Camryn Manheim Talks Comedy and Religion with ‘Living Biblically’


By MIKE BLOOM

CBS’s newest comedy is aiming to bring some playfulness to the pew and levity to Leviticus with Living Biblically. Based off of A.J. Jacobs’ New York Times-bestselling book The Year of Living Biblically and executive produced by The Big Bang Theory’s Johnny Galecki, the series stars Jay R. Ferguson looking to turn the page on his life, and finds it through the pages of the Bible.

CBS says, “Chip Curry is a modern-day man at a crossroads in his life, who decides to live strictly in accordance with the Bible. A film critic for a New York newspaper and a soon-to-be father, Chip wants to be a better man following the loss of his best friend. He decides to put his slightly obsessive temperament to use and start living his life 100% by the Bible to find direction.”

A scene from Living Biblically. (Courtesy of CBS)

The cast sports many notable performers, including Lindsey Kraft as his pregnant wife Leslie; Ian Gomez as Father Gene, Chip’s guide to translating the Bible into the modern world; and David Krumholtz as Rabbi Gil, Gene’s easygoing best friend. Rounding out the group is Camryn Manheim, who plays Ms. Meadows, Chip’s strict boss who turns his new attitude into an opportunity when she gets him to pen several articles about his journey. The Emmy winner is known for her work in dramas like The Practice and Person of Interest but is taking a step in a new direction as she ventures into the world of comedy.

In anticipation of Living Biblically’s premiere on Monday, February 26 at 9:30 p.m. ET, Camryn talks with Parade about what brought her to the show, the importance of representation of various religions and sects, and how the show can hopefully serve as a way to have meaningful conversations about belief.

Describe Ms. Meadows a bit, especially with regards to Chip’s journey in following the Bible.
So Chip has come to work with this new vision of his, and the entire office is all atwitter with him following the Bible. Everyone’s talking about it, and it’s gotten everyone all excited. I call him into my office, and he thinks he’s fired because he recently stoned another co-worker for adultery. He’s like, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, please don’t fire me.” And I say, “No, it’s fantastic! I’ve never seen the office so excited about anything since Brenda gave everybody head lice.” (Laughs.) To be honest, she really doesn’t give a crap about the whole Bible thing. But if it will sell papers, she will tolerate it. So we learn as the show progresses that it’s doing extremely well. So even if she can’t stand it, she has to allow it. Ms. Meadows is out for herself. She has a lot of compassion, but you don’t see it on the surface. You have to dig deeper to find it.

What drew you to this show and role?
What really brought me to it was Johnny Galecki and [creator] Patrick Walsh, who I love, plus the cast of characters. We only see one script, and the script was great. But it’s really the idea of working with these people: Jay Ferguson, Sara Gilbert, Lindsey [Kraft], Tony [Rock] and everyone on the show. I was right when I said yes because it’s the best experience that I’ve had with a cast ever. I’ve never been in a cast where we had an eight-person text message going before the show went into production, during the show, after the show, and continues to this day.

The script was fascinating to me because I’m fascinated by religion in general. I grew up as a Jewish cultural person, so I’m “Jew-ish.” My son was bar mitzvahed in a secular Jewish community school. So I’m always fascinated by the conversations of religion and what people believe in and why. To be able to bring those questions to the dinner table for families across the country coming from completely different backgrounds and belief systems, and to bring them through comedy, made it seem like a no-brainer!

You’re most well-known for your dramatic work. Did you have a lot of experience in comedy before coming onto the show, and what has the adjustment been like?
I started in comedy. The one-woman show that I wrote and was mounted in New York at the Public Theatre was brought to the Aspen Comedy Festival, which is where I was discovered. I went directly from there to The Practice. So I’d always been in improv groups, writing comedy and doing comedy. But when I started The Practice, people knew me as a dramatic actress. So that’s what I did for the next ten to fifteen years. But in between, I was always begging sitcoms to put me on them. I did Will and Grace, Two and a Half Men, How I Met Your Mother. And I kept trying to prove myself as a comedian. I feel like this is, even more, my home, because it’s like theatre; you’re in front of a live audience every week. Now cut to [me being] in my 50s, and them changing the lines on me every single day, that was a little more challenging than I remembered. (Laughs.) When you work for somebody like David Kelley, the lines don’t get changed very often. So now you’re working on a sitcom, and those lines get changed every day. Often when you’re performing, they’re getting changed at that moment. So that was a little hard to adjust to. But the live studio audience and comedy part felt like home.

