Ms. Sparks and Rabbi Alper, invited as part of the seminary’s “field-based” program to teach some of the intangibles of ministry not covered in the divinity curriculum, surveyed the arc of potentially humorous situations — including weddings, funerals and long, hot summer days when even the sermonizer can lose the thread of a sermon.
They discussed the often-overlooked humor in some passages of the Bible, including Jesus’ use of irony and exaggeration, and the ribaldry in the Book of Esther. They reviewed the basic etiquette of being funny at a funeral. (“It has to be very carefully done,” Rabbi Alper said.) They talked technique — how it helps to edit sermons, to stay topical and to use small words.
But both Ms. Sparks and Rabbi Alper took pains to assert — as almost all comedians who talk about comedy do — that being funny is a serious business.
“Being a comedian and being a minister are basically about the same thing, which is making people feel less alone,” Ms. Sparks said. “I think of it as a rhetorical tool that can reach people in a way that no other rhetorical tool can reach them.”
Ms. Sparks, 48, has made double careers a trademark of her life. Before entering divinity school in 1999, she worked for 15 years as a corporate lawyer while moonlighting as a country singer and comedian. (When she gave up her legal practice, she gave up country singing.)
During their class, she and Rabbi Alper, 65, swerved between riffing on a sampling of their funniest material and exploring what they called “the theological underpinnings of religion and humor”: using humor in interfaith bridge-building, making jokes during hard times, and the rhetoric of being funny.