He’s still a man with an audience, but his venue of choice has changed.
The Rev. Jacob Martin — a former improvisation actor and comedian with ties to Loyola University Chicago — was one of 25 men in the United States and Canada ordained as a Jesuit priest June 13. It was the largest group of new priests ordained by the Jesuits, an order of Catholic clerics that runs Loyola and schools around the world, in more than 15 years, according to a press release on jesuits.org.
Martin, a 40-year-old Chicago native, didn’t always want to be a priest. In fact, he said he once thought the idea that anyone would want to be a priest was “weird,” said Martin in a recent interview with The PHOENIX.
“When I was going into college, I wanted to make a lot of money,” Martin said. “I was really materialistic when I was a kid.”
He started at University of Illinois- Chicago as a business major before he became a theater major. A degree in business would guarantee financial success, he explained. Comedy was different.
“It was the first thing that was something I just loved to do,” he said. “It filled my life up.”
As an undergraduate at UIC, Martin saw shows and took classes at Second City, Chicago’s storied improv theater that spawned many Saturday Night Live careers. For five years after graduating from UIC in 1999, he performed improv and sketch comedy with various troupes across the city.
He became a company member at The Annoyance Theatre & Bar, performed at ImprovOlympic (currently known as the iO Theater) and played a role in a live show called Tony n’ Tina’sWedding.
Dori Goldman, a fellow comedian who performed with Martin at The Annoyance in the late 90’s, said she remembers seeing him outdoors smoking, dressed in the white shirt and cut-off jean shorts he always wore. Martin’s sarcastic, she said, and one of the most quick-witted people she knows.
“Jake used to have the dirtiest, raunchiest sense of humor. I know it’s still in there,” said Goldman. “No one can make me truly laugh like Jake.”
In the years that Martin focused on his comedic career, religion was little more than a part of his childhood.
“I hadn’t practiced my faith in maybe 10 years,” he said. “I’d been an agnostic atheist for a long time. But after my grandma died, I started thinking about [religion]. It was a big part of my grandma’s life and it was her that taught me all about my faith when I was a kid.”
So, he started going back to church.
Eventually — and not for the first time — the idea of being a priest popped into his head, he said.
“I had thought about it when I was little, but it always seemed kind of silly,” Martin said. “I also wanted to be a cowboy.”
Martin lived just a mile west of Wrigleyville until he was 6 years old — the year his father died. Shortly after the death of his father, he moved to the South Side of Chicago where he attended St. Laurence High School in Burbank, Illinois, and lived with his mother and two sisters. Today, Martin’s family lives in the southwest suburb of Bridgeview, Illinois.
He said he gradually began to consider priesthood more seriously, which prompted him to attend a dinner with a group of seminarians that he’d seen advertised in the church bulletin. Martin said that despite his prior doubts, he enjoyed the experience.
“It wasn’t like a ‘yes, this is what I must do,’” he said. “But it made me realize I had to be more open to it. It was worth more investigation.”
“I was at a point in my life when I was starting to get successful in comedy. My goal, as was most of my friends’, was to get hired by SNL,” he added. “At some point it just struck me — when I get hired, I’m just going to want something else … You know, I’d get a job on a sitcom, or I’d get a movie deal. It would just be an endless cycle.”
Martin worked alongside the likes of actress and comedian Rachel Dratch, as well as other writers, actors and producers who went on to work for SNL and the NBC sitcom, 30 Rock.
At the recommendation of a seminarian he’d met at the dinner, he looked into a few different religious orders. The Jesuits just happened to be one of them, he said. What he initially knew of them came from a movie he’d watched in college.
“I knew of [the Jesuits] from ‘The Exorcist,’” he said, laughing. The film is about Catholic priests expelling demons from a little girl. “I’d written a paper about [the movie] in college.”
In 2003, he reached out to the former vocation director at Loyola, the Rev. Dave Godleski, who invited him to dinner with the Jesuits on Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus.
“They loved the fact that I did comedy,” he said. “They were fascinated by it and wanted to talk about it the
whole time. Not to say the others that I met with were against it, but these guys loved it.”
Comedy never left Martin, even as he pursued religion. While at Fordham University in the Bronx borough of New York — where he earned a master’s degree in philosophy — he taught improv and acting classes at a high school in Harlem. In the three years that followed, he taught religion and theater at Loyola Academy in Wilmette, a northern suburb of Chicago.
From 2012 to 2015, Martin studied for his Master of Divinity at Santa Clara University in Berkeley, California, where he he also taught improv at a theater and offered corporate improv workshops at various tech companies in the Bay Area.
Despite the effort he made to separate the two, Martin struggled to separate his comedic life from his religious one.
“There was a part of me that — there’s always been a part of me — that’s like, ‘No, I’m holy and I want to get rid of the comedy thing,’” he said. “Sometimes I’m conflicted by things that I think are funny, but I know are politically incorrect.”
Fortunately, Martin said, abandoning his life as a performer won’t be totally necessary. Whether he’s preaching to a congregation or telling jokes in a theater, he still has an audience. This summer, his “audience members” were the parishioners of St. Xavier Parish in Cincinnati, Ohio. In September, he said he’ll move to London for two years, studying for the Licentiate in Sacred Theology at Heythrop College.
“Mass is a sacred thing, so I don’t really want to be doing bits the whole time,” he said. “I don’t always want to be preaching jokes, but there is also a part of me that can’t help it sometimes.”
“I know that people like to make religion serious and I think that to a degree, that’s good,” he added. “It is a sacred thing, but I also think that God has a sense of humor… We need laughter and we need joy, and I think that’s just as relevant in a church as it is in a nightclub.”