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Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Who’s playing God now?

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Actor Sean Hayes, playing God, flippantly describes why He created the universe: He had been hovering in zero-dimensional space for, oh infinity or so years, when he got bored. “I was God but I wasn’t really godding,” he breezily explains. “I wasn’t creating or destroying or judging anybody.”

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And so, He tells us in “An Act of God,” an almost entirely solo comedy currently at the Ahmanson Theatre, God whipped up the world in six days, molding the sun and the moon, for example, so they could create eclipses and stir up His “two all-time favorite humans emotions: panic and awe.”

As for destroying the world in the biblical chapters about Noah’s ark, He intones, like a parent administering punishment, “The Flood drowned me more than it drowned you.”

But the primary reason God is inhabiting Sean Hayes’ body is to deliver a new version of the Ten Commandments, since he’s grown weary of the old ones — “the same way Don McLean has grown weary of American Pie.”  Among His new edicts:  “Thou shalt not kill in my name.” God thinks that’s patronizing. He can kill quite well by Himself, thank you very much.

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And please, please, He implores, stop calling out His name during sex.

The creator of this hilariously blasphemous take on God is David Javerbaum, 44, a multiple Emmy-winning former head writer and executive producer of “The Daily Show With John Stewart,” who was equally wry and irreverent during a recent interview at a Santa Monica coffeehouse.

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David Javerbaum Photo by Andrew Eccles

So how did this atheist raised in a Conservative Jewish home in New Jersey land the gig as the Divine’s ghostwriter? After, he quipped, “God came to me in my office. He appeared as a burning couch, and He spoke out of the burning couch and He said, ‘I hear you’re looking for a new job; I’m looking to write my memoirs, and I need some comedy punching up, because I’m not very funny.’ ” Javerbaum admits he did feel some pressure to accept God’s proposal — actually to prevent some heavenly smiting, so “it was an offer I didn’t feel I could refuse.”

And so Javerbaum got the Almighty a book deal (Javerbaum’s 2011 tome, “The Last Testament:  A Memoir by God”), which turned into a Twitter account (@TheTweetofGod, which had nearly 2.3 million followers before he shut it down in mid-February with the final tweet: “Out of here. Done with you.”). And now there’s the play, which premiered on Broadway with Jim Parsons last year.

OK, Javerbaum admits, so the aforementioned story isn’t actually how his God writings went down. In the beginning — actually five years ago — Javerbaum was inspired to write “The Last Testament” (now published under the title “An Act God.”) “I’ve always been interested in religion — just sort of seeing what makes people do bad things to each other,” he said. “But one day, I remember I had a moment where I just thought that no one, as far as I knew, had done a book about a parody of God and the Old Testament, and there’s really funny stuff to be mined there. It’s like low-hanging, forbidden fruit.

“The character of God as presented in the Old Testament is very cruel in a funny way. From my point of view as a writer, I just kept the same God voice that appears in that part of the Bible — which is angry, unjust, very crotchety — the cosmic equivalent of a guy on your lawn going, ‘Get off my lawn!’ ” Javerbaum said, sounding just like Jon Stewart doing his Borsht Belt Jewish comic style shtick on “The Daily Show.”

“He’s also a funny archetype — an angry old man, like George Costanza’s father on ‘Seinfeld.’ ’’

Accordingly, God onstage riffs on the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, adding that Lot went back to lick his wife after she turned into a pillar of salt, which was the first time he had done so in 27 years of marriage. 

When the archangel Michael (who appears along with the angel Gabriel as the two other characters in the play) asks the Creator where He was during the Holocaust, and on 9/11, and in the making of the last five Adam Sandler movies, God responds that He made mankind in His image, and, “I am an ass—-.” The Creator recognizes what a jerk He is as He recalls how He asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.

The story fits the classic coming-into-self-awareness arc of the typical celebrity memoir, Javerbaum said. Not that God makes any real effort to change His curmudgeonly ways over the course of the play.

It’s a harsh assessment, but, Javerbaum said, “You should take a look at what I left out of the play.” In the Bible, after Lot’s wife dies, for example, Lot’s daughters get him drunk, have sex with him and get impregnated. “What’s that doing in the Bible?” Javerbaum asks, incredulously.

In his book “The Last Testament,” “I have a lot of good jokes and points of view about Moses,” Javerbaum continued. “The overall take is that Moses led a small cult into the desert to start a new world — so Moses is Charles Manson,” he said. “He got a ragtag group of people together and committed Helter Skelter.”

Some aspects of the show seem as if they could have come right out of the left-wing politics of “The Daily Show”: God is pissed off, for example, about people saying they have a “God-given” right to own guns — since where in the Bible does it ever refer to AK-47s? God, moreover, says He “f—— hates Sarah Palin, and archangel Michael (David Josefsberg) wonders why Donald Trump is allowed to roam the world.

