God and Sarah

SilvermansexwithGod2GOD AND SARAH

Those that can, do. Those that can’t, teach…or perhaps, those that can’t, feel compelled to critique those that can. I’ve never before discussed critical responses to my work, which have generally been positive. My job is to do The Work and the job of critics is to critique it; however, in our brave new cyber-world, suddenly Everyone is a critic. Thanks to a comment (and video link) from Matt Drudge, a role I filmed last year has recently generated more than a few on-line posts…. and damned few are positive.

My character in the pilot for The Sarah Silverman Program was God, depicted as a middle-aged Black man (moi) in a very white suit. God appears before Sarah, moved by the humanity of her song and He offers to grant her a wish. All she need do is choose. More anti-social behavior, like theft and flight ensues…which should come as little surprise – this is Sarah Silverman, after all. The surprise is the night of carnality that follows…and no seconds for breakfast.

This pilot (normally the first show in a series) was the very final episode to be aired. An article in Variety speculated that the producers were concerned about a backlash from the Religious Right. This strategy seems to have worked. The pilot eventually generated both praise and controversy and the six-show run has led to an order for 14 new episodes for next season.

I had a few considerations about this role. Over the years I’ve created hundreds of characters – generally responsible officials, bosses, commanders, blah blah blah, but a handful of my characters endure in our cultural landscape. The “Angel of Death”, Dr. Steven Kiley, from the TV show MILLENNIUM comes to mind (questioning perceptions about assisted suicide), Sheriff Andy Taylor in the controversial X-Files episode of HOME (remembered primarily for having engaged the taboo of incest), and Isaiah, foster father of the Messiah in the film FALSE PROPHETS (which explored a woman’s right to choose). Once in a great while, a character grabs me. I’m unconcerned with its commercial potential; I am attracted to the danger and the challenge it presents… Yeah, I said danger.

In a recent workout class, a substitute teacher, enamored with her own intricate routines, sought to challenge us. “Are you scared yet?” Are you kidding? Amanda was absurdly fit, and her choice of implants had been a wise investment. It was a good class and afterwards, both of us dripping, I approached her and said, “Amanda, patrols in Iraq are scary, cancer is scary, female astronauts are scary. I think you meant ‘Are we confused yet’?”

What could possibly be dangerous about the creation of any character? Ask Salmon Rushdie. We’re talking God here and the opportunity to fail on any number of levels. This is comedy, it may not be funny; this will surely offend more than a few; Black God has already been done by Morgan, what would your parents have thought, what will your friends think, what will your right-wing veteran colleagues think, what would your congregation think, what will the public think, will this impact your opportunities to work in the future? And on… My inner voice exists to pose such existential questions, but I turned down the volume. This role had all the right elements, apart from offering any serious money.

Those of us recognized by the public in our private lives have to deal with the people we encounter. Some people are tickled to recognize and greet us on the street, a few may have formed emotional relationships with our on-screen personas. (Ask a long time soap opera actor or actress ab0ut that shit!) But not every civilian enjoys a firm grasp on reality, and some confuse us for the characters we’ve portrayed. If you play “good guys” that’s not so much an issue, but if you’re a man and you’re known for playing ‘heavies’ (like killers, rapists, criminals), not all the attention is positive.

OK, I was drawn to the danger of this role, so I ‘went for it.’
My preparation was inspired, it was fun, I laughed at a few of my more blasphemous impulses…and as I drove to the meeting, my voice-over continued to whisper, “Tucker. Suppose you get this role. Are you ready for all that may follow, once you film it?” Again, I told my inner voice, “Sit your ass down!” I was now in full game mode. I play to win. If I don’t feel committed to winning, I don’t play.
And very shortly after that meeting, I was informed that I had won, that the role was mine, to be filmed in the near future.

“Be careful for what you wish, ‘cause then you might get it.”

My work in the pilot would entail a few days of shooting (rather long days) at the actual home of our star, Sarah Silverman. There’d been an earlier table read for the network execs in Santa Monica and it’d gone well, all seemed delighted by my choices… but I still had questions. I always have questions. Most employers welcome my obsessive commitment to my work, accepting my passion to question (as well as to re-write many of my lines) as the reward (or consequence) of having chosen to include me in their ensemble. Most end up grateful for my contributions. At least I think so, but hey, by now this industry knows what they’re getting when they hire me. Caveat emptor.

