Jane Espenson and Brad Bell come from different segments of the entertainment industry. She is a known and lauded producer and writer from the land of network and cable television and he is a YouTube sensation.
Apart they have conquered their own unique set of obstacles with Jane dominating Y chromosome heavy writers rooms and Brad making a bold statement about the guts, creativity, and skill it takes to excel and rise above the interweb pack. Together? Well, Espenson and Bell are re-writing the rule book and drawing the bunny-fingers around the phrase television with their web series Husbands — a hilarious, take no prisoners gay marriage rom-com that is splendidly frustrating homophobes and positively delighting those with a brain and a sense of humor.
I’ve spoken to Jane and Brad before and as always they deliver in this exclusive interview about Geek cred, raising the bar, the joys of controversy, and the shows unbelievable guest stars like Nathan Fillion last season (who wrote his own cue cards) and this season’s cameos by Joss Whedon (who brought his own wardrobe), Tricia Helfer, Jon Cryer and others.
Read on, enjoy, and share…
You took Comic-Con by storm and yet this is a romantic comedy not a “genre” show. How do you explain your “geek” following and street cred?
Jane Espenson: Some of it comes out of my resume. I’ve written for a lot of science fiction and fantasy shows: Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, Battlestar Galactica, Torchwood, Game of Thrones, etc, so the Comic-Con crowd knows my name. But I think my name is just a billboard of sorts. It catches interest among those fans. The real reason Husbands has earned fan loyalty is that, just like with Sci Fi, the emotions are universal. The circumstance might look like they’re unrelatable — another planet, an alien race, gay people! — but the experience is universal. The journey is compelling. Husbands is the same way.
Brad Bell: I’ve never understood why “genre” shows are defined that way. Everything falls into a genre. Husbands, for example, is a romantic comedy. Assuming Husbands would only appeal to romantic comedy fans or gay fans — or not appeal to the Comic Con crowd because those fans only like Sci Fi — that limits the depth of the show and all fans of everything, everywhere! But that aside, I think Husbands never underestimates the intelligence of the audience. We give our viewers the respect they deserve. People like that. Especially geeks.
Are there any current web series’ that inspire you and that push you to be better?
We adore Very Mary Kate. The quality of joke writing in that little show is so perfect, so beautifully timed… it’s a step above most popular entertainment. When we work and rework the scripts, we aim higher because of Elaine Carroll’s writing.
There are a few new comedies coming up on network TV with gay main characters and what appears to be a more diverse premise. Some will quickly lump Husbands in with those shows, but do you think they need to earn a place beside you with their content? Do they need to put up and earn that badge? A followup: do you think that Husbands is helping to re-draw the boundaries of where network television is willing to go from the outside?
Brad: Earn a place beside us? No, not at all. I mean, if other people want to point out that we were first and still remain [at the] forefront of fresh, bold comedy for the 21st century… that certainly wouldn’t bother me. But to take some kind of ownership or expect others to acknowledge us, that just makes “us” more important than the result. I hope that result is a future with diverse and ample stories from all walks of life. That’s what’s important, not who made it happen.
Jane: I don’t mind Husbands being the bar against which those shows are measured. I don’t mind that one bit. Let’s make that happen. I guess all I have to say is that there should be room in the pool for everyone. If we end up pitting all the shows with gay content against each other, then it’s like accepting the premise that only one of the shows will gain relevance. In terms of re-drawing the boundaries – yes, I hope we are an active living demonstration that the audience is ready for more than is generally thought.
The group One Million Moms has called Ryan Murphy’s upcoming show, The New Normal, “Harmful to society” and they’re boycotting it sight unseen. Do you think the press gives these kinds of protests too much attention, and in light of the attention that they get, are you a little envious that they aren’t calling you harmful to society? I mean, who doesn’t want to be a little controversial?
Brad: Controversy is an effective strategy, but I can’t say I have “kerfuffle envy.” What Husbands has, are fans motivated by a genuine love for the show. It’s great to see people counter-protesting the (considerably less than a million) Moms — they should! But our audience gives celebratory support, not defensive support. I feel very blessed that the visibility and enthusiasm for Husbands is because of the quality; people love the show because of the show. That’s the best case scenario, no matter how big the audience ultimately ends up being.
Jane: Oh, once they see us, they may find us a little harmful. I’m of two minds about the “too much coverage” thing. Yeah, not every crazy needs a camera put on them. On the other hand, when you put a camera on them, the crazy gets really clear.
