With over 100,000 viewers just two weeks into its run, HUSBANDS THE SERIES is a Web hit. Executive-produced by Jane Espenson and written by Espenson and Brad Bell, who stars in the production under his performing and character name Cheeks, HUSBANDS is a comedy about two gay men, played by Cheeks and Sean Hemeon, who marry each other while drunk and then decide to try to make the marriage work. The show consists of eleven approximately two-minute episodes that can be viewed on husbandstheseries.com.
On one of the HUSBANDS’ sets, Espenson, Bell, Hemeon, director Jeff Greenstein (an executive producer/writer/director on DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES) and the crew talk about the intricacies of making a Web series.
The series came about, Bell explains, because he and Espenson were discussing a Web series script he’d written called SO L.A., which lacked the gay marriage component. “We were having a conversation and that’s what sparked the idea,” he says. “It wasn’t one person’s idea or the other. It happened over exchanging dialogue.”
“And it was so clear it was the right way to go,” Espenson adds. “Because there’s something about combining the political newness of Marriage Equality with a concept as comedically fundamental as, ‘We don’t know each other very well and we’ve gotten married.’ That seemed like a good concept. Cheeks and I kept emailing back and forth. I’d do a pass at it, then he’d do his pass through that, then I’d take it back. His facility with the language of twenty-somethings is so accurate and funny and bright and new that I always tried to make sure that everything always went through his vein. Finally, we got to where we were confident enough to have a table read, so I invited a bunch of sitcom writers who I’d worked with through my whole career, people who had far more experience with comedy than I did. They all listened to the script and they emailed me their joke submissions, just as if it was a writers room. So then I incorporated the best of those, so some of the jokes in here are submitted by people like Tim Doyle, who was my show runner at ELLEN, and Dan Milano, who created WARREN THE APE. So some big names.”
Speaking of names, HUSBANDS also address the marital issue of whose last name is used by the couple or will they hyphenate? “Except that Cheeks is unhyphenate-able,” Espenson points out.
“It’s an issue for me,”Bell says. “What am I going to do?”
Until now, Bell has primarily written material for himself as Cheeks. How was it writing for the character of Cheeks’ new spouse Brady Kelly? “Even the name ‘Brady Kelly,’ is Brad Bell, mixed around a little bit, because he is sort of the other half of my brain,”Bell says. “My consciousness is sort of arguing amongst myself a lot, and so Brady is like another voice who lives in my head and argues with me a lot of the time. I remember saying to Jane, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to write Brady, because I’m so used to thinking in the land of Cheeks. I know how Cheeks would say this, I know how Haley would say this, but what am I going to do with Brady?’ And then I thought, well, I’ll just do what the normal, conservative, no, that’s not right [-saying person would say], because I grew up in Texas and so it’s very much fundamentally a part of me, like what the right thing to do is.”
“The super-ego,” Espenson suggests.
“Yeah, I guess so,”Bell agrees. “In a weird way, Brady Kelly’s a voice in my own head. He doesn’t get much of a say, though!” he laughs.
Casting Brady was difficult, Espenson notes. “We needed to find [someone to play] Brady Kelly, the professional baseball player who finds himself in this marriage. [Director] Jeff [Greenstein] and Cheeks and I had a number of casting sessions where we auditioned guys and we got really close a couple of times. There was one guy we adored, and we were really close, and then Sean walked in. He had the physicality and the humor – he’s an out gay actor, which we’re very impressed by, and we just loved him instantly.”
What drew Hemeon to HUSBANDS? The actor laughs. “There’s any number of reasons. Start at number one being the script. It was hilarious and fun. And then of course, the people involved, everybody here, and then I wanted a job.”
The fact that Hemeon’s character Brady is a pro baseball player factors into the show, even though both Espenson and Bell admit they don’t know much about the sport. For one thing,Bell notes, “I have a friend who’s really excited to be our baseball consultant. He’ll text me and say, “Do you need a baseball consult again?” He’s just itching to tell me about baseball.”
