Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 09/06/23

Jeff Allen arrives. In his new memoir Are We There Yet? – My Journey from a Messed Up to a Meaningful Life the 67-year-old veteran comedian somehow finds the funny in Ecclesiastes, the biblical book he says God used to rescue him from the hell of alcoholism and despair.

JWK: Why did you write this book at this particular point in your life?

Jeff Allen: Well, I really wanted our children and our grandchildren to know what our story was…You know, my kids were little when this was going on – like two and three years old – so they probably don’t remember all of that. Also, in a broader sense, I wanted to reach the millennial population because I was (between) 30 (and) 40 when all of this happened.

JWK: You’re talking about your alcoholism.

JA: Yeah. I got married and got sober probably a year after the marriage and was just wrestling with all those bigger issues in life. I got sober and I thought my life would get better in the next week (but) it got worse. So, Are We There Yet? came from the constant question I had with therapists and meeting people in the 12-step program – When are we there?! When am I done feeling this way?! When am I gonna be a decent human being? It really wasn’t until I got on my knees and surrendered to Christ that all it just kinda fell into place.

JWK: You say the Book of Ecclesiastes was a major inspiration to you.

JA: Oh, my gosh, yeah! The first sermon I ever listened to started with “Meaningless! Meaningless! All of life is meaningless!” (laughs) I tell people my heart left because I knew that was true. That was kinda the conclusion I had come to. After seven or eight years of recovery and self help and New Age Buddhism – all of it, man – I just realized that there was no point to this life. My wife was just so frustrated with me…If you know what it’s like to wake up every day of your life (feeling like there’s) no point to it, people will look at you and tell you to check the boxes that this world give you. You know, I had a beautiful wife who loved me, I had children that were healthy, I had a job I love and, in the end, there was no point to it. Can you imagine being married to someone like this? I was just kind of going through the motions every day.

JWK: You were a successful standup comic.

JA: Absolutely, yeah! I would get up on that stage…and there were moments…I was sitting on a stool at a hockey rink in Grand Rapids. It was a sold-out show. I was just staring at the floor. Dead silence. You could hear a pin drop. And I said “Why are we here? What’s the point?” Out of nowhere some woman in the back yells out “We just want some jokes!” (laughs) That’s a legitimate point! I said “You know, you’re right! This is a comedy (show) and I am a comedian. So, you’re not being unreasonable.”  I got out of it and did the show but club owners were calling me agent (asking) “What happened to him?!”…I didn’t know it at the time but this was God’s way of moving me to Him.

JWK: Were you raised in a Christian home?

JA: No. Well, interesting. My grandfather was a pastor. My dad’s brother was a pastor. My father was a devout atheist. My mother kept it to herself. I didn’t know this until my mother was dying. She got saved at a Billy Graham Crusade back in the fifties I think, or late forties. It kind of explained a lot. She was like the calm in the storm. We used to call her Saint Darlene. Between my father, my brother and me, she had all these lunatic men around her….When she was in hospice I talked to her sister. I said “Is Mom okay? Can we pray with her?” She said “You’re mom never left the faith. She’s been solid her whole life.” I went “Really?” but it upset my father so much we think, in hindsight, that something really bad happened to my father in church. For whatever reason he was just vociferous about any mention of Christ. I was saved 20 years before he died and he never once asked me why. You know, the most profound change in my life was the acceptance of Christ and my father never bothered to even ask me why.

JWK: So, your mother died before your father?

JA: Yeah…and my father was a three pack-a-day smoker and fifth-and-a-half a day of booze. It’s interesting. I’m 67-years-old now and my wife and I are having those conversations – like should you go first or should I go first what are you gonna do? You know, it’s a reality. That’s for sure.

JWK: Was your wife a believer when she married you?

JA: No. She was raised in a home with Christians that abused her. It took me about two or three weeks just to casually mention to her in a conversation that, you know, “I gave my life to Jesus. She goes “What does that mean?” I said “I’m to love you as Jesus loved the Church which means that He gave His life for the Church. I’m too sacrifice me for you.” She laughed because she knew how selfish I was. It took her a couple of weeks maybe to see the change, I think. She started coming to church with us and pretty quickly just gave her life.

JWK: When you say “with us” you mean who else?

