Exclusive Interview & Review: How Patrick Walsh, Producer of New CBS Show ‘Living Biblically’ is Adding Something Positive to Our Cultural Conversation

Originally published on Rocking God's House

Producer and writer Patrick Walsh (“2 Broke Girls,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) has teamed up with Johnny Galecki of “Big Bang Theory” fame and a host of talented people to bring a new show to CBS called Living Biblically, which premiers this Monday, Feb. 26 at 9:30pm (8:30 Central).

After speaking with Patrick and seeing a few episodes, I have to say from the standpoint of both a Christian and a reviewer, “Living Biblically” is refreshing, laugh-out-loud funny, endearing, and respectful of the people and subjects it tackles.

I genuinely liked it.

Here’s the plot: After losing his best friend and learning that his wife is pregnant, film critic Chip Curry–played by Jay R. Ferguson (“Mad Men,” “Surface”)–embarks on a spiritual journey to start living a better, more moral life, and he decides to live his life 100% by the Bible. The show is an adaptation of the non-fiction book by A. J. Jacobs.

Patrick’s insights below, and the insights contained in the show itself, are things our hyper-divisive culture could really use right now.

Our society has been charged with anger and argument at every turn. Our insulated silos in life and on social media (with its strident, carefully manicured group think) have turned the “Us” vs. “Them” mentality up to 11 across the spectrum of society, especially with politics and religion. There’s not much room for active listening, meet-in-the-middle empathy, or patience in conversations with people we have deemed “the enemy,” whether for political or other reasons. Things have escalated, to say the least, and like feuding families who refuse to forgive or forget, the blame-game and vitriol has grown exponentially.

“Living Biblically,” besides being a great comedy, tries to de-escalate that situation by tackling one of the most sensitive topics (religion) with infectious humor, zany and witty situational comedy, relational warmth, and empathetic conversations between a melting pot of Christian, Jewish, and non-believing characters.

After the interview you can read my full review of the show, and why I genuinely liked it. (To be clear, I’m not saying this show is a Walton Family all-ages sit-down for Sunday afternoons. This is not “Fireproof.” It’s a comedy meant for adults that airs at 9:30pm on CBS, a major, non-religious network. But I’ll get into that in more detail my review.)

As I introduced myself to Patrick, I learned that his father is a theology professor at a community college who has shaped curriculum and taught many different topics dealing with theology. That interesting revelation about his background led to my first question:

When you talk to Christians, whether it’s your family or friends, how do you pitch the show and describe it to them?

A big help is that the book was so successful. A lot of my religious friends had already read the book, knew the book. Actually way more than I thought; it was a best-seller, but I didn’t realize how many people had actually read it. That was a help and it was also a help in guiding the tone of the show because I was very intimidated about doing a comedy about religion, which makes people uneasy.

I am in Los Angeles, so it’s a little different, but logging into Twitter every morning you see. I think it’s a shame. There are a lot of people who will say, you know, “I’m not watching this. I’m banning CBS. This shows going to make fun of my beliefs, etc.” I hope they watch the show and know that’s not the case at all. It’s very respectful and I think it’s really a celebration of faith. Every week it has a very positive influence on Chip’s life and even the lives around him, even though they’re skeptical or even though they may mock him at times. It always has a positive influence in his life. It helps in some way. It helps him be a better person.

So that’s basically it. When I explain the show I say: “You know, it’s a comedy about religion. It’s not excluding non-Christians and it’s not making fun of Christians. It’s somewhere in the middle.” I hope that it appeals to both sides, and it’s a shame it has to be called sides but that’s kind of where we’re at.

It is definitely an argumentative culture right now. I consider myself to be a serious, devoted Christian, and I found the show very endearing. And I think there are plenty of Christians out there who are okay with that kind of show, who are just glad Christians aren’t portrayed as the villain [laughs].

And Christian entertainment, you know, “God’s Not Dead” and “Left Behind,” they tend to paint atheists as the villain. And secular entertainment, if we’re going to discuss Christianity, paint Christians if not as the villain, then silly. They’re both doing kind of the same thing. It’s kind of a shame. The show is really just trying to be a celebration of people. People of all faiths. I tried to do a lot of things suddenly. A priest and a rabbi being best friends. An atheist and a guy who is somehow living by the Bible being married. Stuff like that is very powerful. We tested the show in Vegas and people were shocked that a rabbi and priest could even be friends. I think there’s a lot of misinformation because people only talk to people who share their same beliefs when it comes to religion. Everyone’s too scared of offending or etc. and I think its a shame. I think you can learn so much by talking to people of a variety of faiths and beliefs.

