Can a Christian be a stand-up comedian?
Despite fighting depression, post-traumatic stress and grief, Hannah Boland still finds the funny side
As a child, Hannah Boland found her quick wit often got her into trouble.
Australia’s pioneering “clean comedian” regrets that back then she didn’t realise the difference between using wit to build people up and being an obnoxious smart aleck.
“It was a painful lesson to learn because I damaged relationships. I hurt people and I really regret that,” says the young mum as we sit in the courtyard of her home in the NSW southern highlands.
These days Hannah, 33, treads a delicate tightrope of using humour as a tool to connect with people who are hurting without belittling what they are going through.
In her new show, The Best Medicine – which she is performing at the Sydney Fringe Comedy Festival on Saturday, September 10 – Hannah has made an effort to reach out to people suffering from mental illness, chronic pain and grief.
“When I was at my lowest and my worst, if I was able to laugh at something it was just such a hope-filled experience.”
A chronic pain sufferer since childhood, Hannah has suffered multiple tragedies in her life. She lost two full-term babies – Stephen was born with a rare brain disease and lived just two days, while Esther was asphyxiated by the umbilical cord.
It was while she was lost in the blackness of post-traumatic stress disorder and clinical depression that Hannah discovered the power of laughter. Watching a comedian on TV or having a laugh with friends gave her hope that she might one day recover.
“When I was at my lowest and my worst, if I was able to laugh at something it was just such a hope-filled experience,” she says. “When you feel so low, you lose hope that you will ever feel happy again; and even though in those moments when you have a good laugh it doesn’t solve any problems, it reminded me what it was like to laugh and gave me hope that one day I might feel differently.”
As Hannah climbed out of her pit of depression, she felt a calling to use humour to give other people a way of glimpsing a brighter future.
“I think there’s always been a part of me that wanted to do entertainment on that sort of level, and I think God really helped me connect the dots,” she says.
“For all the anxiety and the stress, when I step out on stage and get into the comedy, I know it’s what I’m supposed to be doing.”
“I remember having this big dream of wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could be someone who could be a conduit for giving other people a life and giving them a hope if they’re having a really tough time.”
As a mother of three small children living 100km from Sydney, Hannah faces multiple obstacles in making this dream a reality, not least the battle to promote and finance her shows.
But the enthusiastic feedback she received from her first tour in 2014 validated her belief that humour was a valuable ministry tool.
“After that first tour I knew people had had a great time,” she says. “For all the anxiety and the stress, when I step out on stage and get into the comedy, I know it’s what I’m supposed to be doing … And it was something that I never thought I would be able to do and somehow pulled it off by God’s grace.”
Earlier this year at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival was the first time the former professional musician performed for a secular audience. It also marked the first time she branded herself as a “clean comedian”, rather than a “Christian comedian”.
Her first tour had been aimed squarely at church audiences because a lot of her material was about God and her Christian faith.
“So I am trying to get the word out there in the secular sense of just enjoying clean comedy, but I am also very much still trying to engage churches into seeing what a great tool it can be to connect with their congregation and people from outside their congregation,” she says.
Between her gig at Sydney’s Fringe Comedy Festival and a slot at the Brisbane Comedy Festival early next year, she is taking bookings for church events, ministry events and fundraisers.
“That’s my passion,” she says.
“It’s funny how that works because last time I tried to direct it very much at churches and a Christian audience and it was a real uphill battle.”
“I think it’s really important to remember that God does love us and, in those times where we can’t go on and life is really hard, he’s not asking us to do more, more, more.”
Hannah grew up in a Christian household in Melbourne but wandered away from God in her teenage years.
“Not long after I was married there were many ways God reached me and one of the deeply impacting ones for me was seeing my grandfather on his deathbed. It truly was a moment in my life where I looked at him and he was just so at peace. And it was more than being at peace; he was really looking forward to what was to come. I remember thinking ‘I want to be like that; I want to have that hope.’”
“And then when I was expecting my first, Alison, I remember sitting in my lounge room and just feeling the weight and the burden of everything and just asking Jesus to take it away. I remember that physical feeling of someone reaching down and pulling it all off, and it was such a confirmation to me at the time that this was real. It was a very spiritual but a very physical experience as well.”
Having struggled to complete our interview because of an attack of severe stomach pain, Hannah cites two favourite Bible passages that reveal a great deal about her vulnerabilities.
“I love 1 Kings 19 where Elijah is completely burnt out and I just love how God deals with him. He doesn’t ask anything of Elijah, he doesn’t tell him he needs to pray more or to be more holy or to go out and do things. He just lets Elijah sleep and lie under that bush and God provides food and drink and just lets him rest,” she says.
“That’s a very powerful passage for me because I think it’s really important to remember that God does love us and, in those times where we can’t go on and life is really hard, he’s not asking us to do more, more, more. Unfortunately, I think that is so countercultural to what we’re taught in the church a lot of the time.”
She also finds comfort in a verse in 2 Corinthians 12 where Paul complains of the thorn in his side and God says, “My grace is sufficient for you,” because she still struggles in her faith and relationship with God.
“It would be very easy for me to pull the pin on this whole thing and say, ‘Well, I’m in such a bad place at the moment I can’t have any integrity in my faith’ and what God is constantly reminding me is my grace is sufficient for you. So I’m trusting that, even though I’ve got my personal faith struggles at the moment, he’s going to use that in a way only he can because it can’t possibly be coming from me.
“That’s where God’s brought me at the moment; he’s asking me the question every day ‘Is my grace good enough for you?’ And I’m so glad it is.”
Hannah Boland is performing The Best Medicine at the Sydney Fringe Comedy Festival. Visit www.hannahboland.com.au to book tickets or get more information about The Clean Comedian.
First published in Eternity’s March 2016 edition.