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A time to laugh

Christian comedienne, author and recording artist Chonda Pierce has endured more than her share of pain and loss but has found healing through laughter. Often compared to the queen of clean comedy, Minnie Pearl, Chonda appears regularly on the Grand Old Opry Stage in Nashville, Tenn., and maintains a schedule of 90 tour dates per year. Chonda spoke recently with Ashli O’Connell, assistant editor.

Evangel: How did your experiences growing up as a preacher’s kid contribute to what you do today?

Pierce: They contribute greatly. For one thing, a lot of those fun stories from church end up being great material. Preachers’ kids learn to sing in the choir, teach Sunday school and clean the bathrooms before we’re 4 years old. So being in front of people all my life was a great blessing.

Evangel: You’ve had your share of heartache, including your parents’ divorce and the deaths of your two sisters. Did you use humor as a coping mechanism?

Pierce: I can’t say that after the deaths of my sisters I just snapped and decided to cover everything up with humor. My father went through bouts of depression my whole life, even before my sisters passed away, so I had already known how to cover up difficulty. When my sisters died and my parents divorced, that hurt. So then I learned to cover up pain. And it made the recovery process even more difficult.

Ecclesiastes says there is a time to laugh and a time to cry. We have to learn when the right time is. When you don’t know when the right time is, you laugh inappropriately. No one can laugh all the time.

Evangel: How did you get your start in comedy?

More about Chonda

Age: 40

Husband: David Pierce

Children: Chera Kay (16) and Zachary (10)

Honors and awards: Winner of the Grady Nutt Humor Award at the 2000 Gospel Music Association awards; her performance video Having a Girls’ Night Out (Myrrh 1998) was certified gold.

Pierce: A theme park in Nashville called Opryland USA was here for years and years and was one of the best places for a teen-ager in Nashville to get a good job — a clean place to work, reasonable hours, good pay. I tried out for one of the shows. The first year I didn’t make it. I found out later it was because I was too skinny — oh, how I’d love to have those years back.

So I auditioned again the next year, and I got hired. The only way I could keep my job was to impersonate Minnie Pearl, because it was the one job in the show that would excuse me from the big dance number, which I was terrible at. And so in God’s providence I got a part in a show where five times a day, seven days a week, I had to make people laugh. It was at a time when I didn’t feel like life was very funny.

Evangel: So this job began a healing process for you?

Pierce: You know how you just float along in a fog or a haze just trying to get through the days? That’s what grief does. It just hangs like a cloud for a while. And in that cloud of grief, in order to make a living and to pay my college tuition, I got a job making people laugh. I got to experience firsthand what it means in Proverbs that laughter doeth good like medicine. It was medicine for me first. It changed everything — from not only a healing process that began but also an eye-opener to performing. I found that I loved hearing people laugh much more than the applause after I sang. I fell in love with comedy.

Evangel: Tell me about your relationship with Minnie Pearl.

Pierce: Miss Minnie was a fan of the young people at Opryland. She would encourage them in their performance interests. One day my boss said to me, "Sarah Cannon would like to meet you after the show. She thinks you did a good job." At the time I didn’t even know that Sarah Cannon was Minnie Pearl.

She thought I did a pretty good likeness of impersonating her and had a good sense of timing, so I started getting a little extra work impersonating her on the side. Down through the years, I would do events with her, and we had a little routine going.

The Holy Spirit really used her to speak to me. One night backstage she asked me if I liked this kind of thing, and I said, "Yes, ma’am, I do. I really like this."

And she said, "Well, honey, you’ll never really know what laughter is until you make peace with God and know Him first." I’m certain that as a godly woman she could sense the anger and the bitterness and that cutting edge that sometimes you get when you’re unhappy.

Evangel: What is life like in the Pierce home?

Pierce: My son is a big cutup and seems to know no strangers. My daughter is more serious. She takes after her father. I grew up in a Nazarene church, and my husband grew up Southern Baptist. Now we go to a Pentecostal church. We have a diverse life. I’m real excited that, because the Holy Spirit is such a part of our lives, our home doesn’t have a whole lot of sarcasm in it. That’s a sweet, sweet reprieve. I remember how lonely it can feel when you’re using laughter in an unhealthy way.

Evangel: To what do you attribute the rise of comedy as a ministry venue?

Pierce: The term Christian comedienne raises eyebrows for people who need to give Christianity a new look and another chance. For those of us who need a new way to evangelize, comedy is appealing. It’s appealing even nationwide. Just like the rise of sitcoms on TV. That is the nationwide appeal to humor. I’m really grateful and excited that the church embraces this idea as well because who should be happier in the world than us? We know how the story ends; we’re heading home. Now it doesn’t mean we don’t have problems and we don’t grieve or have struggles, but in our spirits we’re free.

Evangel: Anything else?

Pierce: My pastor and my mother have been two of the most incredible people at teaching me to be salt and light in a dark world. As a comedienne and a Christian entertainer, I get more work in the corporate world and on national TV because the world is generally pretty sick of the vulgar stuff. My pastor has been good to help me accept the role that God has given me to be salt and light in an odd way. It’s a precious gift that I don’t take for granted.

 

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