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Christian sitcom to begin filming
Christian sitcom to begin filming

Christian sitcom to begin filming

[Pastor Greg] has begun shooting 26 episodes in HD format at Cornerstone Television in Wall. The episodes will begin to air on Cornerstone and more than 100 secular stations nationwide in October.
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The bathrobe-clad pastor responded to knocking at his front door and was propelled back into his living room by an old girlfriend in shrink-wrap jeans. He lost his Birkenstock flip-flops as he tried to escape her enthusiastic embrace.

"Cut!" called the director, who didn't think creator-writer-star Gregg Robbins had displayed enough shocked surprise on the set of the evangelical sitcom "Pastor Greg."

The show has begun shooting 26 episodes in HD format at Cornerstone Television in Wall. The episodes will begin to air on Cornerstone and more than 100 secular stations nationwide in October.

"It's the only Christian sitcom in the world," said Robbins, 45, who spent a decade pitching it to secular and Christian networks.

Some secular networks liked the concept, but wanted him to water down the Christian theology, which he refused to do.

"Christian television had a real problem with the humor side of it until Ron Hebree came along," Robbins said, referring to Cornerstone's president.

The cold shoulder from Christian TV isn't surprising, said Terry Mattingly, a writer and professor of popular culture who is currently senior fellow at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

"I have always thought that Christians have trouble doing comedy for the same reasons that the Marxists did. It is very hard to mock the ruling party," Mattingly said.

Robbins' character, the Rev. Greg Wilson, "is a normal dude who loves the Lord and wants others to also," he said.

Although he is not a pastor, Robbins drew heavily on his own experience to create the Rev. Greg Wilson. Both are converts who left a lifestyle of drinking, drugs and womanizing.

The show was inspired by characters at Robbins' church in Southern California, where he was an actor and stunt man.

The main character is a reformed playboy in his first pastorate. The laid back, unconventional pastor must win over his very traditional flock. He also must work with an overbearing secretary, an insecure youth minister, an uptight music leader-business manager and a down-to-earth maintenance man who is also the mayor.

The show uses physical humor -- one reviewer called it a cross between "Three's Company" and "Highway to Heaven." Robbins aims for a comparison with the workplace dynamics of "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

Each episode poses some challenge to faith: anger, fear, jealousy, greed and so forth. The first to be filmed, which will be the 13th to air, is "Temptation." Local actress Laura Romeo guest stars in what is expected to become a recurring role as former girlfriend Missy.

Missy, Robbins said, is based on a real former girlfriend, except that Pastor Greg handles her reappearance as Robbins only wishes he had done.

"At the end of the episode, she doesn't seduce him, but she doesn't amend her life," he said.

When Robbins reshot his pilot in HD last year, it caught the attention of Cornerstone's new programming director, Dede Hayes.

Her goal was family entertainment that would reach beyond the core evangelical constituency. She wanted comedy, and tested the pilot on her children and nine grandchildren.

"They just loved it," she said.

Cornerstone has staked a great deal on "Pastor Greg." It bought two HD cameras, although Hembree said Robbins got them at far below normal cost. Hembree describes production costs as "dirt cheap." The cost of 26 episodes is expected to total $150,000 beyond Cornerstone's normal operating costs

To do this, all of Cornerstone's other programs are on hiatus, and the channel is currently steeped in infomercials. "Pastor Greg" has taken over the studio and crew. But more than 120 secular stations, and other Christian networks, will air it.

"Faith is spelled r-i-s-k," Hembree said of why he staked so much on one show.

He cites the claims of a sociologist that the morals of the last generation were shaped by 10 popular sitcoms. He says it's not enough for evangelicals to complain about raunchy television, they have to provide a good alternative.

Although it looks as though "Pastor Greg" will make money in syndication, "that's not primarily why we're doing it. We're doing it for the mission. We believe very deeply that we have to do something more than damn the world," Hembree said.

Cornerstone has a history of innovative programming, said Todd Hughes, who teaches media production at Geneva College in Beaver Falls. When MTV was still in its infancy, the late Tom Green produced "Lightmusic," a Christian music video show for Cornerstone. Green, with Thom and Cathy Hickling, later co-created "His Place," a hybrid talk show and soap opera, set in a diner.

"A sitcom is certainly on the cutting edge of Christian media. But I can understand why Cornerstone would pick it up, because that's something they've always been about," Hughes said.

But comedy is difficult, he said. An evangelical sitcom must convert "inside humor" into something that non-evangelicals can relate to, he said. It must avoid religious jargon that is unintelligible to outsiders.

But it also must build its humor around events that could really happen in evangelical churches, Hughes said. Although he has not seen the show, he was concerned to hear that the pilot involved a pastor assigned sight-unseen to a "community church," and a funeral and wedding accidentally scheduled for the same time. Nearly all evangelical churches, especially those billed "community churches," elect pastors, and weddings and funerals involve a lot of planning.

"People forget that it is situational comedy. If the situation can't happen, it's not funny," Hughes said.

On the other hand, because they usually over-reach to establish story lines, "you have to take pilots with a grain of salt," he said.

Hughes believes the secular stations were drawn at least as much by the HD format as the plot. Federal regulations require all stations to have fully digital programming by 2007.

"Stations are hungry for shows in HD," he said. "Outside of the major networks right now, there isn't a whole lot of high definition programming because of the cost involved in the cameras and equipment."

But Hayes believes the show has come along at the perfect moment, when there is a popular revolt against raunchy TV and the secular media are scrambling to attract "values voters." She believes the show will appeal to people who don't usually like Christian TV.

"People may not be loyal to your network, but they can be loyal to a program," she said.

"People are getting fed up. Christians and non-Christians are afraid of what their kids are watching. Christian networks need to get on board and impact the culture, rather than the culture impacting us."

By Ann Rodgers, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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