ÔNip sin in the budÕ
If laughter is truly the best medicine, then Dennis Swanberg, AmericaÕs ÒMinister of Encouragement,Ó is just what the doctor ordered. A pastor for 23 years, the Austin, Texas-born comedian has won the hearts of audiences across the country while ministering in comedy full-time since 1995.
Swanberg takes Barney Fife and more than 20 other lovable impersonations — together with his sidesplitting stories of growing up, families, and the funny side of church — to more than 200,000 people every year. He spoke recently with Associate Editor Scott Harrup.
PE: YouÕre known for your Billy Graham imitation.
SWANBERG: IÕve been watching Billy Graham since I was just a little boy. I remember sitting there in the den and watching him on TV at one of those crusades. At the end of the crusade, heÕd look right into the camera and say:
(Graham) And some of you are watching by way of television and some of you are at your own home. Maybe youÕre sitting at a bar. But I want you to write me. Billy Graham, Minneapolis, Minnesoh-tah É or Winnipeg, Manitoh-bah, É or Obi Wan Kenobi. Just write me.
PE: ThatÕs amazing. I feel like IÕm in a stadium.
SWANBERG: Well heÕs just been a hero. I entertained Dr. Graham and his staff a few years ago. I was at The Cove and weÕre sitting next to each other eating supper before the time of entertainment. And I said, ÒDr. Graham, youÕre my hero. I love you. IÕm an impressionist, a humorist, and I hope you donÕt mind me imitating you in front of your family and staff.Ó And he leaned over and said, ÒYou could take oh-vah.Ó And my first thought was, WhatÕs Franklin going to do?
You know, you imitate people you love and look up to. ItÕs a compliment.
PE: You got your start in comedy in high school?
SWANBERG: If youÕre struggling with the academic side, you end up as the class clown because your mind is going ninety to nothing. You can be impulsive and say things without thinking. Some of itÕs funny and some of itÕs over the borderline. But a lot of humor is close to the edge. ItÕs telling a story, embellishing it, using timing and punch lines.
PE: So the story is the main element?
SWANBERG: People love stories. They love to laugh. ThatÕs why we have The Tonight Show and other shows. People want to chuckle a little before they go to bed. ItÕs been a hard day, a tough day, and you finish it out with a little chuckle.
When I was growing up, we had all those variety shows and comedy shows. Families needed that. They needed good wholesome humor. Like the Andy Griffith ShowÉ
(Barney Fife) Now listen, youÕre just gonna have to nip it in the bud. Nip it, nip it, nip it!
I like to tell the story of the kid in church who heard the preacher ask what we should do with sin, and he stands up and says (Barney Fife) Nip it in the bud! YouÕve got to nip sin in the bud. Nip it, nip it, nip it!
PE: In reality, the gospel is communicated best through stories.
SWANBERG: Jesus was a great storyteller. He always ÒspakeÓ them a parable. Sometimes He would add vivid details to a story to make a point. Think of the man who had the big Õol log in one eye. HeÕs leaning over to another fellow going, ÒHey, you got a little dust in your eye there. You better get that thing out. That could really irritate you.Ó And here the first guy has a log coming out of his eye. ItÕs hilarious. You draw all that out cartoon-fashion.
People think Jesus was serious all the time. But He had to have a sense of humor. I mean, when youÕre hanging around 12 guys, fishermen, theyÕre going to cut up. TheyÕre going to tease.
Now the Pharisees always wanted Jesus to do some exegesis of the Law. But all of a sudden HeÕd speak a parable to them and get them all mad. ItÕs funny, but in church today there are still folks who want to hear a sermon verse by verse. ÒDonÕt apply it to me. Just preach it.Ó They donÕt want application or any pointed illustration.
PE: Any cautions you keep in mind when using humor?
SWANBERG: It needs to be something that both you and the listener understand and get. And it canÕt be something you use to hurt them, but rather something you use to let them know youÕre with them, you understand what theyÕre going through.
When I entertain, I want to make sure that everyone gets it and that no one takes it the wrong way. Everyone needs to be able to laugh.
PE: What do people look for in a comedian?
SWANBERG: They want to know that the speaker lives like they live, drives to the grocery store, drives to the pharmacy drive-through, and gets irritated when the prescription wonÕt go through the pneumatic tubeÉ
(Ross Perot) ThatÕs the biggest sucking sound IÕve ever heardÉ
They relate to that. YouÕve got to be true to yourself, but youÕve got to be able to stretch enough to relate to others. Kind of like what Jesus said about new wineskins. ThatÕs really hard sometimes to do.
PE: You mention relationships. Talk about your family.
SWANBERG: IÕve been married 26 years. My 23-year-old son is an accountant here in Monroe, La., where I live. My youngest is a sophomore in college. TheyÕre rednecks, but I love my boys. Bumper sticker on their pickup truck says, ÒIf it hops, it drops. If it flies, it dies.Ó They ainÕt going to Harvard. But theyÕre smart, theyÕre good boys and they love the Lord.
PE: So has a joke ever got you out of a marital scrape?
SWANBERG: Every now and then, but when youÕve been married 26 years they pretty much know all your material. ItÕs proof that youÕve got to come up with new stuff. Sometimes IÕll pull a new one on her.
PE: How do people respond to your shows?
SWANBERG: I always have people come up and say, ÒI needed that. I havenÕt laughed in a long time. Thank you.Ó And theyÕll tell me, ÒYou have a real ministry.Ó Now IÕve come to the point where I accept that. But years ago I used to ask, ÒLord, can this really be a ministry?Ó But when people who have received it tell you itÕs a ministry, thatÕs more of a validation.
PE: What does God think about comedy?
SWANBERG: Whenever I see my wife or kids laughing hard, I love it. I know theyÕve let go of whatever has been bothering them. In that moment, thereÕs a little season of emptying out all the crud in your heart and soul. And IÕm convinced, if I love to see them enjoy wholesome laughter, how much more does my Heavenly Father love to see His kids happy.
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