In TBS’s new comedy series MIRACLE WORKERS, Heaven, Inc. is in an uproar. God (played by Steve Buscemi) has given up in despair with the Earth and has decided to blow it up and do something else entirely. A group of angels in the answered prayers department, headed up by Craig (played by Daniel Radcliffe) and Eliza (played by Geraldine Viswanathan), try to persuade God that there’s still hope for humanity.
Simon Rich created MIRACLE WORKERS, based on his novel of the same name. Rich also created the comedy series MAN SEEKS WOMAN, was one of the writers on the Animated Picture Oscar winner INSIDE OUT, and was a writer on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE from 2007 through 2011.
Karan Soni plays Sanjay, God’s right-hand angel. Soni has also appeared in both DEADPOOL films, the features SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED, GOOSEBUMPS, CREEP 2, and the recent GHOSTBUSTERS, and was a series regular in BLUNT TALK.
Together, Rich and Soni sit down to discuss their comedy with a less than divine view of Heaven.
ASSIGNMENT X: Did the series MIRACLE WORKERS started with your novel?
SIMON RICH: Yeah. The show is called MIRACLE WORKERS. It’s set in Heaven, Inc., which is the gigantic corporation that runs Planet Earth. And for years, the founder and CEO, God, has been undergoing a horrific midlife crisis. He’s completely a broken man, He’s thrown in the towel, He’s got an overflowing inbox stuffed with prayers that He can’t even bring Himself to look at, and so He decides one day he’s going to close the company, retire, and blow up the planet, so He can fulfill His new dream, which is to open up a chain of fast casual restaurants called Lazy Susan’s. So some low-ranking angels in the Department of Answered Prayers, they want to save mankind, so they convince Him to make a bet, which is, if they can crack one of the prayers in His inbox, if they can answer even one of them, He’ll keep Earth open. So they pick the easiest one, in their minds, which is that these two humans have both prayed to be a couple. They shake on it, and they’ve got two weeks to get these two humans to kiss, and if they don’t, the world explodes. But it turns out to be harder –
KARAN SONI: They’re two millennials. The guy is waiting too long to text the girl back, and we’re trying to figure it out.
AX: What can you tell us about your character?
SONI: I play Sanjay on the show. My character is the head angel, so I’m God’s right-hand man. It’s a really interesting part, because through the history of the show, you learn that I’ve been there for hundreds of years at my job, and it’s a very hard job, because I’m the only angel that interacts with God, because God has kind of secluded Himself in His office. You don’t really see Him – the rest of the angels haven’t seen Him in a thousand years. And I’m the only contact that they have with Him. So I’m like the gatekeeper, and I’ve been hiding the secret that God is having a midlife crisis. So I present myself in a very pompous way, and then deep down, I’m miserable, because I’m dealing with a man/child. Maybe a child, not even a man. A baby [laughs].
AX: Are you familiar with the other shows that have at least part or all of the story set in Heaven?
AX: Are you tracking those shows at all?
RICH: Yes. I know there’s THE GOOD PLACE on NBC. I will say MIRACLE WORKERS is based on a novel that I published in 2012, so I can prove that I didn’t rip off NBC, but I was really more trying to rip off THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY by Douglas Adams, and also DEFENDING YOUR LIFE by Albert Brooks. I think we also rip off THE TRUMAN SHOW a lot. So those are our main sources of theft, more than NBC.
AX: Was HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE a big influence on you?
RICH: Enormous. And a big influence on the aesthetic of the entire show. It’s something that we talk often about on set, in terms of the scripts, but also in terms of the production design and the art direction, and the tone.
AX: Was Douglas Adams also an influence in you taking a lot of what seem normal things and through the MIRACLE WORKERS filter?
RICH: I’ve always just been attracted to writers who wrote stories that were simultaneously absurdist and existential and dark, but also accessible and funny and redemptive. I loved Douglas Adams, but I also was a really big fan of CALVIN & HOBBES, was a huge SIMPSONS obsessive, I like T.C. Boyle, I like Roald Dahl, I like Martin Amis. I like people who are simultaneously sour and occasionally sweet.
AX: Was MIRACLE WORKERS based at all on you thinking, it would be funny if Heaven worked like this, it would be nice if Heaven worked like this, or it would be especially awful if Heaven worked like this?
RICH: I always thought it would be interesting to portray a version of the afterlife which was consistent with our experiences as humans on planet Earth. So we set up a cosmology that I think is plausible. Maybe it’s possible that, at the very highest levels in the universe, things are not perfectly well run.
SONI: This show is very [applicable] to the world. The arc of the season, a hopeful one, I think – there’s a speech that Daniel gave in the finale, when we read it at the table read, I’m like, we were all emotional, because it kind of simplifies how to go through these complicated times [laughs], but at the same time, it’s also very silly and dumb.
RICH: Yeah, very well said. It’s a show about a system that is screwed up at the very highest level. And Karan and Daniel and Geraldine play characters who are trying to do something positive and they’re overwhelmed.
SONI: The prayers don’t stop, because there are endless, endless problems.
RICH: Endless problems.
SONI: And there’s a reason why, when the show begins, we’re kind of looking at the world as it is right now, at this very moment, where God is just like, “I can’t catch a break.” And so there’s this, very relevant, I think, to everything that’s happening, this feeling of hopelessness and, “When do we start cracking some of these problems?”
