Did you read part 1 of our interview with the Husbands crew?
Husbands, the marriage equality webseries created and written by Brad Bell (VH1’s Pop-Up Videos, Torchwood) and Jane Espenson (Buffy, Firefly, Once Upon a Time), just finished off its second season, funded by a $50k Kickstarter that yielded amazing results, both financially and creatively. With this buy-in from its audience, the Husbands team brought us back into the world of Cheeks and Brady, complete with a cast of geek stars (including Joss Whedon in his acting debut) guaranteed to please.
Bell and Espenson, along with Bell’s co-star Sean Hemeon (True Blood, Criminal Minds), sat down with CB at this year’s GeekGirlCon to talk about the Kickstarter, the new season, the perils and opportunities of coming out, and the nature of men—gay and straight.
Laura Akers and Chris Hicks for Comics Bulletin: So what new topics does season 2 take on?
Jane Espenson: [to Bell] Civil rights?
Brad Bell: Civil rights.
CB: Right now, we define that – for gays – almost entirely as “marriage equality,” so what do you mean when you say that?
Bell: Well, a parallel of all civil rights.
Espenson: The defining of that battle as a part of a larger continuing battle: equality for all. But that makes it sound very didactic.
Bell: But it’s funny though!
CB: Don’t worry, guys; I’ve very much established that it’s hysterical. Because it is.
Bell: Yeah, we deal with that in a light and frivolous way.
Espenson: But the longer the show goes on, the harder it continues to be, like will this marriage make it? Will these two disagree but eventually find each other? And as it is a romantic comedy, as you may guess, they probably do all right.
Bell: Yeah, and double standards in society and the unfair reaction and microscope that is put on anyone that is visible in a gay community…or even anyone that is not visible in the gay community that’s in front of the opposition.
Hicks for CB: Previously, Laura had talked to one of the producers for Burn Notice about shows about relationships.
Akers for CB: Matt Nix.
Hicks for CB: He actually made a good point about a lot of shows, when they deal with romantic relationships, they always drag things out and they never get together; there’s always this almost-kissing and other stupid plot devices. So they do that, and then when they finally let the characters actually hook up, the writers suddenly don’t know what the heck to do with their characters. All of a sudden, the whole show is gone.
Nix said it’s the result of a teenage view of love, rather than a grown-up relationship and all the adventures that holds. Do you see Cheeks and Brady hitting a point where they’ve got things worked out: they know who’s doing what, they’ve been able to come to some sort of terms on how their lives are going to operate, etc.? If it reached that point, then what is the show about?
Bell: Well, no ‘cause I think that that scenario will play out for ten years. And aside from that, there’s a lot of material in just that first step–all the different facets to what that entails, so that even if that becomes more solidified, and naturally it would, you’ve got “us against the world” stories, you’ve got “opposing goal” stories: okay, great, we know each other and we’ve got this figured out, but you want this thing and I want this other thing and who knows how that can play out.
Espenson: Another place that the shows tend to go is babies, but I think that that would not be a thing I would see for us in the first six years of the show.
CB: Because that’s what every show is doing with characters right now; it’s doing the baby thing. In both straight and gay relationships…
Bell: Yes, but you especially don’t see any gay couples without babies, because babies cancel out the sexual component of a gay couple. Babies are safe and likeable and, “Oh, I like those guys and their cute little baby.” If there is no baby, the assumption is that those guys are enjoying a sexual relationship and you can’t have that.
Espenson: So again, marriage is, like Mad About You, they told some very interesting stories, where they actually split up like, “Are we going to get a divorce?”
Bell: Not likely going to happen. Because it’s sort of what you guys are saying is, now that they’ve gotten through the newlywed phase, what obstacle can we throw at them that makes it uncertain? You know, divorce and cheating, and I don’t think we would go there either.
Espenson: But the nice thing is that we started them with this…they knew each other 5-6 weeks when they got married, so we’ve got a long time till they figure out that they know each other.
Bell: Well, it takes two years before you really know someone.
CB: And of course you didn’t like him for the first two weeks.
Espenson: There’s a story that remains: the flashback episode.
CB: [to Bell] Why did you give Brady another chance?
Bell: I don’t know if it was another chance; it was just, well, this will be fun – as long as he doesn’t talk – this will be fun for a while and then I’ll move on to something else.
CB: Like “Hey! I’m dating a Dodger! Cool.”
