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Sean SalaiMay 06, 2015
Judy McDonald with her service dog Daisy (NICK ABADILLA PHOTOGRAPHY: courtesy USD Magazine)

Judy McDonald is an American Catholic stand-up comedienne based in San Diego, Calif. Since 1994 she has performed her faith-based stand-up routine in TV shows, military bases, conferences, comedy clubs and parishes. She has also worked for the Republican National Convention, the Commission on Presidential Debates and the Academy Awards.

Ms. McDonald has appeared on the Dennis Miller show and opened for Paula Poundstone, Mark Curry, Caroline Rea and Margaret Cho. She has performed at the Hollywood Comedy Store and is a regular at the best of San Diego at the La Jolla Comedy Store. She has also worked in Catholic youth ministry with Life Teen International. She studied at the University of San Diego and worked throughout college at KFMB AM/FM/TVstudios.

On April 21, I interviewed Ms. McDonald by email about her work and faith.

You’ve been doing Catholic stand-up comedy routines since 1994. How is that working for you?

It beats working! I simply can't imagine doing anything else. I feel blessed to hand people my business card, which says “Judy McDonald—Catholic Comedian.” You should see the look on their faces!

How would you describe your style of comedy?

I was going to answer that I don't like labels, but then I guess I would have to get my 5,000 “Catholic Comedian” cards reprinted. I suppose I am an observational comic, but then aren't all comedians? I used to go through writing dry spells when I seemingly couldn't come up with new material because the comedy well was dry. That's when the Holy Spirit, or my “Ghost Writer,” really kicked in and I understood that God is a great comedic writer. I didn't need to reinvent the wheel; I simply needed to report on what happens. Sometimes it feels like I'm cheating, but really I'm just tapping into what I believe to be a working relationship with the Holy Spirit. To me, when everything clicks it affirms that this is where I'm supposed to be, this is what I'm supposed to be doing.

What’s the goal of your work?

Well, first and foremost it is to make people laugh. It’s the first thing they teach you at comedian school. Make ’em laugh. They even wrote a song about it. But my work has certainly changed over the last 20 years. At first my goal was the thrill of getting up on stage and using words to make a crowd of strangers laugh. But now it's not just one goal. I can share that one of my goals is to make people laugh—not just any kind of laughter, but hopefully laughter from a place of pure joy. That is to say, I try to use humor derived not from tearing others down, but from the kind of joy God intended us to have.

Another goal I have is to show others that as Catholics we can have fun! Joy can be a very real part of your life. Of course pain, suffering, sickness is also part of our lives—but if you accept that fact, you must accept that joy is also part of our lives and our Catholicism. I think at times we tend to separate our Catholicism from our secular lives, but I want to bridge that gap. Why on earth should we? As youth ministers we preach to the teens, “don't act one way at youth group and another way at school,” and then we turn around and do the same thing! God wants to be right in the middle of everything: what we watch on TV, what we listen to, what we laugh at.

With my comedy I hope to help other Catholics realize it's also ok to laugh at ourselves. We are not God and we are not perfect! If we are able to laugh and delight in how very human we are, I believe we can also have a greater appreciation of how immense and loving God is.

My other goal with my stand-up is simple. Comedy is a great equalizer. After 45 minutes or an hour of listening to my comedy, I hope an audience is more open to the gospel message, plain and simple. They can see how honest I am being with them and hopefully relate to my shtick. They trust me, and when I talk about Jesus or my faith, they perhaps hear what they have grown up hearing for years in a new light. Hello, New Evangelization!

What inspired you to be a professional comedienne?

