By Stealth and Sweetness: A Conversation with Jane Espenson and Brad Bell of HusbandsA other interview article by: Laura Akers
Last year at San Diego Comic-Con, I had the good fortune to pass by the California Browncoats table at just the right moment. Sitting at the table was a hero of mine, Jane Espenson (writer and producer for many geeks shows and comic books -- Buffy, Firefly, Torchwood, Caprica, Once Upon a Time, ad-seeming-infinitum). She was doing a signing along with a couple of young men. Most of the attention was on Jane, so I sidled up to one of the men and asked what they were doing the signing for. Internet sensation Cheeks (Brad Bell) and Sean Hemeon (True Blood, Criminal Minds) explained to me that the three of them were about to begin production on a webseries comedy about the first federally recognized gay marriage: Husbands.
As a lifelong "fag-hag," I was immediately intrigued and asked if they would do an interview. They agreed, and that interview served as the basis for my review last year of their completed season 1 run. To say that the series exceeded my expectations would be faint praise indeed.
I ran across Cheeks and Espenson this year at Wondercon, where they had just announced season two of Husbands, as well as a Kickstarter to fund the project. They kindly agreed to sit down for another chat. What followed was a fascinating behind-the-scenes look not only at the series, but at the interplay (and even disagreements) between writers Bell and Espenson.
Laura Akers for Comics Bulletin: Husbands is so smart, and it brought up so many really difficult emotional issues -- about community, about identity, sophisticated things like that -- but your publicizing of it felt very vanilla in flavor. It felt very much like, "Oh, it's just another Mad About You," and I was wondering, first of all, whether that was intentional, and, second of all, why you felt that was necessary?
Jane Espenson: It's a good question. What do you mean by vanilla?
Brad Bell: To me, it sounds like there're two different things?
CB: I mean your work was actually really challenging of social conventions and stereotypes coming both from within and outside the community, but you were very light and fluffy in how you were presenting it.
Espenson: We kept saying it's Mad About You, that you won’t be shocked.
CB: Yeah, you won't be shocked, and yet, I was actually kind of shocked.
Bell: Those are two different things I think; when we say, "It's Mad About You," what we mean is it's not Queer as Folk, in that there’s not gonna be anal sex in the first ten minutes.
Espenson: Nor, in fact, in the second.
Bell: I think that you can have a piece that's light and fluffy, and by taking something that might be perceived as challenging and dealing with it in that way, you’re sort of making the statement that it's not all that challenging or it's not something to shy away from.
Espenson: We were luring people to being challenged by saying, "Come be entertained, you're not gonna be challenged," because "Come have a difficult time with some issues" may not get people to show up. But "Come and laugh and watch a romance and have fun with us" might get the people in the seats.
Bell: That’s interesting. I see it more like, life is ultimately a giant cosmic joke, so, even in our world, something that seems so huge is laughably ridiculous. The thought that women can't wear pants or all these things that used to be true in society that were such a big deal. They’re absurd! And I think that anything challenging convention or the norm is absurd because the norm is absurd; the whole thing is absurd.
Espenson: I think we were anticipating where the objections were gonna come from too, and there was a certain amount of, "We don't want people to think that they're tuning in for a political screed." Actually the point was, "Look how little progress (in depictions of homosexuality) has been made since Will and Grace." We wanted to show an ordinary couple, making ordinary mistakes and doing anything that a straight couple might do, in terms of misunderstanding who they were and what's expected of them as their roles. We wanted to sort of say, "Look how ordinary." That's sort of the point.
Bell: And at the same time, that doesn't mean gay people have to be just like straight people. It's not "But we're just like you are." It's the "We're all just like each other."
CB: When I perform weddings, one of the things that I talk about in the welcome is the way that society defines marriage and that marriage is actually defined by the two people in it. The truth is that -- because of society trying to define marriage -- when a straight couple gets married, they have pre-determined, cookie-cutter gender roles that they can just fall into and never think about. So one of the things that I thought was really revealing about Husbands was that, by putting all this in the context of a gay couple who actually has to think about these roles, it actually brought up relevant things for straight couples. Like, "Why have we never had this discussion? Why did we just assume that you were gonna be the 'girl' and I was gonna be the 'guy,' even if that has nothing to do with our actual personalities?" So that's why I thought it was really challenging, really cutting edge and brought up a lot of complex issues.
Bell: But I think that the notion that we're cloaking something... No, that has nothing to do with it. Our show's a comedy and I think that great, smart comedy can deal with those kinds of things. I mean, look at Mel Brooks. There are a million examples: Oscar Wilde, satire, so many things. That's the way I look at it, that's how you get a deep, complex comedy. You take something like that and you sort of parade it around as the absurdity that it really is.
CB: I also thought that what you made was not just smart and funny but also sweet. I actually broke down and cried at one point.
