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Monday, December 5, 2011

Oh My God!

Do you watch iChannel? Do you even get iChannel? If so, a new series begins tonight that's right up my alley, and maybe yours, too. It's called Oh My God! And if you don't get iChannel, I believe you'll be able to watch episodes after they air at I spoke to creator/host Tevya Heller, a New York-based, Canadian-born comedian, about his baby last week and the interview follows. The concept is brilliant. As an old guy, my problem is with the presentation. I hate MTV-style fast-action crap. Give me substance. A stationary camera with longer takes doesn't mean the product will be boring any more than a moving camera with fast cuts will make the product exciting. But I'm a geezer. As Tevya says, this show is aimed at teenagers. I'm not sure teenagers will appreciate the subject matter, but I sure can with or without the fast-cutting MTVification of a weighty subject matter. But we hash it all out and discuss the pros and cons of religion:

Tevya Heller – November 29, 2011

Guy MacPherson: You’re searching for God.

Tevye Heller: Yes.

GM: Aren’t we all.

TH: Apparently.

GM: Has the show aired yet?

TH: The show is debuting on Monday, December 5th at 8:30.

GM: On which station?

TH: In Canada it’s iChannel.

GM: And will it be in other countries?

TH: The show’s actually being sold all over the world. And within the next six months, I believe, it should be in about ten countries.

GM: What’s your background?

TH: Comedian, producer. I own a production company called Go To Heller and we create and produce multi-platform content. I also develop formats. Are you familiar with what a format is?

GM: Not in this context, I don’t think.

TH: American Idol is a format. So there’s American Idol, Canadian Idol, Australian Idol. Or Dancing with the Stars is a format. All these different countries have their own versions with their local celebrities, if you will. So I create formats that I sell internationally. So I do a number of things. This show, Oh My God, I’m also the creator.

GM: What’s the look of the show?

TH: It has a very MTV vibe to it. It’s targeted to an audience between the ages of 11 and 19. Ideally a family will watch it together. It’s really engaging for everyone, but it’s really a teen show. So it moves really quick, very quick cuts, terrific broadcast design and sound design. It’s a really fun, fast-moving reality show. It’s actually The Simple Life meets Touched by an Angel. I’m just way funnier than Paris Hilton.

GM: You’re a stand-up in Toronto?

TH: In New York. I’m based out of New York City.

GM: What have you done in stand-up?

TH: I perform at the Comic Strip in New York but primarily now I’m focused on writing so I have a number of shows in different phases of development and production. So my comedy’s really geared towards the shows that I produce.

GM: But you’re Canadian, right?

TH: Yup. I was born in Montréal and I lived there until I was 18 and then I moved to New York City.

GM: And when was that?

TH: That was a little over ten years ago.

GM: So you took to it. And it took to you.

TH: I’m not sure how well you know New York. I know it’s quite far from British Columbia. When I moved there, it was really, really hard. It was much harder than I had anticipated so I was really poor. I mean, I was so poor that I had to wear shoes that don’t fit-poor. And really all I had was my faith and my ambition. So when I had first moved out there I very much believed in God. I had God in my life. And every night I would pray to God to please help me, to give me a sign, a sandwich, anything. And [I got] nothing and that’s really why I lost my faith because I felt that if God is not there in your darkest hour, if God is not there when you really, really, really, really need him to be, then what’s this whole religion thing anyway. This was a little over ten years ago and in the last ten years things have changed. My career is doing well, thank goodness, but spiritually not so much. And I started to miss the sense of community that religion gives you. But because I grew up in such a devout Jewish household and I had studied the Torah as a kid, I knew that Judaism did not have the answers that I was seeking. But maybe Islam does. Maybe Christianity does. Maybe Wicca does. So I decided I’m gonna give God a second chance. I’m gonna embed myself in all these other religions and see if they have the pathway to God that I’m seeking.

GM: I assume you’ve wrapped the season.

TH: We wrapped the first season and we’re starting the second season. The response has been really, really positive. As I said before, the executive producer now is in Europe selling the show and he just met with the distributor. The show may be brought into India in addition to the other countries so far. So it’s pretty exciting because the show was really created for an international audience. When you see the show, you’ll realize that it’s made for a viewer in Melbourne, Australia, or a viewer in Thailand or a viewer in Montréal, Québec. Everybody is interested in their relationship with God or learning about other religions, so we purposely created a show that will sell really well all over the world. And when you see it you’ll totally understand what I’m talking about.

