Voltaire claimed, "God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh." He obviously never attended mass at Toluca Lake United Methodist Church. As Los Angeles' first "Comedy Church," this unique religious institution imbues spiritual ideology with a generous does of mirth.
"From what I can tell from the gospels, Jesus had a great sense of humor, and he loved to play with people's expectations of what was appropriate," says Rev. Jane Voigts, founder of the Comedy Church. "I like to think he would appreciate this take on spiritual life, maybe even skip with me down the center aisle. Wouldn't that be a kick?!"
Its with this positivity that Voigts, known as Pastor Jane to her flock, approaches every aspect of life, even impending fiscal collapse. TLUMC needs to raise $60,000 dollars within the next six months or the church will be forced to close its doors. Yet these storm clouds can't blight Pastor Jane's sunshiny optimism.
"We will continue to develop the Comedy Church even if we have to do it elsewhere," she beams.
It's not just an upbeat attitude that differentiates Pastor Jane from typical religious leaders. One look at her flaxen cascade of hair and cat's-eye frames lets you know this isn't any ordinary cleric. And TLUMC isn't any ordinary religious institution. Pink flamingos greet parishioners as they enter the church. The bathrooms are decorated with 1950s "Church Seats" toilet seat ads. Tuesday nights offer "Improv Bible Study." And of course, every Sunday, Pastor Jane gives her "Comedy Sermons," which temper religious discourse with a Seinfeldian stand up sensibility.
"I look at how the characters in the text, even God sometimes, are acting foolish, or clever, and what transpires as a result," Pastor Jane says. "Sometimes it means I look for what in a particular story seems intended to make me laugh or strike me as patently absurd, and I lift that up to bring a twinkle to the hearer's eye. Sometimes it means I bring a goofy prop to make my point. A favorite has been my sermon on how God is like a pant suit. I don't have that on YouTube so you'll have to come and hear me talk live on this point."
Before becoming a person of the cloth, Voigts was a stand-up comic and improvisor. She founded comedy troupes while attending the Claremont School of Theology, and later while pastoring at Westwood United Methodist Church. She regularly teaches classes on "The Comedy of the Bible."
"The Comedy Church is the next leg of my Yellow Brick Road," she says. Like Dorothy, Jane has attracted a small, eclectic circle to accompany her journey. As of this past Sunday's services, TLUMC's congregation boasts 50 members. What the Comedy Church lacks in numbers, it makes up for in unique talent. During a post-mass interview, several of the young artists in attendance related why they were drawn to the Comedy Church and its star clergywoman.
"When Pastor Jane started talking... I knew I had found something special," says Daniel Franzese, an actor who starred in the movie Mean Girls. "When I saw her dressed up as The Bride of Frankenstein on Halloween for marriage equally, even for the undead, I knew I found my church."
"When you spend the majority of your day by yourself stuck in gridlock, it's easy to lose perspective and forget that in the grand scheme of things, the majority of the things that get to us on a daily basis don't really matter," adds Karen DiConcetto, a one-time member of the pop duo Daphne and Celeste. "Comedy and a close-knit spiritual community are two things that can ground us and perhaps, even eventually eradicate our road rage."
"I came upon this church by accident and I was just looking for a place to get a temporary spiritual fix -- Christian guilt. but I haven't missed a Sunday since," says Bert Royal, writer of the film Easy A. "I've brought in quite a lot of people into the church and we're all such huge fans of Pastor Jane. She's become a life coach for all of us."
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Although the flock's numbers are growing, it may not be enough. "We are supported by the weekly offerings of the congregation, like all churches," Pastor Jane explains. "We also are living off the last vestiges of a very generous gift bequeathed to the church several years ago."
But the coffers are dwindling. Still, Jane maintains her optimism.
"I would love to grow our congregation to several hundred members," she says. "Create comedy-centered mission projects involving clowning and improvisation for healing and peacemaking. Create a large praying mantis with the sign 'Pray Often' and prop it up on our church roof. How helpful that would be for motorists zipping down Cahuenga?"