I'm the youngest and favorite of three girls. My sisters are 10 and 11 years older, so subsequently I grew up around older people because I accompanied my parents to a lot of parties when I was little. I grew up listening to conversations and I think learned very young how to get and keep the attention of a group of people. I also remember I never got in trouble for saying things as long as those adults laughed at what I said. I remember it being a big deal sneaking out to the family room while my dad was watching shows like "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" and "Benny Hill." Although I didn't know what was going on, I knew it was something special and I knew the people on TV were making my daddy laugh—plus I was staying up late! It wasn’t until college and my first time doing stand-up that I thought for the first time I could make a living being a professional comedian. I knew I was funny and could make my friends and family laugh, but there's something that clicks inside of you the first time you make a group of strangers laugh. Still, to this day I am amazed that people think I'm funny. Sometimes I ask, “Did my mom call ahead and ask you to laugh?” But that's only happened twice.  

Who are some of the biggest influences on your comedy?

Growing up I got my fill on Johnny Carson, Bob Newhart, Tim Conway, Don Rickles. I also loved Bing Crosby and maybe had an unhealthy obsession with him. I watched all the old road movies with Bing and Bob Hope, which was a “gateway drug” into other movies and other comedic actors of the late 40’s and the 50’s. Maybe Bing Crosby doesn’t spring to mind when you think about “comedy influence,” but something great singers and comedians both need to have is timing—and, boy, did Der Bingle have it! Appreciating movies and songs from that era helped me set the bar for what kind of performer I wanted to be.

I absolutely love Robin Williams because of his style, particularly his ability to go and let the characters/voices take him. And he was heavily influenced by Jonathon Winters. I also adore those two because they were plagued by depression, and of course we know Robin took his own life. Comics like that use all of it and I admire that. They don't squelch their off-stage demons in their act but embrace it all. I try to do that too with my PTSD and my service dog. I talk about it all because it's what makes me, me.

In the last 21 years, other than in the clubs, I don't watch comedians on TV because I don't want to inadvertently steal material—or worse, hear someone doing some of my shtick! There is a theory that there are no new jokes, only new slants on them. I have a love/hate relationship with that theory. I have little respect, as do most comedians, for those who steal jokes. But at the same time, I respect those who take an old tired concept and rework it into their own because of how they see it.

You’ve done stand-up in comedy clubs, television shows, and parishes. What have been some personal highlights of your career to date?

I would be lying if I didn't say playing with the chimpanzee Dennis Miller had on his show after I performed my set. First of all, performing stand-up on TV, lifelong dream! Then the added bonus of my childhood dream of playing with a monkey. Yes, I know a chimpanzee isn't technically a monkey, but I'm a comedian not a zoologist! It was just a surreal day.

Another highlight and one I would love to repeat very soon was my work abroad. Performing stand-up in other countries is just taking it to another level when it comes to a workout for my brain. Figuring out why Irish people laugh at one thing while the Belgian people don't is fascinating!

Also, being able to work with the military archdiocese and perform for soldiers while loved ones were “down range” was deeply satisfying. It was great to create some happy memories for what can be a very stressful time for the adults on the bases, garrisons and posts. But I also learned about the kids of people in the armed forces and intelligence agencies, kids who don't really have a sense of where they come from. When asked where they are from, they answer with a base in a foreign country and then a quip like, “but then we moved to this base when I was three and then that base in this country when I was five.” They’re one hundred percent American, but some have never even been to the States. The point to all this, and what I found so awesome, is that their faith is sometimes the only constant in their life. While TV and the web can tell them what the latest fashions are and what is going on stateside in pop culture, the chaplains and youth ministers in their lives teach and reaffirm what their primary catechists at home—wherever that may be—instilled in them. I want to continue to be a part of that ministry.

Along the same lines, being able to travel not just around the world but in the States, I see just how big this church of ours is and its diversity. Yowza! From liturgies to worship bands it astonishes me that we are ALL Catholic. The Eucharist is the source and summit for us. Some of us like to wear veils while some of us wear flip flops, but the people I visit all have a sincere heart. I hope as a Church that if we can focus more on what binds us together, and not on what separates us, we will be more unified. But what do I know; I think Bing Crosby is funny!

