A Televisual Representation of Roman Catholic Priests: Father Ted

Chapter Four


Other Clerics' Interpretations Of Father Ted

"Your question is what are they saying about priesthood
and I would say absolutely nothing!"

One priest's summation of Father Ted


Introduction

Having interviewed the creators of Father Ted; I undertook to find out what others thought of its televisual representation of priests. I limited my audience research to priests and seminarians. As a matter of convenience, the sample was also overwhelmingly Jesuit.1 Thus, my audience research consisted of visiting five Jesuit communities, and one gathering of parish priests, in the London area.
As I was interested in the televisual representation of Roman Catholic priests it seemed appropriate to speak to those with the most to gain or lose: Catholic priests. I realised as well that priests would also be the most judgmental, and expected harsh comments from at least some. What I did not expect, was the large number who had neither seen nor heard of the programme.
My methodology was simple. At each viewing we watched one of two episodes, followed by a thirty-to forty-five-minute discussion of the image of the priests in the programme. Respondents were allowed to talk about whatever they liked and to mention other episodes if they had seen. I began each session by thanking them for participating and we begin the viewing. I told them I was most interested in their thoughts, if they had questions of me those could be raised at the very end of the sessions. The goal was to elicit feelings and impressions about Father Ted's televisual representation of priests and the Catholic Church. The discussions were recorded and later transcribed.
A total of twenty-four priests and seminarians took part in the viewing sessions. The men ranged in age from twenty-nine to seventy-one. Cultures from around the world were represented: British, Irish, German, Austrian, Filipino, North American and Indian. Most of the priests, as well as the seminarians, were students, though some are involved in teaching or pastoral work in the London area.
2

Photo of Father Jack
Frank Kelly as Fr. Jack

There is one potential problem with this audience sample. Jesuits are known for their academic training and rigour, thus the high number of graduate students and university teachers in the sample. However, they also tend to be somewhat staid and more interested in 'high culture' than 'popular culture.' These factors certainly influenced the responses given and indeed the attitudes taken during the viewing sessions. As will be seen, most Jesuits do not consider the humour in Father Ted funny. I believe this relates to the traditional academic lifestyle in the Society of Jesus which emphasises high culture.

Audience Response

The initial response to the programme was one of caution. While almost everyone thought that parts of the programme were humorous, they did not praise it lavishly. Most respondents laughed at one or more of the episode's jokes, but found the comic content of the programme to be shallow and poorly developed:

A1: It's funny, but I was looking for some kind of little twist here or there or probably at the end.
B2: It's not sophisticated humour.

Adjectives for the type of comedy present in Father Ted varied from 'parody' to 'caricature' to 'surreal' to 'farce.' Most respondents agreed that stereotypes helped provide the humour for the programme. The degree to which these stereotypes reflected reality raised some questions:

J1: Everything was over-the-top parody… so you have this immature young priest, the old alcoholic priest and the slightly street-wise devious, God knows what he's up to, priest in the middle years.
D1: While the show is amusing in some ways the stereotypes are largely negative. Especially since they portray the parish clergy as a bit dim.
J2: The humour is very contrived and based on stereotypes and very shallow ideas about people in general, not just priests. . . . It's farce, but farce to be good has to parody something substantial. . . It has to nail you at something you really live. It's farcical about priests but I didn't even think it was a very good farce of priests.

The above responses speak about parody and the use of stereotypes. The first reflects an acceptance of the use of these three stereotypes to create a good parody and comic effect. The second finds the programme amusing but has serious concerns about its stereotypes. For the third, stereotypes are not 'substantial' enough to be the grounding for good parody. Ninety percent of the respondents fell into two groups-they either accepted the use of stereotypes, following the first response or rejected the use, following the second and third responses above.
In an attempt to avoid a debate over the accuracy of stereotypes, some respondents proposed that Father Ted was a surrealistic comedy. The logic seems to be that if a comedy is surreal, there is no way the stereotypes depicted can be accepted as representations of reality. On their own, stereotypes may be offensive, but placing them in a surrealistic context makes them acceptable and even enjoyable.

