NEW YORK — It's the classic comedy scenario of three guys thrown together by chance, not by choice. One is boozy and profane. One is dim. The sane and rational one tries to cope with both.
The difference this time: All three are Catholic priests.
Yes, four years after being blocked by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, “Father Ted” is coming to America.
When the British Broadcasting Co. first broadcast the sitcom in Britain and Ireland five years ago, it found an eager audience in spite of the fears some expressed over a show about priests written by lapsed Irish Catholics and starring lapsed Irish Catholics. At the time of its debut, the Church in Ireland was under heavy fire from the Irish media. News organizations across the country were savaging the Church as a series of scandals came to light.
“Of course they were cashing in on the hammering the Church was receiving,” recalled Father Arthur O'Neill, administrator of a Dublin parish.
Over in Britain, the antics of Father Ted (played by comedian Dermot Morgan), his dim-witted sidekick Father Dougal (comic Ardal O'Hanlon), their profane housemate Father Jack (character-actor Frank Kelly) and scatterbrained housekeeper Mrs. Doyle (actress Pauline McLynn) saw the series gain cult status and a host of TV awards.
Now BBC America is hoping to begin creating legions of “Ted Heads” by exporting their successful product across the Atlantic — just in time for St. Patrick's Day.
Since the show's viewership will be limited to cable, the Catholic League will not take a stand against it. William Donohue, the organization's president, says that public condemnation would only give the show publicity.
Should a mainstream network decide to carry the show, however, “we will do to them what we did to ‘Nothing Sacred'" — a show cancelled after a relentless Catholic League campaign.
Donohue adds that the ascendance of “Father Ted” shows that the days of Hollywood depicting most priests as men of integrity, and casting such respected actors as Pat O'Brien and Bing Crosby to play them, are long gone.
“We don't even have Father Dowling now,” says Donohue. “The networks will always show a positive image of a gay character, and they dare not offend African-Americans, but it seems the Catholics do not matter.
“The report I got [of the program] was that one priest was chasing women, one was drunk and the other was totally stupid. I was talking to a BBC producer and I asked him: ‘If you really think there is nothing offensive, why don't you change the priests to Anglicans and keep the plot the same?'”
Father Michael McKenna, pastor of St. Aidan of Ashington Church in northeast England, has a different view of the program.
“I think it's hilarious,” he told The Register. “I think there are many clergy who recognize this situation of these men with nothing in common who can't stand each other.
“And to make matters worse, they have to live with these women who are absolutely mad,” says Father McKenna, who also doubles as a stand-up comedian in the Clergy Revue, a nationwide charity show performed by British priests in top theaters.
“You watch it and you think, ‘Yes, that guy is like [Father] so and so.’”
Father McKenna used to write a humor column in the British Catholic weekly The Universe under the pen name Don Jon.
Another clerical humorist who wrote for the same paper disagrees with him.
Canon Dick Wilson, pastor of Our Lady and St. Wulstan in Norwich, in southeast England, wrote a successful and popular column called “The Diary of Father Hadrian Mule” which poked fun at the foibles of parish and clerical life.
“I think the humor in Father Ted is inane, to say the least,” he said. “I try to draw on real life but exaggerate the reality.”
Catholics in the pew were also upset.
Teacher Robert Williams, a parishioner of Our Lady and St James in Bangor, Wales, told the Register, “The show is profane, but also anti-Catholic in a subtle way. It is part of the way that respect for the priesthood is being eroded. It is clever, but distasteful.”
The show's writer, Graham Linehan, a lapsed Catholic, did not respond to repeated requests for an interview but has always maintained in statements to the media that the priesthood is just a dramatic device to situate the dys-functional comic characters.
Ribbing or Roughhousing?
Pauline McLynn, “Mrs. Doyle,” even claims a strong fan base among parish housekeepers in Ireland.
But Morgan, “Father Ted” himself, says he studied for the priest-hood in his youth and later rejected the Church. “Fascist organizations are led by men wearing black who try to tell you what to do,” he says.
His first comic parody of a priest was “Father Trendy,” a character who appeared on Irish Television in the 1980s. A spinoff book, Trendy Sermons, was condemned by many Catholics as blasphemous.
The Church, however, gave him a Catholic funeral following his sudden death at age 45 in 1998.
When the program was first shown in Ireland, the Dublin archdiocese launched a highly visible vocations campaign contrasting “Father Ted” with the heroic reality of the call to the priesthood.
Father Kevin Doran, the arch-diocese's vocations director, told The Register: “I only caught the odd view of the program, but, from what I saw, it was so divorced from reality it wasn't funny.
“You could say it was humorous without being funny.”
Fellow Dubliner Father O'Neill adds, “It seems you can do anything against the Church nowadays. You only have to look at the over-the-top reaction to Dermot Morgan's funeral — you had past and present presidents of Ireland and prime ministers attending. Anybody who's anybody attended.”
How far is far enough when the culture makes the Church the butt end of its humor? The Catholic League's Donohue draws a line in the sand over the saints, the sacraments and the core beliefs of the faith. “I think it is acceptable to have a bumbling priest,” he says. “But if they are going to attack the holy Eucharist or the Blessed Mother, then we have to take a stand.”
Paul Burnell writes from Manchester, England.------- EXCERPT: