Belly laughs filled the Sheraton Chapel Hill ballroom during the Vintage Times Live Comedy Show last October. Despite the remnants of a downgraded Hurricane Ian, UNC’s Black Alumni Reunion — and the show — went on.
Debra Terry Stephens ’86 (stage name Debra Terry) emceed the event, which featured her and two other comedians. Throughout the night, she wholeheartedly dished out funny, clean material.
She took the stage after 2022 BAR Planning Committee Chair Hugh Holston ’82 introduced her as “one of the funniest comedians I know,” and seemed to glide through her stand-up routine.
“We don’t raise kids today like we were raised back in the day,” Terry said. “When Mama said, ‘Do something,’ you did it. That’s what I call the gospel according to Mama.”
For her next joke, Terry referenced a scene she happened upon in a grocery store one day: A woman was negotiating with her son, telling him that after she counted to three, she expected him to behave.
“I think the only minutes my mama counted were the minutes I was passed out after she beat me,” Terry said, adding, “My mama would lay hands on me. Oh my God, beat me within an inch of my life.”
The audience heard comedians tackle topics such as TV shows, music, marriage, children, family, church and politics, while performing parodies of church songs and mimicking famous people.
Christian comedians have been around at least since the 1970s, but their audiences vary widely, from church-goers to employees at major corporations. There is a Christian Comedy Association with more than 1,600 followers on Facebook.
It wasn’t the first time many of the Black Alumni Reunion attendees at the October show had watched Terry perform. Terry, who’s appeared with some top comedians, including the late Bernie Mac, has been a regular at the BAR comedy show since it became part of the reunion in 2018. The fact that she’s a Carolina graduate makes her attractive to BAR organizers — not to mention she’s funny.
Performing with her that night were Carlos “Big Los” Massey of Greensboro and Sean Sarvis of Washington, D.C. Massey has worked in comedy for almost 20 years, opening for national artists such as gospel’s Israel & New Breed and R&B singer Gladys Knight. He’s also an actor and motivational speaker. Sarvis has been a comedian for more than 25 years and has appeared on Black Entertainment Television’s ComicView.
Rodvegas Ingram ’85, pastor of St. Matthews United Methodist Church in Greensboro, said he appreciated that the show was devoid of profanity. “We can keep it clean and still laugh,” he said.
The day following the BAR performance, Terry had another gig in Winston-Salem, where she lives with her husband and children. This time she was emceeing the 15th Annual Gospel Fest, sponsored by The Chronicle, a Black weekly newspaper founded in the Twin City by Ernie Pitt ’74. Well-known Triad-area radio personality Busta Brown assisted Terry on stage at Gospel Fest, which highlights local talent, including bands, dancers and choirs, in conjunction with the Carolina Classic Fair. She has managed and emceed Gospel Fest since 2009.
Terry, who grew up attending church and is pastor and first lady at Cornerstone of Faith Ministries Inc. in Winston-Salem, is married to its bishop, Grosjean L. Stephens. She met him during preparations for a Gospel Fest at which he was scheduled to sing. He serenaded her, to much fanfare, at their 2014 wedding.
Despite being labeled a Christian comedian and earning money to crack jokes with Christian or biblical themes, she doesn’t consider herself a Christian comedian.
“Truthfully, I’ve never called myself a Christian comedian or a gospel comedian,” she said. “I’ve never labeled myself, but people, they call you what they feel comfortable with, what makes them comfortable. I am definitely a Christian. I love the Lord. I preach, I sing, I evangelize, all of that, but I have never called myself a Christian or a gospel comedian. I am a comedian.”
Terry said when she first began performing Christian comedy, people outside the church accused her of being “too white” or “not edgy enough,” while church folk said she was clean enough but a little risqué. “So it was just always people wanting to put a label on me,” she said.
Terry has worked with some A-list performers on the comedy circuit. Besides Mac, she has appeared with Chris Rock and Dennis Miller. She also has opened for R&B royalty, including Patti LaBelle and Anita Baker, among others. In 2005, she was a finalist for Nick-at-Nite’s “The Search for the Funniest Mom in America Contest.”
Terry acts, too. She appeared in two episodes of the award-winning Showtime series, Homeland, and in made-for-TV movies Funny Valentines and Something Borrowed, Something Blue. Terry has also been in numerous TV commercials, including a national spot for the car-repair company Meineke, and she has lent her talents to many industrial training videos.
Terry was a National Honor Society student at High Point Central High School, where she was called Eddie Murphette (a feminized form of famous comedian Eddie Murphy) and voted Most Humorous by classmates.
She graduated from UNC with a bachelor’s degree in industrial relations and a minor in psychology, then returned home to High Point. Her comedy career began in the early 1990s after she saw comedians on Comedy Central and thought, “I can do that.”
With that mindset, Terry began her quest to become a stand-up comedian. She entered a stand-up comedy contest in Winston-Salem, placing third, “and loved it,” she said.
Terry didn’t tell anyone what she was doing for a couple of years because she needed to know people were laughing at her material because they genuinely thought it was funny — not just because they were her friends.
In 1993, Terry hired an agent and stepped out on faith to begin performing full time. She started acting in industrial training videos and said as she “got better and a little bit more notoriety,” made better career moves, such as landing the Meineke commercial.
In 2013, Terry slowed down long enough to earn a master’s degree in Christian counseling from Apex School of Theology in Durham and now serves as pastoral counselor at her church. While juggling motherhood, marriage and her day job as a clinical research coordinator at ICON — a global company offering consulting services to health care organizations — she does stand-up comedy as the opportunities arise.
Terry was one of the comedians featured in a Father’s Day comedy show at her church in 2021 and the only one at Temple Church International’s women’s ministry fellowship in August in Charlotte.
A mother of six — “two biological and four bonus,” she said — Terry uses her personal life as comedy material whether people like it or not.
“Back in the day, they would say you gotta ‘checktize’ your children. I was about 15 before I realized that the word was chastise,” Terry said.
“I’m sure there are those who would disagree or don’t like that I do it, you know,” Terry said, referencing using her personal life as material for her comedy. “You can’t please everyone, but my life, my experiences, my point of view, that’s what makes me, me.”
— Donna Whitaker Rogers ’82