Angela Kinsey challenged the writer of The Office over a line that she felt mocked her Christian beliefs. Writer/comedian Paul Kerensa remembers a similar sit(com)uation writing for a UK TV show


Source: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

The Office – whether British or American version – loved to make us squirm.

It made us laugh too, but there’s a fine line between laughing at and laughing with the onscreen characters. Some are meant to be the butt of the joke. But what happens when the actor and character share the traits being lampooned? When does a joke overstep the mark? And when is it too late to change the script?

Actress Angela Kinsey recently spoke on the podcast Soul Boom: Why We Need a Spiritual Revolution to her co-star Rainn Wilson (Dwight Schrute). Kinsey is a Christian, as was her onscreen character Angela Martin, whom she played for 201 episodes of The Office (US version). Her character was the uptight Head of Accounts at Dunder Mifflin Paper Company. A reminder: this is fiction.

But fact and fiction can overlap when beliefs are portrayed – not helped that Angela played Angela. The fictional Angela was known for her complaints and conservative Christian beliefs. In one episode she gives her desert-island booklist as The Bible, The Purpose Driven Life, and The Da Vinci Code – just so she could burn it.

But in her recent interview, Kinsey told of the time that a line went too far. The script had her mock a gay character, using Jesus’ name – which she thought came across as “super-judgey”. This wasn’t who she wanted to portray, and it wasn’t a view of her faith that she wanted broadcast.

A moment like that is a challenge – a dilemma with no thinking time. Continue the scene, or cause a scene? It can take courage to change the script.

As a writer, I spend months (sometimes years!) crafting the best script possible – but it’s never complete until the last moment. They say a work of art isn’t finished, it’s abandoned. When I’m teaching Screenwriting at the University of Winchester, I tell my students that scripts are just blueprints – invitations to collaborate. It’s a team effort.

I’ve worked on Not Going Out, Miranda and various other sitcoms, and it’s on one of the nameless ‘various others’ that I recall facing a similar dilemma.

I was doing a script pass on a new young writer’s work for BBC3 – some additional material and script editing. Countless scenes ended in spoken exasperation, but as a pre-watershed show, ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’ were often used as sweary substitutes.

I’d love to know who made that big list dictating the order and strength of swear words, where it’s decreed that the ‘F word’ > the ‘S word’ > the ‘G name’ and the ‘J name’.

So this script had the apparently milder expletive of our saviour’s name. Frequently. Personally I’d much rather hear the ‘S word’.

I recall the dilemma as I chewed the end of my pen (that dates it). Do I tell the producer no, as a Christian I’m offended and these anti-Christian expletives need to go? I thought not.

Firstly, I’m on the fence about offence. Some are offended by the Bible – so just because a thing offends, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist. So offence isn’t something I personally think holds much currency.

Besides, complain and next time they’d just find a way to exclude me. Writers are very replaceable. I’d rather be part of the conversation than shut out from it. In the world, but not of it, but in the room to make a difference please.

I zoomed in on the lines which were full of blasphemy. They smacked of lazy comedy to me. Blackadder and Fawlty didn’t blaspheme. They were angry and cynical, but creative in the way they expressed their frustration. And of course, they get their comeuppance. We don’t leave those shows thinking Fawlty’s attitude is the way to live.

So I focused on rewriting the holy expletives out of it, by replacing them with hopefully better, funnier, more creative lines.

As for Angela Kinsey, she approached The Office writer Greg Daniels and said, “I don’t feel good about it [this line]. I don’t feel like that’s what Jesus represented to me.”’ Greg Daniels accepted that, and the joke vanished from the script. We don’t know what it was, because it’s expunged from the record – and something better appeared instead.

I prefer creating to complaining – though for Kinsey, her complaint became something creative. Either way, I’m all for building not knocking down, and telling a better story.

The pen is mightier than the ‘S word’ – and the ‘J name’ in the wrong context. I reserve his name for my praise, not for the butt of a joke.