Bell: Yeah. I’ll have that for a while, sure. And then a couple of weeks went by, and it was suddenly like, “Oh, wait, he cares about me. Since when does somebody care about me, people just have a good time just like me and then it’s fun.” But then, yeah, I think that there was some normalcy and some tenderness.
Bell: And some honesty. And it was weird and different, and I kind of liked it.
Espenson: I want to go back to that idea. I think that the shows that run out of steam when they get the couples together are a very different kind of shows than the kind of newlywed shows. We are much more like I Love Lucy or Mad About You – where the couple is
already together – than we are Cheers or Moonlighting where the stated goal is them getting together or not. That’s why they run out of steam: it’s that they’ve reached the end of their stated goal. But our characters’ stated goal is “let’s keep this marriage going,” which is a goal that can take…it takes people a lifetime to answer the question “Will we keep this marriage going?”
“Will we get together or not” plays out much more quickly, and that’s why they hit that wall. We don’t have a wall in front of us; we are set up to not have a wall.
CB: So what was the goal for the season one and what is the goal for season two?
Espenson: In terms of within the show or…?
CB: You can interpret it however you like. You’re writers: go with it.
Espenson: Well, for season one, our goal was to determine if there was a fan base out there and we answered it: yes.
Bell: Yeah, I think to actually just do [the series]. Like, that’s a good idea; that should be done.
Espenson: That should exist; let’s make it exist. There it is.
Bell: Yeah, you want to write something ‘cause you have a good idea for something, and you just write it down.
Espenson: And season two similarly, we wanted to see more, and we know the fans want to see more, so let’s make us both happy – because we were fans of the show. At that point, we weren’t just fans of the idea; we were fans of the show we made. We wanted to see more.
Bell: I just love giving great stuff to the audience because you’re sitting there and you’re writing…and then getting to see it with an audience especially. You know, screening it at cons or even handing out the marketing photos, the commercial photos that we have, was a concept that I came up with and I knew, I just knew our audience was going to love it.
Espenson: You knew that?
Bell: Yeah. We rolled it out and people are like “Oh my god!” I mean those photos are flying out of our hands. I’m seeing it get like re-blogged on Tumblr and people adding comments like, this is amazing, I have to have more like this, I can’t believe it…that’s my favorite thing; I love that. So the ability to keep doing that…
Espenson: And it is Adam Bouska [best known for his NoH8 series] photography, thank you.
CB: So you’ve worked on geek shows and you understand they have a very special relationship to the audience; did you expect to have the kind of relationship that you have with your audience? How is it different, or is it different, from the relationship you have with hard-core geek audience?
Espenson: Maybe it’s a little more personal. I think a fan of Battlestar would certainly feel free walk up to me at a convention, so it’s not hugely different. They send us gifts and stuff, which is lovely, but so do Buffy fans.
Bell: Yeah, I guess for me it’s more personal because the fans were always there for me. The nature of what I was already producing, through either satire or directly saying, this is my opinion on this, brought people that were of like mind and felt that there was a kind of voice that I was representing that was not represented a lot in our media.
So extreme; it’s extreme right, extreme left, you’re either on or you’re off and I think most people are kind of, “Well, let’s be reasonable about this; there’s this and there’s that, but quit being so sensational.” And that was sort of where I started, that’s what people responded to and I think that that’s what builds that relationship.
Espenson: Fans bake us cakes and bring us cakes and we eat them, without fear; that’s the thing I hadn’t really had on other shows.
CB: Even after some of the things you did with Battlestar Galactica characters…
Espenson: Things I did? Oh, I murdered Cat, that’s true. People died.
CB: So aside from Joss, who else are we going to see in season 2?
Bell: Well, there’s Jon Cryer and Mekhi Phifer. [editorial note: Alessandra Torresani (Caprica) returns for season two, which also includes Clare Grant (Robot Chicken), Amber Benson (Buffy), Tricia Helfer (Battlestar Galactica), Sasha Roiz (Grimm), Dichen Lachman (Being Human), Felicia Day (The Guild), and Emma Caulfield (Bandwagon, Buffy)]
CB: What’s been the most surprising feedback you’ve gotten?
Espenson: The most surprising feedback?
CB: You can change the adjective if you like: touching, frightening, etc…
Espenson: Well, we’ve gotten…the ones that are the most gratifying have been the straight guys. Surprising?