It’s never been about a paycheck for me (tho I am surely grateful to be paid.) The Work is and always will be The Work, to me. That’s thanks to my mentors, Sanford Meisner, Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg. Stage is the only medium that will ever truly belong to me; all actors know that only on-stage are we the final crafters of any performance. There’s no editing, no re-takes, only the pure expression of our artistic intentions. That is why so many of us cherish our stage roles (tho it can be challenging to pay one’s mortgage or alimony on the remuneration of theater.)

Creating the character of God for a cutting edge comedienne’s TV series debut was akin to mounting Everest, running a 4 minute mile, it was… Come on. This is gonna be seen! I am God! Morgan has been God, along with George Burns and Jim Carrey and others…but my God will do more than cajole or encourage or rebuke. My God will be seen in bed, carnally engaged and with a white woman! Hmmmm.

Let’s see…God’s about to get down with Sarah, which means nudity. OK. Boy, I’d like Him to look really buff. Sorry bout that, dude, a man’s gotta know his limitations. Just don’t pig out on lunch today, Tucker! The earlier scenes went well. I was comfortable as God the dominant, forceful entity, who dispenses grace and wishes and forgiveness…assisted by my God drag and lots of special effects lighting.

Sooo…at the end of a long day, we wrapped. I knew I’d be returning to shoot my bedroom scenes with Sarah on a subsequent day. BTW, while I’ve been doing this work for all these years, I’ve had relatively limited experience with bedroom scenes. I’ve shared a few beds with soap actresses, back in the ‘70’s. There was also a film, shot early in my career that I’d rather not talk about. I’m pretty sure it was never released; I’m pretty sure it was unreleasable. But you never know…

I’ve been engaged by the responses from viewers, critics and bloggers. Some posts to their columns struck me as baldly anti-Semitic; many others questioned the moral courage of Comedy Central. They mocked its apparent unwillingness to play equally hard and fast with the sacred cow of Islam, the depiction of Mohammed. In truth, Comedy Central and South Park had done so years ago, in “The Super Best Friends” episode #68, (centering on illusionist David Blaine) which aired July 4th 2001. July 4th 2001! Why haven’t conspiracy lovers seized upon this ultimate dis as the catalyst for 9-11? Hmmmm? And I continue to question which aspect viewers found most egregious. That God is Black? That God is sexual? That Black God is sexually involved with a white woman? That God doesn’t get any breakfast booty? That God even gives a shit about this self-absorbed, selfish, scatological little princess? Or might it be something else, completely different? The jury remains out; they be still conferring, even as we speak…

So, back at the ranch, “it’s Showtime”. We’ve already shot ‘the morning-after’ footage, it’s now time to film the Ultimate Booty Call. Sarah will begin in her typical sleepwear, PJ bottoms and a tank top and God will appear in a white robe, with boxers beneath. We’d had a few discussions about just that. “Why does God wear boxers?” I’m a Jockey guy, myself, and was in fact wearing bikinis beneath my boxers for ‘censor redundancy’. God forbid my Godhead make an unscripted appearance. Any references to “His Terrible Swift Sword” would be discouraged. I’d even asked, “Why would God dress and undress?” I’d imagine that when He wants to be clothed, He is clothed…and when He chooses to be naked, He is. Instantly! (And admiring of His Work!) But Sarah’s creative arbiters were sadly underwhelmed by my reasoning. You win some, you lose some…

(In a print interview, Sarah commented that, “during our love scenes, I could totally feel his balls.” Hmmm. I hadn’t read that when we embraced at the premier, for I surely would have mentioned it, knowing she’s cool discussing pretty much anything and I’m not bashful either, when it comes to talking about The Work. Tho it does have me now wondering, “What, did I manifest some sort of testicular erection?” Probably not… and in any case, my double-decker underwear would have stifled any untoward expansion.

I’d been thinking, “Man, this is Comedy Central, these guys are dangerous, this shit could go anywhere.” But for all the feces and fan potential this scene offered, the Suits sole concern centered around a seemingly (at least to me) innocuous line…and I was not to say that line with untoward passion! I’ll leave it to viewers to divine just which line had those network knickers all in a twist…but here’s a hint: It was part of the morning-after sequence.

