Winter Jam 2018: A Conversation with comedian John Crist

Christian music fans are set to rejoice once again this Friday night as the largest Christian music tour in the U.S. prepares to land in Des Moines at Wells Fargo Arena.

This year’s version of the annual Winter Jam Tour Spectacular features the usual crowd-pleasing mix of pop, rock, rap and worship, led by platinum-selling rockers Skillet and 3-time Dove Award winner Kari Jobe. Building 429, comedian John Crist rapper KB, tour founders NewSong, and Jordan Feliz, Nick Hall and “The Voice” runner-up Adison Agen round out the extensive lineup.

Of the list of performers, one act sticks out as being slightly out of the norm — or to borrow the Sesame Street Jingle: One of these things is not like the other.

That “thing”? Comedian John Crist.

No, Crist is not an alien, although his presence may be alien-like to some longtime Jam fans. Fear not, though. If his 150 million video views aren’t an indication of legitimacy, then nothing is.

Crist’s style of light-hearted observational humor in the form of videos such as “The Millenial Marriage Proposal,” “Church Parking Lot Road Rage,” and “Christian Mingle” — which has surpassed the 1 million mark in views alone — have managed to erase a large portion of his visual obscurity in the general public. As for being a household name? There’s still work to be done.

“About a year-and-a-half ago, my videos started picking up and getting some traction on the Internet,” Crist said in a phone interview. “Being on the radio can be funny, because they’d say, ‘We’ve got comedian John Crist coming up,’ and people would go, ‘Who?’ But if they saw my face, they’d be like, ‘Oh, that guy! He’s the guy from the videos.’ My name might not have that much recognition, but my face does. I’ll be walking through the airport and someone will be like, ‘You’re that guy. I know that face, I’ve seen you somewhere.’ ”

The affable and facially-recognizable Crist spoke with ListenIowa recently just after the tour kicked off to discuss tackling Christian stereotypes, handling hecklers and more.

How did you become involved in the Winter Jam tour?
This is my first time on board and the first time they’ve (Winter Jam) ever had a comedian. Winter Jam approached me and asked if I would want to. It’s been unbelievable. It gives a little bit of a break between the musical acts that are all in a row.

Having been in the comedy circuit for a few years now, what is the approach you take toward entertaining an arena full of people as opposed to a small club? Or is it the same?
It’s way different. It’s a different vibe in that the comedy clubs might have 100-150 people there. On our fall tour, we started getting crowds of 2,000-3,000. But Winter Jam, we’re talking 10,000 people or more every night. It’s different from my own personal show, and it’s that way for the others, too. Like when Skillet comes out on stage, they’re performing for a lot of Kari Jobe fans, and I’m performing for KB’s fans, etc., so it’s a different vibe, but it’s very unique to watch. You walk out on stage and some people are like, “What? Who is this?” Then a couple of minutes in, they’re converted to the team.

Did you have the first-night jitters?
I wouldn’t say jitters, but we went on after an act that had the crowd in a certain kind of mood, so we did some last-minute kind of adjustments to the set, moved some jokes around. I think by the end of the week we had it figured out, so we’re pretty much rolling now.

You mentioned earlier about your videos taking off, and really, they are what brought you to the show, pardon the pun. The videos are hilarious in that they’re often poking a bit of fun at certain things or stereotypes in the Christian community, yet they don’t come off as attacks. Done by someone else, they might be construed as just that. Are you cognizant of that “rare air” you’re in that you can poke a bit and not be perceived as the bad guy?
Great question. Yeah, 100 percent. You look at my videos, and because the majority of people don’t know me, or anything about me, I think when they see me, they can tell there’s not that bitterness or hate toward the church. I grew up in a church. My dad is a pastor. But you see a lot of people my age, say, in their 30s, who are kind of angry at their parents, or there’s a church that they had a broken relationship with. With the Internet, there are people who are commenting who are angry, they’ve been hurt, and that will come out in their content, whether they’re a comedian or a blogger. I just don’t have that inside of me. I honestly do believe that the local church is our only hope, especially in America with all the things we are going through economically and politically and culturally. That being said, we do some weird stuff. (laughs) You can watch it (a video) and go, “Oh man, that’s so true,” instead of being defensive that your worldview or your religion is being attacked.

Have you ever done something in a video or comedy routine you thought was funny at the time but later realized it wasn’t?
I’ll be the first guy to admit that I’ve maybe crossed the line a couple of times. I don’t have the last say, really, though. I rely on you to like the video and share it. If people like it, watch it and share it, then it can it can go viral. So really, the people in charge are the people who watch it and determine whether it’s pushing a boundary or whether or not we’re ready to talk about it yet, not me.

