Faith, Media & Culture

Faith, Media & Culture


A funny thing happened on the way to Jesus: “Seinfeld” writer Tom Leopold shares his heartfelt and inspiring faith journey + Thank you, Meshach Taylor + “Supernanny” on UP

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture

So, there’s this convert…I first met Tom Leopold, the accomplished sitcom writer (Seinfeld, Cheers, Will & Grace), comedian and host of Entertaining Truth on SiriusXM’s Catholic Channel (Ch. 129/Thursdays, 1 PM ET) right after he was honored with The Christopher Spirit Award earlier this year in New York City. The prize is given to those lives reflect the Christopher motto (and Chinese proverb) that “It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” Listening to Tom’s acceptance speech, I was impressed by his remarkable combination of sharp wit and genuine humility as he described how his daughter Gussie’s struggle with anorexia brought him to religious faith and, ultimately, the Catholic Church.

When I recently had the opportunity to speak with him again, he elaborated on his journey from Seinfeld to Christ. I’m happy to report that his previous friendships — and his sense of humor — survived the transition.

JWK: It was great to meet you at the Christopher event.

TOM LEOPOLD: Likewise. That was a great night for me, boy.

JWK: How is your daughter Gussie doing?

TL: She’s doing fine, thank God. She’s doing so much better. She’ll start college in September. We’re at a good place. I don’t want to hex it.

JWK: It must have been a great feeling to be honored that night in that way.

TL: Yeah. I thought I was gonna lose it there. I was so moved by it. It was such a surprise and, as I said in my speech, I don’t feel deserving of it but I’ll try to be worthy of it forever now.

JWK: When did you learn that you’d be receiving the award?

TL: Oh, gosh. Only about two or three weeks before. Father Jonathan (Morris) emailed me. I was bowled over.

JWK: So, for our Beliefnet readers, can you recount again how your conversion experience came about?

TL: I was raised in a Jewish family — culturally Jewish — morally, ethically and humorously Jewish. I’m one of three boys. We were never bar mitzvahed. We never really went to (religious) school or anything. So, we had a Christmas tree. We went out of our way to eat pork. We were very thrilled and glad to be Jewish — very proud of it. My wife is born Catholic. Our kids went to an Episcopal school in Greenwich Village, a wonderful school.

JWK: How long have you been married?

TL: Oh, Gosh. 26 years, 27 in in October.

JWK: Was your wife a practicing Catholic when you got married?

TL: Not really. She’s more now (since) I became Catholic.

JWK: So, basically, she was culturally Catholic and you were culturally Jewish.

TL: Exactly right, good way to put it. Our Gussie is 19 now. When she was about 12, she really was hit with this really terrible, life-threatening eating disorder. (Despite) all the doctors and their therapies, there were just no answers. She was blacking out in the streets (from) malnutrition, in one hospital after another, one emergency room after another.

JWK: It was anorexia?

TL: Yeah. We really feared for her life. It (was) a pretty terrible six or seven years. So, at one point, she was in this one hospital — this wonderful hospital, a Christian therapy hospital called Remuda Ranch. We flew her out there. They had a very high success rate. We got her out there to Arizona. We were New Yorkers going through the desert for the first time which was a pretty weird experience. It was like being on another planet. We get her there and we drop her off. We had to leave her. For four months we wouldn’t be able to see her. She was in terrible shape.

JWK: You couldn’t see her for all that time?

TL: Yeah, that’s how their therapy works. We didn’t see her again until Christmas Eve…When we did see her (on) Christmas Eve…we were all decorating our little dude ranch motel room with Christmas stuff…The only store still open in town was a dollar story, the Tiffany’s of Wickenburg (AZ). It was a very sad time.

That night we went to bed. I took the upper bunk. (My wife) Barbara won the toss. I found myself praying — really for the first time in my life. I just prayed “Lord, I can’t make it alone. If you’re there please give me a sign.”…It was the closest I had ever come to breaking — not just breaking down but breaking.

The next morning, I got up at four in the morning and I go out into the desert…The sun was just coming up. It was like Biblical. The only thing missing was the heavenly messenger — and then this guy pulls up, this 77-year-old ex-marine. This is (after) I prayed for the first time. This guy comes out of nowhere on a motorcycle with deer antlers for handlebars. He pulls up to me, pops a wheelie and he just starts talking to me! You know, he’s got all these bandages on! He’s all bandaged up and he’s still driving a bike through the desert! And he just goes into this hour rap. I’m from New York. (I’m thinking) this is one more crazy guy. I’m used to that stuff. (But) he was very charismatic, this guy, very intense. He said that he had married a woman named Shepherd. Now, this was Christmas morning, the Lord’s birthday! She brought him to Jesus at age 33. I hadn’t said hardly anything to this guy! He guns his engine. Now, the sun’s coming up behind him like a halo and he says “God is watching you.” And he peels off!

