Catholic Stand-Up Comic Jen Fulwiler on the True, the Good and the Beautifully Hilarious
The Catholic mom of six is the star of her own comedy special on Amazon Prime and is embarking on a new fall tour in 2021.
AUSTIN, Texas — Jennifer Fulwiler, a Catholic mom of six, writer, speaker, podcaster and comic, has hit the big time in stand-up comedy, between notoriety as the “TikTok mom on the plane” and the launch of her one-hour Amazon Prime comedy special, Jen Fulwiler: The Naughty Corner.
Fulwiler’s career literally began with her conversion from atheism, blogging at “Conversion Diary” and writing for the Register, until she made a leap of faith into radio and stand-up comedy, recognizing it both as a vocation and a kind of ministry to help lift burdens from people weighed down by the problems of their world.
Fulwiler, on the cusp of launching her new stand-up “The Minivan Fabulous Tour,” spent some time with Register staff writer Peter Jesserer Smith discussing the truth, goodness and the beautiful hilarity of her career in stand-up comedy and the importance of following one’s God-given “blue flame.”
So Jen, you went from ardent atheist to Catholic mom of six and stand-up comic in 14 years? Where has your career come from?
I started writing and blogging at the National Catholic Register and my own blog. Then I wrote my conversion story, a memoir for Ignatius Press. My next two books were with HarperCollins, and one of the big things was I was on the Catholic Channel at Sirius XM. I had a daily talk radio show there. That was a wonderful experience, and I’m still friends with all the people over there; they’re amazing. But the feedback that I would always get on my radio show is that people liked it most for the humor. They liked it when I use humor.
So I was kind of praying about what to do next in my career after one of my books came out. And I really do believe it was a God thing that I just got this very sudden answered prayer to try stand-up. And since that day, I have never looked back. I have been 100% in stand-up. It was a very sudden decision and change. But I really do think it was kind of an answered prayer and what I was supposed to be doing.
What was that moment like when you realized that?
I had felt like something was next. I didn’t have peace in my life. I felt like there was something I was supposed to be doing. But I didn’t know what it was. And so I said the prayer where I told God, “Either remove this lack of peace from my life, or tell me what I am supposed to be doing.” And the idea just came to me. I was just sitting at my desk after I got off my radio show. And it was this very sudden and very strong inspiration to do stand-up. So I went down to my first open mic the next day, and the first person I ever spoke to in the stand-up world ended up being a girl who’s my comedy writing partner! She tours with me; she’s my opener. So the very first person I spoke to in that world happened to be someone who’s now a good friend of mine. So God started opening doors very quickly once I followed that path.
Clearly you had this inspiration from the Holy Spirit. But how did you actually get yourself to go up in front of a whole bunch of people and just start to do that?
I’m crazy. I mean, I do all sorts of crazy stuff. I had done public speaking. I went to events and spoke on all sorts of topics, so I was used to being on a stage. I learned very quickly that stand-up is a totally different thing. And just because you can be funny on a stage with regular public speaking does not mean that you can do stand-up. So there was a lot to learn. And I really had to study the art. I took that very seriously. In fact, I actually have Excel spreadsheets that I would create where I would put each joke in it. And I would rate how it did with different crowds and graph the response.
You’re kidding. You really did spreadsheets?
Literally, I did spreadsheets. But it did help me. I got an hour of material very quickly. And then I started contacting stand-up comedy clubs. Understandably, they hadn’t heard of me — I came out of nowhere — and so I wasn’t getting booked to do shows. So my friend and I started calling theaters. I kind of knew where my fans were, so I would just go to Google Maps. For example, I would just search “theater in Columbus, Ohio,” and I read reviews of the theater and if it got good reviews. Then we would call the theater and put down my personal credit card. And we booked a 14-city tour totally on my personal credit card. If I hadn’t been able to sell tickets, we would have faced bankruptcy. It would have been terrible.
Oh, wow. That’s a leap of faith.
That was absolutely terrifying. But it was a national sold-out theater tour. And that is where my comedy special came from. I got connected with the guys from Spirit Juice. They’re amazing. They’ve done a lot of incredible work with Bishop [Robert] Barron. They filmed my comedy special, which is actually higher quality than if it had been done by Netflix. Netflix does a three-camera shoot for comedy specials. Spirit Juice did an eight-camera shoot, and it’s in 4K.
The first theater tour was booked entirely by me. But just last month, I signed with United Talent Artists. They represent Jeff Foxworthy, Nate Bargatze — big, big names. And when you scroll down, you see my name right there on that list! So that was really gratifying, because I had been doing it by myself for so long. It’s so nice now to kind of have a team at UTA that’s on my side and helping me out with all of this.