Espenson says, “I definitely think that there’s an episode that has to do with Cheeks sitting with the players’ wives up in the stands and they know more about baseball than he does and Brady is texting and phoning, ‘Are you watching now?’”
“I think we should also do a scene with Cheeks in the locker room,”Bell quips. “Just sayin’.”
“Oh, yeah,” Espenson enthuses. “Cheeks visits the locker room – how do the other players feel about it?”
Bell runs with it. “Yeah. Maybe the other players are, you know, naked,” he laughs.
And then Espenson seriously contemplates viewers’ possible reactions to such a scene. “You know what? We are a mainstream show. We are a show that people’s kids can watch. Nothing more shocking happens on our show than happened on MAD ABOUT YOU.”
Bell thinks over the ramifications. “It’s interesting that you bring that up, because I was watching one of the first episodes of MAD ABOUT YOU, and there’s a scene where Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser go into the kitchen and their friends are [in the next room] and they have sex in the kitchen, as quick as they can, and I thought, ‘How interesting,’ because I feel if two gay men did that on a television show, there would be upset about that, like, ‘That’s so scandalous and sleazy that these gay men have sex while their friends are out there,’ but on MAD ABOUT YOU, it was [presented as] cute and adorable and they’re in love and they have this little quickie while they’re having a dinner party. So I think it’s still a double standard, that even though what we’re doing wouldn’t be more salacious than something on MAD ABOUT YOU, it might still be perceived as that, just because.”
Espenson agrees. “Because of that, we wouldn’t do that scene, because we’d be very aware. We’d probably self-censor. We’re less extreme than MAD ABOUT YOU.”
Bell jokes, “Or maybe that’s our bar and we can set an example. We should just do everything MAD ABOUT YOU ever did,” he laughs.
Is there a difference between regular comedy and the romantic comedy that HUSBANDS supplies?
Bell says, “I guess romantic comedy requires a little more heart. In order for you to buy that it’s romantic, it has to be a little more grounded in reality and little more emotional, whereas if you’re doing just pure comedy without that sort of romantic element, you can be as out of reality as you want. You can be zany and things can be illogical and you can be silly, almost like Monty Python style.”
Hemeon offers, “I think romantic comedies are a little more relatable by the audience. I totally agree with what [Bell is] saying about [being] a little more invested because of the heart element to it, which is what people relate to. I think it makes it more fun, because everyone can be in those situations and relate to them.”
For Greenstein, he argues that chemistry is essential to a romantic comedy.
“I think one of the things I saw with these guys from the first time we all sat in a room together and started talking was just affection,” says Greenstein. “You believed that these guys fell in love with each other. You believed that they related to each other in the way that Brady and Cheeks related to each other. And that’s something you actually can’t fake. You can’t force yourself to have chemistry with somebody, but these guys, you see it in every frame, even when they’re not talking, you see that they like each other. And so it really comes across on the screen.”
Espenson agrees and says the notion of groundedness and identifiability is exactly right.
“And actually, Cheeks was in an episode of TORCHWOOD that I wrote, in a straight dramatic scene, where he was dealing with people in a life and death situation,” says Espenson. “It’s a different character, he played that guy very differently, but there’s that same sense of reality and existing in the moment in this place, totally grounded. I don’t generally care for surreal comedy, where I’m laughing at how crazy the person is, or at the crazy non-sequitur events that happen. I believe in this relationship, I believe that it’s real, I believe that it exists in this world, and that these are just unusually funny and quick-witted people.”
As for the rest of the HUSBANDS casting, Espenson relates, “We came to it obviously with Cheeks in place and Alessandra Torresani [as Haley, who was originally going to be in SO L.A.] in place. She was part of the original concept that Cheeks had come up with, and we love her.” Espenson and Torresani had previously worked together on last year’s Syfy series CAPRICA.
