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Ted & Lee’s humor is tied to Christian faith

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. -- Want to do something really spiritual? Laugh. A couple of guys from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia would like to help inspire that laughter. Ted Swartz went to seminary a decade and a half ago intending to become a pastor. Instead, his ministry, along with that of his partner-in-comedy Lee Eshleman, has become humor--because, according to Ted & Lee, "laughing is about the most spiritual thing you can do."

Ted & Lee are the 2004-05 Staley Lecturers at Bethel College, but don’t let that stuffy title fool you. A Ted & Lee event may--in fact, probably will--include Shakespearean commentary on a basketball game, a June bug reunion, a literary dissection of Green Eggs & Ham or sketches starring Jesus’ disciples Peter and Andrew as you may never have imagined them.

The duo who makes up Ted & Lee TheaterWorks will perform on the Bethel campus on Friday, Nov. 12, at 7:30 p.m. in Memorial Hall. The event is free and open to the public.

Although Ted & Lee are best known for their comic performance--influenced, they say, by everyone from Bob Newhart to "Monty Python" to Dan Aykroyd--they are not averse to more "serious" discussions of their views on the intersection of humor and faith. The four productions and numerous short sketches they have written and acted in together over the past 15 years illustrate how drama and humor can open unexpected windows into familiar biblical stories.

Anyone who thinks that the Bible and comedy don’t mix won’t get much out of a Ted & Lee event. Whether they depict God creating the earth, elephants, humans and puns in The Creation Chronicles, Peter and Andrew scrounging food from the audience to "feed the five thousand" in Fish-Eyes or Mary mistaking the angel Gabriel for the plumber in DoveTale, Swartz and Eshleman see the Bible as rich soil for growing comedy that makes audiences both laugh and think about old stories in new ways.

"The word humor," Swartz notes, "has the same root syllable as ‘human’ and ‘humus.’ It means ‘of the earth.’ When we find the humor in Bible stories, we discover our common humanity with the characters as well."

The Bethel performance, "Ted & Lee Live," will begin with sketches from Armadillo Shorts, a collection of original comedy pieces, followed by a smorgasbord of biblical materials. Over the past year, Swartz and Eshleman have been creating new biblically based sketches for videos and special events. "Ted & Lee Live" features their most recent sketches and introduces some eccentric new characters.

The duo bills their shows as "humor with art and soul and suspenders" and "comedy you can take your grandmother to." They have performed on college and university campuses across the country, at Mennonite national gatherings, Youth Specialties conventions for Christian youth workers, and even the Gospel Music Association Awards banquet in Nashville.

After seeing Ted & Lee perform at an alumni reunion for the University of Notre Dame in 1999, the alumni director told a reporter for the Mennonite magazine Christian Living, "[Ted & Lee’s] humor is a vehicle for entertaining the audience while conveying the essence of the Gospel message so it lives with flesh and bones."

To learn more about Ted & Lee, visit tedandlee.com. For more information on their performance at Bethel College on Nov. 12, contact Dale Schrag at (316) 284-5356.

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