GM: How are you searching for God?

TH: Every episode is a different religion. I embed myself in the communities. So if it’s Islam, I live with an Islam family, I go to mosque five times a day, I eat their food, I worship like them. I really live like them to see if maybe their religion and their customs and their traditions could offer me some insight that Judaism doesn’t. And so every episode’s a different religion and I get really, really deep in the religion. Obviously it’s a comedy because I’m a comedian, but it’s incredibly informative. And viewers will really come away from this show learning a lot.

GM: You say it’s a comedy, but religion is very serious to a lot of people. How do they feel about you coming in for a week? Are they a little wary that maybe you’re going to make fun of the religion?

TH: Everybody’s wary. The show is cast. I don’t cast the show; there’s producers that work on the show and they go out and they find these people to participate. But the tone of the show is extremely respectful. As you can imagine, networks were very, very concerned that we would go out and poke fun at all these different religions. I personally did not want to have a fatwa on my head, if you know what I mean. So we really take great pains in being respectful so if anyone ever looks stupid, it’s me. All the jokes are played on me. I’m always the fall guy; it’s never someone who’s in the religion. Do you get what I’m saying? So I come off looking like an idiot. The people that participate come off looking extremely smart and good. If anyone looks dumb, it’s me. And that’s done on purpose because we really want to handle and treat religion very carefully. But we also don’t want it to be boring. It all comes down to how you edit the show. It’s really how you handle it in post-production. Because the show is cut so quickly, there’s really never a scene that’s longer than a minute. So it really moves really fast but we deal with a lot of controversial issues. Like Hindus, for example, use a swastika. Did you know that?

GM: I knew somebody did but I wasn’t sure it was them.

TH: So as you can imagine, growing up Jewish, a swastika is probably one of the most repulsive images I can think of. So I was really taken aback that Hindus have a swastika emblazoned on almost everything. And what I learned, and what viewers learn in the show, is that the Nazis co-opted the swastika from Hindus. A swastika means love and peace and life.

GM: Yeah, it’s some kind of eternal thing. When I lived in Japan, I saw them all over the place and I had no idea. It’s also used in Buddhism.

TH: Correct. So I learn so much about all these different religions, and vicariously so does the viewer. But it’s really done in a really fun way.

GM: If each scene is no longer than a minute, how in depth are you getting? These are weighty topics.

TH: In each half-hour episode there’s always a narrative arc. It starts off me being an atheist who knows nothing about the religion. I usually attend a really big event, so if it’s a Jewish episode, they’ll throw a Bar Mitzvah for me; if it’s a Hindu episode, I’ll go to their temple and I’ll go to a huge party which will involve buying a special outfit and preparing special foods. So there’s really something that’s building as we move through the show. Because there’s so much information to process, you really could only have scenes that are a minute or two because there’s so much to get through, as far as the history and the info about the religion. So to answer your question, we get quite in depth.

GM: How many episodes were in the first season?

TH: The first season we weren’t sure what the reaction was going to be so they shot six. An order now for a reality show, regardless if it’s MTV or CTV, is usually eight. They’ll know by the second episode if your show is doing well and they’ll usually order maybe twelve or fourteen for the second round. We’re already in pre-production for season two and it looks like we’re going to do twelve or fourteen for season two.

GM: And you’re not going to run out of religions.

TH: There’s 150 religions out there. And I want to explore every single one of them. For me, the more abstract and different and bizarre the religion is, the more I’m excited. There are so many religions I’ve never even heard of so I think that would be so cool for a viewer. And you know what? I also think people who are in religious communities tend to be very insular looking. Just referring to my own conservative traditional Jewish environment. If you’re in a Jewish community, you’re very inward-looking. Everyone in your world is Jewish, you go to a Jewish school, you go to a kosher summer camp, you go to temple. I don’t know that many Jews who’ve gone to a mosque and worshipped with Muslims. And it’s made me such a richer person. I have such a great appreciation for Islam. The religion is actually incredibly beautiful. Before I did this, the only thing that I knew about Muslims was what I heard on the news. So I have great respect and great affection for Islam that I never had before because I didn’t know!

