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A Prickly TV Topic: a Priest's Life

The idea that priests, like all men, are not perfect might seem like a tame one. But NBC's effort to translate the premise into a TV series has brought protests that the show is anti-Christian. Jack Kenny is the creator and executive producer of The Book of Daniel.

01:21

Other segments from the episode on January 19, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 19, 2005: Interview with Albert Brooks; Interview with Jack Kenny.

Transcript

DATE January 19, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

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Interview: Jack Kenny, creator and executive producer of NBC's
"The Book of Daniel," discusses the controversial series
TERRY GROSS, host:

My guest Jack Kenny is the creator and executive producer of the new NBC
series "The Book of Daniel." Part drama, part comedy, the series is about an
Episcopal priest named Daniel Webster who's married and has three children.
His oldest son is gay--the priest has no problem with that--but he is
concerned about this adopted teen-age son who's sleeping with his girlfriend
and he's very worried about his teen-age daughter who was busted selling
marijuana. Church politics are getting to him, too. He's become reliant on
Vicodin, which eases his back pain and helps with the stress. And we see him
talking over his problems with Jesus. Several conservative and Christian
groups have campaigned against the show and urged people to write to NBC and
the show's sponsors. Nine NBC affiliates have dropped it. It's been
difficult for the network to find sponsors. Here's a scene from the pilot in
which Daniel and his family are at the dining room table the day after the
daughter's arrest. Daniel is played by Aidan Quinn.

(Soundbite of "The Book of Daniel")

Mr. AIDAN QUINN and Others: (As Daniel Webster and family; praying in
unison) Praise him above, the heavenly host, praise father, son and Holy
Ghost. Amen.

Unidentified Actress: Grace. Don't you look nice?

Mr. IVAN SHAW: (As Adam Webster) Out on bail?

Unidentified Actor: What?

Mr. SHAW: (As Adam Webster) Didn't you hear? Little sister got nabbed for
possession last night.

Mr. QUINN: (As Daniel Webster): Adam, how do you know about that?

Mr. SHAW: (As Adam Webster) I don't remember.

Unidentified Actor: Was that you sneaking up the back stairs at 3 AM just
when the phone rang? I'm just asking.

Mr. SHAW: (As Adam Webster) I had a date.

Mr. QUINN: (As Daniel Webster) You are to be inside the house by midnight on
Saturdays, young man.

Mr. SHAW: (As Adam Webster) Oh, yeah, I was. We were parked in the garage
talking.

Unidentified Actor: Yeah, you and a girl were just talking.

Mr. SHAW: (As Adam Webster) Yeah, you remember girls.

Mr. QUINN: (As Daniel Webster) Now, kids, slow down, boys.

GROSS: Jack Kenny, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to have a priest,
an Episcopal priest, at the center of a family drama?

Mr. JACK KENNY (Creator and Executive Producer, "The Book of Daniel"): Well,
you know, I'd never seen it explored on television and I thought--the idea,
frankly, had been kicking around in my head for a couple of years that I
wanted to explore the life of a priest and his family in the same way that
"Six Feet Under" explored the life of people who own a funeral home or the
way that "Sopranos" explores the life of a Mafia chieftain, you know.
Whereas in "Six Feet Under," the mortuary is a backdrop to the show--it's not
about funeral directors, just as "Book of Daniel" is not about the church or
about religion. It is the backdrop for the show. It informs what he does
and how he behaves. He is a true Christian in that he believes in all the
tenets of Christianity. He believes in God and Jesus is his savior and, you
know, all that comes with that. But it's never been about that. It's always
been about a guy who is trying to be a better person, a better man, better
husband, a better father.

GROSS: So when you created "The Book of Daniel," did you think it would end
up being as controversial as it's been? Did you think that there would be a
campaign to get NBC to drop the show and a campaign to get sponsors to
withdraw from the show or to not sign on in the first place?

Mr. KENNY: No, I didn't. I've had to--excuse me, my laughing, because
I--the goal of the original pilot script was to get a meeting. I wanted to
get a job. I was a newly single writer, I was trying to break into a genre
that I had no experience in, and I wanted to get people's attention. I wanted
people to pick up the script and I wanted it to be a page-turner. So I put
all of this stuff in thinking, well, this will be a page-turner and it was, it
got a lot of attention. I never even thought it would be produced, much less
gone to series and then all this. So the controversy is surprising to me on
that level, but it's also surprising to me because the approach that I always
took to this family was one of that their Christianity was second nature to
them. It was not something they actively had to show people, it was not
demonstrative, it was not proselytizing or missionary. It was--they were just
Christians. And in the same way that I've always wanted to see a gay
character that was just gay, that everything in his life wasn't defined by the
fact that he was gay, just as everything in Daniel's life isn't defined by the
fact that he's a Christian.

