Best known as the co-creator of FOX's cult-favorite sitcom "Titus," Jack Kenny has since moved on to the family drama "The Book of Daniel" (premiering tonight at 9:00/8:00c on NBC). The show stars Aidan Quinn as Rev. Daniel Webster, an unconventional Episcopalian priest who regularly has visions of Jesus (Garret Dillahunt). In addition to "Titus," Kenny has worked on such series as "Wanda at Large," "Caroline in the City" and "Dave's World" and himself is a Juilliard-trained actor. Jack was kind enough to sit down with me to talk about the show, his work and TV in general.
Brian Ford Sullivan: You're best known for your sitcom work. Why the switch to a drama?
Jack Kenny: The way we told "Titus," with the flashbacks, the talking to the camera and stuff - before, you know, it became hugely popular - it was just the way to tell his story. His act was all about a guy who was informed by his past. Everything he was in his life now had to do with his childhood. So the way to tell that story was to ask - how do we show his childhood? How do we show the humor of how he grew up? [So in the case of "Daniel"] I've always wanted to write a story about a priest, not as a man of the cloth or about religion but about family - about a guy with a family who had the extra spotlight on him about having to be perfect all the time... having to live under this unbelievably high standard of perfection and behavior. So it just seemed to play out better as an hourlong, as a single-camera experience. I guess I just had a lot to say so I needed an hour instead of a half-hour.
BFS: So you just started with "this is a story I want to tell" and didn't think about the format or scope?
JK: I honestly didn't. I've been thinking about it for years, just kicking around the idea of looking at a priest's life that way. And then I woke up one night with the story of Grace [Daniel's daughter played by Alison Pill] being arrested and I thought that's the way in. The rest of it just sort of fell into place and the characters started speaking to me. You know as a writer when you start hearing the characters talk you know it's right... and that's all I'm trying to do with "Daniel" is tell the story of this family. It's interesting that it's gotten all this controversy thrown on it because of this religious angle, but it's not a show about religion.
BFS: Well I think anytime a show featuring religion comes out there's always going to be a group of people who will demand it be portrayed in a certain way.
BFS: So have you seen shows like "Joan of Arcadia" or "7th Heaven?"
JK: Honestly I have not seen either of those shows.
BFS: Do you remember [the short-lived 1997 ABC series] "Nothing Sacred?"
JK: I remember reading about it at the time, but I was working on another show so my evenings were not my own. But if I recall correctly that was a show about a crisis of faith. [The characters in "Daniel"] aren't going through a crisis of faith. They're absolutely solid and pure in their faith and their beliefs. It's really just about the struggles of any family. I mean obviously there's a lot going on in the show but it's an entertainment program, there's supposed to be.
BFS: So how do you see the show evolving on a week to week basis?
JK: It's going to be a mix of family stuff and Daniel's work at the parish. Sometimes the family stuff will provoke things at the parish or vice-versa, not unlike "Six Feet Under." [Eventually] we're going to go out to Daniel's parents, Judith's [Daniel's wife played by Susanna Thompson] mother, Daniel's brother [played D.W. Moffett], his sister [played by Donna Murphy] - so we'll see his extended family.
BFS: How did Aidan Quinn get involved?
JK: He got sent the script through his manager and he just fell in love with it and wanted to do it. I still can't believe we have Aidan Quinn. He wasn't the guy I initially pictured but he brought so much more to the table, to the role, than I ever really thought about - all the actors do. What Alison Pill brings to Grace, it's astounding. [Aidan] just has this sort of natural gravitas, a natural kind of strength and a humanity that I think you immediately trust him and you want to be in his world. There's so much going on behind his eyes. I'm always awed by actors that can do that.
BFS: What about Garret Dillahunt? Was it hard to cast Jesus?
JK: Honestly, it came down to a couple of choices. Garret had the perfect combination of humanity and a dry, easygoing sense of humor and a warmth to what he was doing. He also played as a contemporary to Daniel. Honestly I think Garret's a little older than Jesus lived to be but Jesus in this context has to feel like a brother. If he was a lot younger it would have felt weird, like that Daniel had more life experience than Jesus. We didn't really look at the [prototypical] descriptions of Jesus, we just looked for the best actor. The "image" of Jesus [in the show] is the one Daniel grew up with as a kid because I've always felt he's talked to Jesus all his life. It's the picture in all the books he read as he grew up. The "Daniel" that is born today will probably have a different picture of Jesus than one 40 years from now.
BFS: So what from your own background did you draw on for the show?
