Queen Esther of the Bible is portrayed as an overfed beauty contestant. The King of Nineveh is a TV-addicted Hell’s Angel. And Jesus is tempted after His fast of 40 days and 40 nights—not with Satan’s challenge to turn stones into bread—but with endless McDonald’s hamburgers. Such kitsch interpretations of the Holy Book are the stuff of CBS’s half-hour children’s show, Marshall Efron’s Illustrated, Simplified and Painless Sunday School.
For those in the 200 of 240 CBS markets where the series doesn’t run (perhaps because it’s too irreverent or unlucrative), Efron is best described as a squashed Gene Shalit. A manic cast of one (CBS at first censored his plan to play Esther in drag), he has been presenting his off-the-wall Bible stories for five seasons now. For Jonah and the whale he stirred up the sea in a washtub with an eggbeater. Then, in a rare pause for reflection—he makes up to 27 costume changes per show—he complained: “Three days and nights in a whale’s body! Next time I take a train and get a window seat.”
Efron, 40, ventured into acting on the Unitarian Church circuit in California, but describes his own religious background as “minimal Jewish. I had a bar mitzvah and that was it.” After UCLA, he took an M.A. in English at Berkeley and drifted into showbiz. His breakthrough came in PBS’s 1970 series The Great American Dream Machine, in which he did consumerist satire. Efron has also appeared on Broadway (The Great White Hope) as well as films (Doc, Bang the Drum Slowly).
His other projects include a screenplay for Mel Brooks, an aborted satirical series on the news (he says CBS executives don’t phone him back on this one—”they’re frightened”) and two books. One of them, already completed, in collaboration with his TV co-scripter, Alfa-Betty Olsen, for those out of viewing range, is based on the show. It is titled, aptly, Bible Stories You Can’t Forget (No Matter How Hard You Try).