Make America Laugh Again: An Interview with Patrick Walsh
When you think of the Bible–especially the Old Testament, with its strict and intricate laws around homosexuality, seafood, and mixed-fabric clothing–you probably don’t consider it fodder for a primetime sitcom, especially not one that seriously tackles questions of diversity, atheism, and faith in its half-hour runtime. Yet that’s exactly what you’ll find in Living Biblically, the new primetime sitcom from CBS which premiered on Monday, February 26.
Created and produced by Patrick Walsh, Living Biblically is based on A.J. Jacobs’ best-selling and controversial memoir The Year of Living Biblically, the show tells the story of film critic and soon-to-be father Chip Curry (Jay R. Ferguson) who, following the death of his best friend, decides to live strictly in accordance with the Bible. After getting his start as a writer on FX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Walsh became known for his work on CBS’s 2 Broke Girls and HBO’s Crashing. One of our managing editors, Ashleigh Hill, got the opportunity to talk with Walsh about faith and sitcoms.
Ashleigh Hill: This show has been in the works for a few years, since 2016, and a lot has happened in our country since then. For lack of a better term, in Trump's America, with religious freedom trumpeted for Christians and under attack for non-Christians, what does this show bring to that conversation?
Patrick Walsh: What I want it to bring (and this is a pie-in-the-sky dream) is just a willingness from people on all sides–politically, religiously, whatever it might be–to talk to each other, not scream at each other, and to just listen. I get on Twitter every morning, and I start my day in a panic. I feel sick, I feel angry. And it just seems to be getting worse.
I understand the fears Christians have about this show–that it will mock their lifestyle, even though that is not the case. And I understand the fear of non-Christians, that the show will be preaching bad things that are associated with the Bible, like homophobia. But this show’s intent is to increase the love, [if I can] be as corny as possible: to listen to each other and respect each other because that seems to be slipping away day by day. [I want to] show things subtly, like a priest and a rabbi who are best friends.
We don’t want to shy away from bigger issues, but at first, you need to make it very clear that the show isn’t going to be making fun of people of faith.
In terms of just testing the show, we tested it in Vegas and people didn’t even know a priest and a rabbi could be friends. They were shocked by that! And to have an atheist and someone living by the Bible as husband and wife, but they love each other and are respectful of each other and care about each other: that stuff was very important for me to put on television. I hope that everyone’s fears about the show are chilled out by watching it. I hope that people watch it and get something out of it and see that at its core, it’s a show about how yes, these issues are scary, and people don’t talk about them, but we’re all more alike than we’d like to admit.
Kind of in that vein, like you said, we have an atheist wife; we have the main character who is following the Bible; a rabbi; a Latino priest; and smaller roles–a single black man, a man cheating on his wife, a queer woman at work. Were all these choices made to blend different perspectives?
Yes. One hundred percent. So you mentioned Trump’s America. I live in Los Angeles. I know very much what I believe, but I know that’s not representative of the country. Sometimes you have to be more subtle with things. A white guy and a black guy being best friends, like I said, a priest and rabbi being best friends… and a big question early on was, "Will the show talk about the homophobia of the Bible?" Not this season. We discuss the misogyny in the Bible, in a great episode, between the married couple, Leslie and Chip.
But it was absolutely a conscious choice to make Chip’s boss a lesbian and to make Chip very clearly, and also subtly, cool with that. In a lot of these multi-camera sitcoms, that [casting choice] would just be to set up gay jokes, and there is none of that. She mentions in the pilot that she has a girlfriend and nobody bats an eye, and we move on. Those kind of choices are how you have to reach a lot of people in Trump’s America, I would say. Just make it matter-of-fact.
I definitely want to do an episode about homophobia in the Bible. We just couldn’t quite crack it in season one. We don’t want to shy away from bigger issues, but at first, you need to make it very clear that the show isn’t going to be making fun of people of faith. That was the most important goal for season one.
What struck me when I was watching the pilot is that there are things you expect from a primetime comedy, and then the tone of this show is very different. There are a few things I didn’t expect to see.
First of all, there’s a serious situation–a best friend’s death and a man trying to deal with that. And secondly, there’s a married couple that seems pretty equally matched. The main character isn’t just a baby that his hot wife is taking care of. Talk to me about your choices in setting the show’s tone.
I’m so glad to hear you say that [about Chip's wife, Leslie] because no one has mentioned that, and it was a major point of contention for me.
So I’m about to get married myself. My fiancée is a Physician's Assistant and she works in women’s health. She’s awesome. We have debates and discussions… and without criticizing the network I’m on, a lot of multi-camera sitcoms [portray] a physically, wildly mismatched couple, which plays into the fantasy fulfillment [of men]. The wife is always a gorgeous airhead who is always just there to support him and is in the kitchen, or whatever it may be. If it’s frustrating to me, I can only imagine how frustrating it is for women to watch.
