By Jeff Brumley
Nowadays, comedian Michael Joiner is billed as “God’s Smart Aleck” to gently remind audiences that his clean humor comes from a Christian perspective. But there was a time when the Indiana native, raised a Baptist, was anything but gentle, seeing comedy instead as an opportunity to preach the specter of eternal damnation.
“When I first started out doing comedy, they called me the hell-fire-and-brimstone comedian because I had no segue from my last joke to ‘you’re going to hell,’” Joiner said.
But the Indiana native’s evangelism has evolved in sophistication and balance since the early 1990s, helping launch an acclaimed stand-up and film acting career.
He recently shot 11 Seconds, with Casper Von Dien (the lead in Starship Troopers). He played the lead role in Sony Pictures’ 2011 police drama The Grace Card with Louis Gossett Jr. Joiner has performed in Broken Faith and The Identical, which also starred Ray Liotta, Seth Green, Ashley Judd and Joe Pantoliano.
These and other film roles occurred since 2009, when a crashing economy and five years of auditions – 350 by Joiner’s count – without a major film role sent him and his family packing from Los Angeles to Kansas City, his wife’s home town.
“I was devastated and I was praying about what to do,” he said of being a trained actor and comedian living in the Midwest. “I felt God didn’t want me to stop acting.”
A couple of months later he got a call from the makers of a Christian film called The Grace Card. They wanted him for the lead role.
“I was skeptical because up to then I hadn’t seen very many Christian films that looked good – and they didn’t pay well either,” he said. “But when I looked at the script, I was blown away by how good it was – very touching and very edgy.”
Making that film, which was picked up by Sony, opened the door to one role after another, and along with them glowing reviews from secular sources like The Hollywood Reporter and Variety.
And all this was happening while Joiner defied conventional wisdom by staying in Kansas City.
“It’s a real answer to prayer because I didn’t want to raise my family in L.A.,” he said. “I wanted to raise them in the Midwest where biblical values aren’t as frowned upon.”
While raised in Baptist churches, Joiner now attends his wife’s Assembly of God church. “I call myself a Bapticostal,” he said.
It’s not that Joiner is hiding his values from Hollywood or anyone else by staying in Kansas. The actor-comedian said comedy club owners, churches, movie directors and film directors all know about his faith. And Joiner guesses there are many roles he’s probably not been offered because of it.
“Sometimes they aren’t going to hire you,” he said. “I am in the minority.”
But it’s not because he’s known for Bible thumping on sets. Joiner said he brings a sense of balance to his witness. “You’re there to show them who Christ really is, and you can’t go in there with your big Bible and telling them the rules and expecting them to say, ‘gee, I want to be like that guy.’”
Instead, Scripture calls for Christians to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves, Joiner said. In acting and in Hollywood that means showing up on time, knowing your lines and saying no to roles if they compromise your beliefs. “God will use that,” Joiner said. “God will use whatever seeds we plant.”
He added that it’s a similar model being adopted by Christian filmmakers. A growing number of faith-based films are coming with high budgets, solid scripts, good actors and messages beyond “who wants to be born again?”
“People go to movies to be entertained and if you are going to entertain you have to be quality,” Joiner said. “Then you can throw in your message and you don’t necessarily have to call it a Christian movie.”
The indirect approach has proven to work in films where secular and other non-Christian values are promoted. It’s because audiences don’t want to be preached to, he said. “If they want a sermon, they’ll go to church,” he said. “So you have to do what the world does, which is subtly put your worldview in there.”
The same is true for personal evangelism, he added. “Christians need not be afraid to be subtle evangelists.”
But Joiner is decidedly overt with his Christian message during stand-up comedy routines, and especially so when performing for church audiences. His routines inlude non-Christian jokes with the good-natured jabs at Baptists and Pentecostals woven in. But he always includes in some form a message that God can rebuild lives no matter how broken they are.
But whether it’s on a Hollywood film set or in a sanctuary in Indiana, Joiner said he sometimes still finds ways to rub people the wrong way. “If you’re not offending someone every once in a while, you’re probably not living like Jesus.”