Steve Verret Changing Lives Through Clean Comedy
Steve Verret, a comedian-turned-pastor has worked alongside comedy giants like Robin Williams, Jerry Seinfeld, Rosanne Barr, and Eddie Murphy. His unique Cajun-style standup that includes hilarious stories of his Uncle Boudreaux, has held captive audiences at the Improv Comedy Club in Hollywood and at venues across the nation. Verret’s comedy has touched thousands of lives and has extended into entertaining safety presentations for traffic school and the U.S. military. Now the pastor of the Hour Church in Vista, CA, he chatted with Risen about how comedy and faith go hand in hand.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in Lsan diego, California
Risen Magazine: Tell us what it was like growing up in New Iberia, Louisiana. How do your Cajun roots make you different from other comedians?
Steve Verret: New Iberia, Louisiana is a very unique town. They are known for their tobacco and the largest salt domes in the U.S. Cajuns have a very unique perspective on life. Everyone is like family in Louisiana. My wife is from Los Angeles and couldn’t believe people just talk to you in restaurants like they know you.
I don’t think I’m funny at all. I just love people when I’m on stage and I’m interested in what people have to say. Some people call me the Robin Williams of traffic school because I talk so fast. I like to talk to people and let them be funny. That’s what I do for my shows now. I tell them where I’m from and I set them up to be funny. The people in the audience should feel like they are a part of the show. When I was doing improv at the L.A. Connection in Sherman Oaks, I learned crowds love to call things out and interact. I have a love for people and love to have fun with people. I was always raised to never insult anyone. A lot of the other comedians put people down all the time. Once people realize that they are free and safe to say what they want with me, then the comedy show becomes a lot more fun.
RM: Was faith always a part of your life?
SV: When I was 15 years old, I played baseball with a buddy, James Henderson and he was just so darn happy all the time. I asked him why he was so happy and he said, “Because Jesus loves me.” At the time, I was going to a Catholic church six days a week with my dad because he had a near-death experience and thought he needed to go to church every day. I wasn’t learning anything there. James asked me if I wanted to go to his church and I said, “Only if it’s 45 minutes long.” He said,
“It’s three hours—it’s Pentecostal!” I decided to give it a try anyway. The first day I went, I could feel the Holy Spirit. I started sneaking out and going to church with him twice a week on Wednesdays and Sundays. I got baptized in that church. One day my dad caught me. He thought I was doing drugs, drinking or meeting up with girls. I told him I had learned more in the last year than I had in all my years of going to church with him. My little sister came with me and got baptized too.
I was always raised to never insult anyone. A lot of the other comedians put people down all the time.
RM: Has comedy always been a passion of yours? When did it become a part of your life?
SV: No, it hasn’t. I’m not funny in real life. In fourth grade, my teacher gave us a speech assignment and I wrote about a frog on a lily pad. I talked about how he had a really cool pad and the class and teacher exploded with laughter. I didn’t know what they were laughing at. I didn’t know God had given me the gift of comedy. Even today I don’t know if it’s my facial expression or the fact that I cut my own hair that makes them laugh. When I get out on stage I don’t think they are going to laugh at what I’m going to say. I thank God when they do. I’m grateful they can have joy while I’m on stage.
RM: How was it working with comedy giants like Jerry Seinfeld, Robin Williams and Jay Leno at The Improv Comedy Club in Hollywood?
SV: At the time, I was teaching traffic school at the classroom next door and doing open mic nights at the Improv. One day I got a big break—Bill Maher got a traffic ticket and came to my traffic school. He really loved the class and said, “You’re so funny, why aren’t you doing standup? Meet me at the Improv on Tuesday night and I’ll get you in.” He was a regular. He introduced me to Budd Friedman [Improvisation Comedy Club founder]. They gave me an audition. For my audition, I think I had to follow Robin Williams and as the crowd was leaving I went on stage. It was terrible, but the owner saw I had a gift. So I would host from 10 p.m. until 1 a.m. and introduce all the up and coming comedians like, Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, Roseanne Barr, Seinfeld and Jay Leno. Every comedian uses almost the same routine every night. It’s called a “tight 20 minutes” of non-stop comedy. When I would get on stage and talk to people, time would just fly by. The owner asked if I had any other material and I said, “Sure I do,” even though I didn’t. He asked me to be on improv twice a month. I was a regular for about three years. I was also performing at the LA Connection doing improvisation and was the “warm up person” to warm up the audience before a sitcom. I did this for sitcoms like Major Dad, Wings, Sibs and America’s Funniest Home Videos. Bob Saget would always say he wasn’t funny and I would tell him, “I’ll pray for you.”