B3: I think this is special… this is not normal comedy. This is completely surrealistic.
J1: This is a much more surreal kind of thing. I think that if you were to meet priests actually like that, your reaction would be revulsion with the three of them. But your attitude in finding them here [on television] is not one of revulsion.

While the humour of the programme was noted, the audience expressed a greater concern for the quality of the humour and its sources. While few admitted being offended by Father Ted's humour, there were serious concerns expressed about the image of priests presented in the programme. At the same time a couple of the respondents felt it was simply humour and therefore no to be taken seriously:

I1: I don't think people will take it as a serious assault on the Church or on the faith.
G1: I don't particularly find it [offensive] and I wouldn't in one sense worry about it being shown to people. It's not a portrayal but it presupposes a picture I still think. . . . But it isn't saying this is what priests are like.
M1: I don't find it offensive, I just find it nothing. Given the potential for humour in Catholicism, that doesn't even begin, because it is a caricature.
R1: I did not find the whole programme offensive at all. . . . watching such a programme I would not think these are true-to-life realistic characters at all.
J1: So even though you could say it brings out a whole negative image, to me it didn't have much to do with anything other than a humorous parody of clergy life.

The last two responses above indicate the respondent's acceptance of the humour and parody of Father Ted and reveal the assumption thet all viewers will also simply enjoy the comedy. Other responses, such as G1 and M1, find nothing of importance in the programme and so doubt it will have any negative affect on the viewing audience at large.
However, some respondents found the programme or the way it dealt with the characters and aspects of priestly life offensive or bothersome:

M2: So although it is a farce based on some humorous characters, people who are very conscious of the substance that is beneath it would realise there is some truth about it which means faith is portrayed as farcical. Especially by the … hierarchy which is supposed to represent the faith.
J2: It does bother me that it is this kind of representation of priesthood, or the Church, or belief. It doesn't profoundly bother me-I've seen enough already that it's no surprise. But that very shallow understanding of what faith is about is the vernacular. We assume that and go with it in terms of what our humour is… .
B3: I suppose the offending thing of it for me is that they are characterised in a way that people think these priests don't live what they preach. You can see that they don't take it seriously at all. For example, when Dougal asks him [Fr. Ted] if he believes in life after death… then he says, "Catholic priests have a strong faith in it." This is not an 'I' speaking, it is always someone else. This is the damaging part.
I1: It's actually quite distressing to watch in a lot of ways. Not that you want to be hyper-sensitive about these things. But if that's how people are receiving images of religious life then it really does undervalue an awful lot of what we are about.

All of these responses assume that viewers are able to perceive some kind of reality in Father Ted. The programme is then not only a work of comedy or parody but it conveys a message about priesthood, priestly life and the Catholic Church. These respondents also tended to be the same ones who strongly objected to the use of what they thought were offensive stereotypes in Father Ted.
At every viewing the discussion turned to the form of the comedy itself. Questions, such as these, were raised by the respondents themselves: What does it mean to refer to it as farce? Or parody? There did not seem to be a consensus on these issues. One of the most frequently raised questions concerned caricatures. Are caricatures based on truth? Does the audience have to believe the 'truth' behind the caricatures to find humour in them? The following excerpts exemplify of this kind of discussion:

G1: If those things [the negative stereotypes] weren't presumed then the whole thing wouldn't be a caricature of anything real. I would say the point of caricature is to take features everybody knows about and to exaggerate them.
J1: It's not that people know that priests are like this, that's not what makes it funny. It's the fact that you have these different types against the presumption that these … finding these faults, these characteristics, in a group of priests is quite bizarre.

Almost everyone agreed that the viewer must be able to make some kind of identification to real priests if they are to find humour in the programme. Accepted stereotypes of the clergy were a popular source of this connection. Even though the validity of these stereotypes was also in question, as we have seen above, they were a point of reality for some respondents as well.

M1: It must have some sort of purchase on reality to be as successful as it is. I suspect there is something in the caricatures which actually fits people's sort … well, Catholic stereotypes.