“Her part was written specifically for her,” Espenson says. “We wrote her as sort of a young Karen Walker [the Megan Mullally character] from WILL AND GRACE, so she’s a little drunk, she’s a little famous, she loves Cheeks, she plays Cheeks’ best friend, who is a little ambivalent about this marriage. She’s going to fly off into the air without Cheeks there to ground her, and now Cheeks is giving all of his time and energy to Brady, and so she’s worried that she won’t be part of his life any more, so she keeps trying to insert herself into this marriage. So she has a line where she says, ‘I’m so glad we got married.’ She’s thinking of herself as a big part of this, and Brady really doesn’t want her in his marriage. So we’ve got a nice little triangle.[Torressani is] a natural blonde, which I didn’t know, she’s got the 1930s madcap blonde energy. She’s fantastic. Comedy is totally what she should be doing.” There are also a few celebrity cameos, including one from Espenson’s erstwhile FIREFLY colleague Nathan Fillion.
Besides the fact that, in the HUSBANDS universe, gay marriage is now legal in every state in America, are there any other futuristic touches? “That is the one change,” Espenson explains. “It’s marriage equality on the federal level. So it is not [present-day reality], but in a way, it’s a universe that makes sense. It’s the universe the way it should be.”
Beyond the eleven short episodes, might HUSBANDS be an ongoing concern? “That’s what I would like it to be,” Espenson replies. “Either we develop a way to monetize it and keep doing it online, or ideally, it would go to TV. Just [from] conversations that we have around the set, we keep coming up with episodes. There’s an episode where they disagree about how to parent the dog and realize they’re actually getting into this issue of, do we ever want to have a child ourselves? It’s not something we ever thought of as an option – now it’s an option for us. How do you feel about it? And we got married without ever having talked about it. So there are many issues like that, for any young couple. It has additional resonance for a same-sex couple, because all the newlywed issues are accentuated when it’s two people who never thought they’d have the option to be a newlywed. So they haven’t even a mental plan that a newlywed normally would do. So they’re newer than new. We actually shot a series of short promos that hint at the places we can go. We shot a promo that’s Cheeks going, “Holy shit, I have in-laws!” And Brady says, “Me, too!” And Cheeks says, “We’ve made a horrible mistake!” That’s the whole of the promo, but take that seriously and that’s a bunch of episodes. And there could be special issues like, they both realize they have a crush on the same waiter. And they really don’t like the food at their favorite restaurant, they just like the waiter. And is that an issue that we should be concerned about, now that we’re married? We keep coming up with stuff. There’s a lot of ground there.”
HUSBANDS looks like a network sitcom, which is the intention, its production team relates. “Actually,” Espenson says, “a TV show would use two cameras in the places where we’re using two cameras, and I think there’s something about it that’s really looking like TV. It feels like TV, maybe because we did the two cameras, but it looks more TV than Web to me.”
Bell agrees. “Especially as I’ve seen what we’re getting on the monitor, I’ve gone home and looked at other Web series and it absolutely looks more TV than other Web series to me, and I don’t know if that’s because they do things on the fly. Even though it’s not about these grand visual shots, it’s still gorgeous and I think that everybody on the crew is really talented and they care a lot about what they do, so there is huge value in the production design and the lighting and the way it moves and I think the content also helps suggest that it’s TV, because it’s about people and relationships. It’s not big and grand and wacky and trying to achieve something that requires a lot for you to suspend your disbelief.”
“It’s great to hear everyone echo exactly what my own feelings are about the visual style of the show,” director Greenstein adds. “When I first talked to Jane and Cheeks about the visual style, I said, ‘This is a screwball comedy. I don’t think we should reinvent the wheel. The words should be foregrounded. So my plan is to shoot this very cleanly and very unobtrusively.’ There are a couple of snazzy shots in this, but this is not about that. Mostly, if it looks as a TV show, that is by design. I think it should look like a really high-quality network TV pilot. That’s the look we’re going for. To echo what Cheeks said, we have an A-plus production designer, we have a tremendous d.p., our lighting crew is terrific, our post crew is terrific. I think one of the things that’s been really eye-opening about this to me was the level of quality that you can get with consumer-grade equipment if you have people this talented operating it. It’s startling. And so when I look at the dailies and I look at the cuts and it looks like a TV show, I feel I did my job.”
