26 August 2016

Memories of the Short Lived Sit Com "Jesus in High School"

Recently I wrote about my experience in the short lived sit com, “Hey it’s Klaus!” Writing about it brought back a lot of memories including my brief association with another failed and controversial sitcom, “Jesus in High School.” Jesus in High School aired on ABC during the 1981-1982 television season to decidedly mixed reviews. It drew the ire of Christian groups and atheists alike.

Like, Hey it’s Klaus, Jesus is not available on DVD and is not shown on any nostalgia channels and is impossible to find on You Tube. It’s rumored that prints in pristine condition were recently found and negotiations to release them are currently progress. I could find no corroboration for this.

As the title suggests the show was about the son of god attending high school. In the only season that aired he was a sophomore.  The shows creators, Lyle Bach and Randy Fielding, had hopes for a three year run and then four years of Jesus in College. It is a miracle worthy of the great redeemer himself that their project got through one season.

Christians, particularly Catholics, thought the show blasphemous as it told stories about Jesus that did not exist in the bible and worst of all played them for laughs. ABC was inundated with hate mail, angry phone calls and even bomb threats. Jewish viewers bristled at the show’s depiction of a figure that ran counter to their beliefs and atheists called for equal air time for a show about pagans.

Christ was played by heartthrob Wendell Kelly. To the dismay of many he was a tall blonde haired blue eyed young man (he was actually 22 years old). Many African Americans and theological experts pointed out that it was infinitely more likely that Jesus had dark features. The producers hoped that they’d be able to capitalize on Kelly’s popularity derived from his time with rock group, Chocolate Sunshine that had only recently broken up. Kelly had been lead guitarist and a back up vocalist but his good looks and ready smile made him a favorite among teeny boppers.

The show’s story lines all centered around the ups and downs the Prince of Peace would have had as an otherwise typical teenager in a typical high school. To be able to play the show for the most laughs and have it relatable to American audiences, the high school was oddly like your average American high school of the late 20th century. There were school dances, pep rallies, student council, cliques, nerds and bullies.

The Messiah had several friends on the show but Todd (all the other characters had, for inexplicable reasons, American first names) was his best buddy and was forever encouraging the Lord of Lords to use his powers. Todd was played by a young actor just starting out by the name of Derrick Duncan who, as if I need to tell you, is now one of Hollywood’s biggest stars and a two time Oscar winner.

My recollection of the show was that while it was unquestionably odd, it was also sidesplittingly funny. I recall one episode that took place around the time of parent teacher conferences and the big question for our main character was whether Mary would be accompanied by Joseph or the almighty himself. Of course Todd and everyone else was encouraging JC to have the Creator attend. Being omniscient, God was well aware of the situation and ultimately insisted that JC’s earthly father “rep the family.” The maker was never seen on the show but frequently heard. (He was voiced by Tony Randall.)

In another episode Jesus and his buddies were having a party and concluded that drinking some alcohol would liven things up. No one had an ID so his friends coaxed  The Messiah into turning water into wine. Naturally our hero got in big trouble with his folks upon arriving at home in an advanced state of intoxication. Later in the episode his heavenly father had words with him too. But it was all done — successfully I might add — for laughs.

A two part episode concerned Jesus trying to find a date for the school dance. It may not surprise you to know that his crush was one Mary Magdalene. Todd and friends warned JC that she had “a reputation” for “fooling around.” But the Holy Redeemer was undeterred and despite warnings of committing social suicide, MM was, for a few episodes, his girlfriend.

There were running gags on the show about people saying goddamn it or Jesus Christ! And our hero saying “hey, that’s my dad you’re talking about” or “yeah, whattaya want?”

Believe it or not there was a special Christmas show replete with jokes about what a bummer it was that Christmas and The Messiah's birthday landed on the same day. The savior took the jibes good naturally and even sang Jingle Bell Rock with his friends at the school's Christmas talent show.

Amidst all the laughs there was one episode that included some drama. One of JC’s friends, Kyle, took a spill off the gym room and died. The gang all asked Jesus if he could do anything for their pal. “Well, I guess I could raise him from the dead.” He offered. “You can do that?” his friends exclaimed simultaneously. “I did it with our cat once but I think its the same basic idea." It took awhile but Jesus did it and there stood Kyle a little dazed but otherwise no worse for the wear. Everyone patted JC on the back and Kyle gave him a hug. Later, on his walk home, The Prince of Peace’s heavenly father read him the riot act telling him to “save that stuff for later” adding “and stop healing the lame, especially when all they’ve got is a common cold.” A tearful Jesus apologized. But his pop wasn’t through “and I don’t think its fair that you use your powers to win every damn fishing competition!”

In another episode Jesus made the basketball team. Despite goading from teammates and coaches alike,  he refused to influence the outcome of games by miraculous methods. When Bethlehem High beat their rivals on a last second shot from long range, the Holy Redeemer insisted that it was legit, then he winked at the camera and the closing credits rolled.

Jesus in High School might have fended off its harshest critics if it had taken Christian dogma more seriously and turned its shows into mini sermons featuring moral lessons. Some viewers bristled at the way Jesus in High School subverted history. But the show’s producers were more interested in laughs and in fact the show was genuinely funny — to those who weren’t Catholic, fundamentalist or otherwise strict and serious about the bible or history.

Eventually of course there were boycotts of sponsors and US Senators decrying the show and pressure from network executives. Somehow it made it through a full season but there was no question that it would not be renewed.

Most of the cast and crew went on to other TV ventures with the exceptions of the previously mentioned Duncan (who refuses questions about the show during any of his rare interviews) and two others. The star, Wendell Kelly went back to his roots in rock and roll forming the popular ‘80s band the Glam Whammers. After a series of hit albums and sold out concert tours, Kelly suddenly left the group and went back for another try at acting. All he managed was a string of supporting roles or guest appearances on TV sitcoms and dramas. In 1994 Kelly died in a botched erotic auto asphyxiation attempt. Mary Magdalene had been played by Lauren O’Hara who went on to star in the wildly popular sit com “Glenda Goes to College” for its entire ten year run. From there she segued into politics and is, of course, today a US representative from Florida and, ironically, a devout born again Christian. She has publicly lambasted Jesus in High School and apologize for her role in it. Indeed she has been about the only person to mention the show publicly in the past 30 years.

At the beginning of this post I mentioned that I had a brief association with Jesus in High School. Well if you read my piece on Hey it’s Klaus you might recall that I mentioned having a fling with the Senegalese script girl. By the time the Jesus show was on TV she was an assistant director. We’d kept in touch over the years and after she broke up with a boyfriend we got back together. I used to hang out on the Jesus set and a few times I was used as an extra. I once had a few lines when I appeared as a substitute teacher. In that episode I had to tell Jesus that “no, your disciples can’t follow you into this class if they’re not on the roll.” “But gee Mr. Terwilliger, our regular teacher let’s em come in,” the Savior replied. When everyone in the class verified it, my character relented.

I’d love to see some of the old episodes but imagine they wont be making an appearance anytime soon, if at all. It’s a shame really, I mean the concept alone was brilliant. Maybe something like Netflix or Amazon or HBO will take a chance on a reboot. Here’s hoping.

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