A similar line of thinking produced comments like the one below, reflecting the popular idea that viewers have an image of priests already in their minds when they watch Father Ted. Whether the viewer believes there are stereotypes of priests being presented in the programme is of less concern. The fact that priests are the main characters generates enough comic effect.

G1: [The jokes] were funny precisely because they were said by priests. All the jokes, in fact, had very little to do with priests, except he [Fr. Dougal] didn't know how to do the last sacraments.

There is a common dynamic expressed here. The jokes were funny because they were made by priests, but the jokes themselves were not specifically about priests or priestly life. The question was also raised to whether the show would have been funny had the characters not been priests. About a third of the respondents felt, like this one, that the characters must be priests for the comic effect, while others felt they could be doctors, military professionals or police and still create the same kind of humour.
Then there were the respondents who felt the style of comedy was surrealistic:

J2: It's almost surreal the way that it is presented. I think they get away with that because maybe in a lot of people's imagination, priesthood and that kind of life … is so secretive in many people's minds. They never get a view inside of a rectory or whatever, they just think that kind of surreal … that the whole life is surreal.
I1: The point about surrealism is actually quite right-in a sense it is a caricature that is taken to exaggeration. But the point about caricature is that it is based on truth. That's what makes a caricature work. So what these guys are doing is establishing points of truth of what they see as religious life and it's not a complimentary image at all.

The comments above reiterate the connection between surrealism and the perceived negative representation of priests in Father Ted. The characters are seen as exaggerated caricatures, yet there is some presumed truth behind this kind of comedy. The respondents assume the writers are trying to drive home some kind of message in their caricatures.
The following respondent's main concern was finding some redeeming value in the characters. He felt that with caricatures there needed to be some kind of redemption or 'twist' to the story. Thus he compared characterisations of priests and women:

A1: Suppose you reduce all women characters into the same caricatures without redeeming values; let's see how women would react?

Respondents also commented on some specific elements of representation, especially concerning the individual characters. The behaviour and attitudes of the main characters seemed to bring out the most emotional responses from the audience.

B2: They're pretty dumb aren't they? They're all dumb!
J2: Yeah, Dougal is an imbecile. The bottom … the thing when the lady [Mrs. Doyle] was giving him a bath, that was absurd, well the whole thing was absurd.
M1: [Dougal's] the one that doesn't ring true to me. I just find him embarrassing. But Fr. Ted is sort of the genial character. I can somehow relate to him as a parish priest who as you say is trying to get things going in the middle of a disaster.

Belief-what priests themselves believe in-was as important as their behaviour, dress and the jokes about priests. Thus many respondents talked about the representations of Catholic beliefs and expressed concern for their authenticity and correctness:

C1: The other thing was the representations of beliefs of the priests. … There wasn't any serious belief except for one of the bishops who was concerned about the representation of the clergy in the media.
B2: But there is absolutely no content in anything … in what any of them do. There is obviously no reason for believing what they believe. They don't believe it themselves!

The respondents were concerned that the beliefs expressed in Father Ted correspond to reality as well. The respondents were concerned lest viewers accept the beliefs of the characters as if they were in fact their parish priests.
One respondent took a very radical stance:

M1: Your question is what is the model of priesthood, what are they saying about priesthood and I would say absolutely nothing!

This is probably one of the most profound comments or one of the most absurd depending on your own appraisal of Father Ted. Those who love Father Ted and watch it religiously would agree, proclaiming it is a sitcom and nothing more. Thus the programme says nothing about priests. Those who are critical of Father Ted would argue that it is about priests and profits from a negative portrayal of priests.
Another respondent, who displayed little fondness for the programme, summed his feelings thus:

I1: It is a very subtle programme that makes lots of points, and most of them very negative on religious life. . . . All they [the priests] do is wear dog collars but what they really are, you know, are children. . . . I think we're looking at a bunch of kids who have no potential about growing up because they are mollycoddled by mother-figures all the way.

Some respondents had suggestions for ways to improve the televisual representation of priests in Father Ted:

A1: [The writers should] add some other bits and pieces of kindness. At least Fr. Ted should have helped Sister [Monica to the boat] probably or something to that effect, a little thing. He should have some kind of compassion.
I1: I think you could redeem Fr. Ted a bit if they occasionally had a function for him to perform and he was actually quite successful at it.

