A Conversation With Patricia Heaton

 Actress Patricia Heaton became a household name for her work in CBS’ beloved hit comedy Everybody Loves Raymond, winning two Emmys as Ray’s no-nonsense spouse, Debra Barone. She’s also a Christian, and she recently lent her talents to the Christian comedy Mom’s Night Out, which was released on video Sept. 2. As both a Hollywood vet and a committed believer, Heaton has some strong opinions on what sort of work Christian entertainers should be doing—and how to reach moviegoing non-believers. I had a chance to talk with Heaton about Christian entertainment and Mom’s Night Out. We’re printing a portion of our wide-ranging conversation below and, as you’ll see, she had some interesting things to say.

Bob Waliszewski: When I think Christian comedy, I think of stand-up comedy and live performances. But Mom’s Night Out was the first attempt to go after a fairly significant theatrical release of a Christian comedy via telling a story. Why do you think it’s taken so long to enter this space?

Patricia Heaton: Comedy is hard. I think there was a famous saying that “death is easy, comedy is hard.” … Not all actors can do comedy. … Most people from the Christian community, who are coming into it, don’t have a lot of experience in the industry. This might sound strange, but it’s almost easier to do drama if you are new at something than it would be to do comedy. Comedy is a lot about timing, it’s very musical in the approach that you take to doing comedy as far as how a joke is said. Timing, editing, it’s never right on the nose.

Some of the issues we have with some of the product that’s coming out of the Christian community is the message is sort of hit over the audience’s head. …. With comedy, you kind of take a circuitous route and take people on a journey where they’re laughing and maybe not even aware that they’re being told something, given a specific theme. That might be why it’s taken awhile.

Waliszewski: What’s the future for Christian comedy? Is there a future for it, or should we just give it up and stick to Passion of the Christ and Son of God?

Heaton: I think in anything, you need to keep going. What’s interesting is that those movies that you just mentioned make a lot of money. … they’re still speaking to people. It’s a combination of having to bring an audience along with you, so that they can maybe appreciate and support maybe something that’s more nuanced than some of those films. The only way to do that is to keep making them. If you want to help educate your audience, you have to give them something.

I personally don’t like to label something. I don’t like the label Christian film. Because I’m a Christian, whatever I do has a Christian aspect to it. It doesn’t have to be labeled that and it doesn’t have to even talk about God in it. I think we as a community do ourselves a huge disservice by labeling things. You are automatically alienating most of the mainstream people … because the reputation [of Christian films] is low quality and preachy. If we keep putting ourselves in that ghetto, you’re just going to keep going to the same people—not that they shouldn’t be served, but I think there is a way that you can make a movie that serves that audience and also brings in a new audience.

Waliszewski: So, if we want to get away from just “preaching to the choir”—if we want to reach other folks who wouldn’t ever set foot in a church—how do we cross that bridge more than we’re doing?

Heaton: The people that I’ve worked with, the people that I’ve talked to and the interviews I’ve seen, I don’t see a lot of [Christians] that are interested in going outside of the preachy thing. … I’m very proud of [Mom’s Night Out] and I loved everybody I worked with. I’m not trying to take anybody down here. [But] there were a couple of times, small incidences where I said we should have this in the movie or we would have something in the movie and it was taken out because somebody, somewhere said, “Oh, that’s going to offend the audience.” They are going to think we are making fun of—whatever.” I just thought, ‘give the audience some credit, they’re not stupid.’ I don’t think we’re ever going to be able to expand on what we’re doing if we keep tip-toeing around being afraid that the Baptists aren’t going to like this or the Evangelicals aren’t going to like that or someone is going to be offended by this. I think we have to get over that. The fact is when you scratch the surface of any person’s life, any Christian’s life, you’re going to find lots of stuff in there, and you’d be offended if you put it in a movie, yet that’s what people are dealing with in their lives. There is a way to be real and a way to do quality that people can appreciate without feeling offended.

Waliszewski: Our own review of Mom’s Night Out ended in part this way: “From its parade of pitch-perfect performers (Patricia Heaton, Sean Astin and Trace Adkins among them) to its goofy car chases to its geyser of goo-free giggles, this version, well, sparkles. It laughs with I Love Lucy-like charm at the sometimes stressful insanity of childrearing and married-with-kids family life (thanks in large part to lead redhead Sarah Drew). But it also takes the time to gently recognize how God’s hand in an average mom and dad’s world can make all that craziness oh-so-much easier to deal with. Certainly much more meaningful and rewarding.” Many of us would like to see more films made like this one. But apparently this concept is a hard sell in Hollywood. Agree or disagree?

Heaton: I think if it’s done right it would sell. Our industry… it’s so hard to know when a film is going to work.