I had been kind of primed for this in a way because all these things I no longer think of as coincidences were happening to me. The Christmas before I went with my daughter to the Radio City Christmas show…I was so moved by the Nativity scene. Gussie was really sick then. I was watching that and Gussie leaned against me. I could feel how this disease was shrinking her, you know? I had this kind of epiphany where I really for the first time…began to really heavily identify with the Virgin Mary. There she was at the Crucifixion of her son and she could do nothing for him. That’s a little bit how I felt.

…Then a few weeks after that…I went to see this terrible movie called The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mindwith my wife. I hated it and I couldn’t stand it. I said “Well, I’m going to watch the remake of Walking Tall which was playing at the other theater at the Cineplex. That movie was ending. The only movie about to start was Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Granted, we all believe Mel has took one too many blows to the head in Braveheart but, still, I like his movies. The scene at the end where Jim Caviezel — who’s my favorite movie Jesus — is in the tomb after the Crucifixion, down on all fours, like runner waiting for the start (of a race). And he (goes) out. It just threw me, man. I was just so moved by it.

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TL: And then this stuff happened at Christmas in this desert.

So, we leave Gussie. We had this wonderful visit with her. She seemed to be improving, somewhat. A couple of weeks later we were back in New York. Gussie was due home soon but we were still worried…I went to see my best friend — who happens to be Paul Schaffer from the Letterman show.  We’ve been friends for forty years. Every week we go out (when) our wives let us out of the house.

Now, we’re walking down the street — and this is a true story. A guy comes up to me for money. You know how it is in the city — every other corner there’s a guy with a paper cup. One time I actually put a couple of coins in a guy’s cup and coffee splashed up. It was a construction worker on a break. The guy almost killed me!

So, there was this guy (asking for money) and I said “There’s a deli up there. How about if I just take you in and I’ll buy you whatever you want?” You know how it is. Usually when you say that the guy (takes off) because they want the money for drugs or alcohol! But this guy’s like all excited, right? You know, for a bum he was kind of nattily dressed. We go in there and the deli counter’s closed but, one the way in, he’s giving me his whole order like I’m going to make him his sandwich — ham and cheese, provolone, whatever. But the deli counter was closed. He was disappointed. I said “Look, man, just pick out some stuff (from the store). I’ll pay for it.” He said “Look, just give me three bucks. I’ll go to McDonald’s.” I figure at this point what the hell am I doing? I don’t need to take this guy on as a project. You know, I got enough trouble.

So, I give him the three bucks and he’s standing there and he just looks at me. His whole demeanor changes. This is a true story. Paul was there with me. He looks at me and he goes “Thanks, Tom.” Now, at no point in this meeting did Paul ever say my name or did I ever say my name. In fact, Paul never calls me “Tom.” He calls me “Leo.” Paul and I just looked at each other…It was really strange. By the time I looked back him, he was out of the store. I can’t catch up to him…So that kind of freaked me out.

JWK: So, what did you take from that?

TL: I didn’t know what to take from it! Now, I think it was a sign, actually. I told my wife and we were both a little freaked out. There was that thing in the desert, there’s this.

Now, Gussie was due home and I had seen this priest on TV, a really good-looking guy. I didn’t have my glasses on so at first I thought was watching a remake of The Thorn Birds or something but it was Father Jonathan. He looks like an actor they’d hire to play (a priest) in a TV movie but it was really him. He was on talking about this book he had just written called The Promise (about) how one can find grace through suffering.  Suffering I had down. Grace, I needed a little help.

So, I get the book — and it’s got a big picture of him on the back of it. I pretty much read the whole thing in one day. Gussie was due back in like a week and we were very anxious — happy but anxious. The next day (after reading the book), I go down to see this psychic…I go down to Mulberry Street on the lower east side to meet this guy Frank…who was a psychic who when I was 22 years old predicted my entire future. He said you’re going to be a writer. I became a writer…I go down to see him and I think maybe he’ll say something about Gussie. You know, (that) she’ll get better. We were so desperate. We were high for a week over a fortune cookie that said “You’re a lucky man”….That’s how desperate we were.

I didn’t know at the time — because I wasn’t Catholic — that you’re not supposed to go to psychics. This guy’s a wonderful guy and he was sweet but he didn’t see anything about Gussie. But he did say “Don’t go in a hot air balloon — ever.” That’s the first thing he says to me! Now the joke is a week before when we’re taking Gussie back to the hospital — when we had her for that day — we’re driving back. It’s just before sunset. I see a guy giving hot air balloon rides. I think maybe it will be a thrill for her. We’ll go. I come up to the guy and they guy says “No, it’s too dark. We’re not going up.” So, Frank got my attention with that. But he didn’t see anything about Gussie…So, I was a little depressed.

