As an ordained minister and Christian comedian, Robert Duckworth has sometimes found himself gazing at that amorphous line that can oftentimes separates humor from holy. Like the time early on when he joked about the two thieves crucified along with Jesus.
“I said one of those thieves had to be a brother, because he knew an opportunity and a hookup when he saw it,” Duckworth said, referring to the repentant thief who besought Jesus for salvation.
“I remember when I did that joke, something hit me on that stage like, ‘this ain’t it for you,’ and I kinda let off,” Duckworth recalled.
Nearly 20 years later, finding that line (and not crossing it) has become a lot easier, he says.
Last Friday (June 24), Duckworth brought his act to Charlotte’s First Baptist Church-West as part of the congregation’s Men’s Weekend celebration. The following Sunday, he delivered the morning message.
I caught up with Duckworth after his standup performance to talk about his life on the stage as well as in the pulpit. We also talked about the influence that Bill Cosby had in shaping his definition of comedy.
Q. Which came first: preaching or comedy?
Comedy came first, in 1998. And then I accepted a call to ministry in 2004. But I’ve seen how the two have married each other in many ways… Over time, I found that comedy made me more comfortable standing in front of audiences and presenting the Word of God in a very comfortable, nonthreatening manner. I definitely think it has helped with my preaching. Comedy came in my life to prepare me for ministry.
Q. How has it made you a better preacher?
Well, I’m very comfortable on stage. I interject a lot of humor into my sermons; I do a lot of illustrations. I’ll put a point in there and use an example in real life and make it humorous. It just naturally comes out. I think that’s what the Lord was doing…preparing me for the pulpit.
Q. How often do you perform standup?
It varies. I’m doing so many things now. I’m a licensed counselor, so I work for the juvenile system. I have my own private practice. So it goes in peaks and valleys. Now I’m back in it, and I’m doing more entertainment. I’m looking in the next few months to probably do once a month or twice a month.
Q. Do you ever run across people who say faith and comedy shouldn’t mix?
I run across it, and I love when I run across it. I have had so many of them – large churches in Dallas – where the pastor would come up to me afterwards and say, “I didn’t know how this was going to work, but this worked.” You walk a fine line. But pastors walk a fine line when they preach. It’s no different. If I feel there is something that’s displeasing to God, I won’t do the material. I don’t do it. I could write all kinds of crazy material, but I would never present something like that – I just couldn’t.
Q. You do a mean Barack Obama impersonation. How long did it take for you to perfect that?
Watching him over the last seven or eight years – watching and liking some things that he’s done…he’s on the news all the time — I’ve honed that over a while. YouTube is our best friend. When I started doing comedy, we had none of this. Now you can go on there and look at things and kind of critique how you’re doing. I’ve always been an impressionist and doing different voices and stuff.
Q. Who inspires you as a comedian?
It’s hard to say it with all that he has going on, but as a child, I watched Bill Cosby. That’s who inspired me. He was clean, at least on the stage, as far as I knew. He had a clean act, he talked about family, and I just naturally liked that. It appealed to audiences. I had an opportunity to meet him one time in New York, and it was good. I know a lot of things that have come up with him now and what’s come up in the news…and I don’t have all the facts…and it hurts to hear those kinds of things, but I thought a lot of Bill Cosby. I still do; his comedy is great.
Q. Who inspires you as a preacher?
I wouldn’t say I have an inspiration as a preacher. I’ve been inspired by pastors and ministers – two different things. Preaching is a presentation of the Gospel and the truth, and it’s critical; you have to have that. But I don’t follow any one certain style of preaching. I try to model myself after people like Dr. (Ricky A.) Woods (of First Baptist Church-West) here; he’s one of my mentors in ministry…and his heart for the people. So when I preach, you’re seeing my heart for the people come out. So I probably model the ministry and the work they’re doing. Preaching is only 10 percent. I learned that when I first got in ministry. The rest of it is doing…putting your hands on the lives of people, the pulse of the church.
Q. Many churches are struggling now, especially mainstream denominations. What do you make of this?
I had the privilege of pastoring a church, and I do mean privilege. It helped me to see how churches…were caught up in a lot of tradition – traditions that are what I call nonessential. They have nothing to do with the message of Jesus Christ. They think it does, but it’s not. I think a lot of time the way cultures change, the way society is changing, those traditions don’t fit, but the gospel message never changes. I think a lot of time we’ve lost our way in churches getting caught up in tradition. I think that’s a big challenge. But at the same time, I still believe in some of the evangelism that I do. The world is still hungry for what the church has to offer. So the church isn’t dead yet, and it ain’t gonna die. It will be here. God will always preserve a remnant. And as times change and the political climate in these United States changes, you’re going to see more people turn to the church, and we need to be ready for that.
About Robert Duckworth
Born: Crossett, Arkansas
Associate Minster: Mt. Hebron Missionary Baptist Church, Garland, Texas
Undergraduate: North Carolina A&T State University
Postgraduate: Dallas Theological Seminary
Fraternity: Kappa Alpha Psi
Family: Wife, three children