JA: My children. My children were coming with me to church. What I didn’t know was…a lady in our neighborhood was having a little Bible study with the neighborhood children every Saturday. She had asked our permission and I said “I don’t care. What do I care? Get ’em out of our hair for a couple hours.” Anyway, later on that summer my six-year-old son says to me “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” I go “As a matter of fact I have.” He goes “Well, I did in June.” I said “Well, I did in August so you’re the seasoned veteran Christian in this family.” But I never got a chance to thank the lady. He said that they prayed for us every Saturday for weeks. I never got a chance to thank her. They moved away.

JWK: So it sounds like your father and wife were damaged by negative religion?

JA: Oh, sure. It’s interesting. When I got into the 12-step programs those rooms are filled with people who were abused religiously…I didn’t have that baggage. My father told me when I was 14 there was no God and I believed him. So, that was it. That was the extent of my metaphysical beliefs. There is no God. I never thought about it. It wasn’t a point that I needed to argue with anybody. Then I hit 31 and I go into a 12-step program and they say “Pray” and I said “To what?” They said “Well, something bigger than you in this universe.” It’s interesting how arrogant a drunk can be. I go “Is there anything larger than me in the universe? Are you kidding me? I am the center of the universe!” That was the start of the journey. I was like “Okay, if this thing exists I’m gonna find it” – and, boy, who knew?

JWK: How has your comedy changed since then?

JA: It’s a heart change. It was interesting because the material didn’t change much. It was just how it was delivered. The vessel of delivery had changed. There were times my wife would come into a club and hear me talk about our marriage and she’d leave in tears. She’d go “You must hate me!” I’d go “It’s comedy! Comedy is anger!” Anyway, the heart changed. That is all. I just smile a lot more. I’m really just kind of in a better place. When you’re in a better place you’re not confused about the big questions of origin, meaning, morality (and) destiny. They’re all answered in The Bible.

JWK: So, your wife is more down with your comedy now.

JA: Oh, absolutely! People ask “Are you okay with it?” She goes “As long as the check clears!”

JWK: You talk in the book about the importance of finding your life’s purpose. Is comedy your life purpose. Is that your ministry, in a way?

JA: It is…I don’t know if you’ve heard to phrase tikkun olam. In the Jewish faith God knows the world is broken. He knows this. So he’s charged the Jewish people to repair a broken world. So your tikkun olam is what are you doing to repair the broken world? This is my tikkun olam.

JWK: Interesting.

JA: Yeah, it is…It’s funny. I went to a rabbi here in Nashville to make sure I wasn’t bastardizing it for the Christian faith. He basically said “No, that’s it. What are we doing to repair this world?”

JWK: Do you feel that the world is broken right now?

JA: Oh, absolutely…Somebody once said that the sinful nature of man is probably one of the most empirically verifiable facts and one of the most vociferously denied facts in our world. It’s funny. When I got on my knees and my friend that was leading me to Jesus goes “Can you admit you’re a sinner?” I go “Well, let’s not go overboard.” Yeah…I know what I am. I know what I am.

JWK: Everybody is

JA: Yeah.

JWK: It seems to me that forgiveness of ourselves and other people is lacking in our culture. I don’t want to put words in your mouth but does make sense to you?

JA: I think there’s certainly there’s a lack of forgiveness and grace which is the foundation of the Christian faith. With Cancel Culture, it isn’t enough to disagree with somebody. You need to crush them and ruin their lives. That’s on a broader spectrum. I am fortunate and blessed that I get to do fundraisers for ministries that the world will never see outside of the communities that they’re in.

One of my favorite stories, I was down in Alabama in the middle of nowhere doing a fundraiser for a young man. I said “What’s your ministry?” He said simply “I teach middle class skills to men coming out of prison.” I go “What do you mean?” He goes “Stuff you take for granted that your parents taught you. You know, if you go on a job interview you take a shower, you clean up, you make sure you brush your teeth and you put deodorant on.” I mean these are all just basic things. He said “These guys have never been taught that stuff. So, this is what I do. I get them ready for the job market when they come out.” I said “Did you always want to do that?” He goes “Oh, gosh, no!” He goes “I went to Harvard. I have an MBA from Harvard. I was gonna go to New York and run a hedge fund. About a year-and-a-half into that I left and came down here.” I said “What happened?” He goes “God happened.”…What a great picture of a young guy just sitting there going “I’m gonna go to New York and I’m gonna make millions of dollars” and God just goes and breathes into him and he says “Well, maybe I’ll go to Alabama and work with these prisoners.” Nobody will ever see that. This is the kind of stuff that keeps me going.

