If you’re a sci-fi fan, you probably know Jane Espenson, who has written and produced some of the most ambitious television of the last ten years including Battlestar Galactica, Dollhouse, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the sadly cancelled Caprica. With over 40,000 followers, Espenson is among Hollywood’s few prominent female TV producers.
This week Espenson returns to sitcoms – on the web. The writer-producer, whose comedy credits include Andy Barker, PI, Ellen and Gilmore Girls, is jumping into the indie web series world after having written a number of Battlestar’s popular, award-winning web stories.
Husbands, premiering Tuesday, follows two gay men, an athlete and actor, who drunkenly get married in Vegas. One of its stars and writers is a rising YouTuber, Cheeks, and the show also showcases Caprica’s Alessandra Torresani and newcomer Sean Hemeon. Episodes will be available at Blip and on Cheek’s YouTube channel, the beginning of 11-episode distribution plan set on proving to networks there’s an audience for the show: the episodes will combine into a pilot.
Teased at this year’s Comic-Con, Husbands aims to be a new kind of gay show in a market with a only few popular gay leads on TV.
“Husbands is set in a world in which marriage equality is a given, so there’s not really a debate about the yes-or-no of it as policy,” Espenson said. “There is a lot of new territory in this area as the world changes, and a lot of it is ripe for humor.”
Below, I talk to Espenson and Jeff Greenstein about her move back to comedy, gay marriage and what’s different about producing for the web. For episodes and extra content, visit Husbands‘ website.
JE: GREAT! I never really meant to leave comedy. Well, I wanted to leave the culture of half-hour comedy television because for the most part, I didn’t feel I was contributing enough, but I didn’t want to stop writing jokes. I’ve managed pretty well to get dark humor into episodes of shows like Battlestar, but I haven’t actually written pure comedy since I worked on Andy Barker, PI, the comedy starring Andy Richter. It was really really fun to write jokes again.
Jeff: You have a broad and deep well of experience in television. Was working on a web series a welcome change, a new challenge or not much different?
JG: It was fun! Although I initially moved to Los Angeles to become a director, I’ve spent the past two decades in an entertaining digression into television writing. I’ve only returned to directing in the last year or so with Desperate Housewives. So getting the chance to direct what is effectively a half-hour comedy pilot — albeit one whose initial “airing” will be in two-minute segments on the Internet — was an exciting challenge.
It was also fun to work with a group of fresh-faced, energetic, inventive young actors, a crew who in many cases are only a few years out of college, and to shoot a show on digital SLRs. The whole experience was like film school all over again, yet the result is remarkably polished. I’d put our show up against any network pilot out there.
What makes Husbands different and/or the same from classic sitcoms about married couples — whether I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners or Mad About You and King of Queens?
JE: Well, the idea that it’s about a newlywed couple where both the spouses are men is obviously the biggest difference, but in a way that just highlights how much the rest is the same — a lot of the stories that would be told on Husbands are ones that you could have told on Mad About You. But I also think there’s a very young freshness to the humor and language of Husbands that comes from working with such a young co-writer; Cheeks writes jokes that are informed by knowing his TV history, but also by living in the real world at a very specific time. To talk like we’re on Top Chef, between the two of us, I think we found a very new and specific humor profile.
JG: We need less of the gay friend who gives the lead girl advice on her wardrobe, or the gay friend who tells the main guy what shoes to wear on a date, and more of gays and lesbians as lead characters in their own right. And, of course, that’s what we’re doing with Husbands.
What are your thoughts about gay marriage? Husbands appears to address debates from within the gay community about whether and how we should get married.
JE: Well, I’m obviously pro marriage equality. Husbands is set in a world in which marriage equality is a given, so there’s not really a debate about the yes-or-no of it as policy. But it does address the fact that the Brady character, a professional athlete, sees a stable marriage as something he can sell to his more conservative fans, while Cheeks, who plays more of an iconoclast, fears that it’s a little too staid for his fans. That’s certainly a debate I’ve never seen before. There is a lot of new territory in this area as the world changes, and a lot of it is ripe for humor.
In your experience, what are the challenges of writing and producing a web series?
JE: So much can go wrong, and without the mechanism and money of a studio behind you, there are fewer ways to fix problems. That’s what would give me anxiety on the set– what if we just lose the audio or don’t get the shot? There’s no way to go back and do a reshoot. And of course there’s the question of its future — does it move to TV, stay online, how do we pay for it? It’s daunting. I was very glad we had a great director in Jeff Greenstein, making sure it looked perfect, and a great line producer in M. Elizabeth Hughes, keeping tract of everything.
JG: Everything was “indie,” which I actually enjoyed. We shot primarily at two locations — a hotel in West L.A. which our production designer tricked out to look like Vegas, and a North Hollywood bungalow belonging to two friends of Jane’s. That meant our crew had to be small and nimble and work extremely fast. And there was no better example of this than our first set-up: a run-and-gun guerrilla-filmmaking shoot at L.A. Live in downtown Los Angeles, doubling for the Vegas Strip. Our two leads were clad only in bikini underwear and (in Cheeks’s case) a bridal veil, we had friends playing aggressive paparazzi, and we had to grab our shot quickly, before the L.A. Live security people threw us out of the place. It was perhaps the best time I’ve ever had as a director.
Much of your cast and crew have worked in television and film. Was working on Husbands a welcome change, a new challenge or not much different?
JE: This was a pretty young cast (Alessandra Torresani, Cheeks, and Sean Hemeon) and a pretty young crew, who are used to the sort of on-the-run filmmaking we were doing. For me, this was a huge new challenge — I wasn’t used to seeing the working parts of a production quite so close up.
What projects — web, TV or film — are you working on that you can share with us?
JE: I’m working on a show called Once Upon A Time for ABC, which I’m loving. Fairy tale characters in the real world — so imaginative. I’m a consulting producer there, currently writing my second script for them, and it’s a blast! And of course, I would love to make more Husbands!