Busted: Fr. Dave Dwyer, CSP

A Journey of Faith From MTV to the Priesthood

Before he reached 30, Dave Dwyer had already achieved some pretty significant career goals in the field of television. The Syracuse University graduate had started out filing video tapes at MTV and quickly became involved in on-air production. By the time he was 25 he was directing a talk show for the newly launched Comedy Central cable channel. Though he was well on his way to bigger and better things in television, Dwyer’s life took a rather sudden turn when he felt a strong call to the priesthood while attending the World Youth Day rally in 1993. Soon after, he left the entertainment industry and entered the Paulists. Bill McGarvey and Mike Hayes sat down with Father Dave to talk about everything from Adam Sandler and Eminem to preaching the Gospel in the 21st century.

BustedHalo: I would imagine that working as a producer/director at both MTV and Comedy Central is not the usual route one takes to becoming a priest. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you went from the entertainment industry to the Paulists?

Fr. Dave Dwyer CSP: Yeah, I didn’t think as a kid that I was going to end up a priest. Really the dream stems primarily back to the death of my dad when I was 14. That was a time when God became much more present in the life of our family and I connected to God in a personal way, sort of as God as Father certainly. That age is really a time in many young people’s lives when they are clinging to God and clinging to spirituality and religion. So all through high school and college I was involved in my faith and Church. I did a lot of inter-denominational youth groups, some Catholic stuff and some Christian stuff. But it was never a matter of, as many people presume, “falling off the horse” of sex, drugs and rock and roll from my previous career and somehow suddenly falling into the priesthood. At least since the age of 14, I was pretty into my faith and even pretty interested in church and religion.

BH: When did you start thinking you might be interested in entertainment?

DD: I first got into theater when I helped out with the summerstock shows during high school. I really wanted to be backstage with the little head set on and pulling up the curtain and they said, “No we need guys on stage.” So I did a bit of that but it really wasn’t my particular interest at first. Now of course, once you get on stage, you know, it ain’t bad to hear people laughing and clapping and all that. You go, “Whoa, this is probably a little more cool than being backstage and drawing the curtain.” [laughs] But when I was really doing my major in college I worked behind the scenes producing and directing TV projects but I was also on the air in radio. So I was working both the behind-the-scenes and the talent/actor part at the same time and really, when I got to my senior year in college, I didn’t know. I literally printed up two resumes: one was for TV production behind-the-scenes and one was for radio on-air and I really hadn’t decided until it got pretty close to the end of my senior year what I wanted to do. I had done both all along and enjoyed both a lot in college and had sort of my fifteen minutes of fame at the local radio station I was on.

BH: Really?

DD: [laughs] I was doing the morning show five days a week on a top 40 station. My air name was “Happy Dave” and the show was called “the Crazy Morning Crew” [shown left]. Even though it was a student-run radio station, we actually competed in the market and got ratings and all that kind of thing. We were something like number seven or eight in the market when I was there.

BH: Wow! What was the show like?

DD: It was
kind of a morning zoo…people laughing and tooting horns. We did live local remotes down at the mall.

BH: So that must have been a pretty good deal.

DD: Yeah, in fact I cut classes to be on the air. [laughs]

BH: In college, what was your faith life like?

DD: When I first arrived at college the things I wanted to get involved with were the student TV station, the student radio station, and the student Catholic Newman Association. So those were three things I sort of dove into right off the bat. Because I had come from a fairly evangelical and inter-mixed kind of Protestant and Catholic high school youth group experience, I got involved in things like Campus Crusade for Christ and the Navigators and the more evangelical college things, but also went to the Newman Association, the little Catholic group. I’d done Catholic retreats in high school, so I went in to the Catholic Newman group and asked them if they had a retreat program and they said ‘No, but why don’t you take the ball and run with it?’ I’d never created a retreat program from scratch before. There was actually one other guy on campus who came from the town I was from who had been on these retreats we did in high school. We looked at each other and said, “Okay, we could probably scrape something together here.” So I became very active in the Newman Association, the Catholic group, the whole time during my four years. I would say classes were probably my number four activity in college. The radio station and the Newman Center were neck and neck at numbers 1 and 2, number three was the student TV station, and then there was class.

BH: That’s interesting, you were getting a lot of attention as Happy Dave and yet your faith life was pretty much still a pre-eminent thing?

DD: I would say in terms of the amount of time or hours or dedication it was probably pretty even with the radio, but I would say in terms of priority my faith was first. I was young and my faith was still in a fairly young place where it was probably a bit more emotional and young and charismatic than it is today as a 40-year-old. But it was important. There was a sense of home. Something just internally or at a gut level felt like this is the place to be. The Newman Group didn’t have a retreat program and it felt like I needed to be there and so it was both that kind of sense of home and a sense that there was a way I could serve there.

BH: Did anyone ever approach you in college about having a vocation?