That’s a great next step in the chapter of your career. Now, a lot of people looking at your stand-up comedy special, The Naughty Corner, will look at that and ask themselves, “Does all this material just come out of you fully formed?” Where does the material for your comedy routine come from? How did you successfully work this out?
When I got into this, people said that because I have a big family — I have six kids — they said, “That’s going to be a disadvantage for you.” “It will be very hard for you.” But what I found is it turned into an advantage. Because we have a big family, there are constantly people in and out of our house.
As an aside, people in the comedy industry were shocked that I created the set that you see in The Naughty Corner on Amazon in less than a year. It was a matter of months. And that’s very unusual. Normally, it takes comics — even seasoned comics with decades of experience — it takes them a year at least to come up with material. When people ask how I did it so quickly, it really helped being in this big-family Catholic culture, where I did what I call “garage comedy.” I would get my kids, my older kids and their friends and neighbors, and just gather people in my garage. I would read through my comedy, and actually give them survey sheets with each joke. I wouldn’t spell out the joke, but it would be a set list, and I would have them rate it. And I would tell them, “I need you guys to be honest. Because if you lie to me and tell me something is funny that is not funny, then I am going to be very embarrassed when I am up on stage in front of hundreds of people.” And they were honest. They would say, “I just didn’t understand that punch line. I didn’t find that to be very funny.” And then at other things, they’d say, “This is so funny! You have to develop this more. We want three more minutes on this subject.”
Having this big-family Catholic culture where there are people in and out of your house all the time was really my ace in the hole. I was able to gather people and engage an audience in a way that many comics can’t get.
In what way is comedy good for the spiritual life?
Comedy is so good for the spiritual life because comedy is predicated on humility. And humility is such a critical virtue.
There are a lot of quotes about how pride is the most dangerous thing for the spiritual life, because it makes us think we don’t need God, that we’re so great, that our ego is central to everything. If you think about it: When you’re in a very prideful state, you can’t laugh; you’re too full of yourself to laugh. And laughter reminds us that we can laugh at this, because God is in charge, and God has things under control. And if God didn’t exist, and the weight of the whole world rests on our shoulders, then nothing’s funny: The world is too dire; and it’s too serious; and there’s no hope.
And that spirit of laughter reminds us that we’re so small in the grand scheme of things, and God has got all of this under control. And that is why we can laugh. And when we laugh, we remember that.
In our social milieu, do you see being a stand-up comic as a kind of ministry?
It feels that way. In fact, one of my inspirations for getting into comedy is when I was having a hard time in my life. And we’ve had a lot of difficult things, like in my sixth pregnancy: I almost died; the baby almost died. It was a very hard time. And comedy was a way that I relieved those burdens and felt a little bit better about life. But so much of the stand-up comedy entertainment out there was directly insulting to people of faith. I mean, they would straight-up insult Catholics all the time.
But I just thought, “I wish someone could make me laugh and speak to my perspective and not act like people of faith are stupid and not constantly make jokes at the Catholic Church’s expense.” And then I think of all of my friends: When you’re in this Catholic world, when you’re in the culture of life, it’s not an easy life. The Christian life is never an easy life. And so I looked around, and I saw all these friends: They’re volunteering at the nursing home, they’re raising children with disabilities, they’re working with the poor, they’re exhausted, and they don’t have a comedy special that they can turn on at the end of the day to just relax and laugh. Or if they do, it’ll be absolutely filthy and insult everything they stand for. And so doing comedy that speaks to the perspective of people who can relate to my life, I really do see it as a type of ministry.
One of the things I was impressed with in your comedy special was how many people were reaching out to you about their own struggles. You shared some of your own experiences of grief and the things you were going through, such as your father passing away during the tour.
Yes, in the middle of the tour.
How did you get through that, process it, and get to the point where you could share that experience with others?
That was very hard. He died about three weeks before I filmed the special, and he was supposed to be there that night. Another thing to understand is he lived right down the road from us. He took my kids to all of their activities. He was in and out of my house every single day. He was our free chauffeur; he had dinner with us once a week — he was a very intimate part of our immediate family. And I’m an only child. So we were very close. And when he died, it was sudden. It was an internal-bleeding issue. I had just been texting with him. Nobody saw it coming — we thought he was great. I thought I had 20 more years with my dad.
When he died, it was the night before my Atlanta show. I got the call at two o’clock in the morning. But I knew a lot of people had really gone out of their way to get babysitting. I had a couple people at the Atlanta show who had bought plane tickets to be there. So I couldn’t cancel the show. I had to go up on stage right after getting that news and do an hour of stand-up comedy. That was certainly not an easy thing.