Describe for me the challenge of trying to say something about our societies views on marriage equality while also being funny. It seems to me that when funny people get too political or value being important over being comical they sometimes forget how to be funny people. On the other hand, some thrive like Jon Stewart and Colbert. How do you toe the line?
Jane: I don’t think either of us know how to talk for very long without attempting some humor. I think it’s how most people talk, and how most people listen. We rarely have to struggle to find the funny “spin” – human beings, even human prejudice, is funny because it’s so ridiculous. I’d say we more often have the other issue, where we have to decide when to hold back on some funny phrasing in order to let a point really land.
Brad: Exactly. The conservative views on marriage equality are already so absurd, it makes our job too easy, really. “Gay marriage will be the downfall of society!” Since there seems to be very little explanation for what exactly takes us from A (marriage equality) to B (the apocalypse) our only option is to imagine the most hilariously horrible doomsday scenario in between and flesh it out.
Obviously you want to evolve from season to season. Season one was fantastic, but in what ways do you think you’ve improved upon the show this season?
Brad: Well, the Million Moms have played right into our game by protesting The New Normal, so that’ll really give some of-the-moment timeliness to this season’s story. This time around, we use a few classic sitcom devices that are normally employed just for laughs, but we were able to use them in such a way that highlights the social commentary, while keeping the relationship at the heart of the story. By the time all is said and done, it’s about this new marriage and the love therein.
Jane: A more ambitious story. Much better production values. We raised a lot of the money for season two through a Kickstarter campaign, so this was the money we got from the fans and we wanted to make sure it all ended up “on the screen.” Plus our big guest stars like Joss Whedon, Jon Cryer, Mekhi Phifer, Felicia Day, Tricia Helfer, Amber Benson, and a lot more.
I spoke with you both and Sean [Hemeon] at the beginning of season 1 and from my perspective it seems like the show has a bit more buzz surrounding it in the days before season 2. You had a meaty write up in Entertainment Weekly, as I said before, you dominated San Diego — when was the moment that you each thought “Okay, this is clicking”?
Jane: I knew it would be huge the minute Brad had the idea, but the moment it really hit me was the review in The New Yorker. It was a breakthrough for online content and signified more than just good press. A few months before that, we’d drawn a shockingly huge crowd at New York Comic Con, so maybe it was already happening. And the build up to the season two roll-out is beyond gratifying. We were hosted at The Paley Center for our premiere event, another first for online programming, which was just amazing.
Brad: Yeah, there have been a series of clicks. The most personal one, I guess, was when my brother in Tennessee said how much his Army buddies were enjoying Husbands — straight, gun-carrying, Tennessee, army boys. I said, “Oh you showed them my stuff?” He replied, “They already knew who you were. They pulled it up one night like, ‘You have to see this, it’s hilarious’ and I was like, ‘Yeah that’s my brother’ and they were all, ‘Cheeks is your brother?! You’re lying!’” That was pretty surreal.
As you mentioned, the fans paid for this season through a very successful Kickstarter campaign. With that comes an obligation to give them their money’s worth but you have total freedom. If you had a chance to take this to TV and make it with someone else’s money — not fans’, but a network’s money — would you choose less exposure and more freedom or more exposure and less freedom? Also, are the priorities at all different for the two of you due to your chosen path as a performer Brad, and your more established “brand” Jane?
Jane: Can I have more exposure AND more freedom? Because that, actually, is where I think we’re headed. Freedom has to come first, but I don’t see a ceiling on our exposure – we are accessible to all. Priorities: I think we are a Venn diagram with a lot of overlap, and the overlap part is labeled “Husbands”. We both want it to change the world.
Brad: If I opted for more exposure, but sacrificed freedom (and therefore quality) why would I want to expose that product to more people? Would it be for the money? Yay. So I win and the audience gains nothing. Worse, they lose a show they loved, which I gave them. “Here you go! Do you like it? Well tough, I’m selling it so I can be rich!” How would I be able to sleep on my 3,000 thread count sheets in my palatial Malibu estate knowing that I’d taken a beloved show from the people who believed in me? I couldn’t. The happiness of my audience is more important than whether or not I have a private jet. Of course, the ideal scenario is a private jet and audience happiness. I aim to make that happen.
You can watch every episode of Husbands on their website, HusbandsTheSeries.com. You can follow the show on Twitter @TeamHusbands. You can also follow Jane Espenson (@JaneEspenson) and Brad Bell (@GoCheeksGo) on the Twitter machine as well. Now, check out this special behind the scenes video from season 2.