Espenson: Which point?
CB: It was when Brady was proposing...
Espenson: That's were our production designer cried.
CB: ...and Cheeks came back and finished the proposal. (To Bell) Your character was not quite set up for that -- as someone who we expected that level of caring from -- until that moment. And that moment suddenly revealed so much about the internal life of your character. Having had gay friends my whole life, I understand that there's a certain layer that goes over most gay men’s interaction with the rest of the world. And getting behind that can be really, really tough and finding out who that person is, as opposed to this persona they put on.
Bell: (That’s) a good analogy for the show in that it sort of has this layer where people think, "Oh, I know what that is, that's accessible," and then when they get to know it, they go, "Oh, there's more to that."
Espenson: Kind of like meeting a guy named Cheeks.
Bell: Exactly. I can see it on people's faces when they go, "What do you mean you like camping? You don't like Broadway?" It blows their mind. And I think that what you're talking about with the show was natural, at least on my end. It wasn't something we tried to package, market or cloak. I think that's a natural extension of the exact concept you're talking about, where one thing appears to be one way and there's actually more there when you look.
Espenson: And I think Jeff and I both have adapted the language of being TV writers for a long time, and when you do talk about luring the audience in -- about offering the candy and sneaking in the vitamins -- that is why we do fall into talking about it like that. But I think all we mean is that you want to offer the appealing package. Sometimes you don't want to say (or at least we've been trained to think you don't want to say), "This is good for you." You want to say, "Just come and laugh."
Because that's how you disarm people. You make them laugh and then they are learning and thinking without realizing it. It becomes effortless. By getting to know these guys, it's effortless that you start thinking of them as full human beings, because you're laughing with them, you're in their lives. [Compared to] if we said, "Come to a seminar about why gay people are full human beings." So that's why I think of it as a little bit of a cloaking, a little bit of a lure.
Bell: I think it just suggests a difference in your approach. My approach was never that these are the challenges I want to tackle, these are the things I want to take on, how do make this funny and accessible? It was wanting to entertain. I want it to be funny first. Now you can be funny about trying to get to the wedding on time, and that's your whole story, and there's no strapping of something real or emotional underneath it, like I think that we both naturally want. And I think you get a funnier result when there's a real core to it.
Espenson: Absolutely! Well, we discovered that when we talked about future episodes, being angry about something really helped the story come together and so we did structure it around having something to say.
Bell: Not consciously.
Espenson: Not first season.
Bell: That wasn't a choice.
CB: I don't know, that patriarchal comment was pretty...
Espenson: Which you (Brad Bell) wrote.
Bell: Right, but that came out of, let's take two men that are on opposite sides of the spectrum, in terms of Cheeks being flaming and flamboyant and he's an athlete. Now what's the conversation between them?
So it is only when I look back on: what do people like about this, what do I like about it, what worked now that it's on the screen, now that people are talking about it, oh, I was saying here, oh, this is a thing that pissed me off which is why I was able to, you know like we were talking about the passion to fit in thing, and yeah, I just feel like , when you're convicted about something, it's stronger.
CB: Absolutely. And things can also look different in hindsight. Henry James re-released his works several times over the course of his life. And every time, he wrote a new introduction about what he'd actually intended when he wrote his works.
Espenson: And I was also thinking, we did come at it from different ways, and the fun thing is if it resulted in one product. It's one product that, if we had different goals in writing it, or different things in mind at that time, it’s fine. Just like literary interpretation: let the viewer bring to it what they will.
Bell: I think it's better when you come across the deeper stuff after you've set up a funny premise. These two guys didn't mean to get married, why can't they just get divorced though? Because there's that whole idea that in society you can't do that.
Espenson: Well, that's amusing, because that's how I spent my whole career. We break a story in a row, then it's handed to me, then I go home and write it, and in writing the scene I find a thing I want to say, but because it was started by a whole room full of people, it often wasn't there when I started writing. And so you're right, I don't structure it around, [whether] this would be an interesting place to talk about how this husband and wife approach a thing. I find that in discovering what's gonna make a scene pop, what's gonna make it real, what's gonna make it compelling, while it's doing the main function that it does in the story, what can I bring to it about these people? So you're right, I do stumble across that stuff.
Bell: And when you're in control of the entire narrative, it might be an opportunity to say, "That's a more interesting element, let's lose this character and make it like this." Like the way we stumbled across the character of Brady's straight friend, when we were brainstorming.
Espenson: Yeah, we've got a thing in season two of Brady having this straight friend who's going to end up stating a point more powerfully than either of our guys could -- the power [coming] from his point of view being unexpectedly different. And yeah, we didn't set out with that in mind. We realized a straight friend would be useful here and then we were like, "Yeah, that will make it more deep."
