"I came to America for freedom," said Rizkallah. "Within a year, I was in bondage to alcohol, drugs and the American dream. I was less free than in the Middle East."
A native of the Gaza Strip, his family moved to Kuwait when he was 3 because his father's construction business was floundering under the geopolitical storm of the imminent Six Day War in 1967.
Growing up in one of the region's comparatively progressive nations, Nazareth - who prefers to go by that one name in public - lived a life not uncommon to many American boys. He played soccer, water-skied and went bowling for fun.
At 19, his parents sent him to America to study engineering. He landed at the University of Toledo in Ohio. He quips that his Greek Orthodox parents always heard Americans frequently say "Holy Toledo," so they thought it was a good place. He also ran a fish restaurant there.
But Toledo was no joke. He grew bored with the Midwest and engineering, and moved to Huntington Beach to live with his aunt. He studied accounting at a community college, delivered baby furniture, cleaned houses and worked at a sandwich shop.
He ran a marathon in pursuit of finding enjoyable things to do, even if they wouldn't bring him income. He then hopped on stage at an open-mic night in a comedy club. The drunken laughter hooked the young man, who soon became a joke junkie whose fix was the funny.
The young man took his stand - his stand-up, really - and would live, or die, comedy.
He toured California, Arizona and Washington state, pursuing a nascent dream, playing the clubs that now-famous comedians played. Met Jay Leno through a friend backstage at the "Tonight Show" - stuff like that, he says.
He wore the Hollywood clich well. Sex. Drugs. Punch lines.
"The adrenaline rush (of the stage) doesn't last too long," Nazareth says. "When you're down, you resort to alcohol or drugs to get you back up."
Nazareth knows the story. The 45-year-old is just happy he's in it. A comedian buddy in 1992 invited him to a concert. At a church. There, the jester met Jesus.
In earnest he describes the experience in three words: "I got saved."
The clean soul with a newly clean life wrote a clean set of stand-up, and Nazareth soon toured an untrod comedy trail - churches. Houses of prayer became houses of humor. The boy from the Palestinian territories transfigured into an American man of faith, mixing evangelistic zeal with the healing balm of laughter.
Funny thing is, he makes more money now than he did then, and the travel isn't as bad. He gets to pick where he plays, and doesn't have to labor for a week at a time in some burg off the byway.
He's performed all over the United States, from death row in Missouri to Amish country in Indiana - a place called Shipshewana. Tupelo, Miss., and Paducah, Ky., have received him, too. The only state he hasn't performed in is North Dakota. Apparently, there's no market in Fargo for born-again Palestinian comedians.
Everywhere else, evangelicals love him.
But he's careful to play down his Palestinian roots among his audience of fundamentalist pastors and congregations, at least until the show is over. The churches he performs in are largely ignorant of their Palestinian brethren, while ironically sending political and financial support to Israel.
"If I tell people I'm from the Gaza Strip after the show, there's no problem," Nazareth says. "If before the show, there's a problem. One day I will come out of the closet."
Today, Nazareth is on the board of directors of Christian Mission to Gaza, a Corona-based ministry that supports a Baptist church in his homeland. There, a beleaguered congregation of 150 - led by a tireless middle-aged pastor - feed, clothe and deliver medicine to some of the area's 1.5 million Muslim refugees.
Nazareth often receives communication from the pastor, telling of terrorist bombs set off in his bookstore, gunfire from the rooftop of his church and exploding rockets launched from Israel that petrify his own children. Last year, terrorists murdered one of the church's volunteers.
He says the Christians there are the minority of minorities - hated by Israelis because they are Palestinian, hated by Palestinians because they are Christian.
American pastors unknowingly contribute to the problem, he says.
He likens it to a foreigner coming to America to learn about evangelicals, only to be told he should learn about them by asking folks in a gay bar in San Francisco.
Nazareth, who met his Christian wife in Gaza, has a different take on what some characterize as the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.
"The majority of the people (in Gaza) want to live life," says Nazareth. "Their children are cold and hungry. If you're a father or mother, don't let your political leaders or party convince you that the power of evil should stop good. The fear of terrorism causes apathy among (Christian) believers to the cry of people hurting in other countries."
That's as deep as he wants to wade in the murky waters of international politics. The comedian eschews the wonkish for the wacky, saying Jesus wouldn't vote for anybody.
But what would Jesus find funny?
"The same thing he always found funny - the way religious people act," said Nazareth. "How they determine what's acceptable and what's not. He would find the people who attack him funny. Especially when they make political statements."
Though the coffee shop and the couch are fine places for political discussion, his act is bereft of political barbs. Instead, he focuses on the things that tend to unite American evangelicals, so that his shows become a blend of denominational piety and down-home patriotism.
His current tour is called "Free to Laugh."
"I want them (the audience) to leave thinking, `I live in the greatest place on earth."'
He confesses that he still, if only occasionally, dreams of meeting Jay Leno again, as a guest on the "Tonight Show."
"For my own satisfaction, yes," he said. "Being on the Leno show gets you the approval of the comedy community. But as a Christian, when I meet a celebrity, it's just another person. I wish I had the opportunity to tell you about Jesus."
But what about the Hollywood clich gone wrong? Or right, depending on one's perspective. That rubs him funny, too.
"By now, I should be famous and in a rehab center."
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