Both of these respondents felt that Father Ted lacked some kind of redeeming value. They felt that caricatures were only valuable if there was something redeeming about them. The first felt this should arise out of some twist in the story, such as a kind gesture by Fr. Ted. The second saw priests depicted as children. Thus they could be redeemed by successfully completing some function that might be expected of a 'real' priest.
This is a representation of significant comments gathered during the audience viewing sessions. While few greatly disliked the programme and worried about its content, many expressed some reservations about the televisual representation of priests. In the following section I will take a closer look at these comments.

Analysis

To say that Roman Catholic priests are a tough audience would seem to be an understatement after reviewing these audience discussions. Overall, the only positive response was that the programme was funny in parts. However, in most cases a "but" was quickly attached to that praise. The final range of responses was quite predictable. Some were offended; some enjoyed the comic elements while finding it not their kind of humour; some thought it was humorous but lacked a positive image of priests. And some respondents fell into one or two of these categories.
Before addressing these three categories of response, I must return to the number of respondents who had not seen or even heard of Father Ted. As indicated, in my opinion, I believe most of these Jesuits had never seen Father Ted because it is popular television. J2 represented this group well when he said: "I was reminded why I never watch TV like this. These kinds of shows are so fluffy. I would have walked out very early on had I not been here for a task." He was not the only one who said he would have left.
Although the preference for high culture among Jesuits is not something that is mandated or aggressively perpetuated it is passed on from generation to generation. It seems there is something about ten years of higher education, in some of the best schools and communities in the world, that fosters a preference for high culture.
This preference for high culture cannot be ignored when looking at the responses of the Jesuits in this audience sample. That Jesuits dislike "fluffy" television may have certainly affected their overall appraisal of Father Ted and its representation of priests. If the programme is not the kind of programme one would normally watch why be interested in it now or even be open to the messages or images it may be expressing. As a result, their responses may have been an attempt to say what they thought I was expecting, or simply shallow comments that came off the top of their heads.
The respondents most offended by Father Ted expressed the greatest concern about the image of priests in the programme. They also seemed to operate from a linear model of communication: the writers have a message, an image of priests; produced as a programme and received by the viewers completely intact. This model holds that any prejudice or praise the writers have for priests is completely transmitted to viewers. However, the model is defective in that it neglects the power of the viewers as readers of the text. These respondents seemed to ignore the fact that general viewers may see something entirely different in Father Ted than the writers or producers intend. If this is the case, these particular respondents' concerns may reflect worries about how they are viewed as priests by the public more than how the public feels about the image projected by Father Ted.
Another issue raised by these respondents is the question of reality. Does television have the responsibility of transmitting an image of reality? Should entertainment programmes be forced to portray characters positively simply for the sake of reality and fairness? Joli Jensen speaks about the perceived role of media as a "conduit of information."
3 This model of the media as a purveyor of reality not only affects the news media, it also hinders the creativity and freedom of entertainment media. Jensen concludes:
The issue of entertainment's accuracy reveals, more clearly than does the issue of news accuracy, the bases of the critique of media as information. Information is itself so trusted, so valued, and deemed so necessary in modern life that it should be characteristic of all popular cultural forms. Information is inherently worthy, and entertainment is mistrusted, at least in part, because it does not properly inform.
4
Thus some feel that if Father Ted does not provide proper or positive information about Roman Catholic priests it has little value or is even offensive.
Another important point is that all the audiences laughed at some point during the viewing. This would indicate there was something in the show they enjoyed and recognised. I say this making use of their claims that for caricatures to work there must be some connection to reality or truth. In fact, some of the respondents did admit recognising some aspects of their life in the programme, such as B3: "I find there are some similarities to our life." How could anyone laugh if Father Ted's view of priestly life, as critiqued by the respondents, is so close to reality? Would one want to admit this fact to someone doing a study?
Those who were not offended fell into one of the two other categories of responses-they either denied it was their kind of humour, or felt it lacked some kind of redeeming quality. Those who felt it was not their kind of humour exhibit a prejudice against popular culture as I mentioned above. But what does it say about themselves? They may not like comedies altogether. They may have little understanding of the genre of television sitcoms. Or do they not like humour that makes fun of issues that are too close to their personal insecurities? One might easily laugh at Fr. Ted but be afraid that others would laugh at him for the same reasons.
The group that laughed while wanting a redeeming factor in the priests' lives certainly seemed to misunderstand the sitcom genre. A sitcom is designed basically to be one joke or gag right after another. Each scene must be packed with as much comedy as possible; little time should be devoted to serious activity. Emphasising Fr. Ted's kindness, as one respondent suggested, would greatly alter the impact of the programme. It could undermine or even destroy the sitcom genre. Surreal, sarcastic sitcoms such as Father Ted generate laughs by creating situations that are unreal.
The television genre of drama does a superior job reflecting reality. For example, BBC's Ballykissangel is a programme that emphasises the humanity and kindness of a parish priest. Although the programme has humorous moments, as was mentioned in Chapter One, it should not be considered a comedy and definitely not a sitcom.
One final point must be considered. During most of the viewing discussions, talk centred on what the respondents thought about Father Ted. This was appropriate because that is what I proposed to them. However, they were free to speak about whatever they liked. It is significant that little concern was shown for the impressions of non-Catholics viewing Father Ted. The issue of non-Catholics' opinions arose during only one of the viewing discussions and the exchange was brief at that:

C1: The overwhelming majority of people watching it are not Catholics at all. So they've got no idea what Catholicism is about.
J2: Except they do have an idea!
D1: They have ideas, they may be incorrect, but they do have ideas.
B2: Catholicism is about sex and not having sex, drink and not having drink…
J2: It's about trying to explain the behaviour of these weird priests, who… just look at the little messages that came across. I mean, number one, the most striking was that bathtub scene, but the other one was the two guys [Frs. Ted and Dougal] in those single beds at night [in the same room]. I mean that's just absurd.

This exchange began with a genuine concern for non-Catholics viewing Father Ted and ended up with the absurd indeed. I have not spoken with non-Catholics so I have no idea what they think of the programme or Catholicism. However, it must be assumed they enjoy something about the programme because of its wide success. Do they enjoy it because it makes fun of Catholics? I cannot say. Certainly Catholicism is not about "trying to explain the behaviour of these weird priests." Even non-Catholics would accept that.

Conclusion

Clearly the views of priests concerning the televisual representation of priests in Father Ted are of interest and should not be ignored. Were there further time, a larger and broader sample would be significant. As noted, the Jesuit audience is unique, though it enjoyed some aspects of the programmes while being troubled by other aspects. However, their understanding of the sitcom genre and communication theory affected their ability to judge the image of priests objectively. The responses reveal that the priests had trouble stepping out of their role as a priest or religious. There appears to be a need to see themselves as others do. Had they been more comfortable and familiar with the way others view them, they might have had a better appreciation of the humour in Father Ted.
On the other hand, according to the reader reception theory
5 , the reader of the text plays as important a role in the communication process as the author. Some would consider the meaning constructed by the reader as more important than the meaning intended by the author. This theory requires an ethnographic understanding of the viewing audience; thus I have attempted to give some insight into Jesuit subculture and the priestly formation process. As a proponent of the reader reception theory, I suggest that the responses of these priests, even in their shortcomings, should not be taken lightly.


Notes for Chapter Four

1. As a fellow Jesuit it was easy for me to get permission and cooperation from other Jesuits in the greater London area. I spoke with communities in North London, Brixton, Cambridge and Harlesden. Interviewing a predominantly Jesuit audience, as I will show, had its drawbacks.
2. More information about these respondents can be found in Appendix Four.
3. For more on the metaphor of 'media as information' see Joli Jensen, Redeeming Modernity: Contradictions in Media Criticism. London: Sage, 1990.
4. Jensen, p. 143
5. See Narratives in Popular Culture, Media, and Everyday Life by Arthur Asa Berger.




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Changes last made on: Tue May 15, 2005