GM: (chuckles) Okay, you’re not going to get a fatwa. You’re bending over backwards here.

TH: Forget backwards, I’m in knots.

GM: What were the six religions you did in season one?

TH: Season one we did Islam, Wicca, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and atheism.

GM: How did you immerse yourself in atheism? Did you just go about your daily life?

TH: No. Atheism is a religion like every other religion. There are rituals, there’s belief.

GM: Disagree.

TH: Okay. Well, in the atheism episode we actually filmed this one on location. We flew up to Sudbury, Ontario, and we met this professor who is really well-respected. He’s an esteemed professor at Laurentian University and he’s created what’s called the God Helmet. And what this does is he’s able to put electrodes on your head and he’ll make you feel God. He’s been able to prove that the brain plays tricks on people. People say they feel God, they see God. It’s really just brain waves. So he was able to prove, in this episode, that he can manipulate your brain into feeling God. So as an atheist I wanted to feel God. It’s really cool because when he did this and put all these electrodes on I really felt something standing next to me but it was just him messing with my head. Trippy. Amazing television! You’re gonna freak out!

GM: I love this because I’m fascinated with religion. You say you were raised in a devout Jewish household. Did you ever feel God then? Or was it just your culture rather than a deep feeling?

TH: Nope. I absolutely believed in God. God was a huge part of my life. I would talk to God every single day. I would express my greatest hopes and wishes to God. I absolutely believed in God. God was a huge part of my life. My parents believe in God. It really wasn’t until I reached out to God and He wasn’t there for me that I said “Screw this” and I walked away. I was really, really, really, really at my wit’s end. I was in an incredibly dark place and I really needed God and He wasn’t there for me so I said I’m going to believe in myself instead. Over the last ten years I was worshipping at the altar of celebrity instead. And that was enough for me. I was hanging out in L.A. and New York and Toronto and travelling and making good money. And I didn’t care. I didn’t miss God. There was no place for God. And it really wasn’t until very recently that I started to miss community. And I’ve been thinking a lot about my mortality. And I’m thinking, gee, is there more than just being six feet under? So I thought I would give God a second chance.

GM: When this professor put that helmet on, and you felt something, was that the same feeling you had when you were younger? Or is it a totally new feeling?

TH: It was different. It was a much stronger feeling. I actually felt almost a spirit standing next to me. It was like God on steroids. It was incredibly wild.

GM: I guess your family is happy that you’re searching for something but how did they feel when you fell out of the religion?

TH: My parents are very conservative and very traditional and they believe in God. Obviously they would like me to think the way they do, but they’re very nice people and they’re very open-minded with regards to my search and my struggle. So I think they’re okay with it.

GM: They’re okay with your search and your struggle but during those ten years when you were worshipping at the altar of celebrity, were they less okay?

TH: You know what? It’s amazing how parents and children can dance around issues they don’t want to deal with. I didn’t go home for the holidays. I didn’t really want to be part of that. And so we just didn’t talk about it. That’s how we dealt with it.

GM: You didn’t go home for the holidays because it would have been a religious affair?

TH: Yeah. And they’re in Florida. But I really did not feel the need to worship Jewish holidays.

GM: I don’t know your take on Christmas, but I consider Christmas a non-religious holiday. Even when we were kids it was certainly not a religious holiday other than going to mass. There was no talk about what it meant in the religious world. So to me it’s just a day with presents and turkey and all that.

TH: Being in this business, I’ve always worked… You know, when you’re filming a show, you work regardless of what the day is. So Christmas really never held any importance for me because we film on Christmas. And quite honestly I find Christmas to be completely co-opted by industry. It’s really become about stuff.

GM: That’s what I love about it!

TH: Yeah. So I really never gave too much heed to Christmas. I love the time of the year, I like all the lights, I love the energy in the air and people seem to be jolly and happy and I love all of that. But growing up Jewish it’s kind of like growing up a vegetarian at an all-you-can-eat deli; I felt separate and apart. Christmas was always for somebody else. What do Jews do on Christmas? We go for Chinese food.

GM: In your first season, where do you go in your search for God?