As I walked down the steps of this townhouse, at that moment, a black car pulls up and a young good-looking priest gets out of the back. It’s Father Jonathan. I had just gotten his book and, of course, on the back of his book it says he works at the Vatican in Italy. So, he gets out of the car and I go “Oh, my gosh! That’s that guy on the book!”  I wave him over and he comes over.  I said “Father Jonathan, I have your book!” I was looking at his picture that morning. I had his book on my nightstand. He comes over and for some reason — I don’t why it came out of me — I just said “Do you think you might have time to talk to me some time?” He said “Well, that depends? Did you pay full price for the book?” No, he didn’t say that. I made that up. I say that in my show and it gets a laugh. He said “You can find me right here. I’ve just been transferred here.” He turns around and points to old St. Patrick’s Basilica on Mulberry Street, directly across from the psychic’s (place). Now, I had been on Mulberry Street a million times (but) it was like it just appeared there. It was pretty freaky.

So, I met with him and he was wonderful. I was nervous meeting him because I’m not used to talking to men of God. I’m used to working with a lot of TV stars who think they’re God. Father Jonathan has this amazing quality about him that the reality of God is just a foregone conclusion. There’s not even a discussion. I began to tell him all these things that were happening to me — you know, the old mystical guy in the desert, the sandwich bum knowing my name. He says “Well, there are no coincidences. God has a plan for all of us. There’s a supernatural reality”…I met with him again and I had all these questions (about Catholicism). He says “Why don’t you just take a couple of classes?”…I did and learned more about Judaism than I had ever known. And I began to think “I’m home.” It began to be absolutely clear that I was on this path and this is where I was supposed to be.

Basically, a not-so-short story long, it just made absolute sense to me. I felt that this was a gift given to me — that all these things led me to it.  Father Jonathan really brought me into faith. It was amazing for him to be the one presenting me with this award with Gussie (there). It was an amazing journey. And that (first meeting) was four years ago. It’s really changed my life.  Now, I’m on the radio with Father Leo Patalinghug on Sirius on a show called Entertaining Truth.  It’s a most wonderful blessing.

JWK: Tell me about Entertaining Truth.

TL: It’s on SiriusXM Radio on The Catholic Channel. I’m on with Father Leo Patalinghug who’s a wonderful, funny and very interesting guy. It’s a weekly show that (replays) a few times during the week too…Then Cardinal Dolan — Bishop Dolan, at the time, I guess — said to Father Jonathan “Look, you’re going to take over The Catholic Channel” because (Father Jonathan) is such a great media guy. So, (Father Jonathan) says “Tom, I want you to be on the radio on a show with Father Leo.” I said “Father, I’ve been a Catholic for like two hours! I don’t know anything!” He said “No, that’s what I want. I want you to ask questions and just be yourself and be funny.” You know, I’ve been a comedy writer 40 years. So, I did! Now, it’s about a year and a half in and I love it!

JWK: And the show is hour long?

TL: It’s an hour long.

JWK: How do you spend that hour?

TL: We just talk about different things.  (On a recent show) we talked about Pentecost and the Gifts of the Holy Spirit…I ask these questions and I genuinely am interested in hearing (the answers). I’m not afraid because…I’m still new enough not to be embarrassed. Even lifetime Catholics don’t know the answers to why this? what about that? why do we do that? I (offer) my own weird, crazy twist to it — like we were talking about the Gifts of the Holy Spirit for Pentecost and we asked our callers to call in about what gifts you’d like. I said I’d love to have X-ray vision. So, that’s the kind of thing I bring to it.  I’m funny and a little bit irreverent.  (Father Leo and I) are a pretty good match. I just love doing it. I meet all these people and our show’s just kinda taken off. It’s just wonderful.

JWK: Have your friends from show business been supportive of embrace of faith?

TL: They have been. As a matter of fact, Paul Shaffer, who I mentioned, a few days before my Baptism and bringing brought into the Church, threw a Tom Leopold Absolutely Last Day as a Jew roast for me at Sammy’s Roumanian Restaurant. It was like a Friars Club roast.  All my friends roasted me — Chevy Chase, Harry Shearer came as a rabbi performing an intervention and Paul had hired a choir and we sang Oh Happy Day at the end. All my friends teased me but they had known what suffering we had been going through with our girl and they were just so happy I found Someone to help me — the Lord. My family too has been wonderful about it — even my mom. My mom said “Alright, you want to be Catholic. If it makes you call me more often, fine.”

JWK: Do you have any brothers and sisters?

TL: I have three brothers. They were all great about it. Very supportive.

