SCOTT SIMON, host:
John Fugelsang grew up thinking that he was never meant to be. Not that he was a mistake, the offshoot of an unchecked passion, but the bitter fruit of a sin: the marriage of his mother, who had been a Roman Catholic nun, and his father, who had been a Franciscan priest.
"All the Wrong Reasons" is the title of John Fugelsang's one-man show now playing at the New York Theater Workshop. He rangers(ph) through growing up with guilt, roughly questioning God, sneaking brownie crumbs through airport security and offering his love to David Duke.
This is not just another night in the theater. The show's subtitle is "A True Story of Neo-Nazis, Drug Smuggling and Undying Love." John Fugelsang joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. JOHN FUGELSANG (Comedian, "All the Wrong Reasons: A True Story of Neo-Nazis, Drug Smuggling and Undying Love"): And what a pleasure, Scott. Thank you.
SIMON: The show begins at a period when you were rather downcast in your life.
Mr. FUGELSANG: Yes, it certainly does. For a comedy show, it begins in a lot of darkness. It was a period where I had found some early success doing a lot of television hosting work, which for an actor and a political standup was a rather odd way of making a living.
And it gave me a sense of the kind of work I didn't want to do. But, after that, I was offered many different lovely high-paying jobs in game show hosting and reality show hosting and dating show hosting. I began saying no to a lot of these jobs and I said I'm willing to be the out-of-work starving artist. And this show begins mid-starvation.
SIMON: You say in the show that you can identify with God because of his mood swings.
Mr. FUGELSANG: Yes. Well, you're a kid reading the Bible. You don't know which Jehovah you're going to get moment to moment.
SIMON: You retell the story of Abraham in a way that gives approximate characters to the participants, principally Abraham and God, and in the way you say - of illustrating the mood swings of the Almighty.
Mr. FUGELSANG: Yes, I do. I do talk about that and about, you know, when I was a child reading the Bible, I saw that, you know, in this chapter, He loves you but here all mankind is an abomination. But here He'll always forgive unless He sends you to burn in the lake of fire. And He is almighty and all-powerful but deeply insecure and jealous. I thought that's not a god. That's an alcoholic dad.
And so there is a segment in the show, because I do blend standup with storytelling that re-imagines the Abraham-God scene for the sacrifice of Isaac, if God had been a somewhat bipolar, alcoholic father figure. And it manages to cover the origin of the circumcision rule as well. So it…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FUGELSANG: …something to inspire and offend everyone hopefully. But it is not a Christian-bashing show in - by any stretch. I grew up with a very passionate love of Christianity, but from a decidedly progressive viewpoint that often found me at odds with others. I was usually too liberal for the Christians I knew, and too Christian for the hipsters I knew. And this piece kind of evolved from various adventures that dealt with David Duke and miracle stem cell cures and smuggling medical marijuana through an airport for a sick friend with HIV after 9/11. And it's…
SIMON: The usual elements of a dying protagonist…
Mr. FUGELSANG: The usual things, yeah. It's a musical and it - no, and it goes deeply into the essence of - you hear the phrase, Catholic guilt a lot, but how it really is something that is an inherited syndrome that does not come from God or from you, that comes from a tradition that kind of has nothing to do with what the religion is supposed to be about.
SIMON: At the heart of the show, as it turns out, is an utterly, to my mind, extraordinary personal love story between your parents: the former nun and the priest. They met once and didn't see each other for - how long was it?
Mr. FUGELSANG: About 10 years he waited for her. They met in the late '50s when he was a Franciscan brother. Their convent put her through nursing school. My mother was from the south, so I had a Brooklyn father and a southern mother. And I grew up in a bilingual household. And they were both 24, became very close friends and soon her convent sent her to Africa to work with lepers.
And in a hospital in the jungles of Malawi, they became regular pen pals. And when she was briefly sent back to the States, he borrowed a car and made the eight-hour drive one night to Virginia, found the hospital where she was working an overnight shift, talked with her until the sun came up and then at sunrise told her that he was in love with her and always had been, and she threw him out of the hospital for breaking the law…
SIMON: Yes, but…
Mr. FUGELSANG: …for violating their oaths.
SIMON: Yes, but happy ending and that they get married.
Mr. FUGELSANG: Yes. The play covers this in more detail. But he eventually got his chance and he did propose to her and she said yes. And she finally left the convent after 16 years and they raised three children on Long Island. And so this show is, sort of, about how his health was very poor and how we were never supposed to be born. He wasn't supposed to live and a couple of weddings that weren't supposed to happen.
SIMON: We made oblique reference to the David Duke story. I think I said - let me check my own words. I think, I said in introducing you and offering his love to David Duke.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FUGELSANG: Yeah, well, a lot of the show deals with guilt, as we said earlier. And one of the early stories, which I used to set up the characters, involves the time that I was asked to go on Bill Marsh show, his old ABC show and debate with David Duke.
And before I went on, my father said to me: I need you to promise me that you're not going to get all-confrontational with this guy. That you're going to give him love that he is entitled to as a human being and don't go trying to drag yourself down to his level.
For those who don't remember, David Duke is a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and a former member of the American Nazi Party. And I had gone in expecting to rip the guy's head off, and suddenly my dad is admonishing me to give this man love and treat him with dignity. And I tried the whole broadcast to be as polite and deferential as possible, and he repeatedly said things that were rather insensitive to minorities - religious and ethnic.
And finally by the end of the show, I had had it. And I wound up saying to Mr. Duke that I understood anyone as far to the right as him was clearly in a lot of pain. And anyone who hated gay men, as much as he, was obviously crying out for help, and it was obvious there was nothing wrong with him that hot sex with a man couldn't fix. And I, more or less, offered to break him in on the air. And the audience loved it. It was riotist. It was a very Jerry Springer-like moments but I…
SIMON: You began to move your belt. Do I have that?
Mr. FUGELSANG: I began - yes, sir. I began unbuckling my belt and taking off my jacket and saying I would crossover to the dark side for you, Obi-Wan. And it was a huge moment comedically.
SIMON: Excuse me. Let me press the (unintelligible) button.
Mr. FUGELSANG: Sorry.
SIMON: That's all right. That's…
Mr. FUGELSANG: Well, and it was, you know, one of those moments that all your comic friends are slapping you on the back and all, you know, my various lefty and quite a few Republican friends were applauding me for. And my parents were mortified.
SIMON: Did you ever say to yourself, well, maybe they're right?
Mr. FUGELSANG: Well, of course. It's one of those situations where I felt like they were right in being humiliated that their little boy have gone on the air and engaged in such ranked vulgarity. I kept saying I was doing it to make fun of a Nazi, a Nazi clansman. But to them, it was a real disappointment.
SIMON: Well, what happened when you're able to talk to your parents?
Mr. FUGELSANG: You know, my mother was very lovely about it and said, you know, don't worry. Everything is fine. I love you and nothing you do could ever change that, but I never imagined you behaving in such a way. And I tried to defend it.
And the story goes into great, rich, comedic detail and embarrassing detail about how we were able to build a bridge beyond that. And I realized sometimes awful personal experiences can make the funniest, most rich stories. And it's usually the piece that gets the highest audience response and the biggest laughs because it was quite outrageous. But it was also a story about family and healing and feeling like a disappointment in your parents' eyes as an adult.
SIMON: John Fugelsang. His one-man song "All the Wrong Reasons: A True Story of Neo-Nazis, Drug Smuggling and Undying Love" runs through May 6 at the New York Theater Workshop.
John, thank you so much.
Mr. FUGELSANG: Scott, thank you. It was a pleasure to be here.
SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
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