TH: Season one we shot on location in Toronto. We were supposed to shoot it in Los Angeles but the producers felt that because Toronto is so multi-cultural it would be easier to cast the first season here. Season two we’re shooting all over the world. We’re going to be filming in India, we’re going to be filming in the United States, we’re going to Europe. It’s incredibly, incredibly exciting. I’m psyched. Everyone is really excited about this show, all the way from the producers to our distributors to the networks and all our partners. And it’s really exciting for me as a series creator to see an idea that I jotted down on a napkin become this, this show.

GM: And not just your idea but you get to be in it, too.

TH: Yeah. Well, if I don’t hire me, nobody will.

GM: As you’re preparing for a given week, are you thinking of the potential comedy that goes with it or do you really want answers?

TH: I absolutely want answers. It’s just my nature to ask questions. Like for example, when I was embedded with the Islam, I was with an Imam. Are you familiar with what an Imam is?

GM: Yup.

TH: Okay. So I said to him, “How come everyone’s named Mohammed?” Everyone’s named Mohammed! If you go somewhere, literally everyone is named Mohammed. And I didn’t mean that to be disrespectful but I found it kind of weird. And it’s really quite funny. So I ask very obvious things but it becomes quite funny. I also have a very conservative palette. And a lot of these religions have food that’s very unique to their religions. And I hate eating stuff that is super spicy or moves so I tend to have fun that way.

GM: These innocent child-like obvious questions are questions more adults need to ask.

TH: Well, adults are so afraid of offending each other. It really comes down to the essence of where you’re coming from. I have absolute respect for everybody. It’s not like I’m Jewish and everybody is wrong; I’m atheist. I don’t believe in anything so everybody is right. And if you are respectful to a religious tradition and history, then people will open up. And I was blown away at how open these communities were to me.

GM: The thing that I would have a problem with if I were in your shoes is I’d be very curious, like you, but I couldn’t help but challenge them on things I think are just fairy tales or ridiculous.

TH: And I do. I absolutely do. And I also found it really became confounding to me because all these religions contradict each other so who’s got it right? If there’s really just one God, how come every religion has a different pathway there? That really got me thinking. But I absolutely challenge all these religions. I mean, when I think about Moses going to Mt. Sinai and getting the Ten Commandments, I mean, you have to roll your eyes. So I go there. But it’s done in a way that is incredibly respectful to all these religions. The network would never accept otherwise anyway.

GM: Or when God directs them to not eat certain things or to wear things on their heads. Really? Does God really care?

TH: And do you really need to pray five times a day? Can’t you just get up in the morning and say, “Hey, how you doing? I love you, God”? Must you pray every three hours?

GM: And what are the consequences if you don’t?

TH: But you know what? What I learned is there’s beauty in ritual. I grew to love it. Because you worship with everybody in the family and everybody in the street so you become everyone’s best friend really quickly. There’s a wonderful sense of camaraderie. It’s quite lovely. And that really shocked me. Because I don’t do anything five times a day. So the first day we were filming the Islam episode, I had to pray five times a day and it was a huge pain for me. But as I said I grew to love it. There’s beauty in it.

GM: There’s that sense of community you talked about. But that ritual aspect, if they actually just said, “Oh no, we just like that sense of community and the ritual, but God doesn’t actually care,” then I would understand better. But they tend to think, “No, we must do this because it is written.”

TH: It is written. And religions tend to follow the written gospel, whether it’s the Koran or the Torah or a Bible verbatim, regardless if you roll your eyes or not. But the essence of my show is, who am I to roll my eyes? That’s not what this is about. It’s about learning about their religion and letting the viewer take everything that they’ve learned and process it and think about it. Nobody is wrong; everybody is right.

GM: Did you do anything in season two on the B’hai’s?

TH: I don’t know yet. I know in season two we’re doing Scientology, which I am so excited about.

GM: Oh, good luck!

TH: I want to shoot Tom Cruise’s house, which is not going to happen. But I’m really excited about Scientology. And you know what? They will let us in. Once again, it’s not for me to judge that Scientology is bad. I’m there to learn about it. I am there to give them their ten minutes of fame and let them talk about it. So I will not attack them. I will make their religion look as good as I possibly can. So if you offer someone that platform, they will let you in. It’s not my place to judge.

GM: It’s not your place to judge, but some religions, and maybe perhaps Scientology, have been called a cult. Do you have a responsibility to be a little more critical instead of just giving them a chance to sell themselves to impressionable minds?

TH: It’s really not my place to be critical. I hear what you’re saying. Remember, this is a kids show. What I’m responsible for is shining a spotlight on the religion. So we will show, using Scientology as an example, really really really exactly what it’s like to be a Scientologist. We’ll follow you all week. I will live like a Scientologist. It’s up to the audience to make a decision. We’re not going to spin it and hide it and sort of fool people; we’re going to show it exactly the way it is. Some people might like it. Some people won’t. Listen, all you have to do is Google “Scientology” and everything is there in Wikipedia. If you choose to pursue a life in Scientology, barring everything that you learn on the internet, well then godspeed. I’m not Jesus Christ. I’m not out to save everybody. I’m out to entertain everybody.

GM: If you’re seriously searching and are open to any of these religions, maybe they’ll get your hooks in you. Maybe you’ll become a Scientologist.

TH: Maybe. Maybe I’ll go to the Celebrity Center in Los Angeles and hang out with Kirstey Alley.

GM: Think what it would do for your career.

TH: It would probably do a lot. They would probably love it. I’d hang out with John Travolta. I get asked which has been my favourite so far. I think my favourite so far, or the one that’s the closest to where I am today, is probably Hinduism. I say that because karma is so incredibly important within the Hindu religion. And I believe in karma. I may not believe in God yet, but I definitely believe in karma and I believe in the laws of daily morality. I believe that it’s incredibly important to be a kind person. And if you’re an asshole, it will come back to you. I do believe in the laws of karma and the notion of karma. How Hindus tend to carry themselves, they’re very careful with their behaviour and what they say. They don’t want to hurt your feelings or insult you. Not to say that all the other religions are not populated with incredibly lovely kind people, but I really dug the Hindus.

GM: I don’t believe in karma but I believe in the concept of it. It goes back to ritual. I think it’s a great way to act, and the right way to act, because it’s basic human decency. But I don’t agree with the idea of an outside force making it happen, like you’re good so we’ll make something good happen for you, rather than it just organically happening.

TH: I know exactly what you mean. It probably is organic. However, it is a really great way to live your life. They make a point out of being a nice, kind person, whereas it’s really not brought to the forefront in any other religion. Clearly Christians are really great in raising money for the starving and the homeless, and they’re lovely, but it’s not like the Hindus – they live and breathe being kind, which I really love.

GM: What about the Amish?

TH: Don’t know. And I’ll tell you why I don’t know. There’s a reason. As a producer I’m usually very involved with the pre-production and the development of a show. I’m involved in casting, I’m involved in scouting locations, I’m involved in dealing with the network and whatnot. This show, we have a really great director. Her name is Nicola Cole and she’s one of the top lifestyle directors in Canada. She works on all the huge reality shows. And she really loved our show. She really believed in me. So she came to work on the show and she decided that we want to keep the show as real as possible. So I never know what we’re shooting. I never know what episode, what religion, who I’m meeting. A driver picks me up in the morning, drops me off at the location, I get out of the car and the camera rolls. No hair, no make-up, nothing. Boom. Just real. I have no idea who I’m meeting. I love to work totally blind. So when the participant or when the people in the religion meet me, these are non-actors. You can never do a second take. Because people get really wooden. If you’re not an actor and you’re used to doing multiple takes, take two is terrible. So we really only have the first take. I never know what my day is going to be. So as far as season two and what religions, I have no idea and I won’t even know until I show up on set. It’s a crazy way to work. It feels as if I’m jumping out of a plane every single day. I’ve never worked this way before. I literally just show up and go.

GM: The idea reminds me of Hannah and Her Sisters where Woody Allen was trying out the different religions. And also a kinder, gentler Religulous by Bill Maher.

TH: It’s not like that at all.

GM: He was critical and interviewing them, so that’s why I say a kinder, gentler version.

TH: As far as an umbrella theme, yes. But my show looks and feels and moves like an MTV music video. Bill Maher’s audience are my parents. My audience are twelve-year-olds. High School Musical, that’s my audience. So my show looks and feels like a great MTV reality show.

GM: Are twelve-year-olds, or teenagers, interested in this topic.

TH: I think they are.

GM: And why not an adult version?

TH: Well (pause)… That’s a very good question.

GM: Because adults are thinking about these topics.