RM: Was it difficult to keep your faith strong in that kind of setting? Were you ever put down for clean comedy?
SV: Oh yes, definitely. I created this comedy business so people wouldn’t be insulted while watching. I am a strong Christian and want to lead people to Jesus. I was the only one doing standup who didn’t curse and insult people. Other comedians would comment on someone’s ugly mustache or the fact that they were fat and bald or use the F-word every other word. I would go to church and tell people I was doing improv and would be guilty by association. My Clean Comedy Live show is held mostly in churches and we allow kids to come. I usually have a crowd of about 500 and I’ll bring comedians in like Scott Wood who is hilarious and also very clean. He has a great testimony as he went to prison for selling drugs and then got won for Christ and became a comedian. It’s a great outreach.
RM: You have over 20 years experience in teaching traffic safety and laws. Why safety? Were you motivated by a past experience?
SV: When I was in Louisiana, I started driving at 12-years-old down the sugar cane fields. I had an older cousin named Sunny who went really fast in his Camaro. When I was 14, I was driving really fast and went around a curve and almost killed two people. I swerved and went into a ditch. I went to the car to apologize and realized my mom was a passenger in the car. That was a wake up call.
When I was doing standup, I had a friend at the LA Connection that said there was a call out in Backstage magazine for comedians to try to teach traffic safety classes. I taught my first class in West Covina, CA, to 30 people and got a standing ovation. My classes were sold out every class for three years. Then I moved to Northern California because I wanted to get married and my wife said if I wanted to get married I had to have a steady job. So in Northern California I built up my business to 1800 students a month and taught there for seven years. Then we returned to San Diego. Unfortunately, today everyone wants to do traffic school online so they are soon going to shut down the live classes.
I didn’t know God had given me the gift of comedy. Even today I don’t know if it’s my facial expression or the fact that I cut my own hair that makes them laugh.
RM: You’ve visited military bases such as Quantico, MarForPac, Kings Bay, and Camp Kinser and you’ve trained over 200,000 military persons with safety information. How did you first start speaking to the military? How has this experience changed you?
SV: I grew up with a profound respect for the military. You can’t get more conservative and pro-military than where I am from. When I was 15, I was accepted to the Air Force Academy right out of high school. But then my dad died and I had to stay home and work to take care of my family, so I worked nights at a radio station. I lost an uncle in World War II who got shot down while flying a B52 bomber. His brother, my uncle George, would hire a bugle boy to play taps at a soldier’s funeral. Eventually my uncle learned how to play taps himself.
So when I first got to do a show for Camp Pendleton I couldn’t believe the privilege it was to give marines joy for 90 minutes. Now 200,000 personnel later, I feel so close to the military. I live on their base while I’m there. I try to talk to them about their hometown, favorite car, hobbies etc. They love to ask me questions once they know I am a pastor.
The two big issues in the military are reckless driving and suicide. The military’s point of view is just to show the symptoms of suicide, not really help the root cause. One day when I was in Quantico, Virginia, the chaplain got sick and I said I would like to step in. I just started asking questions and opening up the conversation and it was really successful. They asked me to continue so I started researching with psychologists and looked at what the Bible had to say about suicide and depression. I wrote a curriculum that identifies what people are depressed about. I teach people how to talk to their loved ones about their depression. I always try to sneak in Christianity into my talks. When a person is depressed, they usually wait until a professional gets involved like a debt collector or a psychologist, but I tell people that if you are a friend or family member to someone who is depressed, you are the most qualified person to help them. I have an acronym for helping someone with depression: RAP
-Recognize the signs of depression. Meet in a private setting face to face.
-Ask them non-judging leading questions. “What have you tried so far?” “What did she say when she broke up with you?”
-Plan — you are the best person to help them make a plan.
RM: Suicide is such a sensitive topic and veterans have twice the rate as civilians in the U.S. What is the impact you have had on the Marines as a suicide prevention speaker?
SV: I was told that DUIs have gone down and seatbelt usage has increased in every base I visit. They laugh and open up, so then when I get to the hard stuff, they really listen. One person in my church had attempted suicide three times, so I tell them that story. After the third attempt, the man was at the hospital and the nurse said to him, “Why does this keep happening to you? Tell me because I care about you.” I can relate to the topic of suicide because I knew Robin Williams… you look at celebrities and think they have it made. Robin was very serious when he was off stage. He was constantly observing people. The same happened to comedians Richard Jeni and Mitch Hedberg. I think it was hard for them to be serious because everyone expected them to be funny. This is especially true in the military when they are taught to be strong and not ask for help, but I tell them it’s okay to talk about their problems.