CB: That fits in to one of my other questions, which is that the first season is very claustrophobic.
Espenson: Yeah, we never go outside.
CB: You never go outside, but it's not just that you never go outside, it's that even the one view of the outside that you have, with Nathan Fillion as the sportscaster, is still filtered through the two characters; it's them watching on teolevision. And also he's in a situation where he can't come out and tell you what he actually thinks, beause he's representing his network, so even that isn’t a real reaction. So are we gonna get more of the outside world, in the next season?
Espenson: Yeah, it does open a bit.
Bell: More of the outside world coming in. It will probably all be in one location though.
Espenson: It's a function of production. It really is.
Bell: But we're trying to get a really bad ass location, and we have different options -- we can move around, and maybe there's an ocean view or something.
Espenson: The budget of webseries keeps up inside and limits the number of characters. And we are telling the story of a marriage that you literally can tell as a play on a stage, where the fact that it is constrained is part of what makes it work. It takes these two guys in a marriage, in this contained space, figuring out how to fit into this space, fit into this box together.
CB: Are we going to see Haley (Alessandra Torresani) again?
Espenson: Oh, yeah.
CB: Seriously, she's pretty much part of that marriage.
Espenson: Yes she is. She's fantastic.
CB: Not just the two of them in there.
Espenson: Jeff Greenstein [the director] says she's our stealth weapon because the guys love her and she's this burst of energy, gives this perspective on the relationship, is a wild card and any time they reach an agreement or have a fight, this wild card comes in and spins around and changes everything.
Bell: Yeah, and I think we'll see a little bit more once she says, "You can teach Cheeks to stop daring the world and he can teach you that you..." I think that we're gonna see more of the Haley that accidently knows exactly what she's talking about.
CB: Yeah, her as a relationship savant…that was a very good moment.
Espenson: Yeah, Alessandra's fantastic too; the comedic instincts on that girl are fantastic.
CB: So, in bringing in more people, have you guys gotten friends and others who have approached you and said, "I really want to be in the next season."
Espenson: Oh, yeah, yeah.
Espenson: We can't say yet.
Bell: I wouldn't want to name any names, because it's all just talk at this point.
Espenson: Yeah, we don't even know for sure which roles we have.
Bell: Well, even when we announced it on Twitter, we didn't do anything too spectacular. We had some unexpected people contact us right away and say, "Hey!"
CB: Nice. Do you ever just go through your Twitter followers and see who you might have picked up?
Bell: Oh, I still have an email account where I only get mail set up for notifications like that, so that if I have a minute or something in line I can scroll through and, as I delete them, I'll see the names of whoever's following me. When the Ellen Show started following me, [I thought,] it follows 44,000 people so does it matter? But every now and then I'm like, "Oh, you're following me now. Okay, noted that."
CB: Will we be seeing some merchandising? I want a Husbands t-shirt.
Espenson: We do have one on the website now. You can order all this stuff through Zazzle, that's always been there. So it's sort of one of those things like Cafepress. It's Zazzle, so you can order a Husbands logo on a variety of things, but we should do more.
Bell: Yeah, and we hope to expand even further beyond just your average merchandise.
CB: What does that mean? Marital aids?
Bell: It means that there are a lot of meetings and negotiations that have yet to be finalized, but are going well.
Espenson: But it's not the nature of the product that's going to be shocking.
Espenson: It's the caliber of the product.
CB: Granted, you are trying to capture the largest possible markets, but how do you think your audience currently breaks down?
Espenson: Oh, we know exactly how it breaks down. We have analytics and we are mostly female.
Bell: It's not surprising for us at all, actually. What's funny about the fact that it's mostly female is -- another cultural perception that exists that is true -- that only gay people are interested in gay content. And actually, women are incredibly, actively engaged and interested, more so that gay people; the engagement percentage of the gay community to straight community -- there's no comparison. There are a lot more straight people watching us than gay people. And it is, of those women, about 50 percent who are teenage girls and the other fifty percent are like 45-54.
Espenson: The Gilmore Girls demographic.
CB: I actually did some of my academic work around slash fan fiction, and one of the things that is absolutely true is that virtually all of it is written by women -- especially when it involves gay male bodies, which is really shocking to a lot of people.
Espenson: If you think of the interest that straight men have in gay women, it makes total sense.
CB: Yeah, but it doesn't work that other way. You don't have a lot of men writing lesbian slash.
Espenson: But they don't do their sexuality through writing. They do it through visualizing, so they make or show lesbian porn.
CB: Fair enough. What do you think your greatest success has been with Husbands?
Espenson: The New Yorker review. That put us on a perceived...
Bell: Broader than that I would say, [that] put it on the map, and not just putting it on the map but [doing so] to the acclaim that it has. Even on YouTube, the negative response -- the thumbs down -- is less than one percent. The positive is 99 percent; it's overwhelming.