I try not to watch too much news but if you watch what’s going on it’s easy to get sucked into that vortex of negativity. The world is just on this crash course. I get see (the good stuff) first hand. I was in Corpus Christi recently for Catholic Charities. The work they’re doing in Corpus Christi is just amazing with the single mothers, food banks, clothing and all this stuff that they’re doing in their communities that, again, the world will never see because it’s not news. We have a news cycle that’s says “If it bleeds it leads” – and it’s 24/7.  Think about that? How is that gonna benefit humanity?

JWK: It does seem like there’s a vested interest in keeping people divided and fighting.

JA: Absolutely – and there comes a point when you look at it and you go it’s by design. It’s evil. It’s just flat-out evil. A decent leadership would be trying everything it could to do to bring the populace together and it just seems like it’s the other way around. In the middle of all that are believers trying to do the right thing – extending forgiveness and grace. You hope they are. Jesus said “You’re gonna be punished for your belief in Me.” I think those days are coming but, in the meantime, I’m just I’m just out trying to make people laugh and share the Word when I can.

JWK: How did you get started in the comedy business?

JA: I was in Chicago. I was working for a jewelry company. We finished setting up a jewelry show near O’Hare Airport and somebody said “Hey, you want to go to a comedy club? And I wanted to do this. It was interesting. My brother was a musician and he had some comedians open for him one night and I thought “Man! Wouldn’t that be the coolest thing?! How do you this?!” It’s not part of a job fair. You don’t into a high school and they got a comedy booth set up – “Here’s how you start in comedy clubs.” This was 1978. Comedy clubs were just kinda starting. They’d been in New York and LA for years but they weren’t in Chicago. Anyway, I went to this club and I just got hooked. That was it. I was there every night.

JWK: You’re famous for coining the phrase “Happy wife, happy life.” How did that come about?

JA: I’m laying in bed with my wife one day and she said it, I didn’t. She said “Happy wife! Happy life!” I looked at her and I go “That’s kinda catchy. Where’d you read that?” She goes “Oh, it just popped into my head.” So, anyway, I ran with it for a while…We had it trademarked for a number of years. It just became so ubiquitous I got accused of stealing it so I just quit using it.

JWK: I also understand you took advice from Jerry Seinfeld who told you to be funny for 300-million people rather than 300 people in comedy clubs.

JA: Right.

JWK: What does that mean?

JA: We were talking after a show. I had never met him. We had just worked together and I’ve never seen him since. He said “The key is the box.” That “box” (was) the television. At that time there was HBO and Showtime but, for the most part, you were trying to get on The Tonight Show and Letterman. Those were the shows and you had to be clean. He said “Why do you want to work dirty for 300 people?”…I thought about it when I went home. It wasn’t really until my kid got caught cussing in school. He was in fourth grade and go caught cussing. We got called in. My wife and I were driving home and talking. It’s really not very flattering as a parent to have that stuff coming out of your child’s mouth. I had told the teacher “I’d love to be able to look you in the eye and say “I have no idea how that child (heard those words).’ I had him in a club in Queens when he was five because I couldn’t get a babysitter. So, I brought him to work with me. They (both) had been in comedy clubs since they were very little. They heard it all.

JWK: I think sometimes people think it’s prudish not to use that language but I think of it as a good discipline to avoid those words.

JA: Yeah, absolutely. My father probably had one of the best vocabularies of anybody I’ve ever me or known. If my father had to look up a word it was in the unabridged dictionary. There was never a word he needed to look up that was in the abridged dictionary – and he cussed like a lunatic! (But) He told me that swearing is the “crutch of the lazy.” If I cuss today it’s on the golf course. I still haven’t been able to figure out how not to hit 16 bad shots and (not cuss).

JWK: Here’s my theory. Cursing has a purpose. If you hit your thumb with a hammer and you curse, it’s better than throwing the hammer at somebody but in comedy – or in any kind of civil discourse – it doesn’t belong.