JWK: Tell me about your one-man show — A Comedy Writer Finds God. You perform the show primarily at churches and other organizations?

TL: Yes — churches and other organizations like the Knights of Columbus…I love doing that. It goes over really well. It’s based on my story, what I just told you. It’s about an hour and fifteen minutes. It’s a funny thing. When I first started doing it I thought “Is this going to appeal to people?” It’s so interesting. All different age groups — hip people, not-hip people, Jewish people — all laugh at the same places and all kinda cry at the same places. It’s almost my little apostolate to get all grandiose about it. 

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JWK: Tell me some of those sitcom episodes that you wrote that people reading this might remember.

TL: I wrote the Bobu Bhatt episode of Seinfeld where there was little cafe and this guy Bobu Bhatt says “Jerry, you’re a very bad man!” That’s probably one of the most famous of all (that I wrote).

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TL: (Other episodes included) the Drake’s Cakes episode (and) the Cheever Letters (among others).

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JWK: You also have a new TV show called The Kumars. What’s that all about?

TL: I just got back from doing that a few months ago. That’s a really interesting show that we did for ITV over in England about this East Indian family that has a talk show. This guy does a talk show out of his convenience store. All the biggest stars in England come on it. I brought Chevy Chase over to do one. Twiggy and Daniel Radcliffe (of) Harry Potter came on.

JWK: It’s a scripted show?

TL: It’s a weird thing because it’s kinda semi-scripted. The regulars all have kind of a script but they have to improvise because the stars don’t have any idea what they’re going to be asked. So, it’s kind of fun. It’s very original.

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JWK: Do you find there to be a difference between British and American humor?

TL: Not so much…I love British humor. I grew up loving the Goon shows, Peter Sellers, Monty Python and all that stuff…I kind of was already in love with their stuff anyway. Funny is funny. All families are funny in the same way.

JWK: By the way, I was on your website and your video with Paul Shaffer is very funny.

TL: Thanks.

JWK: Do you stay in touch with Jerry Seinfeld?

TL: Occasionally, but not too much. (laughs) He’s in another world — a more lucrative world than mine.

JWK: So between your one-man show, your website, your SiriusXM show and The Kumars, you have a pretty busy schedule. Is there anything else on your professional plate?

TL: We’re putting together a theater thing of a fake variety show, my friend Bill Persky and I. We’re doing it at a theater here in New York. You remember those old variety shows?

JWK: Yeah.

TL: We want to do a fake one where we create all the acts ourselves. We did a one-shot a couple of years ago as a theater production called Tom Leopold Presents. I’m not quite sure when we’ll have that up and going but we’re writing it now.

JWK: You’ll be the host of this?

TL: Yeah, I’ll be like the Ed Sullivan.

JWK: I guess it will be like a spoof of Ed Sullivan.

TL: Totally. A parody of a variety show. We’re going to have women in burkas tap dancing (with) the Taliban.

JWK: That could work on television.

TL: Oh, yeah. That would be okay with me.

____

A pro and a nice guy. That’s what I’m told about Meshach Taylor, the actor best known for his roles on the hit sitcoms Designing Women and Dave’s World, who died of cancer this past weekend at the age of 67. Besides those hit show’s Taylor also played the disarmingly dastardly villain on a 2011-2012 TV pilot presentation I co-wrote with Mike Jue called Photo Finish.  Because of other commitments, I wasn’t able to be on the Los Angeles set when the show was shot but I heard so much about him that I felt like I knew him. And what I heard was that he was a truly nice and classy guy who was willing to take a chance on an offbeat project from a pair of unknown writers. For that, I’m certainly grateful. I also think he did a great job with the role. God bless him.

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_____

Supernanny‘s Blow UP Bash. That’s the umbrella title UP has bestowed on the Supernanny marathon beginning tomorrow (July 4th) and running through Sunday. The family-friendly cable network has licensed the rights to 116 episodes of the former ABC reality show. On Monday, the channel will begin airing back-to-back episodes at 7:00 PM and 8:00 PM (ET).

In case you’re unfamiliar with the show, each one-hour episode features “SupernannyJo Frost working miracles for desperate parents who are struggling with badly-behaved children. By dispensing practical, no-nonsense rules, she transforms their children’s wild ways and brings families back from the brink. Frost gives parents pointers on how to tackle any problem area — be it mealtime, bath time, bedtime, bedwetting, homework, sibling rivalry, aggressive behavior, and other challenges.

Frost, a former professional nanny, became a global household name through the success of her hit television shows, including Supernanny, Extreme Parental Guidance and last summer’s Family S.O.S. with Jo Frost.  Supernanny aired for six seasons on ABC, from 2005 – 2011.

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Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11



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