by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Patrick Walsh has written for some of the most celebrated comedies in all of television. Rob & Big, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Outsourced, 2 Broke Girls, and Crashing are just a few of the shows that he has had a hand in shaping. Having added the role of producer to his resume on several projects, he is finally launching his own show based on A.J. Jacob’s best seller, The Year of Living Biblically.
LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher had a chance to sit down with Patrick and discuss his work and the new CBS sitcom he created – Living Biblically.
John Bucher: You have a long working relationship with Pete Holmes and have written on HBO’s Crashing. It was really interesting to watch Living Biblically and see you dealing with some of the same issues that show deals with, but in very different ways. Tell me about how the project came to fruition. Why did A.J. Jacob’s book strike you as a perfect fit for a sitcom?
Patrick Walsh: Well, Johnny Galecki of The Big Bang Theory had the rights to the book, and I had been going around town looking for a show to write. I would say 90% of shows dealt with somebody who moves back home with their parents, and I was getting really bored with what I was seeing. Jacob’s book was just really different.
I went home, I read it overnight, and I said to my fiancé, “They’re going to mess this up, and it’s a shame they’re going to mess it up, but there’s no way you could do this for television.” Heather, my fiancé, kept saying, “Well, why don’t you do it and not mess it up?”
I think the reason I didn’t want to is because I was scared. It is, of course, the most sensitive subject in America, in the world, and has been since the dawn of time.
It was nerve-racking for me, but I went in, and when I pitched Johnny on my take, I talked about my own background growing up Catholic. I had a lot of stories about that, and just said there is no entertainment on television for religious people that isn’t really off-puttingly solemn and serious, like the Left Behind movies with Kirk Cameron. On the flip side, the only other time you hear religion discussed on television is Bill Maher saying you’re an idiot if you believe in God.
I thought there was such a huge spectrum to be served there, and I said, “If I approach this in a humorous way, much like the book did, but with curiosity, with respect, with love and understanding, I don’t see how this couldn’t connect with people.” And they agreed, and then much to our delight, the networks agreed and kept agreeing until the present day.
John Bucher: On the show, you manage to walk that tightrope of keeping it funny and even being able to joke about religious concepts and ideas without ever making people of faith look like they’re idiots. It’s a really fine line to walk. Did you find yourself sometimes having to reel it back in?
Patrick Walsh: Well, sure. It was far and away the hardest show I’ve ever had to write — particularly the pilot. When you put it up in front of an audience, a multi-camera sitcom, it’s always scary. You never know if the audience is going to laugh. You never know what you’re walking into.
We were nervous, and at times throughout the season, throughout all 13 episodes, there would be a joke that went too far and you felt that immediately from the audience, and we would look at that and work on it. That’s the beauty of multi-cam. You change the jokes all the time. There would also be times where we felt we didn’t go deep enough on the subject.
In my opinion, one of the most interesting episodes is the prayer episode. We thought, “Okay, how much time can we spend on a CBS multi-camera sitcom discussing prayer and whether it works, et cetera?” What we learned immediately was that you could’ve heard a pin drop. The jokes were getting laughs, but in the more serious moments, people were riveted by this conversation about prayer because it’s just not something you see on television.
I think the multi-cam format helped the show immensely, because you got to see on people’s faces and hear in their reactions when you were dancing too far on either side of the line, but I also didn’t want to walk the line so narrowly that the show was tedious or boring or not funny. It’s difficult, but I think we got a nice balance throughout. I really do.
John Bucher: I agree. In writing the pilot yourself, how did you go about looking at the material that was in the original source, in the book, and try to bring the humor and the tone you found there?
Patrick Walsh: Well, it was trickier than anyone thought, because the book is fantastic, but it’s a diary. It’s a journal, a day-by-day, “Here’s what happened to me.” Sometimes, it was as simple as, “I went to buy coffee.” While that stuff is funny when you’re reading about it, it does not translate to a story. It’s not an episode of TV.
