Award-winning comedian Paul Kerensa has written for TV shows such as Miranda, Not Going Out and Top Gear. Editor Ruth Jackson spoke to him about faith, comedy and writing children’s books
Ruth Jackson: Tell us about your faith journey.
Paul Kerensa: Where I grew up was like the village of Dibley and the county of Midsomer, but with slightly fewer murders. We had one church, six pubs and a village hall. I think my parents sent my brother and me to church largely as free childcare! I went to Pathfinders camps and things like that, and that was where I got to know Jesus and became a Christian, I think. It was there that I grappled with difficult questions and worked out what prayer means. Then I did a theology degree and I’ve been trying to piece all that together in terms of: how does this all affect my life? I feel like I’ve been doing an Alpha course for about 20 years!
RJ: Was there something about being away from your parents at camp that helped you work out your own faith?
PK: Yeah, and partly that freedom to do it there. I would say a week of intensive teaching was great, and a chance to ask those questions and puzzle them out. I remember on a canal cruise when I was about 13 asking one of the leaders: “Where do we stand as Christians on those ‘God games’?” (Things like Sim City, I think was just out or was having a relaunch.) “Is it alright to ‘play God’ in a computer game? That can’t be good, surely?”. The answer: “Errr, I’m not sure about this. This is too big a question for 8am, when I’m trying to navigate a lock!” I’m not saying that’s the big faith question, but just having the chance to ask these things and puzzle them out and be an inquiring mind is great when you’ve got those opportunities.
RJ: Did you always want to be a comedian?
PK: I always liked making people laugh. I was quite ill as a child. I was in hospital quite a lot and the people who were in Great Ormond Street Hospital with me often ended up being doctors and nurses or comedians. And I think you either want to make people better or just have a bit of a laugh. So here we are.
RJ: How did that lead into writing children’s books?
PK: When I had my own children I think there was a renewed interest in doing things for children. We’ve read lots of bedtime stories over the last seven years (we’ve got a 7-year-old and a 4-year-old) and probably about half of those are Bible-Q&Abased. One of my big passions is getting the Bible out there in different ways. About ten years ago I did a show at the Edinburgh Festival about Genesis. I don’t want to just do Bible stories for people who know it well already, but actually get it out there into the culture. So I wanted to get biblical stories out there and make them stick in the heads, certainly of my children. I thought of nice little rhyming stories and then the illustrators brought them to life.
I read my Noah’s Car Park Ark book to my daughter’s reception class last week, and I asked: “Who has ever heard of Noah and his ark?” I would say about a quarter of the hands probably went up. I was surprised by that. I thought we’d probably get at least half. I mean, I didn’t think Hezekiah would be up there with the younger generation, but I thought Noah’s ark might get more of a look in! It just goes to show that it’s good to get these stories out there. And even though it seems that there have been a thousand of these books for children already, it’s important to be retelling these stories for them.
RJ: Do you think your opinion of God changed when you had your own children?
PK: Certainly my outlook and viewpoint of the world at large changed fairly massively. I think my appreciation for God probably changed a bit as well. None of us are perfect, I’m well aware of that, but I know there are jokes that I did when I started out as a stand-up comic that I’m not proud of. Jokes at the expense of others or alienating people in some way. I think when I had kids I began to think more about the weight of my words. We don’t always get it right, and we all say things that hurt others, but I think my appreciation for worshipping God grew from being a parent.
I don’t want to just do Bible stories for people who know it well already, but actually get it out there into the culture
RJ: Do you think God has a sense of humour?
PK: Whenever I look in the mirror I think God must have a sense of humour! People often ask if there’s humour in the Bible. It’s not a joke book, of course. But I think, you don’t laugh out loud at a Shakespeare comedy which is 400 years old, let alone the Bible, which is thousands of years old. Senses of humour change so quickly. It’s all a way of connecting people, of talking about shared experience. I think things like the plank in the eye and specks of sawdust are ways of using humorous ideas and allegories. I also think, with Jesus, you can’t hold a crowd of that many people without knowing a bit of how to ‘work a room’. I’m not saying Jesus is a stand-up comedian, but I think that shared use of storytelling in that culture is vital.
RJ: We tend to turn quite serious when talking about God with children. How do you think we should approach these conversations?
PK: My kids are asking about God all the time. My 7-year-old has this sense that because we go to church everyone else should or does, and he gets rather confused. He can’t comprehend that his neighbour, who is in his class, doesn’t believe in anything! In a way it’s lovely, and he’s already starting to realise that it’s a decision you make to follow Jesus.
There are many facets to who God and Jesus are, I think, and we all puzzle it out slowly. The great thing about childhood is that you’ve got all this time to work it out. I think helping them work it out is very tricky; I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong way. I was brought up to think things like Father Christmas and tooth fairies were real, and I was quite old before I realised they weren’t! Whereas we try and make it clear that these are stories people tell, so our 7-year-old gets caught up in the Father Christmas thing, but also slightly questions it.
I can’t help but bring a little bit of ridiculousness into my parenting. I’m always being that silly dad, playing the joker. But it’s actually been a really effective way to help. So my daughter was upset about something recently, and sometimes you can over-talk and be over-serious about these things, so I just made her laugh. She was resisting. You could see in the tears she didn’t want to!
I think if you can, remember to bring a sense of fun to parenting. That’s easier said than done sometimes. One thing we do is play a lot of music. They want ‘Reach for the stars’ by S Club 7 because they sing it in school. They like that sort of stuff. My kids now sing YMCA around the house, but they sing it alongside the songs they sing in church. And then they get confused that their classmates don’t know ‘My lighthouse’ or whatever they’ve just been singing in church that week! But that’s nice. It’s good to have a sense of joy where possible.