The Rev. Al Staggs can trace his love of comedic performance back to one moment when he was 17: His mother, who suffered from lifelong depression related to an abusive, alcoholic husband and the early deaths of her parents, was ironing bed sheets with a sad expression on her face. To cheer her up, Staggs jumped in front of her and impersonated comedian Jonathan Winters’ grandmotherly character Maude Frickert, wearing a wig, high heels and a dress. His mother laughed so hard that she sobbed.
In discovering his talent for character impersonations, Staggs began to understand the importance of practicing comedy not just for entertainment, but also as a gift from God. He travels the globe performing a “Laughter for Life” program for churches, seminaries, colleges and conferences with the message of humor’s positive effects on all aspects of life.
Staggs will give an Interfaith Lecture at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy, along with any characters he may bring along — everyone from Robin Williams to Bill Clinton.
He worked for 24 years as a Baptist minister, often slipping into character in the beginning of his sermons to tell an amusing anecdote. Paul Lynde, a comedian well known for his repeating guest role on the show “Hollywood Squares,” was Staggs’ favorite character to impersonate during church.
He mentioned Jacqueline Bussie, who discussed Western Christianity’s historical aversion to humor in her book, The Laughter of the Oppressed. She tries to rectify the idea that humor has no place in religion and that Jesus never laughed.
“I think [religion] is serious, of course — but there’s something more,” Staggs said. “There’s also the possibility of joy. I think about Apostle Paul enumerating the gifts of the spirit, and joy is the second one.”
Staggs became a hospital chaplain in 1999, and in this capacity, he began to utilize humor more frequently. Some patients would request specific impersonations during his visits, such as Jerry Lewis or Gomer Pyle. He believed that using humor allowed his patients to relax, as they could view him as a human being rather than just as a pastor.
“I felt that it was also giving grace to the patient,” he said. “It was helping the patient feel more human when they had perhaps felt as though they were an object of medicine.”
Staggs points to moments in history such as the Holocaust and American slavery as examples of humor‘s use in transcending a horrific experience. Writers such as Elie Wiesel and Cornel West show how people turn to comedy for hope in times of despair.
When he was younger, Staggs and his four siblings had an unspoken pact to have fun, despite the often depressing environment of their house. He has tried to maintain a sense of humor throughout his life.
“Laughter is not merely a luxury,” he said. “It’s essential.”