Emmy-winning Dan O’Shannon has written for and produced Cheers, Frasier and Modern Family, TV shows that have given us such memorable couples as Sam and Diane, Frasier and Lilith and Sofia Vergara’s breasts. Now in his satirical cartoon book The Adventures of Mrs. Jesus, O’Shannon tells the story of the most famous man and woman since the first man and woman: Jesus and his wife. In O’Shannon’s imagination, Jesus, too, had a ball and chain and she’s tired of living in the shadow of a husband who’s, you know, the Messiah. All she wants is some r-e-s-p-e-c-t and for him to ask how her day went.
O’Shannon doodled the first cartoon of Mrs. Jesus on a script while working at Modern Family in 2012. That was the same year stories emerged about a Harvard professor who claimed to have found a piece of papyrus indicating Jesus was married, though most historians have since called it a forgery.
“It was a terrifically odd coincidence,” says O’Shannon, who will read from his book at Skylight tonight, Nov. 7, at 7:30 p.m. “But I loved it because it was telling me that there might be something in the ether about this.”
After drawing the first strip and posting it on Facebook, O’Shannon decided to copy and paste images from a Renaissance painting, repurposing Mary Magdalene as Mrs. Jesus. Rather than delve into the story’s religious implications, O’Shannon focuses on the relationship between history’s biggest martyr and his poor, put-upon wife, who have human foibles just like the rest of us. And boy do they love to argue.
They bicker about going to dinner parties and therapy. (“My husband thinks he’s God’s gift to the world.”) She wines about his selfishness, he about her neediness. She’s jealous of Mary Magdalene and complains about not getting invited to the Last Supper. Of course, she doesn’t get along with her in-laws, namely Mary. (“You look thin. Is she feeding you?”) It’s all classic sitcom stuff, with at least one nod to I Love Lucy, especially when Mrs. Jesus tries to scheme her way into the holy trinity. (“I wonder how I’ll look in stained glass.”)
“I stayed away from real religious debate,” says O’Shannon. “I use the strip to explore other things that are more human and psychological.”
O’Shannon intentionally doesn’t give her a name. “This is a woman whose identity is as Jesus’ wife,” says O’Shannon. “That’s her whole plight. No matter what her name is, she is Mrs. Jesus. I’m sure the woman who was married to Jonas Salk for a while was nothing but Mrs. Jonas Salk.”
Other famous and non-famous characters drift in and out of the story, including Edvard Munch’s The Scream, the Holy Spirit, a reporter from the Bible, a couple of Romans and a Twitter follower who looks exactly like Modern Family executive producer Danny Zuker. He boasts to Jesus about having more than 5,000 followers while Jesus has only – you guessed it – 12.
Not surprisingly, O’Shannon, who was born in Euclid, Ohio and lives in L.A., was raised Catholic and went to Catholic school. “I was an altar boy and the whole bit,” O’Shannon recalls. “But I moved away from it pretty much when I moved out of the house when I was 18 or 19 and started doing standup. I always wanted to believe. I wanted to believe in Santa Clause. I wanted to believe that a magical being was going to intermittently grant my requests and pull me out of the fire when I did things wrong. Now my beliefs are sort of wishy washy and kind of nowhere. But I gave it a go.”
Though O’Shannon has spent 25-plus years working in TV (his other credits include Newhart, The King of Queens and Suddenly Susan), this is not his first time dabbling in cartoons. O’Shannon’s web site features some of his animation work and short stories, including the 1997 animated short Redux Riding Hood, which was nominated for an Oscar, and 2005’s The Fan and the Flower, narrated by Paul Giamatti.
Drawing pictures of Jesus’ imaginary significant other proved to be a welcome distraction for O’Shannon, who, at the time, was going through a divorce.
“What I found by giving myself this project is that I got to explore things that were going on with me: human frailty, self-esteem, denial, projection, the kinds of things that I was going through in therapy,” says O’Shannon. “It slowly got me out of the spiral I was going through emotionally. It saved me in a way.”
After posting some of the strips on Facebook and Twitter, O’Shannon says he’s gotten mostly positive feedback, with the inevitable exception of a few disgruntled followers, including his 72-year-old mother. He had to unfriend her on Facebook.
“My mother didn’t like it,” he says. “She has very mixed feelings about it. I dedicate the book to her, by the way. She’s thrilled about that, but at the same time she rolls her eyes and prays for me.
O’Shannon knows he’s stepping on the tender toes of Christianity, but insists the book is not about religion. “I’ve gotten some really nice letters and some really, long involved emails about how I’m going to hell. People see the cross and the word balloons and immediately think it’s sacrilegious and it’s hateful. I don’t mean to hurt anyone. This book isn’t even meant to challenge anyone or challenge their beliefs. It’s not that kind of book. I don’t see it as making fun of Jesus. I’m making fun of people.”
Dan O'Shannon reads from his book at Skylight Books tonight, Nov. 7, at 7:30 p.m., and at Barnes & Noble in Santa Monica, Nov. 15, 2 p.m.
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