We prepared to shoot the scene in which I whisper to her, “You’re my little monkey, aren’t you? Who made you, monkey? Who created you?” That shot revealed only me. Sarah was beneath the visual frame, off-screen as she pipes up, “You did!” I’d thought it might be fun if she responded, “O*o*o dh*u*d”… suggesting her ability to speak was orally compromised. That elicited a mischievous smile from Sarah, but the Suits weren’t goin’ for it. Actually, I only ‘got’ the intent of those few words as I was walking from my trailer to the set. The lines had always seemed a little weird to me, but hey, I don’t always understand the jokes. And I suddenly froze in the middle of the street and started smiling. This was the writers inside joke on the Creationists, the current debate about Darwinism and evolution.

Love scenes are always a little strange. First of all, this is comedy, not soft-core. You’ve got maybe 8-10 people in a rather small bedroom, with lights and cables and mikes and reflectors everywhere and besides, we barely know each other. This is not Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, just two professionals, bent on getting each scene and finding the laughs. And so we pressed on, aspiring to appear amorously engaged, without taking undue advantage of another’s vulnerability or good will. Eventually we got all the coverage, exchanged a final hug and received our just rewards. “That’s a wrap.”

Past Is Prologue

Past Is Prologue

In my childhood I had the good fortune to travel thru a country that no longer exists. It was called Yugoslavia and in the mid-fifties, my family was driving from Italy to Greece. My father, a university English professor had accepted a Fulbright to teach at Anatolia College in Salonika, known in biblical times as Thessaloniki.

During the Cold War, countries under the Iron Curtain displayed a variety of styles of Communism. Some regimes were rigid and repressive, reminiscent of Stalanist Russia; others were more flexible. Tito, the leader of Yugoslavia, practiced a form of communism involving the pursuit of national interests independent of the Soviet Union and its satellites. Tho relatively enlightened, it bore little resemblance to democracy.

We drove thru Italy, visiting Genoa, Rome, Florence and after a brief visit to the border town of Trieste, entered Yugoslavia. Fifty years later, I can still remember dramatic contrasts, after traveling just a few miles. Suddenly, all seemed gray and austere and institutional. We passed thru Zagreb and eventually arrived at the capital city of Belgrade, where we spent the night in a hotel. It was clean and comfortable but hardly luxurious.

Very early that next morning, excited to be in a new city I arose and stood on our small balcony, looking out at the city streets. There was little traffic and at every intersection, in all directions, so far as I could see, there stood a uniformed presence. In that moment, the term ‘police state’ ceased to be an abstraction… I got it.

It seemed to be very safe in those streets. I suspect there was little if any crime to be feared. And I’ll bet most of their trains ran on time. That was my most enduring memory of Yugoslavia. I then knew little about Croatians and Serbs and Bosnians, their religious and ethnic differences, their ancient and sequestered blood feuds. But with liberation and the removal of their strong man, Tito, those differences eventually led to the violence and Balkanization of the late 20th century.

Yesterday our lame duck president (and I use the term ‘lame’ advisedly) spoke of advocating ‘a surge’, meaning the commitment of some 20,000 or more additional troops to our efforts in Iraq.
It has for some time been popular to make comparisons between our experiences in Iraq and Vietnam, and while there are parallels, I think we ignore an older, larger historical reality in doing so.

Victory in WW I created countries based upon geography and strategic interests. Nothing new about that, the victors have always redrawn world maps. The French and British created Iraq, forcing together three tribes with ancient enmities – Kurds, Shi’ites and Sunnis. And the creation of Yugoslavia forced together Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia and Serbia. They existed for some years in relative peace, primarily because the individual factions were dominated by repressive regimes. The later removal of that single element, that ‘strong man’ (Tito, Saddam) released those tribes to indulge their longstanding tribal yearnings for revenge.

It eased in Yugoslavia only after partitioning. It may only subside in Iraq with that same solution. But to do so raises wider questions that trouble the ruling powers. There is oil to consider, there is the fear of further demands, such as Kurdish aspirations for their own homeland.

I offer no solutions, and hold little hope for an early and peaceful resolution of these problems. But I am suggesting that we consider the dynamics of tribalism when we attempt to impose our values and political models on people who have quite different aspirations. And finally, I find it ironic that, having preemptively moved into Iraq with the intention of ‘imposing democracy’, our best hope today and the most attractive outcome for Iraq’s citizens seems to be the imposition of a police state.

Here’s a blast from the past …

“We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

11 Jan 2007