The Reverend and The Irreverend

The Busted Halo Interview with the author of the New York Times Bestseller Father Joe.

Perhaps it is fitting that it took someone whose job it is to satirize sacred cows and poke fun at hypocrites to write one of the most powerful spiritual memoirs in recent memory. We live in an age of irony and skepticism where nothing is precious and every motive is doubted; where institutions are generally reviled and authority is sneered at. Who better to speak about something as unexpected and sobering as a personal faith journey than someone who shares our culture’s sense of contempt?

Tony Hendra’s name may not be a household word yet, but anyone who has been awake and interested in popular culture over the last 30 years will certainly know his work. The British-born Hendra moved to the United States in the mid 1960s and, after years of stand up comedy, he became one of the original editors of the National Lampoon during its heyday in the early 70s. After leaving the Lampoon in the late 70s, he became the editor of many best-selling parodies including Not The New York Times and Off The Wall Street Journal. Hendra also edited SPY Magazine in the mid 90s. But in the public’s mind, or at least in the minds of fans of the cult movie This Is Spinal Tap, he will forever be known as Ian Faith, manager of the fictional heavy metal band that is the subject of that classic faux “rockumentary.”

Again, fittingly, it is more than a little ironic in the wake of the recent troubles in the Catholic church that a scandal-free book about the relationship between a priest and a young boy currently sits at #4 on the New York Times bestseller list. The truth of the matter is, Hendra’s Father Joe is so much more than simply scandal-free. It is a beautiful, funny and profoundly moving account of the author’s lifelong relationship with Fr. Joseph Warrilow, a Benedictine monk in England who became a surrogate father and spiritual mentor to Hendra when he was 14 years old. Hendra captures how, over many decades, the devout 14 year-old grew up and gradually lost his faith as he immerses himself in his career and stumbles through bad marriages. In many ways, the tales of excessive booze, drugs, and sex through the 60s, 70s and 80s are not new. But what is so unique about this story is the constant sense, year after year, of the author being drawn back to the monk with the rubbery face and oversized ears who is the calm at the center of Hendra’s storm, gently guiding him for more than 40 years.

In the middle of the publicity swirl surrounding his book, Hendra graciously agreed to visit Busted Halo’s offices in mid-June for an hour-long conversation whose topics ranged from the mystery and sacredness of laughter to the changes in the Mass after the Vatican II Council in the 1960s.

Editors’ Note: On July 1, 2004—just over two weeks after this interview had taken place and three days after Part 1 was published—the New York Times published an article based on interviews with Tony Hendra’s 39-year-old daughter Jessica, her therapists, and others, reporting her claim that Hendra had left out of his conversion memoir, Father Joe, how he sexually molested her when she was a child. Tony Hendra denies the sexual abuse ever happened. To read the article, click here.

BH: One of the reasons the book has gotten so much attention is because you were primarily known as a satirist before and yet there’s a part of the book where you seem to almost disavow or reject that part of yourself.

TH: I first told this story at The Moth and it became clear how compelling it was to people. What was really most striking about it was that the first time I told it I really jumped off a cliff with this thing. Up until then I had not been able to tell this story in any way about Joe. And when I told it on stage that night, everybody laughed—I’m used to that. But by the end of the show when I sang the Salve Regina they were weeping all over the audience, Catholics and non-Catholics alike; and that had never happened to me in my life, never. So I knew that I was onto a relationship that really moved people, but also it was kind of a breakthrough for me because it meant I was sort of free to write this story now. Before that, the the tools I had were inadequate to express this grief because they were humorous tools, making fun, belittling, ridiculing and so forth. And so it was a very significant moment.

BH: There’s a section in the book where Father Joe is sort of questioning the type of satire you do and it clearly makes you think. Do you feel like you’ve moved beyond satire completely?

This is what’s so interesting about Joe. His method always seemed to be so simple but it was much more profound, because at the same time he also constantly reassured me. They weren’t the only conversations we had about being funny and laughter and so on. In that part of the book, it just happened to be about hard-edged satire that I happened to be into at that point. But this thing he said about the satirist and the monk not being that different was a brilliant insight and he also very often came back to the idea that this somber serious, devout, don’t-laugh-in-church kind of attitude that people have about religion is completely wrong. As he said, “If God is happiness then he is also laughter.” And that wonderful Meister Eckhart quote that I found way back perfectly expresses that. You know the Trinity that is just sort of chortling away with joy. It’s great:

When the Father laughs at the Son and the Son laughs back to the Father,
That laughter gives pleasure, that pleasure gives joy, that joy gives love,
And love gives the persons of the Trinity in which the Holy Spirit is one.

BH: I love the section where you discuss going to Cambridge going to see the group John Cleese was a part of at the time and having an epiphany of sorts that laughter was sacred.

TH: Sure! Or at least as powerful…if not more powerful than prayer. Certainly it’s mystical. That was the thing that really struck me most viscerally was how mysterious this stuff was. And it is mysterious, laughter is very strange stuff. And as I said in that same chapter it’s like–and I know as well as anyone–it’s just impossible to learn how to do it. You either are funny or you’re not. And it’s not something you can learn. It is a mysterious thing and I think Joe probably agreed. It’s funny I remember there is one thing that isn’t in the book which he once said: “You see, dear, I’m a reverend and you’re an irreverend.” [laughs] It’s really cute.

BH: Do you find a lot of people in comedy are also interested in similar questions though maybe in a less explicit way?

TH: No, not really. I mean certainly they’re complete screw-ups, I mean there’s no question about that, but that’s a cliché. What I have found, which is kind of interesting, is that a remarkable number of them have some religion in their background. I wouldn’t say it was a big percentage, but enough to be a significant reading. There are a couple of people that I work with, one on the Father Joe website that we run and another who is the lead writer of The Onion, a guy by the name of Todd Hansen. They’re both the sons of Baptist ministers

BH: Really! Protestants can be funny?

TH: [Laughter] Oh sure sure yeah, Jews and Catholics mostly but sure they can. I hasten to add that both these people were Southern Baptists. The more extreme you get the more likelihood there is of some future comedy.

BH: What’s it like to have something so successful at this point in your life? You’ve written so many books and been a part of so many projects over the years? Is this the biggest thing you’ve been a part of?

TH: Well certainly personally. I’ve had other successes,

like Lemmings for example when it first came out or Not the New York Times, which is a parody of the Times I did. Those projects sort of exploded in whatever markets they were in. But this is very different. It’s actually very unforeseen. I knew the book was good and correct and it was exactly what I wanted to say or as exactly as a writer ever gets it, but I never thought that it would take off. It just seemed too private and limited a kind of story in a way, that it would seem to have this wide appeal. But there are a lot of us Catholics I guess. [Laughs]

BH: That’s a good question. Why do you think Father Joe has struck such a chord with readers?

I’m not sure yet, I’m not really sure. Obviously the glibbest answer is Catholics could use some good news right now. And I think the second reason is that when it’s all war all the time, a man of peace is sort of attractive. But I actually can’t tell. I couldn’t put one cause to it at all.