Carl Kozlowski seems to have lived a multitude of lives, and he’s spent most of them trying to make people laugh.
Now he’s one of the founders of Catholic Laughter, a company that offers comics to perform live at Catholic venues from parish and school fundraisers to festivals and young adult events.
Born in California, he spent some of his early childhood in the Chicago area before his family moved to Arkansas. That was where he went on his first comedy “tour”: His first grade teacher sent him to visit the second, third and fourth grade classes of St. Edward Catholic School in Little Rock to read aloud a story that he wrote, about a cat and a dog that dressed up as police and went on a crime spree, because she thought it was hilarious.
The fourth grade, he said, was kind of a tough audience for a first grader.
“I was so scared I had to ask the teacher what one of the words I wrote was,” he said. “But they all laughed.”
He returned to Chicago in his 20s to study improv at Second City, then developed a stand-up act. While he lived in the city, he worked briefly for the Chicago Tribune and for the alternative weekly Newcity, where he wrote about doing things such as dressing in a dinosaur costume to try to sell macaroni and cheese on Michigan Avenue.
The experience was not good, he said, because some people were less than kind, including teenagers who apparently thought punching the inflatable costume wouldn’t hurt the human inside it. But it made for a funny story.
“I love to laugh,” he said. “And I love to make people laugh. And God gave me a good memory for details.”
Later, he went to California, working as an arts and entertainment writer, performing in comedy clubs, recording a podcast, hosting a radio show and writing a TV pilot “Dozed and Confused.”
He also has a book available in print, electronic and audio formats on Amazon, “Dozed and Confused: Tales from a Nutty, Narcoleptic Life,” telling stories of his life as a functional narcoleptic.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, he moved back to Arkansas to be close to his family and was able to get treatment for the sleep apnea that caused him to be so exhausted he would fall asleep at inappropriate times.
Now he and his Catholic Laughter business partner Scott Vinci are pitching comedy acts to parishes and dioceses around the country, including in Chicago. Catholic Laughter is slated to be part of two-day “Smells and Bells” comedy festival at the Athenaeum Center for Thought and Culture in September.
Vinci, who met Kozlowski when both were in Chicago more than 20 years ago, said that Catholic institutions seemed like an untapped market for comedy when both were working in Los Angeles before the pandemic. They started by doing coffee hours after Mass at Christ the King Parish, and soon found neighborhood residents who had never been to the church dropping in.
“In that way, it was almost an evangelization thing,” Vinci said.
“We called it ‘Sunday Funnies,’” said Father Don Woznicki, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago who was ministering at Los Angeles’ Christ the King Parish at the time. Now associate pastor of St. Mary of the Lake-Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Chicago, Woznicki said comedy in Catholic venues works on a practical level, a theological level and on a psycho-emotional level.
In Los Angeles, the comedy events grew from about 50 people having coffee and donuts and giving a free-will offering after Mass to two evening fundraisers that drew close to 300 people and helped raise funds for a neighboring parish’s homeless shelter, Woznicki said.
Comics enjoyed doing sets of what Woznicki called “smart, witty” comedy, without veering into the base or the profane, he said.
“From a theological level, God has a sense of humor,” Woznicki said. “What is a sense of humor but seeing through the serious things to what’s important? It’s kind of like Day of the Dead that’s celebrated in the Hispanic community, where they make cakes and cookies and put skeletons on them. They’re laughing at death, because they know we have salvation. They’re not letting the seriousness of death rob them of their joy.”
And, Woznicki said, good comedy makes people feel good.
“Laughing is a great therapeutic,” he said. “It relieves tension. It’s exponential when you bring in a group of people and they’re laughing together.”
Vinci and Kozlowski said doing Catholic humor is more than working “clean,” meaning they don’t use obscenities or sexual content to get laughs.
“We try to poke a little gentle fun,” Vinci said. “We want to bring a sense of community. Those people are in the community and they’re all Catholic and they get the Catholic joke.”