Editor’s Note: If you’re headed to a Christian conference in North America, it’s a solid bet that you’re about to see The Skit Guys perform. They’re everywhere, because their 20-year comedy partnership has made them the most in-demand performers in the Christian subculture. After building a massive reputation as live performers, Tommy Woodard and Eddie James expanded their scope to video production as well. Now their skits are shown in churches (and on mobile devices) all over the world (go to SkitGuys.com for more). I snagged 30 minutes with them at Group’s KidMin conference in late September, where they spent three nights making people laugh, making them think, and opening their hearts to God when they least expected it.
Rick Lawrence: I thought it would be great, first of all to backtrack a little. How is it that you ended up doing this in the first place?
Tommy Woodard: We owe everything we do to a youth pastor and a high school teacher. We had a high school drama teacher who taught us the basics.
Eddie James: We were Okies, so we had accents (shifts to “country” accent). I mean, we talked like this, you know? She was the one who told us, “No, it’s not an ag-g, it’s an e-gg. You don’t say ‘snot either,’ you say ‘it’s not either.’” There’s a basic thing in theater, even in Oklahoma, to enunciate. If you fast-forward to what we do now, people don’t think we’re from Oklahoma.
Tommy: And we were involved in drama competitions, so we had to do our entire presentation in eight minutes. We had to take something big and condense it. It’s all God’s providence. He’s taking two guys who don’t care about him at first and going, “Okay guys, I’m grooming you for what I’m going to do with you.” Then a youth pastor wanted me to go on this mission trip, and I didn’t want to go. But he goes, “I need drama on this mission trip.” And I was arrogant enough to go, “Well if God needs drama, he needs me.”
So I went on that mission trip. And in that week in New Orleans God changed my life. I realized that performing wasn’t for me—it was for him. And he (Eddie) still had his senior year in high school. I was just graduating. And he didn’t get chosen for the senior play—when we say this now it sounds like that’s not a big deal, but that was our whole life.
Eddie: It was huge—devastating. When I graduated, we were going to attempt to get on Saturday Night Live. We were going to hop in his red Pinto and get our SAG cards and join whatever comedy improv group we could find and hopefully Loren Michaels would see us and we’d both get on Saturday Night Live.
But after that summer, when you came back from the mission trip, something changed. He was going to church more and I really didn’t get it. During that summer he asked if I’d be in a skit at the church and I was like, “Okay, all right.” That was 1987. We had six people in the skit, but Tommy’s car broke down and he couldn’t make it that night. So I was there at youth group on a Wednesday night and I knew nobody. I didn’t even know the youth minister—he was like, “Well I guess you’re going to have to take over and do this.” Part of me was mad and frustrated, and part of me was, “Okay, let’s do this skit.”
After that, Tommy kept inviting me to church, and I gave my life to Christ. That youth minister asked us to do skits every Wednesday night. And he held our feet to the fire. If I didn’t show up, he was like, “Where were you?” There was accountability—so we did skits every Wednesday. We stole a lot of them from Saturday Night Live.
Rick: A lot of people embrace a “defeatist” theology when they think about serving Jesus. I mean, we believe that whatever we love, Jesus is certain to ask us to do something different—the thing we don’t really want to do. Because Jesus wants us to die to ourselves. So, to live for him I have to give up what I enjoy. But in your story I see Jesus accentuating what gives you joy. He didn’t take it away from you. So what have you learned about your calling?
Tommy: I think I can say our theology is the polar opposite of defeatist theology. We believe God gives you dreams and passions. We believe he is to be the focus of it, but he gives them to you so you will enjoy serving him.
Eddie: Back in the ’80s, comedy and laughter was a no-no—so even the skits had to be very dramatic and very heavy, which equals very cheesy. But we started realizing that, even within church groups, people like to laugh. Early on we saw the older people would be folding their arms during our skits. They weren’t laughing. But then there was a shift—the older generation started shaking our hands, going, “You touched my heart—I needed the laugh.”
Rick: You do two different kinds of skits—some are just for laughs, and some use laughter to set up a more serious message. I’m wondering if you ever feel pressure that it has to be attached to something meaningful and serious, or whether the laughter alone is enough. Do you ever feel like in order for somebody to feel like this is legitimate, it has to have a serious point to it? Or is laughter, divorced from serious point, a ministry in itself?