DD: Nobody ever said anything to me; at least not that I can consciously remember. My Dad went to Catholic school from Kindergarten through Holy Cross College and he had had enough. He was done. I don’t really ever remember him coming to church with us except on the big Christmas and Easter holidays. So my mom took us to church, but many weekends we all went out on our boat or skiing or something like that. I’m sure, particularly when you’ve just got one son and one daughter, you’re not pushing priesthood on your one son especially when you’ve had 16 years of a somewhat negative experience in Catholic school. So no, no thoughts of priesthood until… cut to, age 29.

BH: What did you do after you graduated?

DD: My first job out of college was at MTV in the tape library—writing numbers on the sides of videotapes—but MTV was such a young and high turnover company at that point, that I was working on producing shows eight months after starting there.

BH: What shows were you working on?

DD: Anything other than the actual music videos. You know how they used to talk about how comedy was the rock and roll of the eighties? We did all kinds of stand up stuff with young, up and coming comedians like Chris Rock, Ray Romano, Jerry Seinfeld, David Spade. These were all guys that we were breaking. I used to go and scout clubs and sit there for a whole night where they would put up one person after another and you’d go “ha,” and then we would pick who gets to be on the MTV Half-Hour Comedy Hour. It wasn’t quite like being on Johnny Carson and it may not have been literally their first TV gig for all of them but the Half-Hour Comedy Hour on MTV was a pretty big deal for guys like Romano and Spade.

I didn’t personally discover him, but the first TV that Adam Sandler did was a Spring Break that we shot down in Daytona and I was on the plane with him and he was still in college so he was probably 20 or 21, and I was maybe 3 or 4 years older than him. Adam brought along some of his buddies from NYU who still are the guys who produce and write his stuff even now when he’s making ten million dollars a picture or whatever it is. But Sandler and I sort of hit it off and became friends. Comedians like a person with a good laugh and I’ve got a laugh. I hung out with him while he was still finishing up his senior year at NYU and I was working at MTV and when he would do Letterman or Saturday Night Live and he’d say, ‘Dwyer, I’ve got to have you in the audience, you’ve got to be there.’ The first night he premiered Opera Man, he asked me to come to the show and so I was sitting in the audience and I just happened to be seated at a place where I was right under a mic and I could see it and I just, he cracked me up so much that there would be things that not everybody would laugh at that I would just think were funny and one time during his first Opera Man I laughed, and nobody else in the room laughed and I showed up to work on Monday morning and somebody said to me, “Were you at Saturday Night Live this weekend?” They said, “Yeah, we know, we heard your laugh.”

BH: Back then, could you see Sandler becoming as big as he’s become?

DD: Well, not when I first met him, but I also wouldn’t have imagined it about Chris Rock or Ray Romano. To watch the shows that we did back then, they were all pretty funny. I remember one season we shot Chris Rock, Ray Romano, David Spade and Colin Quinn. Of the material we shot with them, I thought David Spade had the funniest set that whole season. Never tell a comedian or any kind of actor that. Because I told him that at some point and when I would see him at SNL, he’d be saying, “Hey, I’m the funniest! I’m the funniest, right?!” [laughs]

BH: So you were really involved in comedy at the time?

DD: Yeah, you can’t ask for much better than to get paid to laugh for a living. But doing the scouting of the comedy club scene really soured me. It’s only recently that I have been able to go back to a comedy club again. It’s such a souring experience. You just see the same material and the same delivery, even if you’re marking someone down as funny and you want them on the show, you don’t even laugh. It’s so mechanical and such a science. So really, that part of it was not particularly fun.

BH: What was that like? MTV is the belly of the beast for some Catholics.

Yeah, and I didn’t really get that until I would bump into my mom’s friends at church and they would be sort of horrified. I have to preface this by saying “back then” [in the mid-80s] we really were doing documentaries on musicians and not people getting naked. There was always a Spring Break element and I did work in the department that produced Spring Break so that was just the tip of the iceberg of what MTV has now become, but what I did day-in and day-out was production and music and entertainment stuff, it wasn’t all this prurient stuff. So it was never a challenge of faith to me. It wasn’t as if I had to discern, ‘Should I do this? Is this ethically or morally wrong?’ Honestly, I would have an issue if I was applying for a job there today. I think part of that is that I’m different now and part of that is that MTV is different. So I would say that my path and their path were a little more compatible in 1985 than they would be in 2005.

BH: What was your faith like back then? You were living in a lot of ways this exotic life, MTV and Comedy Central…you’re flying around the world…

DD: Yeah, but still living at home on Long Island. I was still connected with my good friends from high school and all that circle of friends was around our youth group so all sort of “faith-based relationships” and my closest friends in the world were certainly very religious people and many of them Catholic. So even though it was entertainment industry during the day I’d go home at night and go to bible study or volunteer with youth group (ministry to teens). I was a volunteer and then when that sort of waned I did more young-adult ministry (ministry to 20 and 30 year olds) and I helped put together a young adult group in our parish. I really always thought that that’s what people do when they get home from work. You have the career and then God calls you to do this stuff. I really believed in that Vatican II sense that as lay people we are called to be light in the world, the leaven in the places where priests can’t go, so I didn’t see it as a “lesser” calling. I thought that when I was at MTV and Comedy Central I was kind of meant to be a Christian/Catholic example to people.