And then we had to plan his funeral in the middle of that. I had to go out and film my special, and there were a lot of difficult things just about the logistics of getting that filmed, as well. But I think that’s one of those things where you just have to believe that if God means for you to do something, and if it’s in his plan, he’ll give you the grace to do it. And that was the only thing that got me through that Atlanta show — is that I just felt like, “This is bigger than me. Yes, I’ve had something bad happen. But I bet a lot of people in the audience have had something bad happen to them, and I need to set aside my own sadness and my own grief and do what God has sent me here to do tonight.”
If I didn’t have that belief that I was meant to do this, and that this [stand-up comedy] is kind of a ministry to lift other people’s burdens and to help them, I don’t know how I would have gotten through that show.
Can you tell us about your most recent book, Your Blue Flame: Drop the Guilt and Do What Makes You Come Alive? What is your “blue flame,” and what is the message that you’re trying to share with people
The message in that one is: I really did not like this message that is out there that women need to put their lives on hold when they have young children. ... What I saw is that these women’s talents and what they had to give back to their communities were not being seen, because they believed that they had to put their lives on hold. That message, “Put your life on hold when you have young children,” works if you’re in a part of the culture that believes it’s irresponsible to have more than one child and so you take measures to make sure that you don’t. But for my people, for many of them, it was the right decision for them to have a bigger family. They felt like, “Well, I guess I can’t ever use my talents because I could be changing diapers when I’m 50.” So it was important for me to get the message out there that God has given each one of us “a blue flame” as just a way to add love to the world. It could be anything from stand-up comedy to just cooking in your home. It doesn’t have to involve making money. It doesn’t have to involve worldly success or be glamorous.
It’s just something that builds you up, when you give back in some sort of way, like just stopping by your local nursing home to chat with the people there; something like that. What I found — and I had six babies in eight years — is that when I engaged in my “blue flame,” not only did it not detract from my vocation as a wife and a mother, but it enhanced it; it gave me more energy, more life and more love to share with my family. That was the message that I wanted to get across in this book: that when you seek your blue flame, and you discover it and you use it, your family will actually benefit. It is a favor to your spouse and your children to do that.
Thank you for that witness, because we definitely need high-profile examples to show just that. We’ve seen a lot of people in the Catholic spotlight achieve a certain degree of fame only to publicly unravel in spiritual crises later. What are your thoughts on that? How do you navigate that kind of tension?
I know exactly what you’re talking about. And I’ve seen that. One, it starts with staying humble and seeing everything you do as service. I tell God every day, this [career] is up to him; the results are up to him. I think one of the things that can lead to spiritual crises is when you get too attached to the worldly results. That can really start to drive you crazy and be very damaging for your spiritual life. So you have to just let all that go and let the results be up to God.
To be honest, it has helped me to move from the Catholic media world and into the stand-up comedy world, because certainly you hear and see things when you’re in Catholic media that can be dispiriting. And when I left Catholic media, one of the reasons I did that was because I felt like it was starting to become bad for my spiritual life to be so deep in that world where I was hearing about all the skeletons in the closet. Every group has them, and it doesn’t mean that the Church isn’t ultimately a good thing. But for me, and where I was in my spiritual life, I needed a break from that world. I didn’t know if it would work at the time, transitioning into stand-up comedy, but I said, for the sake of my own personal faith, it is no longer healthy for me to be so deeply involved in the day-to-day working of that world.
Last question: You just went viral on TikTok as the mom with the PSA about babies on the plane. But what’s next for you in your stand-up career?
That has been really funny how much that viral stuff has gotten around. But what’s next is I am back out on tour. I don’t have dates yet, but I will at JFComedyTour.com. Probably in September, I will be starting back out on tour. And I’m calling it “The Minivan Fabulous Tour“ to let my moms know that this can be kind of a fun night out for them. I’m doing that with United Talent Agency, my new agents. So that’s very exciting, and I already have hit a couple of real comedy clubs. That was an interesting experience: being the Catholic minivan-driving mom of six headlining major comedy clubs! But this will be a comedy-club tour. And it’s a real worlds colliding thing.
We’re looking forward to it! Your friends at the Register say hello, and there are a lot of fans in my hometown who are eager to see you.
Yes! Well, I love you guys, and my final comment is that I really credit the National Catholic Register with helping me get my start, where I could work on my writing skills and use humor. I just have the fondest affection for you guys.
For more information about Jen Fulwiler’s stand-up comedy, visit JenniferFulwiler.com.