying member of my grocery store, drug store, coffeehouse, and bakery. But I digress.) 

My favorite TED Talk is probably "If I should have a daughter." 

Yet, the best insights have come from comedians. I'm often told that I'm either like Tina Fey or Janeane Garofalo.  And I have to respond with this

Here are my top comedian/preaching moments.  (Of course, a bit of a warning here. There is adult language and raunchy content with most of these comedians.)

  • Chris Rock talks with Terry Gross about how watching his grandfather write sermons and preach had an influence on his stand-up with Terry Gross. He often watches preachers to hone his craft. It's very insightful. 

  • Lewis C.K. plays God. I'm not sure what else to say about this clip, other than "Amen."

  • Margaret Cho's revolution. No one preaches like Cho. She's incredibly raunchy and then... Bam! She delivers. She performed in a Presbyterian Church once, so I'm going to go ahead and claim her as one of our own. 

  • Steve Martin's Born Standing Up was serious and talked a bit about the business of comedy.  Oddly enough, I read it at a time when I was going from workshop leading to keynote speaking. Workshop leaders don't always get paid, and with as much traveling I was doing, I couldn't justify the time away from my family without any income. The transition felt overwhelming and (again) I didn't feel worthy-but Martin's matter-of-fact explanation of moving from warm-up to headliner helped me.

  • Tina Fey's Bossy Pants gave off a great vibe, particularly in the ways that she navigates being a woman in a male-dominated world. I'm sure some female clergy can relate.

  • Samantha Bee talks about her childhood crush on Jesus in I Know I Am But What Are You? I have to give a hat tip to Ed Blum and Color of Christ for this one. Color of Christ has a section on Jesus jokes.

  • Also, I cherished my adanced copy of Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint by our favorite comedian-turned-Lutheran-pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber. Nadia's wisdom and humor soak each page of this book. It'll be out in about a month. Do yourself a favor and pre-order it now and learn from the best.

What about you? Who influences you in your preaching, writing, and speaking?

Taken with permission from Carol's blog, Tribal Church, at