BH: Did people see you as that?

DD: There
was a time, after I went to World Youth Day in ’93, the cross that we got blessed at the pope’s Mass I began wearing on the outside of my clothes. It was a fairly demonstrative, wooden cross, it wasn’t huge, but it was obviously not jewelry. Kind of a plain wooden cross and I wore it everyday. So people would comment, ‘what’s that about’ and ‘is that like Madonna wearing a cross? Like a fashion statement?’ I’d say ‘no,’ but like anybody else it was still hard to be bold about my faith and say, I’m a Catholic. That’s the other thing though, everyone assumes it’s the big sex, drugs, and rock and roll lifestyle, but of the people I knew, a lot of them went home to their families and their kids and they had normal lives, too. So there was certainly an element of that, but I was fortunate to be working with people who were pretty regular folk and weren’t big party types.

BH: Did you feel a sense of dichotomy between being a Catholic and being involved in pop culture?

DD: No! And I still don’t. I love both. I don’t think that I’m not a good priest if I listen to Eminem—and I do. Or watch the Daily Show with some irreverent comedy. When I was discerning priesthood, that was a hump I had to get over. I had to get over the fact that it didn’t mean that I had to change who I am to be more pious, more devotional, more quiet and contemplative person in order to be a priest. Thank God it was pretty soon when God smacked me upside the head and said ‘no, I made you the way you are and that’s how I want you to be a priest. I want you to be “Happy Dave” as a priest. I don’t want you to change now. I don’t want you to spend three hours in silent prayer everyday just because you’re a priest because that’s not you.’ I’m not wired that way; I don’t do that. And sometimes, I’m praying walking down the street with my iPod, listening to some non-religious music that moves me to kind of figure out how God can speak to this culture.

BH: For some reason that sounds like a radical idea to a lot of people in the Church I think. Why do you think it’s perceived as a radical thing when, maybe, it shouldn’t be.

DD: Well I think there are certainly the classic philosophical arguments about—is it Christ in culture or Christ against culture? All that kind of thing—without beating down that road too much. I certainly think it’s a Catholic belief more so than a Reformation theology belief that God’s creation is good—from Genesis, God said he created this and this is good. That light is good and the animals are good and we are good. Certainly sin is present in the world but I would not think that my faith as a Catholic needs to spurn the world. Even when St. Paul uses that same intentional polemic in his letters—when he talks about the world vs. the spirit and whatnot—that’s meant to prod us in a certain direction spiritually but many people take that to mean that we have to be totally separate from the world. I’ve heard people say when you go to a supermarket check-out line you have to avert your eyes from all those magazines. Well if you’ve got an issue with that, if you’ve got a sexual addiction, then yeah, you do need to, but I don’t think that every person who considers himself a follower of Christ needs to be so totally isolated from any age that they’re living in. Because I’m sure at the time of Christ there was plenty of people that were worldly and seemed against the concepts of Christianity that they had to struggle with then. We usually tend to think it’s worse now, but I’m not sure. When the Pope talks about the “culture of death,” that there certainly are elements that take us away from a respect for all life and the dignity of the human person. So in that sense, I would agree that we need to identify those elements and as Christians be prophetic against those. Some people hear that term and think that everything about our current culture and society is “death” and sin and evil and so we must be completely non-cultural in order to be Catholics. I don’t believe that. I also don’t think that’s genuinely really what the Holy Father intends to mean by that. I think a lot of people have taken that to say everything about the culture is evil. And I also think there’s a difference between a good Christian or Catholic parent choosing for their children that Eminem is not appropriate and for me as an adult to listen to lyrics and to music and to say, “Boy, I don’t agree with him, but damn, that’s good music.” Perhaps the reason this seems radical and difficult is that there’s a strong temptation to blur the line and say that everything’s okay. Well, not everything’s okay. I don’t endorse Eminem from the pulpit because, among other reasons plenty of his lyrics do show a blatant disrespect for life, but, just like any author whose works we burned as a Church 50 years ago because there were radical ideas in them, I think he among other people really speaks to young people our society. And anybody that’s ministering to young people needs to be aware of that.

BH: That’s a good point.

DD: And flesh
shows on MTV and listening to Eminem are not the staple of my cultural life either. There’s a lot more music on my iPod than that. But, I don’t think that—for me anyway—it’s something that therefore needs to be eschewed. Having said that, everybody needs to be self-aware enough to say, okay for me, this is too much of a temptation. If l like gadgets, I shouldn’t get the catalogue that I’m going to be tempted to buy a new thing every month. If I’m more sexually inclined, then I should stay away from magazines that—even if they’re not pornography—kind of lead me in that direction. If I have an alcohol addiction, then I shouldn’t go inside a bar. We should always be self-aware enough to know what is not good for me and what is okay. And so, therefore, any element of culture, somebody might need to choose differently. Somebody might say, well, because of even a single song of Eminem’s that disrespects women, or homosexuals or whatever, I’m not going to support him or I’m not going to buy his album. And I can see how that would be important to some, but I’ve never personally seen it as a dichotomy or something that pulls me away from my Catholic faith.