The humour may be dulled by overfamiliarity and a 2,000-year cultural gulf, but Jesus was actually quite a funny guy. It’s rare to laugh out loud when reading the Gospel, but think of lines about a camel going through the eye of a needle or removing the plank from your own eye before trying to get the dust from your brother’s. These were punchlines; absurdities and hyperbole designed to draw laughter from the crowd, and in the end more effectively drive home Jesus’s point.
That is what Tom Elliott, 30, a self-described Christian comedy magician, would have us believe. “We don’t find it very funny these days, but if you look in context at the narrative, Jesus used loads of humorous stories and analogies that at the time would have been their style of comedy,” he says. “The camel and the eye of the needle . . . that won’t work in a comedy club today, but back then it went down a storm.”
And so Elliott, who spends his days touring clubs, theatres and churches delivering his comedy magic set, sees himself in some way following in Christ’s footsteps. A committed Christian, Elliott was a teenager when he stumbled across a saying of Jesus in the Bible that has become the touchstone of his career: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Not only does God have a lively sense of humour, he also longs for people to live lives of joy and fun, the magician believes. It is this that he hopes every audience member takes away from each performance.
One of his favourite skits involves getting a member of the audience to put him into a straitjacket while he gently ribs them, before escaping with a flourish. Later in our interview he delivers a card trick, having me draw a random card from an “invisible deck” before producing a real set with my mentally withdrawn card revealed face up in the middle. Elliott is not the first person to draw connections between Jesus and magic — Rowan Atkinson, in a classic sketch, retells the story of Christ turning water into wine as though the Messiah were a small-town magician. Yet Elliott is keen to stress that Jesus’s party tricks, whether walking on water or feeding thousands with five loaves of bread, were actual miracles. His, on the other hand, are just for fun.
Nevertheless, he has occasionally experienced hostility from his fellow evangelical Christians, many of whom are raised with deep suspicion of anything that smacks of witchcraft or the occult. “People have slightly questioned the magic, but that comes out of a misunderstanding,” he explains. Once a woman came up to Elliott after a gig to express her concerns and primly told him: “I don’t think my church will be inviting you.” The genial magician says: “I was like, that’s probably a good thing . . . it would be all ‘Burn him, burn him!’.”
Elliott says that he once came across a book by the American pastor John MacArthur, who cautioned against the faithful partaking of such frivolities. “As Christians, our world view must be grounded in reality, not in the imaginary worlds of Hollywood.”
Elliott has little time for such a theology. He sees his ministry as making people laugh, connect with one another, and perhaps spark conversations about joy, wonder and the richer parts of life. His show itself does not include any explicitly Christian message, but nevertheless the comedian says he finds that it often prompts conversation around spiritual themes.
A man approached him after a performance at a church and said that he was starting to question if he really was an atheist after all. “For me, that was a win,” Elliott explains. “He may have thought, ‘I didn’t know Christians did comedy’ — and now he’s just giving it some thought.”
Intriguingly, some of Elliott’s fellow magicians use their craft for the opposite effect; most notably the illusionist Derren Brown. Like Elliott, Brown was raised an evangelical Christian, but rejected his faith in his early twenties. Many of his TV specials have sought to expose Christian faith healers and Pentecostal evangelists, whom Brown accuses of using the same stagecraft and techniques he does while claiming it as divine intervention. In an interview with a Christian magazine to promote his 2016 show Miracle (which fooled the audience into thinking they had been miraculously healed), he recalled how Christian friends of his would sometimes pray in tongues loudly at the back of his early hypnosis shows to try to exorcise the demonic forces they presumed were at work.
Elliott hopes that his own show celebrates his faith. After a recent comedy club gig he said another one of the comics had come up to him in amazement at how “squeaky-clean” Elliott’s set had been. The pair then discussed for some time why Elliott keeps his set free of profanity and why others rely on swearing. Elliott quoted another Christian comic, Paul Kerensa, whose mantra is not to complain about other comedians’ lack of piety, but simply be funnier than them without relying on profanity.
Other Christian comedians, such as Milton Jones and Tim Vine, have found fame and success despite their wholesome style. Elliott is honest enough to admit he would love to follow in their footsteps, on to BBC panel shows and selling out West End theatres. “Ambition is a good thing. At the same time, if I have got a hundred people in a church laughing, I’m quite happy as well.”