By MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
TRAVERSE CITY — What started out as a live comedy concert film turned into an even funnier documentary, thanks to a clerical oversight.
"It went from being a concert to being a story," said Rebecca Reynolds, co-producer of "The Coexist Comedy Tour," premiering next week at the Traverse City Winter Comedy Arts Festival.
The film was intended to capture a touring comedy show starring comedians of vastly different religions. But it morphed into a documentary about the filmmakers' desperate search for a replacement Christian when the original failed to sign a release form.
The movie will screen at 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 16, at the State Theatre. It's the second film and the first documentary for Reynolds, a screen writer and producer from Leland, her husband, Jim Carpenter, and their independent film production company 8180 Films.
Reynolds said the documentary got its start when the couple and director Larry Brand decided to pursue a project on atheism.
"I said, 'It has to be funny' and they said, 'Find me a funny atheist,'" recalled Reynolds, co-writer of HBO's "Assume the Position with Mr. Wuhl" and a one-man show spinoff also playing at the comedy festival. "So I Googled 'atheist comedians' and up popped Keith Lowell Jensen."
As it happened, the Sacramento-based Jensen had put together a show called "The Coexist Comedy Tour" with Tapan Trivedi, a Hindu comedian also from Sacramento, Calif. Together they'd recruited a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Jew to round out the fun.
"I had never done any material on being an atheist and the first time I did it was with Tapan," said Jensen, of the show's genesis. "He was just fascinated by it. We talked backstage, making jokes about each other's religion, and we thought, 'Wouldn't it be great to take this to the stage' because it's so much more interesting than a lot of what we talk about."
The resulting show proved to be a hit with California audiences, making the front page of the Los Angeles Times in its first year. Soon it was traveling to places like Seattle, Portland, Ore., and New York.
Enter Reynolds and company, who arranged to go out and film the show in 2010.
"It was one night, and the way our partner, Larry Brand pitched it, it's easy-peasy," Reynolds said. "We filmed the show, cameras from all angles. But what happened was the Christian didn't sign his release form. His manager didn't want him to use his jokes in this film. It became a whole problem because we couldn't use that footage of him. We were left holding a partial comedy concert, because you can't do the major religions without having a Christian."
In an effort to make lemonade out of lemons, the filmmakers decided to hold auditions for a replacement Christian in New York, Los Angeles and Sacramento. Their search — and its often hilarious complications — became the film's focus.
"It's harder than it sounds," said Reynolds, noting the film's R-for-language rating. "There's a huge Christian comedy scene that opens for the Christian rock scene but most of them work clean and they wanted to make sure the others in the show worked clean and we couldn't guarantee that."
Then there was the scarcity of Christian comedians who focused on Christian material appropriate for not-just-Christian audiences.
The auditions are some of the funniest bits in the movie, especially when they move to Los Angeles, Jensen said.
"That's where we got the 'American Idol' kind of train-wreck thing happening. We got some really crazy folks. LA is a place where a lot of people who call themselves actors go out for anything. Even if they've never done stand-up comedy, they're comedians. If there's an audition, they'll go out for it," he said.
The film also includes behind-the-scenes footage of Reynolds, et al., as they try to figure out how to salvage the film, as well as sets by Jensen, Trivedi and the others: Sammy Obeid as the Buddhist, Tissa Hami as the Muslim, Moshe Kasher as the Jew, and John Fugelsang as the winning Christian.
"He's funny, he's polished," Reynolds said of Fugelsang, who hit number one on the iTunes, Amazon and Billboard Comedy Charts with his political comedy album. "The reason John is a funny Christian is because it's part of his DNA. His mother was a nun and his father was a priest."
Hami, a Boston native who now lives in San Francisco, started performing after the 9/11 attacks because "she felt like her voice was needed," Jensen said.
"I think it's very important that we have a Muslim on the tour because that's the group we have so much tension with now. That it's a female thrills me," he said. "Talk about a misunderstood person."
Despite the documentary's low-budget indie origins, Reynolds said the filmmakers already have a deal in the works with a major channel. Wherever it ends up, Jensen hopes the film will raise the comedians' profiles while getting across the message that it's OK to have strong differences of faith.
"I just think 'Coexist' has such a wonderful message," he said. "A lot of times the interfaith message is that if you water down your faith we can get along, and that turns a lot of people off. This message is, 'It's OK to think I'm going to hell. In the meantime, we can still go bowling.'"
Tickets for the screening are $10 at the festival box office in the State Theatre lobby. For more information, call 944-3040 or visit wintercomedy.org.