And then there was this vicar . . .
By Ruth Brown
January 8, 2008
Ruth Brown meets a man of the cloth who has them rolling in the aisles.
HOWARD Langmead seems like your average comedian - a slightly scruffy mane of curly hair, a silver earring, and an over-abundance of energy that has him almost leaping out of his chair with enthusiasm.
Like other comedians, Langmead cut his teeth on the sticky carpets of Melbourne's pub circuit, appears regularly at the Melbourne Comedy Festival and takes guest speaking roles when he can get them. But unlike other comedians, he doesn't spend his days washing dishes or waiting tables; he spends them in a dog collar and sensible shoes preaching from the bible as an Anglican priest.
For Langmead, it's one of the best hooks a comedian could have. "One guy I was talking to, a comedian, said, 'How do you become a priest? It's such a good schtick for a comedian. You've got something to set you apart. I want that'," he says with a laugh. "Comedians are looking for something that sets them apart from other comedians. Being a priest is a good point of difference."
Langmead, 54, came to comedy in 1995, when he began performing skit comedy in church with actor Grant Broadbent-Smith. The pair went to a course at the "Humourversity" - a Melbourne comedy training centre - where Langmead was encouraged to try some stand-up in pubs. Not only did he discover he was pretty good at it, he also found there was a real market for comedy from a Christian perspective.
"I loved it," he enthuses. "I kept doing skit comedy with Grant for a while and then we decided to do a Comedy Festival show. And now over the last eight years, I've been in the festival six times. Only one of those was a solo show, but all of them have been sort of Christian-based; that is, I've worked with others who are Christian-based and have done comedy. It's not all been Christian-based comedy, but it's all clean. Generally people are interested in life-story comedy if the person presents it well. So it doesn't matter if they share my background; they enjoy listening to someone telling a story with humour.
"And I've generally had that feedback - that it can be quite funny just to hear a priest stand up and talk about life and ministry and people and family."
Langmead is currently the parish priest at St John's Anglican Church in West Brunswick, where he enjoys the diverse community, although he admits the title doesn't quite stack up to his first posting in the parish of Corio, Anakie and Balliang.
"I was Vicar of Anakie!" he says, rolling around his chair with laughter. "I think the bishop sent me there just for the title!"
In his 7.5 years at St John's, Langmead has introduced laughter into the parish in more ways than one. Although he insists his sermons are not comedy routines, he has used the church as a venue for several Comedy Festival shows, and runs a weekly "laughter club".
"Laughter club is not about jokes," he says. "It's actually getting people to breathe deeply and to choose to laugh . . . I encourage people to look in the mirror first thing in the morning and have a laugh at themselves. When you do that, it changes the way you perceive the world.
"It's not used as outreach or evangelism. It is, in fact, to let people know that laughter is healthy and that they can enjoy it."
His reputation as a comedian has also led Langmead to become a regular social commentator on radio. From 2001 until 2003, he had a weekly talkback segment on 3AK, and he now gives etiquette advice once a fortnight on 774's evening program. He has also become a favourite at many radio stations for a spur-of-the-moment comment on religious issues of the day.
For the most part, Langmead says, the church and his congregation have been supportive of his alter ego doing comedy in pubs and on commentating on radio.
"In the hierarchy of the Anglican church, the bishops have been very supportive. I guess that's because I haven't brought disgrace on the church - yet," he laughs. "And they just see it generally as good PR. So I've felt quite well supported.
"There are some people, both inside the church and those who aren't Christians, who seem uncomfortable with what I'm doing - not many, and it tends to be people who haven't seen me; but occasionally there are emails or letters or phone calls.
"I've been told by some people that I shouldn't make jokes about prayer. But I actually make jokes about the way people use prayer; it's about people's response. There are some people outside the church who just think the whole thing is disguised evangelism, like I'm trying to convert the world. If they want to be converted, I'm quite happy to do it for them, (but) when I'm doing comedy, the aim is to make people laugh . . . I've never had anyone come running up to me saying, 'I want to be a Christian!' "
Langmead is at present working on a show for this year's Comedy Festival and is in the early stages of writing a novel. While he admits all the extra interests put pressure on his time as a priest, he plans to continue the balancing act for as long as he can keep up.
"I don't want to give up parish work. I'm a person who likes communicating and likes interacting with people . . . But I'm really enjoying having time to do the other stuff. I'm not giving up my day job yet."