JK: Well I went to Catholic school, studied religious instruction... my mother made sure me and my sister went to church every Sunday. Then after high school I came out and well, life changes when you leave home - you explore other options and possibilities and find your own way. Honestly, the Episcopal Church is looking good to me now because we think the same. We share a lot of the same values and morality. Plus they're enough like Catholicism to make me feel comfortable.
BFS: So does the show make you go back and look at your own faith?
JK: Oh not necessarily. I've always had the same kind of faith and spirituality. I had just never been very vocal about it before, it had always been very personal and private to me. Not that I mind talking about it. I'm not ashamed of it or hide or anything, it was just something that never comes up. You know, you're not supposed to talk about church or politics. I went to high school in North Carolina - you don't talk about religion or politics at the table, because it will get you into a fight with somebody.
BFS: One of the things I found very interesting about the pilot is that after Daniel picks up Grace from the police station he lectures her about "know how rare it is to have a family like us." That here they are - mom and dad are together, they love each other - and yet here she is off selling drugs. I think that's an interesting beat - they're not dysfuctional but they still have problems.
JK: It's interesting that you pick that out because so many people lately, I mean the controversy around the show, has talked about this "wildly dysfunctional" family and why do they always have to portray dysfunction in Christians? And this isn't a real Christian family because they're so dysfunctional. And that's interesting that you pointed that out. I had forgotten that's a good argument to use. I mean that's Daniel's argument - look at what a normal family you have. Yeah sure, everybody has problems - Adam [Daniel's adopted son played by Ivan Shaw] is 17, of course he's going to want to screw everything that moves, he's 17! He's a kid. And Grace makes one stupid mistake, she herself admits it's a stupid mistake. Lots of people out there write her off as a "pot dealing daughter" and yet she did it one time, gets caught, knew it was stupid and she's sorry. And yet, that's the word that used to define her. It's the same thing with "pill-popping" Daniel. That's such a tiny facet of his character. That's like me calling you "glasses wearing" Brian [yes folks, The Futon Critic wears glasses]. It's such a tiny elements of who Daniel is. And it's something he doesn't want to be. We don't glorify it. He knows it's wrong. We don't show him high and happy and stumbling over things. He's in agony, about a lot of things - beginning with his back pain and ending with the loss of his son. He's not dealing with it in a healthy way but he's dealing with it in a way he knows how. And the journey of the show is these characters running into obstacles and overcoming them. But you can't overcome adversity without having it. That's what I don't understand about the social critics out there. I don't understand what kind of show they want to put on the air. It sounds unbelievably boring to me - there's this great family that loves each other and never has any problems. That show wouldn't last 30 seconds. They'd change the channel. But they're all watching "Desperate Housewives." And they can't tell me they're not. Because most of America is watching "Desperate Housewives." Do watch the show?
JK: Because the last episode I saw - there was a nun, a Catholic nun announcing to [Eva Longoria's character] that she was going to basically steal her husband away from her. I mean - where is the Christian right protesting that?
BFS: I think there's always a "selective" brand of protesting that goes on. There was a recent special on NBC about "Saturday Night Live" in the 1980s that noted that Charles Rocket's infamous f-bomb wasn't actually the first time that happened on the show. But for whatever reason - most likely the intense magnifying glass the new cast was under - that's what people latch on to.
JK: Ha! I just don't know why it's this show and why me they're focusing on - [jokingly] probably because I'm this practicing homosexual and have [my] gay agenda. [Laughs.]
BFS: So I guess the hope is at the end of the day people will watch and walk away with something they didn't expect?
JK: Of the people that watch and going into it think there's something objectionable, yes I think they'll walk away realizing it's just about this family. That it's not about a drug dealing daughter or a pill-popping priest, that clearly there's more depth to the show than that. And that isn't it nice to see Jesus portrayed as this gentle and loving aspect of who Daniel is. Not that this is "the" Jesus, the Messiah reborn, it's just what Daniel sees him as. He's allowed to see Jesus or God how he wants - whether it's as George Burns or as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or as a ball of light - as should any of us. That's what I find so bizarre. People are saying you have to believe what I believe and that not only are you wrong, you're not allowed to tell anyone about it. I mean this is America. Put on your version of the show. You're allowed.
BFS: So you're busy editing episode seven of the show's eight-episode run. Any chance we'll more episodes ordered this season?
JK: No unfortunately it's impossible - to pull everyone back together this quickly would cost a fortune. If things go well the best we can hope for is a full season next year or to come back again at midseason.