So true. And I felt that warmth from the show, inviting you to get in conversation with people instead of backing away. What have you enjoyed about this project so far?

The biggest pull for me is our live taping. We do them on Friday nights with an audience of about 200 people so I always say, “Get some church groups in there and get some non-religious people off the streets in there and let’s see how the shows are playing.” And I’d being lying to you if I said it wasn’t scary every week. The pilot was the scariest because I had no idea what to expect but, you know, you learn what people laugh at, what people don’t laugh at. We were hesitant; we did an episode about prayer, and does prayer work? Is that even the right question to be asking? And it was a little heavier than the other ones. And we put it up for the audience and we learned that they were hooked on it. But it was hearing this kind of pressure on television and I was concerned, and I know CBS was concerned that it would turn people off on either side of the fence. But at the end of the day most of the shows on TV, most of these sitcoms amount to, “Dad ate the pizza and we need the pizza for the big party,” or whatever it is. I think people got a real kick out of having a meatier discussion to sink their teeth into. And my hope is that it helps non-religious people have more respect for Christianity and what Christians are trying to do. And also, Christians realize that the only way people are going to know more about your life and what you’re doing is by opening up and talking about it, and it’s scary and uncomfortable but that’s what the show is supposed to be. And so you’ll see a lot of that going forward with these long conversations about faith and what it means. And sometimes they don’t get it, sometimes they think it’s silly, sometimes it changes their life in a very massive way. And I think that’s healthy. I think its an exciting thing, especially for a CBS sitcom.

Very exciting. I’m very curious the future episodes. You mentioned the meaty conversations and the prayer. One of the biggest misunderstanding I come across with people is they think Christianity is just a book a rules when actually the main heart of Christianity is that you can’t earn your way to heaven by being a good person; you receive it by grace. Is that concept of grace ever explored in a future episode?

Well, [pauses thoughtfully] yes. It’s not explicitly discussed in the first thirteen episodes, but there’s a lot of, “You’re focusing on the wrong thing here Chip.” That’s why it was important for me to have the priest laugh at Chip when he said he’s going to live by the Bible. I have seen people have issue with that and it’s true. The priest is saying, “You can’t do it.” And there are certain aspects of the Bible that maybe you shouldn’t do–you’re sticking to the letter as opposed to the spirit of it. That stuff is very much discussed in there. As we get into charity and some of them are lying and stealing and false idols and that kind of stuff: those are more fun episodes. But the show definitely tackles deeper topics. Why people choose religion. Why people believe what they do. And I think that’s a very good part of the show going forward, these discussions and Chip kind of growing in his faith as well, and realizing you can’t always follow it to the letter.

One of the most interesting, and the audience really enjoyed this one and this was a very nerve-racking one, was about the misogyny in the Bible–specifically the verse, submit to your husband. That’s very controversial today and especially in marriages. So, Leslie, Chip’s wife says, “Look, I’m saying positive things, I’m happy for you, etc.” but once she starts reading up on the Bible she thinks, well is this going to happen in my marriage. Is this going to be a submit situation? And she says,”Chip’s not like that, my husband’s not like that.” Ms Meadows, who’s talking to her at the time says, “Well, you probably never thought he’d hit somebody with a rock either.” So Leslie starts to get freaked out, confronts him about it, and she has to say, “You know I am following 100 percent but you’re absolutely right. We need to submit to each other, we are equals and …” that was a really powerful episode. The audience really got into that. And I think it’s got a great point in terms of, yes, sticking to every word of the Bible can be great, can be positive, but there are times when you have to say, I’ve got to make an adaptation here. If I’m going to have a positive marriage, if I’m going to have a successful family, etc. so that too is what the show’s about every week.

I noticed one of the executive producers is Johnny Galecki from ‘Big Bang Theory.” How has he been involved?