In the book, I liked the little bit where he flicked a guy with the pebble for being an adulterer — it’s amusing on paper and if you saw it in person. But for TV, it’s not an exciting scene. It’s certainly not the climax of an episode. I thought, “Can we go to a place with this where he’s fully throwing a rock at this guy?”
That first night, I turned to Andy Ackerman, who’s our director who did Seinfeld and all kinds of shows, like, “They’re not going to like this.” Before the main character begins reaching for the rock, I was sweating so bad, because we can’t rewrite the show at that point. That’s the whole thing. When he reached down, just when I saw his hand reach for that rock, the audience started going nuts, and I said, “I think people are going to really like this show.”
That was the turning point for me. It’s taking scenes from the book and blowing them up and making them bigger, really digging into what I think people loved about the book itself, which is just open, funny, admitting faults and discussions about the minutia of religion.
John Bucher: The execution of the script through the actors is a huge, huge part of the success of the show. You have a tremendous cast. Can you talk about the changes that had to be made from what you had written on paper to more suitably fit the actors’ style or personality once you started hearing the lines come out of their mouths?
Patrick Walsh: Oh, absolutely. I had a much, much wordier script. That’s always a big part of it. When you hear stuff out loud, it’s like, “Oh, I’ve got to cut that way back.” The cast is so great and so funny and they’re all so specific. It truly is the kind of cast where everyone has had their own voice from week one, but we did a table read of the pilot, and I would say the script changed about 50% after that.
David Krumholtz is a genius. He’s nuts. He really is. I think his character changed the most, because in person he is so funny and so strange and unusual that I said, “Well, we have to embrace this and write to this.” I think their personalities helped shape their characters in a huge way. Chip was essentially written as myself, but when I met Jay (Ferguson), he’s got that Texas twang that you want to lean into..
John Bucher: Can you talk about the process of fleshing out the world of your main character in order to have a show that’s sustainable for multiple seasons?
Patrick Walsh: Well, the first thing that occurred to me to do was to make his wife an atheist. I thought that in and of itself could be a show, the super Christian guy and his atheist wife. I don’t know how that show hasn’t been done. I also thought if a guy is living his life 100% by the Bible, everyone that he tells about this cannot be greeting him with open arms as if it’s a great idea, so he takes a lot of heat from his coworkers, from his friends, and even from — which I think is important — Father Gene and Rabbi Gil, who are saying, “You can’t do this. No one can do this.” I thought, to me, that was when I really started to understand the Father Gene character, which was, “Look, I’m a priest, and I’m telling you this is crazy.”
I think in that way, you’re able to get away with people thinking of the show as saying Christians are crazy, which is 100% not what the show is saying. I just wanted him to be up against a lot of pressures and people making fun of him and things like that, because conflict is funny, but also because that’s what somebody doing this would be facing every second of their life, and to act like the opposite is true, I think is where you get into a more standard Christian production where everyone is a Christian and they don’t face any sort of persecution or anything else. I wanted it to really feel realistic, if the guy was actually doing this.
John Bucher: We only get to create so many projects, make so many shows. Why was this show worth it for you?
Patrick Walsh: I think for me, as a sitcom writer for ten years plus, most sitcoms are dumb. They have nothing to say. Many of them are very funny, but at their core, most sitcoms have absolutely nothing to say. If I die tomorrow and this was my life’s work, I would be thrilled about that.
I think it does have something to say about the most sensitive, taboo, rarely-discussed-in-public topic in the world today. I personally think that it makes it funny and interesting. For me, just making a sitcom with something on its mind was what drew me to it and what I hope remains the mission statement of the show going forward.
Living Biblically premiers on CBS Monday, Feb. 26 (9:30/8:30c) and stars Jay R. Ferguson (The Real O’Neals), Lindsey Kraft (Getting On), Ian Gomez (Cougar Town), David Krumholtz (The Deuce), Tony Rock (All of Us) and Camryn Manheim (The Practice).
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.