Espenson: But we answered the question by pointing out the flies around the dessert, instead of pointing out the dessert. We should have pointed out that what's our greatest success is that we're proud of the product, that it genuinely makes us laugh, it makes us proud when we see it, it moves us. I'm moved by the same moment you are, and I was there on the set when Cheeks lifts Brady's chin up and does the proposal for him. I am so proud that we were involved in creating that moment, creating this couple, creating a story that can continue into the future. The greatest success of the project is that the project worked. And there were moments when I wasn't sure, when I was like, "I know I love this script but I'm so scared of all this production stuff, all the things that could go wrong, money's pouring into this and there's no way to pour money back out of it. What if it doesn't work, what if we don't capture on film what I see on these pages?" And when it came together and I realized we were actually getting it on film, that was the success.
Bell: When you end up with a product that you love and that other people love and that is being really well receive and isn't just sitting there with nobody watching it.
Espenson: You know what? Even if there were nobody watching it, I would have loved knowing that we made something that I was proud of.
Bell: Yes, yes. So all of the icing on the cake is the response and getting all the way to the New Yorker. Being the only web series ever reviewed by the New Yorker is top shot.
Espenson: Because we set the bar high now, we have to get over it. We can't just match it, we have to surpass it.
Bell: I think we're going to, though.
Espenson: You do?
Bell: Yeah, because when we initially started talking about what we're gonna do next, we had some ideas and we started going down a certain path, and then I turned around and looked at what we had done so far and thought, "This isn't what was working about what we did, and if we keep doing this, we're not going to live up to the bar. So what is the bar we set?" And we're like figuring out between ourselves what that was and getting to a place where we figure out.
Espenson: I know we will get there. I’ll feel better when we have the script.
Bell: I think what we did after that moment was [that] we turned and said, "Okay, one of these works but needs more," and the other we just threw out altogether.
Espenson: Right. And I am very happy with the stories that we have now.
Bell: Now I am confident [that] we will not just meet the bar, we will raise the bar again. I am totally confident.
Espenson: You know, I am too, because the stories work and because you're confident and I've learned to trust Cheeks' taste on all these things; his instincts for when it's working are impeccable.
CB: I know that you guys were hoping you might get picked up by somebody else and, nstead, you're going to be doing Husbands again on your own. But going back to your earlier point, do you really think you could do this on network television to the extent that you've done this?
Espenson: We were hoping for that, and now we look back and we realize, "Oh, what a foolish hope." It's not that it was unattainable but that it was a misguided hope that had that happened, we would not be writing the show that we love. I think that we are in the right place to keep doing the show the way we want to do the show. Is that fair?
Bell: Yeah, right, yes. Because to say we hoped it would make it to television is not entirely true; we hoped to make a product that would have visibility and ideally beaucoup money to make it for. Who doesn't want to do what they love doing to millions of people clamoring and collecting a really nice paycheck for that? But yes, to desire to get it on television is not an entirely true statement because it's such a double end sword, where you're having to deal with a network who says, "We can't have them sit in the same bed, and their kiss can't be more than a peck." I mean, these are the things that networks actually say. And there's no way -- I don't care how much money they’re paying or how big the network is -- we would want to have that kind of a show. So I'm actually thrilled that we're getting to keep the creative control that we are and keep making and directing for our audience.
Espenson: Yeah, this is what we hoped. We hoped we would get to continue to do it. There was a point at which we thought that TV might be the route to do that, [but] we have found a better route.
CB: And this could be a very important transitional step, right? I would like to see us get to a point where even having a conversation about whether or not you could do this on American television is now moot. Because you've already shown that it can work.
Bell: That's interesting. I think that it is transitional but in the sense that the industry and the media is transitioning, and I think a more desirable goal to me than to get something on television is to pioneer a workable model of online entertainment that sets a new precedent for what's possible in terms of entertainment on the Internet. Because that's the way the world is going. And when something is evolving and developing, there are those people who come along and make really big strides in that area. And I would rather be that person, doing that, than the person who got a deal and collected some money and then sold their idea and can't do anything with it after that.
CB: I'm also really glad to hear that your audience is young and female, because this is how the world changes.
Espenson: That is right. How many people at this con have come up to me and said I'm here because of Buffy? We've got the young girls; that's absolutely crucial.
The Husbands Kickstarter, which ends on Tuesday, also exceeded expectations. They raised 30 of the necessary 50k goal in the first couple of days -- partly as a result of fan love of the series and partly because of some really cool swag (a signed crew/cast gift Battlestar Galactica yearbook, a signed MF-813 Flying Mule Replica, props from the Husbands set and more) – and have reset the goal for 75k, which would allow them to shoot a behind-the-scenes documentary among other things.