How has your work in comedy evolved or changed since you started doing it?

I started stand-up because an opening act didn't show up at the University of San Diego during a comedy night. The director of Showcase said, “Judy, you’re funny. Go up and talk for 15 minutes!” I honestly think I was too young and dumb to be scared. I don't get scared per se or really nervous if people will laugh all these years later, but what has changed is that I now care if my message will hit the hearts that are supposed to hear it. If I take the time to pray about it, which I really do before sets, I realize God is in charge of my comedy just like God is ultimately in charge of everything in my life—if I hand it over. I used to joke about this theological view and say that if I bomb, it must be God’s fault. But I think it's a very simple way of looking at God’s involvement in every aspect of my life. He is ready and willing to have a part of it. It's up to me to open the door and let him in to everything, not just the “churchy Catholic” parts of my life. I never turn down a job for a lack of funds, because this is my ministry now.

In the beginning I probably thought I would be a late night talk show host, score a sitcom or sell out massive arenas. (God, if you’re reading America in a waiting room in heaven—which, by the way, why would YOU have to wait?—then please know I'm still up for all that.) But now, by being open to the Holy Spirit and with the gifts I’m given, I find I'm able to bring someone closer to him. I'm able to change someone's day for the better with my comedy. I guess the biggest change is that my comedy is no longer about me so much, but it has a bigger calling. And I'm way funnier than I was when I first started.

Practicing Catholics aren’t common in your profession. How have you managed to thrive?

Just like any practicing Catholic: I practice. It certainly helps that my comedy is usually at a university, parish, conference or diocesan event. It's not like I'm on the road working the clubs. But that's what's great about our Catholic faith. Even if I was out on the club circuit, I could find a Mass in whatever country, state or city I'm playing in, give or take a few. We are called a universal church for a reason.

What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever seen or heard?

My mom telling a joke about a cat in a school yard…just trust me, it's hilarious.

Do you have any regrets about the past?

Of course! I wish I wouldn't have cared so much about what mean teenage girls thought, both when I was a teenager and even now. I also regret waiting so long get a service dog. Daisy has literally saved my life in the past two and a half years, but then I also think whatever doesn't kill us just gives me material for my gigs.

Do you have any hopes for the future during this Easter season?

That I become more open to the Holy Spirit in my life, whatever that looks like. I could say I hope to get more shows and go to exotic locations. (I'm looking at you Hawaii, New Zealand, the Tonga and Iowa.) But if that's not what God has in store for me, I pray that I am open to that. If God is preparing me to finally marry my independently wealthy Irish husband who surfs and loves puppies and lets me walk away from comedy, then so be it. But I have all these comedy DVDs I still need to sell, so hopefully I won't have to walk away just yet.

How has your Catholic faith influenced your work?

If I can quote the great classic Ghostbusters: It's safe to say “the two streams have crossed” a long time ago.

Who are your role models in the Catholic faith, either living or dead?

Padre Pio because I read he would slap people when he knew they weren't being truthful in reconciliation. I can only hope to be holy enough to get away with slapping people like Gibbs on NCIS.

John Paul II because he was the first saint I saw in person and I called it. At my first World Youth Day in Denver I had a press pass and in typical Judy fashion I ended up very, very close to the altar. Close enough to where I didn't need my telephoto lense on my camera to see his expressions. Close enough to swear he winked at me. I fell in love with my “grandpa Pope” then and there. He wasn't a far and away pope in Rome but my Papa. When we chanted “JP2 WE LOVE YOU!” he smiled and said back to us “JP2 he loves you!”

Finally my role models are my mom and dad who remain fervent in their faith no matter what.

I've had great people God has put in my life at the right moment exactly when I needed them: people who pointed me to the great parts of our Church when I was frustrated or ready to give up. God reminded me that a few bad apples don't ruin the pineapple batch. That's the saying, right?

