For the Rev. Susan Sparks and Rabbi Bob Alper, comedy didn’t just build a bridge — it built a stage.
On that stage, Sparks and Alper tell jokes, usually along with one of a rotating cast of Muslim comedians, as part of the Laugh in Peace Tour. The pair will hold a conversation on “The Spirituality of Laughter” at 2 p.m. Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy as part of the Interfaith Lecture Series. Sparks is also the chaplain-in-residence for Week Six, “The Spiritual Power of Humor.” The duo will also bring their stand-up show to Chautauqua Institution, with “They Went to Seminary for This?” at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Athenaeum Hotel parlor.
“People see laughter as a diversion, a distraction, but we recognize it as much more than that — it’s actually spiritual,” said Alper, who has been a comic for 28 years.
Both Alper and Sparks will have time to talk individually, which Sparks said is good because they are coming from very different religious and personal experiences, even though they have worked together closely.
They will also both address the healing that can be found in comedy.
Sparks said she leaned hard into humor when she battled breast cancer, and it helped remind her that her illness did not define her.
“To be able to laugh in the face of pain helps you feel a little stronger, stand a little taller,” Sparks said.
Sometimes, laughter is the only thing that can heal hurt. That is part of the reason Alper added Muslim comics to the Laugh in Peace Tour after 9/11. The hope was that by having comics of different faiths laugh with one another — instead of about one another — they could break some stereotypes and heal old divides. They said they’ve had some successes and failures.
Alper said he likes to say that the group is modeling friendship, and was able to see that crystallize at a college where they performed. At the show, Alper noticed that the presidents of the Muslim and Jewish student groups, which were both sponsoring the event, were talking about making plans.
When he asked the student leaders about their relationship later, they told Alper that they had only just met even though their offices were across the hall.
Sparks said there have also been struggles in their work. They once played three back-to-back shows in Washington, D.C., and the surrounding areas, and noticed that the last one was pretty empty. When she asked, the organizer said a group of churches had banded together to boycott their show because of the interfaith comics.
Although this upset Sparks, she said it also motivated her to do more shows and preach more about interfaith work. She said the shows are usually successful, though.
“Hopefully, if we do our job by the end of the show, they leave there bonded as a community,” Sparks said.
The comedy duo also uses humor in their everyday religious work. Sparks is well known for her particular brand of preaching as the first female senior pastor of the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City. Sparks came to acclaim with her seminary thesis, “Laughing Your Way to Grace.” She said humor must be included in church because it is a piece of humanity God needs to be able to heal his people.
Alper served congregations for 14 years and is now a full-time comedian, but he still preaches during High Holiday services. He joked that his days in front of congregations gave him experience with a “hostile audience,” but he will always be a rabbi.
“My rabbinate, the way I function as a rabbi, is by helping people laugh,” Alper said.