And so the idea that people think it's mocking Christianity shocks me in that
it was written and meant with a sense of respect and honor for Christianity
and its beliefs, and I thought that Daniel talking to Jesus about his problems
and making Jesus an accessible, almost of a best friend type of character to
Daniel, I thought would pull people into it rather than push people away. I
was very surprised by it all.

GROSS: Well, you mention that Daniel has conversations with Jesus, and
that's turned out to be, I think, the single-most controversial part of the
series. The people who object to this series always seem to single that out.
So I thought I'd play a scene from it and talk with you...

Mr. KENNY: Sure.

GROSS: ...a scene like that and talk with you about writing it. And this is
a scene in which--well, let's just say as background that Daniel had given
his brother-in-law, Charlie, a job, and it was Charlie's job, among other
things, to oversee the $3 million that was put aside to build a new school for
the church. And Charlie has run away; he's found dead; the money's
disappeared and, you know, Daniel's kind of left not knowing what to do. So
he tells the bishop that this has happened. She's scolded him for trusting
his brother-in-law. He leaves the church, Daniel leaves the church and he's
about to take a Vicodin, the painkiller that he takes, saying that his back
hurts, and there's Jesus waiting for him. Jesus takes the bottle of pills out
of Daniel's hands, gives him Life Savers instead, and they have this
conversation.

(Soundbite of "The Book of Daniel")

Mr. QUINN: (As Daniel Webster) You know, I really cared about Charlie. I
went out on a limb for him. I would never, ever damn anybody. I couldn't.
I was--I'm sorry.

Mr. GARRETT DILLAHUNT: (As Jesus) I know.

Mr. QUINN: (As Daniel Webster) I was angry.

Mr. DILLAHUNT: (As Jesus) Don't worry. You don't have that much power.

Mr. QUINN: (As Daniel Webster) Why is it so easy to talk to you?

Mr. DILLAHUNT: (As Jesus) I'm a good listener. Plus I never burden you with
my problems.

Mr. QUINN: (As Daniel Webster) You have problems?

Mr. DILLAHUNT: (As Jesus) Now we're talking about you.

Mr. QUINN: (As Daniel Webster) Tell me what to do. I don't know what to do
anymore.

Mr. DILLAHUNT: (As Jesus) Yes, you do.

Mr. QUINN: (As Daniel Webster) No, I don't.

Mr. DILLAHUNT: (As Jesus) It's just hard. Life is hard, Daniel, for
everyone. That's why there's such a nice reward at the end of it.

Mr. QUINN: (As Daniel Webster) I know that's supposed to be comforting, but
its not. Aren't you supposed to comfort me?

Mr. DILLAHUNT: (As Jesus) Oh, were did you read that? Some Episcopalian
self-help book?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DILLAHUNT: (As Jesus) That's good. You should laugh more. Hey, have
you read "Jesus' Guide To A Comfortable Life"? Very comforting, that one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. QUINN: (As Daniel Webster) No, but I have read "Men Are From Mars, Jesus
Is From Heaven."

Mr. DILLAHUNT: (As Jesus) "My Tuesdays with Jesus."

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's a scene from "The Book of Daniel" and my guest is the creator
and executive producer of the show, Jack Kenny.

So, Jack Kenny, tell us why do you have the Episcopal priest in your show,
Daniel, having conversations with Jesus? Do you see this as something that's
happening in his mind? Is Jesus literally sitting next to him and having
this conversation?

Mr. KENNY: No, no. It's absolutely occurring in his mind. This is not
about the return of Jesus to Earth and Daniel has not been chosen. We even
meant--there's even an earlier scene where Daniel asks Jesus, `Have I been
chosen?' And Jesus says, `No.' And Daniel says, `Well, why do you talk to me
then?' And Jesus says, `I talk to everyone.' And Daniel says, `Well, few
mention it.' And Jesus says, `Few hear me.' And I think that's sort of the
issue that I was hoping to bring about by bringing Jesus into this, was that
for Christians Jesus and God is always talking to us and if we listen, we
might be surprised to hear what they have to say to us.

