Trinity Broadcasting Network, a Christian cable-TV station in Tustin, Calif., is on the air. From a stage set that resembles a cathedral, the Reverend Hype, a TV evangelist, fixes his audience with a soul-searing stare and solemnly begs for donations, credit cards accepted. A home viewer holds a small black box called a sin-o-meter. Even as Hype speaks, its dial flips into the Danger Zone.
Hold it, what’s going on here? Have Christian broadcasters begun satirizing themselves? That, at least, is what the Rev. Todd Fisher attempts to do on his cable series, called Nightlight. This Fisher, in fact, is the son of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. He’s 26, believes that he is a minister of the gospel and on Nightlight purveys a brand of irreverence that he feels is often the best way to convey his message. “People are tired of being preached at, they want to be communicated with,” he says. “Comedy is effective because people love to laugh. There are a hundred scriptures in the Bible that say the joy of the Lord is our strength. Humor breaks down barriers. When you present something in a funny package, people accept it better.”
So far four of Fisher’s video programs, modeled on the Saturday Night Live format, have aired over Trinity Broadcasting, and he hopes to produce 30 more. His volunteer players have included actors Dan Aykroyd, Jerry Houser, Miguel Ferrer (son of Jose Ferrer and Rosemary Clooney), fashion model René Russo and guitarist Bernie Leadon, formerly of the Eagles rock group. “We’re an evangelistic entertainment group that’s trying to get people to laugh their way into heaven,” says Fisher.
The showbiz flavor of Nightlight also reaches into Todd’s family. His older sister (by a year and a half) is Carrie Fisher. His wife since 1981 is Donna Freberg, whose father is humorist Stan Freberg. Mom, sis, wife and father-in-law are among Todd’s most loyal boosters, and all have appeared in his video skits. “I think he’s very committed to what he’s doing,” says sister Carrie. “And he’s very funny.”
Todd’s road to spiritual awakening was full of odd twists. His mother attended a Presbyterian church in Beverly Hills, and his father is Jewish. (His parents divorced when Todd was 3, and Reynolds married shoe-store magnate Harry Karl a year later.) As children, Carrie and Todd were encouraged to sample both Christianity and Judaism and to choose between the two. “But as far as I was concerned,” Todd remembers, “they were both boring.”
By his own admission Todd concentrated on the more popular kind of Hollywood religion—the good life. In those days Carrie’s backyard playhouse was a two-story affair with fireplace, loft bedroom, bathroom and stained-glass window. When Todd wanted something equivalent his grandmother shipped a 50-foot Monterey pine for transplanting in the backyard to provide a proper platform for his tree house.
“As a child I never needed money, because we had charge accounts everywhere,” Todd says. “I thought life was just a bowl of cherries. Even if you told me something devastating, it wouldn’t have bothered me.” At 14, his mother told him that she and his stepfather were separating. Todd’s response: “Hey, so what?”
Todd was a student at Beverly Hills High when he began dating Donna Freberg (though they had known each other since childhood). Donna’s close friend Debby Boone invited her to her first Bible-study class. “I saw Donna the next day, and she told me she had accepted the Lord,” Todd says. “Within two weeks she started coming up with this ‘I can’t sleep with you unless we’re married’ routine. I couldn’t understand how she could love God more than me.”
In an effort to understand Todd decided to study the Bible himself. “Then one day, as I was reading it, this voice speaks up inside me,” he recalls. “Whether it was my conscience or whatever you want to call it, the voice asked, ‘What are you doing?’ All of a sudden I realized that all the questions of the universe will never be answered, that I just had to take it on faith. I was satisfied knowing that God is in control. I felt a security and a peace I had never known before.”
In 1981 Fisher helped put together a Christian music show called Jesus at the Roxy at the Sunset Boulevard Theater. He got the idea for Nightlight after watching Trinity Network programs, some of whose more flamboyant broadcasters purportedly use canned applause. Ordained two years ago, he helped found the Hiding Place Church (from the Book of Psalms, “Thou art my hiding place…”). The group meets twice a week in Westwood and claims 1,000 members.
Fisher concedes that he has had no formal theological training and that some of the practices of his church are unorthodox (baptisms, for example, are occasionally conducted in hot tubs). But if some viewers are offended by the flippant style of his ministry, he professes little concern. “I’ve got a letter from President Reagan saying he was really pleased we were doing something that would allow young people to open their eyes to the roots of what this country was founded on,” Fisher says.
Besides, he insists, “We preach the truth, and if that means poking fun at some of the traditions—well, hey, that’s just part of it. Jesus spent his career exposing the Pharisees and Sadducees because they weren’t worshipping God, they were worshipping traditions. Those people are still with us today.”