Well, Johnny was involved before I was. He had the rights to the book. He and his company really loved A.J.Jacobs book, and was looking for the right person to adapt it. And they had been looking for quite some time. It remains now, and it was at that time, a very daunting subject to do a comedy about on network television. So they had met with a bunch of people. I just had dinner with them and talked about growing up Catholic and I had a bunch of funny stories and a bunch of anecdotes and more emotional stories and how Catholicism shaped my life and continues to shape my life. And I think that might be kind of a rare thing to find in a Hollywood writer, you know a strong sense of faith and growing up religious. So I think that is probably why I got the job. And they also probably liked me as a person and sense of humor. Johnny really really wanted to make a show that was sort of modern day “All In the Family,” and that was a show where every week this family would argue with each other, and they would argue about huge topics about politics, racism, religion whatever it would be. And the audience would cheer both sides, and at the end, well, it wasn’t always “we all learned and we all hugged,” but everyone understood each other better. In all the early conversations of the show, the most important thing was that you see so much benefit discussing these topics with others. I know it was important to him, and I think he found a kindred spirit in me. And that was it.

That’s awesome. What do you hope people get out of Living Biblically?

On a small scale I hope they take away the moral, the message of each week. Some weeks are more subtle than others. The false idols episodes is a great one to start; it’s the second episode we will air. It’s about false idols. In Chip’s case it’s his iPhone. He can’t stop looking at his iPhone. He winds up destroying it. He winds up connecting much more with his fellow man. He has this amazing day where he’s out in the world talking to people. Every week has some sort of built in moral like that.

If people take those little lessons from it great. The bigger lesson I hope they would take is that you can talk about, you can even laugh about, religion and it’s okay. Everybody is fine, everybody can learn from each other. And all discussion about religion and of course politics is a huge one as well, it does not have to be you covering your ears and screaming your opinion. You have to talk. I think social media has been a major component in that where people only talk about these huge issues with people who align themselves with 100 percent with what they believe. That’s no way to live, that’s no way to grow, no way to learn.

That is kind of a larger theme of the show. And I really hope people talk to each other more often as a result. I think we’re headed towards dangerous times, in the way people speak to each other. It’s getting more and more isolated and there are more divides. This show is about uniting people, and I hope that’s what it does.

“Living Biblically” premiers on CBS on Monday, Feb. 26 at 9:30/8:30 C.

***

My Review of ‘Living Biblically’: Funny, Moving, and Respectful

I laughed out loud often while watching this show.

Besides being funny about religion in a way that Christian comedian/blogger Jon Acuff would likely appreciate, the show is genuinely moving. It tackles subjects ranging from the grief of losing someone you love to the Ten Commandments. Within that wide range, we see likable characters try to clumsily (and hilariously) navigate their somewhat immature understanding of the Bible, and then we watch them grow in their relationships and in their understanding of the Bible and what it means to “live Biblically.”

I especially appreciated its exploration of grief in the storyline. Maybe it’s because I’ve been dealing with that topic in major ways in my personal life, but those parts of this show stood out to me. The scenes in the pilot episode, particularly the final scene, was especially moving as Chip wrestles with the loss of his best friend.

This show has depth, in other words, which is always refreshing to find in a comedy.

There are also hints of the concept of “saved by grace alone” vs. “saved by good deeds” churning in the subtext as the main character strives to turn himself into a superman of morality by his own efforts, but quickly realizes how difficult that really is. (Basic orthodox Christianity teaches that no one can earn their way to Heaven by being a good person. We’re saved by simple faith in what Christ did to permanently pay off our spiritual debt, not saved by our own “righteousness.” Our gratitude for what Christ did for us is supposed to overflow into good deeds. Joyful thankfulness is the motivator for doing good, not because we’re trying to score enough points to get to Heaven.)

Sure, it’s not a faith-based “God’s Not Dead” production that’s trying to be squeaky clean. It’s certainly not trying to advocate or convert. It’s a sitcom on a major network in a 9:30pm slot, written to have broad appeal as a comedy for every adult in the country, whether religious or not. For that reason it has some mild (and infrequent) language and some suggestive/sexual humor (but not raunchy or explicit). It’s actually a much cleaner show than most network sitcoms that have aired in recent years.

All in all, it’s refreshing to have a major network air something that tackles such a challenging topic with humor and sincere respect. “Living Biblically” adds something meaningful and positive to our cultural conversation, and it’s a show we desperately need right now.