From left: James Gleason, Sean Hayes and David Josefsberg in “An Act of God.” Photo by Jim Cox

“I do think, looking back, in all seriousness, that there’s probably one or two many jokes in the play that are the classic, usual targets of liberals,” Javerbaum said.

However, he takes some stands that, however liberal, are his own. For one, God in the play also goes out of His way to say, several times, that He is not homophobic.  Gay, straight, black, white — everyone is smitable in His eyes. “I couldn’t bear to have God be anti-gay, even ironically,” Javerbaum said. Equal rights for gays and lesbians, “happens to be the issue right now, in which people are trying to have that become a normal, accepted thing, and I support that. And the fact that religion is used so much [to condemn homosexuals] is truly upsetting and unfortunate.”

So far, only gay performers have portrayed God: Parsons (“The Big Bang Theory”) on Broadway and Hayes (“Will & Grace”) in Los Angeles. But, Javerbaum insists, that’s not a prerequisite. “The part is not limited to likable, late 30s, early 40s gay sitcom actors,” he said. “God can be a woman, black, Hispanic, anybody. I want the show to be different in each incarnation.”

Javerbaum describes religion in his childhood home as “suburban Judaism”: You celebrate the major holidays, go to religious school for a few years, have a bar mitzvah and “that’s the degree of your immersion.” He doesn’t remember his bar mitzvah Torah portion, only that he wrote a speech that “I’m sure at the time I thought was funny.”

He did have great respect for his childhood rabbi, Jehiel Orenstein of Temple Beth-El in Maplewood, N.J., who “was a very spiritual, sympathetic, intelligent man, regardless of whether he was a rabbi or not,” Javerbaum recalled. It’s not that Orenstein made sense of the Bible for Javerbaum; he was just a great guy.

The rabbi officiated at Javerbaum’s wedding some years ago, which incorporated all the usual Jewish traditions. “We did the basic stuff because, why not?” Javerbaum recalled. “My wife and I are both Jews; it was just a ritual anyway, so I was fine with it.”

When asked if he and his wife are raising their two daughters, now 8 and 11, with any particular kind of spirituality, Javerbaum promptly replied: “Television. That’s been everybody’s God for half a century now.”

Javerbaum majored in government at Harvard University, where he also wrote for the Harvard Lampoon. A friend from high school later got him a job writing for the satirical publication The Onion, and he worked as a scribe on “Late Show With David Letterman” before the same friend, by then the head writer on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” hired him as a writer on that show in 1999.  

Of Stewart, Javerbaum said, “The more I got to know him, the more I saw what a decent, honorable, fair fellow and great boss and collaborator he was.

“I think our world views are extremely similar; mine probably molded to his very much on the show. I’ve aspired to be as reasonable and rational as he is.”

Javerbaum and Stewart also shared a perspective on Judaism: “Jon does have some ambivalent feelings about being Jewish, as I do, but he’s also a very proud Jew,” Javerbaum said. “And he’d always do his accent of the Jewish old man — that was a go-to comedy voice for Jon.”

Javerbaum was also quite involved in Stephen Colbert’s recurring “Daily Show” skit “This Week in God,” where “We’d explore religious news stories, and just anybody that struck us as hypocritical,” Javerbaum said.  “We’d do things about the Vatican or a corrupt synagogue or mosque or whatever.”

But when Javerbaum began writing “An Act of God” a few years ago, he knew he would eschew treading on the toes of Islam. “It would’ve been a lot more controversial had I gone there, and it also didn’t seem necessary, because I wasn’t going for that audience. I was going for an audience of Christians and Jews,” he said.  And he realizes he’s preaching to the converted — religious extremists of any faith aren’t going to see the play.  

Has anyone condemned Javerbaum for his blasphemous show? “Nope,” said Javerbaum, who is also a Tony-nominated lyricist whose work includes the Broadway musical “Cry-Baby.”

Javerbaum said he researched the book and the play by rereading the Torah and also the four gospels of the New Testament; the play is quite respectful when it deals with the Christian savior. “I was just going by the Book,” Javerbaum said. “The character of Jesus is portrayed as a really good guy, a really nice fellow. He seemed to care about other people and to have a message of peace and love. And he seemed to genuinely not want you to judge other people too much — which has nothing to do with how Christianity is practiced in reality. I respect Jesus’ character as portrayed in the New Testament. My take in the play was that Jesus died not for peoples’ sins, but for His Father’s.

“I think when you go after Jesus, people get very upset,” he added. “But it’s different when you go after God, because he’s so abstract and the fact that he’s such a d—.” 

The Deity hasn’t deigned to comment to Javerbaum on the play. “I’ve gotten neither feedback nor — and this is far more important — royalties from God for the show,” the author joked. “God is extremely cheap and when He does pay, He still pays in shekels, which is extremely inconvenient.”

For tickets and information about “An Act of God” at the Ahmanson Theatre, click here.

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