My grandma would start every morning with her prayer books and then move onto her Harlequin novels. She was very Catholic and very fun! She was my first hint that you could be both.

I am so happy for our new San Diego bishop, Robert McElroy, and of course for Pope Francis!

How do you pray?

I pray with formal prayers and attend Mass as well as other communal prayer. When I was young I heard about “praying constantly” and I liked that idea. As a kid I often had racing thoughts or even negative thoughts at prayer, but when I turned those over to Jesus and started an ongoing conversation with God during the day those thoughts didn't stand a chance. And, of course, I prayed every time before a math test.  

I continue that way of praying to this day. Constantly asking the Holy Spirit for help and guidance. Praising God for little things throughout the day and I'm not talking to Jiminy Cricket but Jesus as I go about my day.  

What does comedy mean to you?

A personal invitation for me to follow Jesus. I believe God doesn't want “cookie cutter evangelists” and he allows me to use my gifts he gave me for Him in ways I could have never imagined on my own. I could have continued to use them as a defense mechanism and in very caustic and hurtful ways. But instead God used comedy to talk to me and also I believe to to talk to others and hopefully bring them joy. 

Where do you find Jesus Christ in your life?

Definitely in others. Yes, at Mass in the Eucharist and in the other sacraments, of course! But more and more I experience the true living Christ in people when I'm out and about. It's not always who I expect and that's what I love. Just when I think I have this whole Christian thing figured out and am feeling good about it, I experience Jesus in someone who has nothing to do with the church. When I slow down and take the time to see people as individuals and not put them in their safe groups, or label them, I see Jesus Christ. It's not easy, but as Carla from “Cheers” said, “Catholicism ain't a religion for wimps.”

What is your favorite scripture passage and why?

John 10:25. I love sheep, having spent time in Ireland going to summer school at the University College Galway and making many other trips there. I love that in the Bible we are the sheep and Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He knows us and we know him. We know his voice. He knows his sheep and lays down his life for them. Sheep are pretty dumb too. I plan on having my next DVD named “Sheep Happens” because it does. I already have the t-shirt made. Listening to and following this Shepherd of ours is a good thing, especially when so many others are calling our name.

If you could say one thing to Pope Francis, what would it be?

I would pull the trick I learned in elementary school, when asked what I would do if the genie granted me one wish, by saying I would ask for a million more wishes!

I would start with, “can I say more than one thing?” Then I would say, if you aren't using that papal apartment, hook a sister up! I'm still living with my parents.

I would really like to ask if we could go out for some gelato so I could ask the serious questions. Like I would really enjoy hearing about his time as a bouncer at a night club. Of course if he could hear my confession that would be super. I'm currently looking for a new spiritual director and think he could certainly fit the bill. Then I would ask if I could be his “special secretary to pop culture,” which means I would keep him updated on all of my shows and viral cat videos. Probably also start a special intercessory prayer team for some of my favorites in Hollywood who I feel need an extra push. Of course, I'd ask him to record my outgoing voicemail message—I'd be stupid not to do that!

But let's be honest: If given the opportunity, I'd probably ask for a pope hug and a blessing and if I was feeling super brave a selfie with me and Daisy.

What message do you hope people will take away from your life and work?

We are all called to be saints. Before St. Paul was St. Paul, he was a dude named Saul who Christians feared. And when St. Peter was just a fisherman and denied Jesus three times, he probably didn't think he was worthy of having a line that would be traced to my friend Pope Francis who is now following in his footsteps. God can use anyone! And if he can use a smart ass comedian to spread his gospel in a unique way, he can certainly use you. All he needs to start is your “yes.”

Any final thoughts?

Yes. The San Diego Padres will win the World Series some year.

The San Diego Chargers should stay in San Diego and pay for their own stadium.

I have 490,800 frequent flier miles I have to use by 2016 so please invite me to your house if United flies to your tropical island or country as I mentioned earlier. I'm not kidding, I have to “use ’em or lose ’em!”

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

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