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'God, Inc.' puts 'Office' humor in heavenly setting

March 30, 2007
A few years back, the singer Joan Osbourne wondered aloud, "What if God was one of us?"

Now independent filmmaker Francis Stokes, in his wildly popular Web series "God, Inc.," is asking a similar kind of existential question: What if God's office was like one of ours?

Or, more specifically, what if heaven was like "The Office," with wan worker bees alternately uninspired, bullied or desperately trying to claw their way up (Jacob's) corporate ladder.

"God, Inc." which Park Ridge native Stokes, 34, filmed over two weekends last fall, is similar to the "Office" TV series -- though its savvy humor leans more toward the seminal BBC series starring British comedian Ricky Gervais than its American cousin on NBC. Also its episodes are short (in the 5- to 10-minute range) and it doesn't air on TV.

6 episodes online
Instead, "God, Inc." has found an audience exclusively online. (I discovered it late one night, fighting insomnia, and searching YouTube.com for "God.") Since Stokes uploaded the first of six "God, Inc." episodes in late December 2006, the quirky series has been viewed more than 3 million times on YouTube.com, Myspace.com and Stokes' own Web site, www.francisstokes .com.

The basic premise of "God, Inc." is that the bulk of what's going wrong on Earth is the fault of corporate mismanagement and worker malaise in God's office, i.e., heaven.

There's only one guy left in the miracles department; tsunamis, earthquakes and other "acts of God" are handled by the massive "Disasters" department, and three geeks in the windowless room of the "Product Development" department are in charge of dreaming up new plant and animal species.

That's where sweet Sarah, the focal protagonist, has been placed as an intern upon her untimely death from leukemia. Her first successful foray into the creation racket is a rainbow-colored frog, drawing the wrath of her colleague Gavin, who can't seem to get his porcupottamus design approved.

God's lunch stolen
Prayers spout from a fax machine in a small stock room where three woebegone "God, Inc." drones frantically try to file them in unlabeled pigeonholes. "It's a crap job," a colleague tells Sarah. "Nobody reads them."

And then . . . somebody steals God's lunch -- a bagel and cream cheese -- from the office refrigerator, sending his secretary, the loathsome Paige, on a mission (from God) to find the guilty party.

"The feeling that disasters are getting bigger and miracles are getting smaller . . . that sort of vaguely reflects what it feels like to live in this world," Stokes said by phone from his home in California's San Fernando Valley. "It kind of makes sense that somebody misfiled some paperwork and it's not just a spiteful God."

Some of the funniest moments in "God, Inc." are produced by the "Publicity" department, a k a world religions.

For three years running, the Muslim publicist has had the best numbers (because, he says, "My marketing strategy is the one, true marketing strategy"), winning converts hand over fist, and annoying the pious (and obnoxious) Esther, who's in charge of "Really Christians." (Not to be confused with Andy, a slackery dude who does P.R. for the "Sort-of Christians," who, he explains to Sarah, are the ones who go to church on Christmas and Easter and kind of believe. Sort of.

Conceived over a beer
To try to shake up the populations of the world's religions, the office manager, fearsome Piper, starts a contest to see, in a week, which publicist can come up with the most new converts. The winner gets a box of steaks, which doesn't make the Hindu publicist very happy.

Stokes, who was reared Lutheran and says he is fascinated by spirituality and "why the world is the way it is," dreamed up "God, Inc." over a beer with his brother-in-law, Kyle, at his home in Downers Grove last summer.

"He works in [information technology] and was just giving me some ideas," recalled Stokes, who has been making feature-length independent films for a decade, while also working for the City of Los Angeles, "which explains my deep understanding of the workings of a bureaucratic institution."

As YouTube.com became known as a venue for young filmmakers to get recognized, Stokes decided to go for it with "God, Inc."

Wants it as teaching aide
The overwhelming response has shocked no one more than Stokes, who has heard from many self-identified religious people, some of whom thought "God, Inc." was hilarious, while others took offense. The filmmaker recalls "getting an e-mail from someone saying, 'Is this how you think the afterlife is going to be, because I can assure you that it's not!' Yeah, because they know."

Conversely, Stokes got a note from a Presbyterian minister who asked for the series on DVD so he could use it as a teaching tool in a class on spirituality, he said.

"I think it strikes a chord," Stokes said. "A lot of people who aren't that religious . . . feel like religions avoid a lot of questions or give them answers that don't ring true to them. So maybe this does in some sort of silly way."

God never appears in any of the "God, Inc." episodes.

"That's intentional," Stokes says, "so that, in essence, these characters have the same questions about the grand plan that the rest of us do."