By Becky Sindelar
Have you heard the one about the atheist comedian turned Jesuit? Meet Jake Martin, a Jesuit scholastic in theology studies at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, Calif., who spent several years as an improv comedian before joining the Society of Jesus. Now just a few years away from being ordained to the priesthood, his previous calling was to star on “Saturday Night Live.”
Born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, Martin studied theater in college, and after graduation he performed with improv and theater troupes in the city. He focused on being a successful comedian — with “SNL” as the ultimate goal — and religion was far from his mind.
But Martin says that when his beloved grandmother passed away in 2001, his priorities shifted. “I realized that when I got to “SNL” that wouldn’t be the end; there was always going to be something else I would want. It wasn’t going to fulfill me in the way that I thought it would,” he says of his comedy career.
As a younger boy, his grandmother had suggested the priesthood for Martin, and after her death, he started to consider it again. He went back to church but was still resistant to the idea of being a priest because he was a comedian. Martin says, “I thought, ‘I can’t do that, I’m not holy enough. I’m not what a priest is supposed to be.’ ”
When Martin went to a dinner for men interested in the seminary, he remembers being impressed with the seminarians. “The guys seemed really happy and at peace in a way that I wasn’t,” he says.
Martin wasn’t educated by the Jesuits, but he was familiar with them — from watching “The Exorcist,” he says, laughing. He met with several orders, but Martin says it was the Jesuits that felt right. “I felt very much at home when I met with them,” he says.
A Break from the (Comedy) Routine
He entered the novitiate in 2004 and says at that point, the Jesuits were more excited about him being a performer and comedian then he was. Burned out on comedy and busy with the novitiate, Martin took a break from writing and performing.
When he went to Fordham University in New York as a part of his Jesuit formation, he got involved with an improve troupe in the city. Then while teaching at Loyola Academy in Wilmette, Ill., he took a trip with students to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland, the world’s largest performing arts festival. After experiencing it firsthand, Martin said he knew he wanted to be a part of it.
Practicing His Craft as a Jesuit
Last August, Martin returned to the Edinburgh Festival, this time as a performer. His show ran for eight nights and was a take on American Idol — at the end audiences voted on whether he should become a priest or not. “The verdicts were all positive; eight shows and eight votes of yes that I should become a priest. That was kind of a relief,” Martin says.
At its core, Martin’s comedy is much the same before and after he joined the Society. But he says it has changed in that it’s more intentional and thoughtful. Another change is that as a Jesuit, Martin’s been more focused on writing rather than performing. He’s had opportunities to write for publications including America magazine, Busted Halo and the Huffington Post. And he counts America editor Jesuit Father Jim Martin — no relation — as a great mentor.
Martin also recently published his first book, “What’s So Funny About Faith?”, a memoir combined with critiques of contemporary films and TV shows.
Martin found that writing the book and working on his show at the Fringe Festival helped to fuse his comedic and Jesuit identities. “It required me to grow because I realized I had a view of piety that was ‘be good’ in the sense of third grade catechism,” Martin says. “Working on these projects helped me realize that humor is a wonderful way to recognize and celebrate our humanity.”
In the video below, Jesuit Father James Martin interviews Jake Martin: