BustedHalo: At the time, how did you reconcile the work
you were doing at MTV and Comedy Central with your faith life?
Fr. Dave Dwyer: While I wasn’t producing Christian shows, in the grand scheme of things to make people laugh rather than make people go at each others throats was a good thing. It might not be the most mature approach to faith, but for me laughter, humor is one of those things God created that is good. Since then there’s been a bit of growth for me from when I was in the entertainment industry and wanting just to make people laugh. I think that’s a part of our culture that is fairly blessed, but there was also a time, well before discerning the priesthood, that I realized you can make people laugh—like a certain radio shock jock who is now going to satellite does—that isn’t necessarily always a good thing.
I remember when I was working at MTV—Lent was probably the time of year when my faith was most public—so when I’d give things up for lent, I wouldn’t broadcast it but it would be things that I would encounter. Like someone offering me some chocolate and I’d say, “no I gave up chocolate for lent.” And I remember one year I gave up Howard Stern for Lent. I loved Howard Stern but there was something in the back of me that said “this isn’t ‘What Would Jesus Do’ kind of laughter.” And at the end of Lent, I never went back. I said “you know I don’t need this. This is not a good way to start my day.” So that’s I guess an example of where laughter can be great in our culture and where it can be harmful.
BH: You were at Comedy Central when they first opened shop, what was that like?
DD: It was great: the atmosphere was designed to be fun. People were young; I was 25. They really created it not as a new corporate thing, which it probably is by now. But because it was a startup and they didn’t have a lot of money, almost everybody was in jobs that they’d never done before. So they hired stand-up comedians to be comedy writers, they had comedy writers producing the shows, and they had people like me in the director’s chair who had never directed before professionally. It really was like, ‘hey guys, let’s put on a show.’ I remember my two mentors, if you will, for learning to direct for television were Beth McCarthy, who now directs Saturday Night Live, and Thomas Schlamme who went on to direct “The West Wing.”
BH: What did you direct?
DD: A talk show called Night After Night with Alan Havey (pictured right on the show’s set, Fr. Dave on right) which was Letterman-like in the fact that it was a late night talk show and we were booking celebrity guests who would do the talk show circuit. I got paid to laugh for a living, cut cameras, and occasionally, because the studio was so intimate, I was almost a character on the show sometimes because Alan would say, ‘Dave, do we have that?’ and the control room is right there so he’d come in with the cameras and I’d say, ‘Oh hi.’ I actually had fans that faxed in and there was one particular fan that actually liked “Dave the Director” and occasionally wrote in, ‘I really like Dave’s hair.” So we had a fax machine on the side where people would fax in. This is before e-mail, of course: Fax was the cutting edge technology. [laughs].
BH: Sounds like a pretty exciting job… did you meet many famous people?
DD: Well, after a while it’s just ‘who’s in this week?’ We did 476 shows and a few hundred guests. I do remember shaking hands with Captain Kirk [William Shatner]—that was cool. I also remember Chuck Norris was trying to set up a shot that he was going to demonstrate a kick, so I came out and we were lining up the cameras and then he said “so I’m going to do something like this” and he kicked at me and it came that close to my nose [places his index finger an inch from his nose]. I’m sure that was no mistake, with his accuracy. And I’m thinking “Whoa! Chuck Norris just almost hit me!”
BH: Do you ever miss it?
DD: Not really. I miss some of the people, and it sure was fun at the time but, I guess, primarily I don’t miss it because of what I’m doing now. I really think it was the stuff that happened during my discernment of my priestly vocation where I began to explore the concept of fulfillment. I remember one particular day that I was really on the fence about whether I should stay in television. It was the day that Kurt Cobain committed suicide and I was filling in as a director at MTV. This was back in the day where it was a special thing to go live and everybody was a little bit more on edge. I just happened to be filling in that day and we did a live hook up from Seattle and we had Kurt Loder in the studio. Of course nobody had any notice and I hadn’t done a lot of live TV and they’re throwing these papers in front of me and it was just like that movie “Broadcast News.” But everything that day went off without a hitch and when we went to black people were congratulating me because we had done well and I was just sitting there looking at the empty screen and everyone is sort of patting each other on the back and I just thought to myself, ‘yeah, but so what?’ This was after I’d really been doing a good amount of discerning and was at the point where I was sort of on the edge and wondering “is this what God is calling me to?’ And I realized that it couldn’t touch the experience of the sophomore who came up to me in college and said “you changed my life with that retreat.” That Cobain live shot on MTV was nothing compared to that. I realized I can do this, and I’m good at it and I can make money at it and I like it…but so what. So that was an important moment in terms of, okay, now I think I get it, this fun, exciting career is no longer something that’s keeping me from being a priest. Professionally that would have been a highlight of my career up until that point and I was 29 years old. But when I could get done with it and say, so what? I thought that, well, I don’t want to be doing this for the rest of my life and go home and say ‘so what.’
BH: Around that same time you had a powerful experience at World Youth Day in ’93, too, right?
DD: Yeah, that’s probably the least easy to describe. I can only say, I heard a call or felt one. It wasn’t a voice in my head per se, but as I mentioned before nobody had ever suggested the priesthood to me, but I heard it clearly during those days in Denver (Dwyer pictured, very wet at WYD, above left). It was in the words that the Pope was saying and it was in the words that I heard other people saying. It’s interesting, when I look back at the texts of his speeches and the homilies I realize that they were good but they don’t strike me today as being particularly unique. But for some reason, during the spiritual power of those days the words were very specifically, “Dave I need you to be a priest.” I did the sort of Jeremiah thing “no, not me! God, maybe you just mean that I should do Christian films instead.” I couldn’t believe God would have spent eight years guiding my career toward television and then “changed his mind.” But during the year after World Youth Day all these things started coming into focus and I began to see it not as a change but a fulfillment.
BH: And how did you decide the Paulists from there?
DD: I think the Paulists certainly seemed like a fit for me as someone who worked at MTV and didn’t want to close the door on my past and see that as sort of my dark history, but to see that as who I am and who I still will be. The Paulists were a good fit because that seemed to be their approach to evangelizing American culture—connecting and immersing themselves in American culture rather than standing outside it and judging it. Part of it was because my faith background was very much ecumenical. It was Catholic and Protestant, Evangelical, Charismatic… and when I realized the Paulists had a mission of evangelization and ecumenism that appealed to me. Also the idea of reconciliation, of bringing people back to the church really resonated with my experience because I had seen a lot of people growing up in high school and college who just left the church, so all three of those things really tugged at my heart strings and I thought it couldn’t be a coincidence. A lot of my history as my faith story is the way I’m energized in terms of my faith and this is what these guys do so it was a good fit.
BH: What was the reaction of your friends in TV?
DD: It was actually kind of funny. I announced on the MTV set one shoot day. The reactions really surprised me. I wasn’t sure how the secular TV industry would react and everyone across the board just said “Oh Dave, that’s so perfect.” And Kennedy (pictured right), who was part of the on-air talent at the time, her first reaction was, “Oh my God, what did I say in front of you? What sort of curses and what have I said?” because she was raised a Catholic. [laughs] People were coming up and congratulating me, and then people started coming out of the closet. [laughs] It was like we were in Russia and they had to be careful about what they said. They’d come over to me and discreetly show me a little prayer card they carry in their wallet. People were coming out as Christians, telling me “I go to church on Sunday, too” and looking around the hall to make sure no one else heard. Some of them said that I’d helped give them confidence to talk about their faith. Universally, a very positive reaction with one notable exception and that was Kurt Loder, who was the MTV News anchor. When I told him on the set he said, “Yeah, I used to be Catholic, (sigh)” and took a long drag on his cigarette, and that’s about it.
BH: So what excites you now about what you do? It sounds like you’re realizing your media experience has some bearing on this. What do you see your mission being?
DD: If nothing else I see very frequently day-to-day working as a priest that my more secular life is intertwined with and influences my priesthood. They should speak to one another and influence one another. The church should speak to the culture and the culture should speak to the church and they both should listen to each other. Neither of them is very good at doing that. To me one of the saddest parts about modern society is that we compartmentalize a lot of things. We really relegate religion to this little compartment that people don’t talk about. When I talk to young adults, they often say they can’t talk about their faith at work. They think they might get fired or people will look at them funny or they won’t get invited to parties.
BH: Is that what the Paulists mean when they talk about evangelization or reconciliation in the modern world?
DD: Yeah, I certainly think that BustedHalo is all about simply making that connection between faith and life. [Fr. Dave heads up Paulist Young Adult Ministry (PYAM) which oversees BustedHalo]. To somehow show people that culture and faith are not totally different and separated. It’s still a challenge for me sometimes to integrate, but I think that’s what excites me or motivates me because that has been a gift for me. That’s what I would like to share with people. To help them see that faith-spirituality-the institutional church is not just this little thing over here in a box that has nothing to do with the rest of your life. It is life and it should be all interconnected and not because somebody says it should. I experience it that way and that’s a real gift to me—a gift from God. I’d love for other people to be able to have that gift as well.