Wall St. Journal
Bill Maher goes to hell.
BY CATHERINE SEIPP
Friday, September 3, 2004 12:01 a.m. EDT
A popular talking point now, among those who dread the
re-election, is that the Christian Right in George W.
Bush's America is at least as dangerous as international
Islamic radicals. Never mind that the latter are rather
more prone to violence than the former. What's really
frightening, the conventional wisdom goes, is the crudely
intolerant agenda of Christian fundamentalists.
The latest (unintentional) object lesson that this is
nonsense comes courtesy of the "Hollywood Hell House," a
walk-through theatrical satire that opened last week in Los
Angeles. Its target is those church-sponsored, evangelical
"haunted" houses--part of the Halloween season--that warn
teens about the perils of Satan-worship, gay sex and the
"convenient choice" (as the demon tour guide puts it) of
"Hollywood Hell House," which opened Aug. 28 and stars Bill
Maher as Satan, Andy Richter as Jesus and a rotating cast
of other celebrity comics, is based on the Hell House
Outreach kits sold by Keenan Roberts, an Assemblies of God
minister in suburban Denver. Religious haunted houses have
been around since at least the early 1970s. But Mr.
Roberts's version, which he first staged 10 years ago, has
proved especially popular: Church groups have produced it
some 3,000 times, in most states and more than a dozen
countries."Hollywood Hell House" sold out opening night and
runs through Halloween at the Center for Inquiry-West, a
self-described "secular humanist community organization" on
Hollywood Boulevard. It's a funny idea and cleverly
executed under the direction of Jill Soloway, a writer for
HBO's "Six Feet Under." Her co-director, actress/writer
Maggie Rowe, obtained the Hell House kit under not entirely
truthful pretenses: She told Mr. Roberts that she was the
director of a West Hollywood youth group--accurate only in
that she named her production company The Youth Group.
Mr. Roberts was a little miffed when he found out. "I said,
'You should have had more character and integrity,'" he
recalled. But that was as hard a time as he would give to
anyone involved with the parody production. He has no plans
to sue or protest and in fact flew in from Denver for the
show's premiere. He was greeted warmly by Ms. Soloway and
Ms. Rowe, posed for pictures and cheerfully answered
theological questions from the cast.
"We're not upset this is happening," Mr. Roberts said. "I'm
out here to affirm what Hell House is all about--that sin
always leads to a devastating and destructive end, but that
hope is found in Jesus Christ. In the heart of the
entertainment capital, something that is important to us is
being presented. It's an honor. Even if they don't agree
with our message, they realize we've got something here."
Mr. Roberts traveled to Los Angeles with a small entourage
that included Elizabeth Nixon, an Ohio State University
folklore professor whose doctoral dissertation is on
religious haunted houses. "Elizabeth believes Hell House
has been the strongest influence on evangelism in the last
10 years," Mr. Roberts noted with satisfaction. For her
part, Ms. Nixon (who is not an evangelical) hoped that the
pastor "isn't hurt too badly" by the parody production.
He didn't seem to be. When he finally saw the show, he was
polite--if unamused by the raucous tone and hoots of
laughter from the audience. "Well, they made a mockery," he
said afterward. "What you saw was not what I wrote. The
structure was scene by scene, but they made a definite
effort toward deriding me. The production values were like
a really bad B-movie, maybe a D-movie. Our hell scene, for
instance, has burning limburger cheese that makes it almost
impossible to walk in. We truly communicate that hell is
not some place you want to go; it's not like turning on
Comedy Central."But I'm not here because of what they're
doing with it," Mr. Roberts added. "I'm here because of
what God is doing with it--and that's much bigger than what
you see here on Hollywood Boulevard."
Ms. Soloway walked up at that moment. "What did you think?"
"Interesting," Mr. Roberts said.
"Well, thank you for coming," she replied.
Try to imagine for a minute this exchange occurring after a
show parodying the tenets of radical Islam, which certainly
has its own share of kitsch. You can't, because even if
Hollywood hipsters got past worrying about seeming like
Muslim-bashers, their own fears of a fatwa would shut the
thing down before it even began. There are some forms of
hell that even Bill Maher can't joke about.
Ms. Seipp writes "From the Left Coast," a column for
National Review Online