The Amish Diaries: The Most Interesting Amish Man in the World
Sometimes, I look on in envy at other TV producers. When they cast for a lot of their shows, they can put up postings on Web sites, they can hold open calls or hire casting directors, or people will submit tapes. And certainly, whenever I have made shows like that, I have been able to use those resources and see the benefits. It doesn’t make those shows easier to produce, but casting for them essentially becomes more about sorting through options until you find the best people to put on the show.
But for better and for worse, I specialize in doing projects about subcultures, such as Amish: Out of Order on the National Geographic Channel and the upcoming American Gypsies, also for Nat Geo. Usually, my projects are about people who don’t apply to be on TV; they are about people who we have to search for, who avoid the spotlight, who aren’t always readily accessible. They aren’t easy to find, and when you find them, quite frankly, they aren’t always that TV friendly.
There is a reason why there aren’t dozens of TV shows about the Amish the same way there are dozens of dating shows, or shows about housewives. Finding anyone Amish or ex-Amish to appear on camera is as hard as hell. It took us three years to make Devil’s Playground, nearly a year of which was spent just finding anyone on rumspringa to appear in the film. The casting process we used for Amish in the City was just as challenging. We hired five teams of two to live in different Amish communities around the country for two months at a time and embed themselves in those communities
to get to know the town, understand the unique areas (because, as we discussed last week, no two Amish communities are alike) and make sure that the local bishops and elders knew that we had positive intentions.
Our casting teams were required to go through an “Amish boot camp” to learn about the culture, to know how to approach people without causing undue attention or panic. Each team had to send home a daily journal of their activities, positive and negative, so that the other teams could learn from their experiences. We called it the “A.D.U.”: Amish Daily Update. After nearly two months of this, we had found a handful of Amish who were willing to appear on the show, which we thought would make for a great and thought-provoking series. But we just didn’t have enough. We were still missing one character, someone who really could be the anchor of the show. We were missing our star.
Just then, one of our casting producers sent us back a tape of an unlikely TV character. We popped the tape in, and were introduced to a man named Mose Gingerich — and we found the missing piece.
In general, most Amish are taught to accept what God places before them, so while there is certainly a lot of internal struggle, it’s rare to find Amish who outwardly question their place in the world. Even those Amish who leave the faith usually do so with more of a stoic acceptance than a spirited debate. This mindset may be good for them as individuals, but it doesn’t always make for the most captivating moments to watch as an audience. Yet Mose Gingerich was and is unlike any other Amish or ex-Amish person that I have ever met. On that first tape, Mose didn’t do much more than show us a puzzle that he had made, and a homemade fire engine that he had built while he was Amish — but he had a quality that was rare. Mose asked questions. He wanted to know more. He wanted to know what was out there and he wanted to know why. The subject didn’t matter; whether it was how something worked or why God chose his path, Mose didn’t accept anything for what it was. He asked questions, and when he was given answers they led him to form new questions. This didn’t always sit well with his Amish community, but when he appeared on the show it struck a deep and resonant cord.
When Amish in the City premiered to record ratings, Mose became a surprise star. An Amish man with a strange accent and a stranger name, an inquisitive attitude but a wry sense of humor, allowed the audience to see Amish people in an entirely different light. Mose had never been on a plane, never ridden an escalator and never swum in the ocean. But his wonder and fascination with these things allowed all of us to truly see and appreciate our society in a new light.
Mose was also able to articulate these feelings and excitement in ways that other Amish often struggle with. The Amish are taught to be humble, and they don’t often speak about themselves, so Mose’s ability and desire to talk about his feelings was unique.
Instantly, the public latched onto him. Mose was named one of Entertainment Weekly’s “Breakout Stars of the Year.” He appeared on Good Morning America and was interviewed by Diane Sawyer. He went on Regis and Kelly, Jimmy Kimmel Live and countless radio shows. Everyone wanted to talk to the Amish guy. There was even an NBC show that was in the process of writing its first season, and one of the writers kept coming into the writers’ room and doing his “impression” of Mose. Everyone loved his impression so much that they insisted that he create a character out of it. And that’s how Mose Schrute, Dwight’s beet-farming cousin on The Office, was created. Michael Schur (@Kentremendous), who is now the executive producer of Parks and Recreation, was the writer and actor who played Mose.
Each new experience on the show and in life brought Mose a sense of wonder, but also one of conflict. It drew him further away from his family and made it less and less likely that he would ever go back to the Amish life he grew up with. For Mose, this wasn’t just a decision to leave town. Everything that he had been taught said that not being Amish meant that he would spend the rest of his life in hell.
The series ended and the attention died down, but Mose’s struggle didn’t end. It grew. He knew that the Amish life wasn’t for him. He had many goals that he wanted to accomplish, but he also had a past that he couldn’t fully leave behind. He settled in Columbia, Mo., where he and a number of other ex-Amish helped turn the area into a safe place for other ex-Amish — a town where they can live with one foot in the Amish world and one foot in the English world, and where they can meet other people who are also struggling with this journey.
Yet Mose’s personal struggle didn’t end there. He met a wonderful woman, Shana, and married and now has a great family. He also has a successful career, first running a construction company and now as one of the top car salesmen in town (yes, a man who grew up with a horse and buggy now sells cars — as I’ve said, Mose Gingerich is the most interesting Amish man alive). However, he still has a thirst to learn more, to help others and find his own true happiness.
One of the reasons why I developed and produced this show was because I wanted to watch more of Mose. Even though he and I had stayed in touch, hearing him on the phone wasn’t enough. I wanted to produce the show so that I could see once again what Mose was doing, to see him on TV experiencing new things, asking the questions that so few people ask and opening himself up to an audience.
Over the next few weeks, Amish: Out of Order goes to some amazing and challenging places. This week, a young Amish man gets into a terrible car accident, and the ex-Amish in Columbia rally around him. But most interestingly, it once again causes Mose Gingerich to ask questions: to wonder why the Amish use these events as a sign from God, and whether the ex-Amish can use this tragedy to strengthen their community. He asks if maybe it is time to start to repair his fractured relationship with the Amish and his own Amish family. This event causes the series to take a dramatic turn that we follow over the rest of the season. Strap yourselves in, because once Mose Gingerich — the Most Interesting Amish Man in the World — starts asking questions and stirring the pot, you never know what trouble it’s going to cause….
So yes, honestly, I sometimes wish that my subculture shows were easier to make and that they didn’t always have to take years to produce, and maybe I could just put out a casting call and have unlimited people to chose from, But here’s a little secret. I know the truth. All those other producers, when they are sifting through their hundreds and hundreds of submissions and watching casting tape after casting tape, are ultimately looking for a character just like Mose. So even though our process may take longer, and I shudder to think about how lucky we were to find him, in the end the result was pretty perfect.
Daniel Laikind is the co-founder and president of development and production of Stick Figure Productions. If you have ever seen any nonfiction about the Amish, there is a good chance he produced it, as he did Amish: Out of Order, currently airing on National Geographic Channel, Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT. He also developed, produced or executive produced lots of really interesting non-Amish projects that you can read about on his website. And despite being nominated for a bunch of prestigious awards, he has never won any of them, and yes, he is a little bitter about it. He was born, raised and currently resides on the small island of Manhattan, and you can follow his scattered musings on the world of TV, film, pop culture and his Derek Jeter obsession on Twitter (@dlaik1) and Facebook (www.facebook.com/dlaik1).
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