I want to go back to what you were saying before about conversations regarding religion. I feel like what is unique about this show is that it is a comedy about religion, usually regarded as a very serious subject, without coming off as satirical. How difficult is to thread that comedic needle, know that this is a subject that is quite a hot topic?
I think it’s much more challenging to talk about something so powerful like religion and also try to be funny without disrespecting anyone in the process. Comedy can be disrespectful, sarcastic, and satirical, and you can hurt people’s feelings with it. The group of writers that we have, with Patrick Walsh at the helm, I cannot tell you how impressed I am with how they’re able to walk the line so beautifully. I think that if you’re a religious person who really uses the Bible as a lighthouse for how you live your life, you are going to be extremely happy to see somebody else make such a grand effort to do it, and where they find grace, happiness, and joy from doing it. I think if you’re on the other side of the fence, and you find some of the Bible frustrating, you’re also going to see how frustrating it can be. It’s really important for me to get the word out that there’s nothing disrespectful about our show. Everyone in America is reflected in the characters of our show. Chip, who is choosing to play by the Bible to have a deeper meaning of life, is married to an atheist. And she brings up incredible topics that I’m sure all religious people have thought of. And Chip has to go through the journey of figuring out why that is an important thing for him to continue to discover. Then his own priest and rabbi are less focused on living the Bible to the tee. They’re living the Bible by the entirety of it, the global gestalt of it, and not just every little thing that it says. Everyone is kind of in there, and there are a lot of different topics that are brought up. So I don’t see people being disrespected. I see people seeing themselves in it.

The show’s inspired by A.J. Jacobs’ book. How much did the writers take from the source material, and was A.J. involved in the creative process behind the show?
A.J. Jacobs joined us for the pilot, and he gave us a lot of wonderful inspiration. Our series is inspired by his book. It’s not based on the book because we deviated quite a bit from it in tone and subject matter. But it is inspired by his book, for sure. From my understanding, I think he was a little bit more on the outside looking in when he wrote the book, looking at it intellectually in trying to understand people’s spiritual beliefs. As opposed to our show, where Chip is diving in 100% and trying to incorporate it into his emotional, physical, and spiritual life. So there’s a bit of a difference there. A.J. has come to a couple of tapings, and I think he’s delighted with it. But it’s different than his book, and I think he’d like you to know that.

You have said before that you feel Living Biblically is a show that can prompt a lot of important discussion about religion at home. Can you elaborate on that?
I would venture to say there are people who are religious – and I know some – who believe in the Bible and use that text as a guide for their lives and question some things in the Bible. Especially trying to follow the Bible in contemporary times that can be confusing and difficult, and it brings up a lot of questions. We bring those to primetime television for you and your family to watch to hear different points of view from different religions and inspirations. A priest, a rabbi, an atheist, someone who calls themselves religious but isn’t really religious. We’re all trying to discuss it and find a way that it works for Chip and us. I think if we can all discuss it, coming from different points of view, not judging each other, how we can interpret the Bible to be good citizens of the world, that would be an amazing discussion point for a family.

Also, for young people who may need a point of reference, to be able to watch a show like this that is respectful of religion, but has other topics and ideas. I happen to play a lesbian in the show, and while we haven’t really addressed it head-on in the first season, we plan to in season two. What I love about my character [is] she talks about her girlfriend all the time, and nobody flinches. It’s not a big deal; it’s just a thing, it’s just her life. But of course, Chip and I are going to go head-to-head with it at some point, because of course, he’ll interpret a portion of the Bible to say maybe I could have chosen a different path. We’ll see what the writers come up with; I’ll be very interested in that once they do. But we bring up all of those things. I would just love young people, in particular, to be able to see it and start having a lot of questions on their own.

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