And in Daniel's case, he needed a best friend. He had his family and he had
the people he worked with, and I wanted him to have a best friend. And I was
raised Catholic, I'm no longer practicing Catholicism, apparently, but I do
practice homosexuality. If you read the AFA Web site, you'll find that out;
although I actually think I've gotten quite good at it; I wouldn't say I was
practicing anymore. But I was always raised to believe that you were supposed
to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and I never really
understood what that meant. And I thought, if I did have one, this is the
way I would like it to be. I would like it to be my best friend, my partner,
my everything, somebody who knows everything about me and who's always there
to remind me how to live my life. And why Jesus is there is to remind Daniel
how to live his life, what he is here to do.

GROSS: My guest is Jack Kenny, the creator and executive producer of the NBC
series "The Book of Daniel." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Jack Kenny, the creator and executive producer of "The
Book of Daniel," the controversial new NBC series about an Episcopal priest
and his family.

I want to read you a couple of things that I'm sure you're already familiar
with but our audience is probably not, that were said about the program. The
first is by the director of Focus on the Family's Plugged In department,
and this is the department which examines popular culture.

Mr. KENNY: Ah, yes, he was yelling at me last night on the radio.

GROSS: OK. So the statement is, `Most egregious is the program's portrayal
of Jesus. On "Daniel," the individual believed to be the savior of the world
by nearly a billion people around the globe is cast as a wimpy, white-robed
visitor who cares little about evil, addictions, and perversity. This show
is anti-Christian in the most fundamental way. It mocks God and the Word of
God, period.'

And here's another quote from Brent Bozell, who's the founder and president
of the conservative media watchdog group the Parents Television Council. And
he says, "The most serious mockery in the show is the Jesus character. It's
not that he's unlikable, it's just that he's clearly not God."

Did you expect these kinds of criticisms of your portrayal of Jesus?

Mr. KENNY: No, I don't understand why--there's so many things that I don't
understand in terms of the response to this show. It's--and I would agree,
he is clearly not God. He was never intended to be God in this portrayal.
He is Daniel's vision, Daniel's version of Jesus that Daniel is speaking to
in his mind. As a matter of fact, there is no time in the pilot where anyone
says his name in reference to him. You know, Daniel never says, `Hey,
Jesus.' He never says his own name out loud. It's the assumption--that's why
we dressed him in the most traditional garb we could find so that you would
instantly recognize who this character was.

The think that I don't understand is the accusation of mockery. I don't see
how any part of this show can be conceived as mocking. All of these
characters have flaws and faults with which they are struggling, but they
have to have flaws and problems in order to overcome them.

GROSS: You know, I was wondering, since your program is at the center of
controversy now, do you remember when you were growing up and watching TV if
there was any programs you watched that were considered to be very
controversial?

Mr. KENNY: Oh, yeah, "All in the Family." I remember watching "All in the
Family," I remember my dad getting very angry that there were people trying
to take "All in the Family" off the air, because he thought it was a great
show and really funny and he couldn't understand why people were not letting
it, you know, stay on TV. It was the same argument. He was just saying,
`Why don't they just change the channel? There's four channels.' You know,
that was the days when, you know, there was only four and you actually had to
get up to change the channel, so it took a lot more effort.'

But, yeah, there was "All in the Family," there was--and there was all the
shows that that spawned. I mean, I don't know if you remember--I don't know
how old you are, but I remember the episode of "Maude" where "Maude" had an
abortion, you know, because she was a woman in her '50s who had gotten
pregnant and knew that she couldn't have this baby, that she wouldn't be able
to handle it. And it was an extremely contentious episode at the time, an
episode, by the way, that would never be able to be done today. As a matter
of fact, I would say 80 percent of the episodes that "All in the Family" and
"Maude" did at the time would never make it past the pitching stage today in
today's environment.

GROSS: So is controversy good for ratings as far as you're concerned?

Mr. KENNY: You know, I think a certain amount is. I think to a certain
degree the beginning of this controversy was. Now, frankly, I think people
are getting sick of it. I think they're getting tired of hearing about both
sides. I mean, I think that probably the AFA supporters are starting to
think, `Oh, would you shut up about it already, I get it; you don't want me
to watch it, OK,' you know. And a lot of people have watched it who are on
the side of the controversy and watched it and said, `Well, I don't
understand what the big fuss is about. This seems fine. You know, this
doesn't seem to be mock--I don't necessarily agree with all of it, but then,
you know, point me to a television show where you do.'

GROSS: Well, Jack Kenny, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. KENNY: Thank you, Terry. I've really enjoyed it. I love listening to
your show and I really, really appreciate your doing this and talking to me
about our show.

GROSS: Jack Kenny is the creator and executive producer of "The Book of
Daniel," which airs Friday nights on NBC.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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