By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Two more stories are rejected because they are deemed out of character, and one of them is too broad and sketchy. (“You have to present something that radicalizes the caller,” Hendrie says.) But the final premise has possibilities: Father James McQuarters, who sounds identical to the Lucky Charms leprechaun, has it on good authority that Opus Dei, a secret society of the Catholics, will elect Mel Gibson as the first non-cleric pope, once the terminally ill Pope John Paul II expires. In return, Gibson has agreed to use his estimated $3 billion worldwide profits from The Passion of the Christ to settle all class-action suits involving sexual allegations against the church. Hendrie is jazzed by the Opus Dei angle, since it’s been in the Zeitgeist ever since The Da Vinci Code. And the ex–altar boy never likes to pass up a chance to stick it to the Catholics. So flying blind, Hendrie commits to the idea for the 8 o’clock hour.
Plausible, yet provocative, yet comprehensible, yet character-driven, and with a timely hook. The lesson being that comedy, as one might imagine, is never as easy as it looks.
With Hendrie safely behind a glass wall in the cramped recording booth down a long hallway, we join Chris Pelton, Hendrie’s screener. Bathed in tattoos, with long black hair and bright-red fingernails, Pelton identifies himself as the bass player for Screwtape (from C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters) and a born-again Christian. In between reciting his bio, he effortlessly juggles five phone lines, ferrets out callers who are in on the gag, preps those who aren’t, deprograms everybody else who doesn’t quite get it and operates the 10-second delay button. Ungaro takes her place at a terminal beside him, beneath a photo of Carol Channing in full drag-queen regalia with the hand-
lettered caption “Corn? I don’t remember eating any corn.” She scans the Internet for background on Opus Dei, and once he’s on the air, feeds Hendrie possible lines. During his downtime, Hendrie jumps in and screens calls as well. “I think this is exciting for him, because it’s not scripted,” Ungaro says.
And then Father McQuarters is on the air, making his pitch. “Mel Gibson has done so much for the Catholic Church and repairing its standing in the international community, so badly shaken that as such, the time has come to give serious consideration to his nomination to the very highest offices of the church.” Nothing. Quickly, instinct takes him into the realm of sexual abuse.
“I’m just trying to be clear,” says Hendrie. “Do you believe there were some priests who were guilty of these acts?”
“Absolutely,” says the Father. “I believe there were priests who were guilty of overzealousness in counseling young people, yes. But why even think about that now ?” The phone bank instantly lights up, as a canned ID (“Phil Hendrie — God’s favorite radio show”) signals the first commercial break. In the second act, Father McQuarters claims, “You would never have gotten a film so profound from Hollywood — Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, for example — because Mr. Scorsese is a Jew.” On the word “Jew,” his voice dips almost an octave, which Hendrie admits he stole from Anthony Hopkins’ Captain Bligh in The Bounty (opposite Mel Gibson, no less). For the third act, he quotes sidekick Father Stahley, convicted of nine counts of molestation to date, as saying the film brought on “a real tension release.” “And if the molesting priest can see The Passion of the Christ,” says Father McQuarters, “to use the vernacular, he can get his cookies.”
Hendrie knows immediately that he’s peaked. “This guy’s no priest, he’s a sham,” says a caller.
“If I’m not a priest, may God strike me dead right now,” the Father says, a second before the phone clatters to the floor. Phil dumps the call.
“See? That’s what happens when you go over the top,” he admits when he’s off the air.
According to Levitan, Hendrie’s latest pilot could still find a home on cable, maybe Comedy Central. For now, it’s in the hands of the agents. But one solution to Hendrie’s TV quandary may be just to put a live camera in a studio and let him go. Hendrie instinctively distrusts the idea: “After you see it once, then seeing it again and again and again, it loses its novelty.” But not to the long line of dignitaries who have made their way to his studio, many of whom come back and bring friends. Not to the cheering crowds at Aspen. Seeing him voice the Margaret Grey character live in the studio as a tacked-on coda to his NBC pilot is certainly more interesting than the 22:45 that came before it. And it still works for Howard Stern, after all the books and movies and sketch TV have come and gone.
“I really believe this,” says Hendrie. “I’m like the guy who ran up the hill with the gun, and I’m going, ‘Come on!’ And there’s some people who want to go too, but they’re afraid. Howard is on up ahead of me. I think I’m like the point man — I’m out there yelling, ‘Let’s do this!’ And one of these days, somebody’s going to follow.”
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