RICH: Right. And every character in the show is faced with a question at some point, “Shouldn’t I just give up? Shouldn’t we just throw in the towel, and shouldn’t the Earth explode?” [laughs] And the characters have to work through that, and find a reason to hope and work together and to try to do something positive.
AX: When you wrote the novel in 2012, did you expect it to be quite so relevant to the times we’re living in now?
RICH: No. It’s so funny – I’ve been working on this story in some way, shape or form for almost a decade. And I never thought it would ever be as relevant as it became. Although I do think there’s a reason why it took so long – I’d been trying to adapt it for almost a decade, and I think there’s a reason why people this year [relate to it] –
SONI: In a real different light.
AX: Lorne Michaels, who produces SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, is one of the executive producers on MIRACLE WORKERS. What was your relationship with him like when you were writing on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE?
RICH: I’ve always had a great working relationship with Lorne. Obviously, he’s one of my heroes since childhood, and I just feel really thrilled with the opportunity to continue to work with him, even though I don’t write for SNL anymore.
AX: When you cast Daniel Radcliffe as the angel Craig, were you aware of that fact that you and he somewhat resemble each other?
RICH: I get mistaken for him occasionally at airports. I’ve been such a fan of Dan’s for years, his film work obviously, but also on Broadway, and the entire cast – it’s just been thrilling to work with Karan and Steve, Geraldine and Dan. It’s a true ensemble.
AX: When you wrote the Craig character, did you imagine that he’d look kind of like you?
RICH: What’s funny is that, personally, when I write a novel, I tend to relate to all of the characters in some way. I don’t think that it’s possible to write a character with any kind of authenticity unless you do emotionally relate somewhat to what they’re going through. So I do happen to physically resemble Dan more than the other cast members [laughs], but I think there are aspects of Sanjay’s character that relate to you, and of Eliza’s character, and even of Steve’s character at times. I am hopeful that all the characters will be relatable. But they are very distinctive. It is a true ensemble, there are very different personalities on the show, and they are clashing.
AX: Is there a consistency or a diversity to the angels in terms of gender and ethnicity?
RICH: Well, it’s an extremely diverse show, because it’s set in Heaven, which is meant to be a reflection of humanity. It’s a creative choice. If it was homogenous, it wouldn’t look like Earth, and it’s meant to be a reflection of Earth.
SONI: The idea is that we were all humans, and then once we die, we have a chance to apply to be an angel, so you see one episode where you specifically see what we were all like on Earth, some hundreds of years ago, some more recently, and so we’ve all had experiences from this planet, so then we end up at Heaven, Inc. So it’s international. Exactly.
AX: How did you come to the idea of Heaven being a corporation?
RICH: Because I loved the idea – it really comes down to how I wanted to characterize God. Really, what’s fascinating with the notion that maybe the reason why things are the way they are is because the system is poorly run. And if you start from that place, from the cosmology of, well, maybe the boss is not up to the job, then logically, if you trace that premise, it trickles down to everyone.
SONI: The system of prayers received and how they’re labeled to different departments is so archaic on the show. You see it, and you’re just like, “No one has updated this in thousands of years.” And it’s clearly broken, it’s not working.
RICH: Yeah. No one’s fixed it. It’s a vast, inefficient company. The technology is often obsolete, there’s a ton of redundancies built into the machinery.
SONI: We use all ancient computers. Our cell phone is like a brick – we’re walking around with these bricks. We have the oldest watches, the iPad – I don’t even know what that device is, this bulky thing that we’re carrying around, and just this idea that no one has renovated or updated.
RICH: Machines are constantly breaking down.
SONI: Everything is breaking down, there are ugly cords, it’s impossible to get from one place to another, and the bureaucracy of it is nightmarishly complex, and it’s a mess [laughs]. The whole thing is a mess. It’s broken from the top down. But at the same time, there are characters who make it better and want to do better.
AX: Did you have any ideas about what an angel was like and how you might play one before you got involved in MIRACLE WORKERS?
SONI: No. Simon’s writing is very descriptive, so I just went off of the scripts. Specifically, for my character – what’s great about the show is that all seven episodes were written when we got cast, so we got to see the full arc right away, which is so helpful. And each of us does have a clear arc. And then my character specifically has Episode 3, where you really learn his back story, and that was enough for me to be like, “Okay, this is how I’ve shaped my existence.”
RICH: Sanjay got promoted to the highest level that an angel can – he started off in the department of answered prayers, and he did a bunch of extremely popular miracles.
SONI: Like the Octomom and a few others [laughs]. The Octomom, that was me.
RICH: Captain Sully, the Miracle on the Hudson …
SONI: That was me, I made sure he landed. I’ve done a bunch of showy things. And then when I get promoted, I learn the awful truth that the job isn’t what I thought it was going to be, that I’m working for an idiot, but I decide to mask it with my personality.
AX: How are the scenes where you get to play opposite Steve Buscemi?
SONI: They’re really, really fun.
This interview was conducted during Turner/TBS’s portion of the Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour.
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Article: MIRACLE WORKERS: Creator Simon Rick and actress Karen Soni chat about their new fantasy comedy