JA: I’ll never forget this quote. I read it in a Kurt Vonnegut book years ago: “Profanity gives people permission not to hear what you have to say.” I learned that when we had bill collectors calling us. The minute I cussed they hung up the phone. I gave them permission to hang up. That’s a fact. As soon as you swear at somebody they can turn around on their heels or they can punch you in the face. They’ve got permission to do things. For me and for what I do, (learning that) changed everything because I had to get a thesaurus out. I’m a storyteller. I didn’t realize how much I relied on that kind of language…It was a gift, really, to try to clean everything up.

JWK: What do you think makes something funny?

JA: Truth. I find something that has some truth to it and kind of bring it to an absurd place. I put words in my wife’s mouth but it starts with the truth. For instance, we watch TV and my wife will pause the TV and then say things. We’re like in the middle of a movie! It makes you wonder what the heck is she thinking about? So, anyway, we’re watching TV like a month ago. She pauses it and says “You need to get your nose hairs trimmed.”

JWK: My wife tells me that all the time.

JA: But in the middle of a movie?! What do you say?! So, anyway, the joke was “I think she’s having conversations in her head that I’m not privy to and then she brings me in at the conclusion. You know, the whole time I’m watching the movie she’s going ‘Look at him over there sitting there with all that shaggy stuff hanging out of his nose! Gosh, that’s disgusting! I can’t even watch the movie!’ Anyway, she pauses and goes ‘Go trim your nose hairs! I can’t even watch this movie!'” That, to me, is funny. You don’t know what’s funny to the rest of the audience but the fact is you just said that “My wife tells me that all the time.” That’s where the relationship comes in. You relate to that. It’s like “Yeah, I never thought about it So, I’m not alone. One, that helps. I’m not alone! Other people have this issue with their spouse.” So, anyway, that’s one example. For me, Cosby was one of my favorite comics because there was truth to everything he talked about.

JWK: Of course, he’s much more controversial today than he used to be.

JA: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a sad thing. I don’t know if you watch Dave Chappelle but I was kind of in his camp. I was like the last one to come out (and say) “I think he did it.” Chappelle said something like “Okay, fourteen women accused him. Let’s just say (for the sake of argument) twelve of them were moneygrubbers just going after the cash. Well, that means he did two.”

JWK: It definitely seems that way. The Cosby Show though did focus on those smalls truths in life you talked about. Another show like that was Everybody Loves Raymond.

JA: Oh, absolutely.

JWK: Do you have any favorite sitcoms?

JA: I love Seinfeld. I came to that really late. I think it was like in the last season or the season before the last (that) I started watching reruns on the road. It was just so well done. Everybody Loves Raymond was just great. The relationships with the parents, again you just know people like this. One of my favorite shows of all time was The Rockford Files. I don’t know if you ever watched that.

JWK: Oh, yeah. Great show.

JA: Usually the episode would begin with a knock on his trailer door. He’d open the door and a fist would fly through and punch him in the face and then that was usually traced back to his friend Angel. Everybody had a friend like Angel. You know, you’d just let him hang around – but what a dirtbag!

JWK: Would you ever want to do a show of your own?

JA: I did a pilot in 2000. It didn’t get picked up. I just did a little trailer for a girl here in Nashville. She wrote a pilot script called The Girl in the Church Pants. I would play a conservative pastor of a dying church. They’re actually planning to crowdfund it.

JWK: I’ll wrap this up. What do you hope readers take from your book?

JA: Wow, there’s a lot…One, there’s hope…If they’ve never looked at Jesus or they’ve looked at what the culture says about Jesus, I hope I expressed and honored the truth of Him which is a peace that comes from the Holy Spirit…He’s alive! We don’t worship a dead idol. We don’t worship a rock  or a stick or even a candle. The Holy Spirit is real and true and there’s a peace that comes with that…It was something that I didn’t have for years. I didn’t realize it until I got it. The weight of this world can just crush you. Your circumstances do not define you. Jesus will walk you through any problem. The problems don’t go away. That’s for sure but with that understanding there is another day and, at some point, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. What we went through – Tami and I – basically would destroy (any) marriage (but) we got through it all through leaning on Him.

John W. Kennedy is a writer, producer and media development consultant specializing in television and movie projects that uphold positive timeless values, including trust in God.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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