Production designer Greg Aronowitz (THE GUILD) says that the hardest part of his job has been incorporating HUSBANDS’ needs into existing structures like homes and hotel rooms. “Usually, on a production, we build everything from the ground up. Here we’re coming into existing spaces and trying to hide anything we can’t show and then bring in a touch of flavor to make the environment belong to the character.”
Costume designer Shawna Trpcic, who previously worked with Espenson on FIREFLY and TORCHWOOD, says that her contributions to HUSBANDS grew as the project progressed. “I saw on Twitter that Jane was doing HUSBANDS, and so I emailed her,” says Trpcic. “We had just finished TORCHWOOD, and I said, ‘I would love to help you do costumes for that show. [In] keeping continuity, you have seven changes, and your actors don’t have all those clothes …” So it became bigger and bigger and bigger. I was able to make a deal with Fox through all the Joss Whedon connections [Trpcic also worked on ANGEL and DOLLHOUSE], so the costumes are very [reasonably-priced as rentals]. With both these guys [Bell and Hemeon], I went into their closets as best I could. Both of them are sort of living out of suitcases, so they didn’t have a lot, so I actually did a fitting with Cheeks at Fox and we just kept running into the wardrobe department and pulling out anything and everything, so we really had to scavenge a lot, and with Sean, again, he had one suit, and he needed a few suits, and so again, we just scavenged everything out of Fox.”
As far as how the material cuts together, editor Nate Atcheson, who also is the first assistant director, says, “I think because the episodes are so short, you really have to get people interested quickly. Obviously, the writing does that automatically, but with editing, you really have to make sure you grab their attention right off the bat. You have to do it a lot of times, you have to do it with every episode. Somebody may not have seen the previous episode and they’re getting in for the first time, so I think it’s keeping the energy high and keeping the best performances, which in this case is pretty easy, because everyone’s really good.”
The shooting schedule on HUSBANDS was four days, complete with several location moves. Would Espenson like to continue producing the show in this way if it continues? “Part of me wants to say ‘Yes,’ because this is so much fun doing it this way,” says Espenson. “I thought maybe it would feel like going from a big powerful vehicle to a little putt-putt vehicle, but in fact, I feel like we’re in a little maneuverable sports car. But I also would love to see the show get all the frills that money can bring and the exposure that it would get on a network like NBC. That would be nice.”
Although HUSBANDS is being presented in short-form installments, Espenson says it will be cut together for a private presentation.
“We keep thinking that it looks to us like a classic NBC Must-See-TV sitcom, so I’d love to see something with a wide, broad audience,” says Espenson. “I’m financing it myself and we don’t have a plan to charge people to see it. We just want to make it available, because we want to get as many people watching it as possible, so then we can point to something that we can take to a TV network and say, ‘Look at all these fine eyeballs that we have found. Don’t you think this should be a real show?’ Because I think some Web shows are made to live on the Web, and they fit the Web. This, I think, feels and looks and smells like television. TV isn’t making this show right now. But they should be. The audience is there for it. I want to show [a TV network] that, in the hopes that TV will see it and say, ‘Yeah.’ But you know what? Whoever wants to love this show, we would love to have them love it.”
Are small-scale, high-quality Internet productions like HUSBANDS where Hollywood, or at least independent filmmaking is heading? Production designer Aronowitz thinks so. “I have been out here for twenty-five years, I’ve done over three hundred movies, I was a part of [Steven] Spielberg’s permanent art department for twelve years and I just felt like there weren’t enough risks being taken, there wasn’t enough new material. I stumbled across these projects, Felicia Day [and her production THE GUILD] and it just seems like it’s the future. It’s the Wild West and the ground floor, so the pay scale is different, but the material is fresh and at the end of the day, as an artist, I’m way more satisfied.”
Click on link: For HUSBANDS sneak peak trailer
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