Right. Such as music industry video and that you and a cohort tell a new band that in order to be successful in Christian music, they would have to write songs with three chords, simply rhymes and vague struggles.
Yeah, and more water references. (laughs)

Yes, but it’s true. (laughs) That’s a tried and true formula, that, if we’re honest, it’s been a bit overdone. So for you as a comedian, is it a matter of recognizing this source material that’s already there and then building on it?
Yeah. In that video, we reference Skillet, we reference Kari Jobe, and we’re out here with both on Winter Jam. (laughs) It wasn’t a thing to tear down Christian music, though. And I know, because I listen to Christian music all day, every day, on the radio. It was more like a frustration out of the songs being repetitive, or the same tone. But the goal of the video was to maybe expose it for what it is, and maybe say, “Hey, we do better. Let’s be more creative.” It’s kind of a call to a higher level instead of tearing it down.

Your in-store videos look spur-of-the-moment, but there’s got to a bit of planning going on before you go into the stores and do your thing, right?
It’s a combination of both. Like there was one of a lady who had a Bible verse for everything. I wrote down that it would be funny to say, “Run the race I have set before you” while looking at a pair of running shoes in the store. Then I thought of the verse, “Iron sharpens iron,” and I go into Sears or something to find some knives. But while I’m doing that, I walk by a bed with a lot of comforters and pillows, and I’m like, “Oh, it’d be funny to do ‘Lay down and He will give you rest.’ ” So sometimes there are a couple of jokes that I know I’m going to do, and then I get in there and more come to my head.

What’s the reaction of the people around you in the store?
A lot of times, when I’m creating content, I’m in my own little world and not really cognizant of people watching me. But really, if you’re in a mall, and you see people recording themselves on a cellphone, you don’t really think twice about it. You think they’re on Facetime or taking a photo. If you know who I am and see me, you’d put two and two together, but if you don’t know who I am, you’d never think twice. It’s just a guy on a cellphone. What’s happened is, the more this gets bigger and bigger, the more confidence and bravado I have in the mall. I think, “Well, if 15 million people are going to see this, I don’t care if I’m embarrassing myself in front of 15 people. (laughs)

As a comic, have you had to deal with hecklers?
Oh, all the time. If you watch my comedy, there’s a little “bite,” or and “edge” to it. It’s still family-friendly, but sometimes there’s still the, “Oh, man. He just said that.” In a comedy club, those people have paid money and have come there to laugh. If you go 15-20 seconds and no one has laughed, you’ve got a problem. That’s what these people have paid to do. The people in the comedy clubs, they’ll turn on you fast. They’ll start heckling or booing or saying “You’re not funny.” I’ve had people say my jokes weren’t funny, or maybe something about my hair or my outfit, but like you said, because what I do doesn’t come off as attacking, I don’t feel there’s that bitterness or hatred in attacking me back.

What do you hope people take away from Winter Jam?
I get emails to my website and Tweets and messages on Instagram from people with messages from people saying “I’m going through chemo, and your videos have been such a help for me just to laugh,” or “I’m going through a divorce.” We had a person with cancer come to one of my shows and afterward this person was crying and saying, “For every minute of my day, I feel this disease inside my body, but for those two hours at your show, I feet free.” And that’s the message right there. God gave me the gift of being able to make people laugh and share it with others. Combine that with Winter Jam lineup, it turns into a special, special night.”

 

WINTER JAM TOUR SPECTACULAR 2018
Feb. 3           Atlanta, GA Philips Arena
Feb. 8           Ft. Wayne, IN Allen County War Memorial Coliseum
Feb. 9           Cleveland, OH Wolstein Center
Feb. 10          Indianapolis, IN Bankers Life Fieldhouse
Feb. 11          Detroit, MI Little Caesars Arena
Feb. 15          Evansville, IN The Ford Center
Feb. 16          Pittsburgh, PA PPG Paints Arena
Feb. 17          Cincinnati, OH U.S. Bank Arena
Feb. 18          Birmingham, AL Legacy Arena at the BJCC
Feb. 22         Tupelo, MS BancorpSouth Arena
Feb. 23          Knoxville, TN Thompson-Boling Arena
Feb. 24          Greensboro, NC Greensboro Coliseum
Feb. 25          Chattanooga, TN McKenzie Arena
March 2         New Orleans, LA Lakefront Arena
March 3         Memphis, TN FedExForum
March 4         Houston, TX Toyota Center
March 9         Wichita, KS INTRUST Bank Arena
March 10       Bossier City, LA CenturyLink Center
March 11       N. Little Rock, AR Verizon Arena
March 15       Council Bluffs, IA Mid-America Center
March 16       Kansas City, MO Sprint Center
March 17       Oklahoma City, OK Chesapeake Energy Arena
March 18       Ft. Worth, TX Ft. Worth Convention Center
March 22       Augusta, GA James Brown Arena
March 23       Columbia, SC Colonial Life Arena
March 24       Raleigh, NC PNC Arena
March 25       Greenville, SC Bon Secours Wellness Arena
March 29       Peoria, IL Peoria Civic Center
March 30       Chicago, IL Allstate Arena
March 31       Lexington, KY Rupp Arena