The decision to pursue a career in comedy is one that manifests itself in a number of ways. For some people, the promise of having strangers’ undivided attention at their disposal is motivation enough. For others, it’s all about the payoff of someday delivering the ultimate punch line.
For Bengt Washburn, the deciding factor was a monkey.
It’s not every day that a budding painter abandons his artistic pursuits because of a prolific painting primate named Congo, but that’s essentially what inspired Washburn’s transition to stand-up comedy.
“I remember how depressing that was,” he says. “I was trying to get a job as an art professor and get gallery representation, but couldn’t get anything. And then, I read about this monkey. This damn chimp gets a show and I can’t. Talk about depressing.”
After nine years of coming up short in the art world, Washburn decided to switch gears and do what only seemed natural: reveal the intimate details of his life as a Mormon to complete strangers, for comic relief.
“I came from a family of seven and was always competing for attention and had always wanted to do comedy, but I didn’t think Mormons could be comedians,” says Washburn, 42.
The self-described unaccomplished Mormon — he does bad stuff like swear and drink coffee — talks shop about religion in Kung Pao Kosher Comedy’s new show, “A Muslim, a Mormon, and a JewWalk Into a Bar: The Comedy of Religion.” The show also features the talents of San Francisco’s own Jewish jokester Lisa Geduldig and the London-based Muslim comedian Shazia Mirza.
From the horrors of his two-year door-knocking missionary duty in Seattle to his mother’s penchant for eccentric names — his first name is pronounced “bent” — Washburn’s comedy gives outsiders an inside peek into the oft-misunderstood world of Mormonism.
“What I focus on in my show is this difference in point of view,” he says. “We’re trying to get into your house and you’re in your house hiding from us. It’s actually pretty funny when you think about it.”
Even with hours upon hours of Mormon material, the former champ of the San Francisco Comedy Competition isn’t solely focused on one faith; his act takes a wide look at religion in general.
“At its best, comedy should make you see things differently,” Washburn says. “I like it when the mundane gets opened up and you’re exposed to this great big truth that was sitting right there in front of your face.”
A Muslim, a Mormon and a Jew Walk into a Bar: The Comedy of Religion
Presented by Kung Pao Kosher Comedy
Where: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St., San Francisco
Contact: (415) 522-3737 or visit www.koshercomedy.com
Note: Other performances are Sunday at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts in Berkeley and Monday at the Marin Center Showcase Theatre in San Rafael.