Eddie: I think in ministry you’re building credits with people. If you would’ve asked that question 10 years ago, we would’ve definitely said, “Oh, yes, you’ve got to have a point.” Credibility, credibility, credibility. Now I think if we stepped out and just made people laugh, we still have this pastoral feel. We didn’t grow up to be “merely” comedians. Even if it’s just funny, I think there’s always this pastoral feel of, “These guys get us, they get our world.” A skit that produces only laughter is still very healing.
Tommy: I love the Word of God. However, God does not say the exegetical preaching of the Word is good medicine. He does say laughter is good medicine. There’s great healing power in laughter—that’s what the Bible says.
Rick: I think there must be, at times, environmental pressure on you guys to have to meet that “serious” standard in your skits.
Tommy: I think what Eddie said is so true—when we were in the process of building credits that was an issue. We’ve gotten to the point where people know what we were about—they know we love Jesus, they know we love the Bible, and they’ll give us a little more leeway.
Rick: Improvisational comedy requires a kind of vulnerability. You have to be vulnerable in the moment to each other, and to God leading you. How has that “practiced vulnerability” helped you to grow as people?
Eddie: Hopefully the vulnerability comes from being pastors. If we weren’t doing what we do now, we’d be at a church working somewhere. So I think that’s the calling that was there when we were 18 years old—to serve God with our gifts and talents.
Tommy: When I was 19, I went to my pastor and said: “I love to act. Are there any Christians who act?” And my pastor goes, “Well, yes, Tommy, there are.” And I said, “Who?” And he said, “Have you ever heard of Ebb from Green Acres?” It’s like, oh boy, yeah, I’ve heard of him. Okay, so I’m going to have to be a pastor, you know. I’m not going to be an actor…
Eddie: I think that vulnerability comes from recognizing that the people out there during our performances are the same people in our churches. They’re tired and hurting, and we know their pain. We get their world.
Rick: I think you often point out something that’s true but ignored, like the king’s fool would do back in the day. The fool always said the thing that was obvious that nobody wanted to say.
Tommy: That’s really good. We will laughingly say, “We’re just court jesters for Jesus.”
Eddie: You learn in high school theater—know your audience. We know our role, we know what to do. You get in and you get out, and hopefully you bring laughter—you tear down the walls for truth to enter.
Rick: In light of all that you’ve just said, how have you defined what success looks like for you?
Eddie: When we get so many emails, normally from people who are watching our videos on their computers or on their iPhone, that say “Someone just forwarded this video to me, and I’m weeping because I realize I need to change.” I mean, that’s huge for us.
Tommy: I don’t know how to gauge success. Isn’t success just being used by God? I mean, if he’s using you to make somebody laugh, if he’s using you to help somebody through a difficult time, then that’s success.
Eddie: Over the years, we’ve seen a lot of people who speak or perform at big conferences get really big heads. And where are they now? We can’t take this too seriously. We say this all the time: “Thank you for trusting us. Thank you for having us again, because in no way do we think we deserve this.”
Rick: You’ve got a lot of forces pulling at you, trying to pull you apart. You can’t walk down a hall at a conference like this without people wanting to talk to you because you’ve made them laugh, and therefore have gotten past their gates. It’s an intimate experience to laugh with somebody. So they just want to be connected to you somehow. There’s a force at work there that could warp you… So what has allowed you to maintain your partnership for so long?
Tommy: Back in 1989, we were interns in California and we hit a moment where one of us had a clenched fist and said to the other one, “I’m going to hit you!” And then God separated us, physically, for seven years. And in that time, we really got to appreciate each other from a distance, to start to understand how we’re wired differently. We’re not the same—he’s a writer and I’m a performer. Nobody is interested in seeing only Tommy Woodard or only Eddie James. They’re interested in seeing The Skit Guys. They’re interested in our friendship. We’re not the greatest actors, we’re not the funniest comedians, but people want to be a part of our friendship. There’s a phrase that we’ve used for 13 years now—we have each other’s back. I trust him implicitly. I never ever, ever, ever have to worry about him not having my back.
Eddie: Tommy’s dad said, almost 20 years ago, that it’s really not good mixing all this stuff up with a friend. It’s not good to mix business and friendship. So we need to tend it well. So we didn’t get to go on Saturday Night Live, but we’re creating our own little playground to do things for God. ◊