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Garry Shandling, Scott Carter and Randall Arney on opening night

Garry Shandling, Scott Carter and Randall Arney on opening night

The Gospel According to Scott Carter

Scott Carter is an evangelist, and he really would like to talk to you.

But wait, before you slam the door in his face and snap shut the blinds — he’s not so much an evangelist for a religion (more on that in a minute) as he is for a very funny, intellectually agile, intriguingly titled historical mashup of a play about religion, The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy: Discord.

“You tell me when your ear is drooping like a Salvador Dali watch,” the articulate, pleasantly intense Carter says over the phone the afternoon before Thanksgiving. He’s joking. Probably.

The thing is, Carter has been waiting for an opportunity to chat about this for more than 25 years. That’s how long Discord, his play about three intellectual giants who each rewrote the Bible, has been in gestation. Finding themselves locked together in what appears to be a room in purgatory, Jefferson, Dickens and Tolstoy argue and debate why their versions of Christ’s life and lessons are paramount before eventually being forced to face their own shortcomings and hypocrisy.

Carter’s own personal wrestling match began in 1986. He’s been the executive producer of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher since 2003 and has eight Emmy nominations to his name, but his career wasn’t always so abuzz. When he was 34 years old, he felt “stuck in first gear” as a standup comedian and was beset by loneliness. Then he had a near-death experience, a severe asthma attack, that sent him to the hospital and set him on a path of spiritual exploration. As a child, his family had been “vaguely Protestant,” but as questions about his purpose in life — “Is there going to be an afterlife? Will there be some kind of judgment? And if so, what’s the criteria for the judgment? If the criteria is clear for the judgment, shouldn’t I be living my life by that?” — pinballed around his mind, he had no firm convictions on which to stand. “So I began to cast an exceedingly wide net,” he says.

Indeed he did. In addition to traditional religion, he’s sampled less conventional spiritual prescriptions. “I’ve gone to all sorts of New Age ceremonies, including ones involving substances, teepees, bonfires, fasts, vision quests,” he says. “I’ve worked with energy healers, observed a very aggressive strand of Buddhism.” He’s even taken Ayahuasca, a psychedelic drink administered in spiritual ceremonies, and its cousin, San Pedro.

During that time, he heard about Jefferson’s Bible through a television show called A World of Ideas. That led him to Dickens’ Bible, which in turn led him to Tolstoy’s Bible. Inspired by the idea of those three greats poring over the Bible and discerning what they believed, he applied the same rigor to his own search. In the end, that’s what he hopes to spur with Discord — not necessarily conversion, but exploration.

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Meanwhile, he’s just relieved he got the chance to spread his news.

“For decades, I had thought when the play finally got done, I’d feel joyous. Instead what I felt was relief that I had not wasted vast portions of my existence in an epic misadventure,” he says. He’s not joking. “What if I’d gotten hit by a truck three years ago? [Friends would say], ‘He was so deluded, he was insane. Now he’s dead and I guess it’s sad. But at least he won’t be wasting anymore time working on that play!’”

Fortunately, Scott Carter’s gospel was not lost to the ages. The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy: Discord runs through December 21. Please click here to purchase tickets.


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