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Published: Saturday, 7/18/2009

Laughter that leads to God; Christian comedian has Toledo connection


Humor has a lot of uses for comedian Nazareth Rizkallah.

It's a job, a way of defusing tensions, and a means of sharing his evangelical Christian faith.

A native of Nazareth, Israel, who grew up in Kuwait, Mr. Rizkallah attended the University of Toledo in the 1980s and has been a full-time comedian for 21 years.

He sometimes teams up with Jewish Rabbi Bob Alper and Muslim comic Azhar Usman for a night of interfaith mirth. When one comic takes the stage, another pats him down for weapons.

Mr. Rizkallah came to the United States in 1984 to study engineering at UT.

"I fell in love with the United States because of Toledo. People say 'boring Toledo, you can watch the grass grow.' I say no, Toledo is a wonderful town. I'm a big fan of Toledo. Toledoans are what made me love this country."

He left Toledo for southern California after three years of study because some of his family members had moved there from Kuwait.

"I went to California and tried to cash in on the American dream. I found there was a big emptiness in my life. I started reading the Bible and God surrounded me with his love," Mr. Rizkallah said.

He said he had never been the class clown, but decided to give comedy a try while working as a tax accountant. It obviously worked out for him.

"I use humor as a defense mechanism, as a weapon for everything," he said. "To avoid bullies. To make new friends. To be likable. To this day, I use comedy to comfort people. If I see someone upset and depressed behind the counter, I make him laugh," he said. "We live in a world where people are scared. I use comedy to encourage them and hopefully point them to God."

He said people who don't normally attend church services will come to a comedy show at a church.

"Many people are hesitant to come to a church, they'll say the people are hypocrites or judgmental. But they come to a comedy night and they laugh and they say, 'Wow, this is not bad!' And then you share the truth and the truth will set them free."

Mr. Rizkallah, 46, is married and has three children. When his youngest daughter, Tali Joy, was born in 2007, he said it was "our third C-section. I was hoping for a balcony but hey, I didn't buy my tickets early enough."

A former president of the Christian Comedy Association, he said his jokes are "good, uplifting humor. There's no dirty, raunchy, angry, hateful comedy."

He rattled off a few jokes.

"I'm from the Middle East. I can't run through the airport anymore," he said. "I miss my connecting flights. Someone will tackle me if I run."

He said he's proud to be an American.

"I love this country. This is the only place in the world where you can have French toast, English muffin, and Canadian bacon and call it the all-American breakfast.

"I'm on the Fannie Mae diet," he continued. "I lost my equity, my 401(k), and I can't roll over anything anymore."

He said his name is Nazareth because he was born in Nazareth.

"It's a family tradition. I have a brother Waikiki and a sister Buffalo," he said, then added that he was just kidding.

Mr. Rizkallah also gets a lot of material from being a father and a husband, and shows his conservative Christian side by making fun of evolution and immorality.

Obscenities and dirty jokes are "a cheap way to get laughs," he said. "If you decided to work hard and spend time writing better material, then you don't need to shock people with the 'f' word. And the 'f' word is no longer a big deal in the clubs. There are much bigger deals now. The envelope has been pushed so far, audiences are not easily shocked anymore."

Mr. Rizkallah said comedy helps people "lower their guard."

"When you laugh with someone, you cannot be angry with them. Once you've laughed, you've lowered your wall. You've invited them in."

He feels grateful that most of his shows today are in churches and at corporate events, and rarely has to deal with hecklers because "there's no alcohol involved."

When he started out in comedy, it was a different story.

"But after 21 years, you're a professional. It's like being a professional electrician: You don't get shocked anymore. If I get a heckler now I know how to handle it."

Mr. Rizkallah has released several CDs and videos; more information is available online at nazarethUSA.com.

- David Yonke

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