TH: We’re doing a show for teenagers because remember, this is a business and advertisers want shows that speak to the most desirable demographic, which is, you know, 15 to 28. And that’s really what the network wanted. But it’s smart enough and sophisticated enough for a family to watch together. So a 15-year-old and her mom and her dad will find the show equally interesting. We don’t speak down to the kids and the parents won’t find it dumb. It’s really for everybody.

GM: You mentioned the religion that was your favourite. Was there one where you just went, “Meh. No, I can’t get on board with that one”?

TH: When I did Judaism it certainly brought back a lot of my childhood. I was embedded with a rabbi and his family. They had eight kids. And every meal is a huge ordeal because you have to pray and wash your hands and pray and this and kosher… It’s really a hard life. I mean, I loved them all but maybe because I knew Judaism it really didn’t blow my mind as much.

GM: They weren’t Hasidim, were they?

TH: Orthodox. I was embedded with Orthodox. Every religion that I meet, we always push it as far as we can go. So it’s not just Islam, it’s like super religious Islam. It’s not just Christian, it’s a priest. It’s not just Jewish, it’s a rabbi and his family. Do you see where I’m going with this? So we really push it as far as we can go.

GM: Pardon my ignorance, but Orthodox is different from the Hasidic Jews, right?

TH: Correct.

GM: So that would be really pushing it, to go with a Hasidic family.

TH: I don’t think Hasidim… We tried. I think one of the producers tried and they will not allow themselves to be filmed.

GM: Because that would be fascinating.

TH: It would be fascinating. Growing up in Montréal, I had relatives in Outremont. So even a kid who went to Hebrew school, I always found peyess, the round locks that fall past their ears – and women have to cut their hair very short and wear wigs… There are a lot of traditions that are unique to an orthodox Hasidic family – that even a kid who grew up Jewish found kind of shocking and jarring. And they all look exactly the same. Hopefully I’ll be able to inspire viewers and inspire young people to investigate other religions. I think it would be incredibly healthy for kids. It makes them richer. I would love for a Jewish kid to go to mosque. I would love for two Muslim kids to go to a synagogue. I would love for two Jewish kids to go to church and check it out, meet new people, make new friends. Open your mind.

GM: At the very least, even if they don’t take to it, they will have an understanding of the other side and maybe a patience or respect.

TH: Exactly. We live in very inward-looking suburbs where everyone is the same socio-economic class as you, a similar religion as you, has a similar point of view as you, everyone thinks the same, maybe dresses the same, eats the same and watches the same television and we become zombies and robots. And we’re immediately put off or frightened by anyone that’s different from us. And we need to change that. That’s really the motor and my inspiration for doing the show. I really want to make the world a better place, if that’s not an Oprah saying for you. But I really feel that this show’s the opposite of Jersey Shore. Same viewer but it nourishes your spirit, it’s not garbage like Jersey Shore.

GM: And people don’t need to feel you’re proselytizing.

TH: I’m not. I’m just inviting you to the buffet and you can eat whatever you want. All I’m asking is that you try something you never had before. I’m not asking you to have it again, but try it once.

GM: I remember once being in a hotel that had a Bible and a book of Buddha. I opened up the book of Buddha and everything I read I was going, wow, I like that, I believe that. But at no point did I want to become a Buddhist. I just thought you can incorporate bits from all religions in your life.

TH: There you go. Knowledge is the most powerful thing in the world. And after knowledge is compassion. I would love to impart those two things to teenagers today.

1 comment:

Michael de Beer said...

I caught OMG a few weeks ago by accident. It was the Israel episode in Jerusalem, so I was glued having been there, worked on a Moshav and still an aetheist as a young 69 year old. Three Crucifiction places 2 IN and I outside the walls? Every denomination all doing different things? Many unnecessary Wars are largely based on religion quite sad. Israel was a religious experience overall, TEN COMMANDMENTS, BEN HUR & KING OF KINGS all came to life - I watch one at Xmas time for inspiration in text - nothing much has really changed in good & evil today. At 12 I studied Krishna Murti teaching, even yoga with my Grandmother, hated church even today, funerals and weddings give me the creeps - so I do the wake and receptions instead.
I'm totally hooked on OMG series with Tevya Heller and hope to see all 150 odd? Michael de Beer : Cape Town South Africa