It would be a thrill to me if pastors were discussing the show in their sermons each week.
I wanted Chip’s wife to be smarter. Forget "as smart." I wanted her to be smarter and well aware of that. However, I didn’t want her to be a nag. I knew everybody was going to hate the character of the wife if he’s living this biblical life and having all these adventures, and her whole role in the show is like “Oh really, you’re doing this again? Why are you doing this?” Nobody would like her.
What she likes about his biblical quest, even though she is an atheist, is that there are positive things that come from the Bible. She likes that he’s becoming more honest, he’s more communicative, less drunk. She’s supportive while not being a doormat. She lays down exactly what she thinks of what he’s doing, but at the end of the day they support each other. It’s a definite goal of the show. Particularly the episode about misogyny (“Submit to Thy Husband”), in which she really has major issues with the Bible and what it says about women. The audience [who screened it] was mixed of religious and nonreligious people, and the episode really connected because [the misogyny in the Bible] is something that’s hard to argue in support of.
Men using religion to navigate emotions they’re not coached to handle, like grief and loss of a friend, probably isn’t rare. But it's not something men talk about, even though it’s probably a large part of a lot of comedy. Was that something you discussed in creating this show?
Yes. I really loved [the book Living Biblically], and it helped a great deal in terms of how to discuss religious issues without making fun of them or making people feel left out. Tonally, that was a big help. The author, A.J. Jacobs, writes a book every year that’s kind of like a stunt. One year he’s obsessed with the encyclopedia, and this year it’s the Bible. I knew that was not going to connect with the audience, or the character’s wife.
I asked my fiancée, “If I just told you one day, I was going to live one hundred percent by the Bible, what would happen?” She said, “Well, if it was just sort of a whim, we’d have to really discuss whether we’d even get married.”
To me, comedy is the absolute best way to talk about these really serious issues.
So, in this instance, I know Chip needed big stakes to turn him to a life of living by the Bible. That’s where the best friend came in. A lot of people turn to religion in times of great stress and grief and not knowing how to cope with death. And I think a lot of people continue in the church or start in the church because they want their kid to grow up a good person and have morals.
Both of those are just as good a reason as anything else to be aligned with a faith or religion and the sense of community it brings. Those are two tangible reasons I think Chip does this project and then you don’t question him. By the end of the pilot, he’s talking to his dead friend, and at the beginning of the episode, he’s drinking and shut off. [He starts the show] thinking that talking to his friend or grieving isn’t going to do any good. He’s a typical guy in that situation.
Like you just mentioned, this show is inspired by A.J. Jacob’s book Living Biblically. In his TED Talk, Jacobs says, “Whether or not there’s a God, there’s something important about sacredness.” How does comedy–and maybe even this show in general–bring us closer to what we see as sacred?
Something that’s been kind of shocking to me is how many tweets I’ve seen that are angry just at the idea that there would be a comedy about the Bible and religion. These are from people who haven’t seen the show or don’t know anything about the tone.
To me, comedy is the absolute best way to talk about these really serious issues, and I’m not talking about like Bill Maher saying something about how if you believe in God, you’re stupid. That’s not helping anybody. All it does is make people who agree with him laugh and feel superior, and everyone else feels offended.
What this show is trying to do is discuss these issues and get people laughing. Maybe it makes you question what you think or believe, or maybe it reinforces it, but if you’re laughing, you’re not so focused on that. People approach any discussion about religion with such trepidation and fear. Faith is a very delicate thing. I get all that. But if you’re laughing about it… I know me and my friends–some religious and some atheist–when we discuss religious issues, there’s a great deal of laughter and fun. And I think that’s why they’re better conversations, frankly. It’s not all somber and serious, as a lot of religious entertainment is. I thought a comedy was the best way to deal with this, and I think there’s a way to make stuff funny without mocking.
It’s hard but that was a number one goal of the show: to not go with cheaper, easier laughs. I really wanted this show to be a little deeper and I wanted discussions to happen after the show. It would be a thrill to me if pastors were discussing the show in their sermons each week. I think it really does bring these very old laws and rules into the modern day. And, at the end of the day, I think [Living Biblically] is a very moral show. Everyone always assumes everything done by Hollywood is immoral and the show, really at its core, is telling a lesson each week in a funny way about how to be a good and better person.
Inspired by The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs, Living Biblically premiered Monday, Feb. 26, 2018 at 9:30 ET on CBS. Follow the show on Twitter at @LivinBiblically.