I have to say that when I first got Susan’s email responses to my interview questions, I was totally stunned. How many artists take a day job that is outside of their true passion, just to make ends meet, and then find themselves staring their true calling in the face time and time again? Susan Sparks is a stand up comedian & pastor. Today she shares her story of how a religiously apathetic lawyer became the only comedian (that we know of) in the country with a pulpit.
Tell us about yourself.
I am the only female standup comedian in the country with a pulpit. Perhaps my life path is best captured in a quote from my favorite movie Kung Fu Panda: “our destiny is usually found on the road we take to avoid it.”
The story started many years ago when I was working as a trial lawyer. I knew my heart was being called elsewhere–but I had no idea how that would work. Specifically, I was feeling a call to the ministry. However, given that I was a beer drinking standup comedian (and didn’t particularly care for organized religion) there was a significant disconnect.
Yet, as much as I tried, I could never shake that nagging feeling that I had to change. So I left the practice and traveled around the world hoping to find any kindred spirits. I traveled for two years doing everything from working for Mother Teresa and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro to driving my Jeep Wrangler from NYC to Alaska. When I returned, I was clear that I was meant to go into the ministry-standup comedy and all. So, I entered seminary and wrote a Masters Thesis on humor and the sacred entitled “Laughing Your Way to Grace.” After three years of seminary, and then ordination, I am now the senior pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church and the first woman in its 161 year history. I am also a working standup. My current shows are with a standup Rabbi and a Muslim comedian.
Where did you study or get your training?
My standup training I got at several places: American Comedy Institute in NYC, Improv classes and Caroline’s Comedy Club standup workshops. I went to seminary at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
How do your jobs as a minister & comedian compliment each other?
My job as a minister and a comedian are quite similar. To be really good in either, you have to stand in solidarity with folks through all the crazy, ridiculous and even painful places in life. Humor is a healing tool that brings perspective, patience, understanding and healing. It allows folks the courage to face down difficult places. It lifts people up. I’ve always said comedy club patrons want to think and congregations want to laugh. Why not satisfy all of them?
What is one thing about your current career that you didn’t anticipate when you were younger? How did your career evolve in ways you didn’t expect?
I didn’t expect that I could find a career where I could bring all of who I am to what I do. Especially as a standup comedian, where was I going to find a home in the church? Please. But, paths open up that you never expect and here I am negotiating a career that up until now did not exist.
If you could give other artists advice about money or getting started in their career, what would you say?
I’d encourage them to ask themselves a couple of questions:
If you dropped all the “hows” and “I’m not qualified” or “I could never do that” or “I need more money” stuff—what would you most love to do?
What do you daydream about?
What do you do in your free time?
What do you read?
What do you enjoy talking about?
Answer these questions–then go after it with everything you have. Whatever you do, don’t wake up one morning after a long career in something you hate and realize… forty years are gone and you can’t get them back.