RM: What are some common misconceptions about the military that you would like to set the record straight?
SV: They are very brave to do what they do. They have problems like everyone else. They can do a job that not everyone can do. We should be giving them all the respect in the world. Every time I read that the Department of Defense has cut their budget, I think, “What is more important than supporting the men and women who protect us every day?”
RM: You are also the Lead Pastor of the Hour Church in Vista, California and have been involved in church ministry for quite some time. How has your experience in comedy and motivational speaking prepared you for this role? Why an hour?
SV: I love people and it translated to sharing the Gospel. People can be afraid of the Bible and don’t know enough. I love teaching. When I was at Daybreak Church in Carlsbad, California, Dan Grider, the former lead pastor, was someone I looked up to. One day, Dan got a traffic ticket. (Yes, even pastors get traffic tickets!) I was so nervous when he showed up for my class. I like to ask all my students what they did to land them in traffic school so when Dan stood up, he said, “I am a pastor and I ran through a red light.” I pointed to him and said “sinner!” and everyone had a chuckle. Later, Dan and I were talking one-on-one, and he was telling me about God’s call on his life to teach. I started to cry because the Holy Spirit said to me that I was teaching the wrong thing and that Dan was teaching the right thing. God told me I should be teaching His Word. I wanted to teach those who didn’t know anything about the Bible. So I asked him about going to Bible College and seminary. I got every introductory book about the Bible I could find including The Bible for Dummies, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Bible and Backstage to the Bible. I created the simplest introductory course to the Bible. I gave quizzes and it was a lot of fun. I would say the majority of Christians sitting in church don’t really know the story that the pastor is talking about. After they have taken my course for eight weeks, two hours a week, they have context when they go to church. They leave knowing things like who Paul is and why he wrote to the Corinthians. I have taught over 500 people through this course so far.
One lady came to my class not knowing if the word Genesis was in the Bible. Now she is a ministry leader in her church. Another lady had never prayed before and didn’t know how to pray and now she is praying every day. That is worth more than any money you could ever give me.
Then I had a Jerry Seinfeld moment. You know where he says things like, “Do you ever wonder why glass doors open?” I thought, “What if we had a church that was just an hour commitment?” At 5:30 in the morning, God’s voice woke me up and told me to call an assisted living center. I called one nearby and said, “I don’t know why I am supposed to call you, but I want to volunteer.” I went in for a meeting and said that I teach a course for the Bible and the lady said, “Well actually we need a church here!” She then asked when I could start. Right before the meeting ended, she said their residents only have an attention span of one hour. I went there and had a captive audience. The joke is that I did the same sermon every week because they couldn’t remember! I did that for about a year. My wife and daughters helped me and we decided to start a church in Homewood Suites. Five hotels later, here we are at the Hour Church.
RM: You’re doing a lot! How do you balance work and family life?
SV: I moved my office to my home to be with my family. I have two daughters who are 10 and 16-years-old. For the last three years I worked from home—I write my sermons there, and have meetings there and then I have time to coach my daughter’s softball team. Savannah does the multi-media at church and Scarlett hands out pamphlets at the door. My wife Jewel is the rock of the church! We are so small right now that people just call or text me when they aren’t going to be there. Our church really is like family.
RM: How do you stay strong in times of discouragement and struggle? Do you have a favorite verse that is like an anthem in your life?
SV: I love Jeremiah 29:11 and also Matthew 10:32—“Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven.” I’m so fortunate to have a platform to speak in truth. As Christians we need to acknowledge Jesus so He will acknowledge us in Heaven, especially in our current climate.
RM: What is the number one piece of advice you want your daughters to hold on to?
SV: I want them to hold onto Luke 12:8, “I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God.” My kids are surrounded by opposition at school every day, but they come to church on Sunday and get to hear their dad preach God’s word. I want them to have that anchor all their lives.
You can learn more about Steve Verret at: www.CleanComedyLive.com
You Can Talk to God! A Simple, Step-by-Step Guide to Powerful Prayer
by Steve Verret. Available online: www.amazon.com/You-Can-Talk-God-Step-By-Step/dp/1505480752