Bell: Gratifying, flattering. There was a scene that’s very close and intimate and half-naked and sexy, and this straight guy working on set to me that he was relating it to a scenario that he’d been in and he was like, “Oh, my God, I’ve so been in that scenario.” And this is a dude…like a real kind of dude, and I said, “Didn’t it all weird you out that it’s two dudes? ‘Cause you were looking at us in our underwear all day basically while I straddle Sean.” And he said, “No!” like he hadn’t even thought about it. He’s like, “That’s exactly how it is, man.”
Espenson: With a girl.
Bell: Yeah, he totally related. I think that that, that sort of feedback…
Espenson: If your goal is to make people identify with these guys, for someone who you isn’t immediately going to identify with them, to actually be able to identify with them – then you know you’ve done it.
Bell: And the girl at Comic-Con that said that her cousin or someone came out after watching us two, to his dad. “Wow, really? We’re not even about coming out.”
CB: [to Hemeon] What’s been the most surprising, or disturbing, or exciting reaction that you’ve gotten from doing the show?
Sean Hemeon: Oh, it came right away actually. I had one that really got to me. I got just a personal email from some young boy in the Midwest. He said he felt like there was hope because he was just watching two gay men on the show be happily-ever-after; it just gave him hope to continue to be who he is. I was really moved by that. This was before we really got any coverage, any reviews or anything;
this was right at the beginning.
Bell: Which as a gay man, I think speaks to something that people might not think, which is not only like hope to leave Ohio and get away from my oppressive dad, or whatever it is, but also that there’s more to the gay community than the bar scene and casual sex, which some of the gay community gets offended about: you know, the stereotype that we’re promiscuous and that kind of thing. It’s really very true: the expectation is that you have a Grinder account and you get laid every week, or every day if you’re single. You go out and you get laid.
It’s not really the way I work: I’m not really interested in having a Grinder account, and I’m sort of perceived by a lot of the gay community as having a puritanical hang-up about sex because I’m not interested in just going out and having casual sex. Which is something that I think that young men – because I think that men are very sensitive creatures – need to understand that that’s okay; it’s okay to want a relationship, it’s okay to seek something monogamous, it’s okay to not have sex with a guy until the fourth or fifth date, or after you’ve known him a few months. That’s all right.
Hemeon: I think a lot of them, deep down, want that. A lot of them, deep down, they’ll openly admit that. However, the problem is that a lot of these boys, these gay men, identify only as gay men. That’s their marker, and so they look around and it’s like, gay men go to bars and have lots of sex rather than develop their own relationships with themselves, with being gay just being a part of it.
Bell: I hear that, and I think that a part of it is also what gives me hope for that I can be married, that I can be in love.
Hemeon: Which was my biggest thing about coming out. I can’t get married, I can’t have kids. I mean, I was terrified. I want to be a father. I’d love that and I was terrified of coming out, as if that was being robbed from me [by admitting I’m gay]. But that’s not the case anymore; I mean, after developing a relationship with myself and having the gay just be a part of it, it’s just totally cool.
I can love who I want and be happy, be really happy. I think the timing of that email was so moving for me specifically because this show has really had…I’ve had to face my own personal phobias. Everything that Brady feels, I would read the script and do the scene, and afterwards think “Oh, so true. I’m totally trying to be the patriarch.” All my own personal beliefs and ideas, whether I pick them up from my family or somewhere else, all of them are being challenged, for the better. I mean I’ve come out as a different person; I’ve evolved because of the show.
Espenson: Oh, that’s so nice.
Hemeon: It is true. Okay, so there was some gay content on the web if you search my name and I was thinking I should change my name. I really thought about it for a good couple of months, but having Husbands and being so proud of it and being so proud of myself and being okay with it, it’s really helped me evolve as an “out” actor. And that email just came at the right time, totally telling me, “Okay, cool, I’m doing the right thing.”
CB: You’re talking about the attitudes towards sex in a gay community. Did you see Burt’s sex talk with his gay son Kurt on Glee?
Bell: No, I remember hearing about it.
CB: It’s really amazing. You have a straight man trying to talk to his gay son about what sex is going to be like. Something along the lines of: “Everything about being a man, the casualness with which you want to treat sex is just going to be a thousand-fold with another man, and you’ve got to understand that this is actually an emotional minefield that you’re walking into, so you need to be careful about your emotional wellbeing.” And we do, I think, have that tendency to see gay men as exempt from that.
Espenson: Just all wanting to have sex all the time. And eventually, when you lose steam, you get married.
Hemeon: But gay men aren’t supported by our society [in terms of more traditional monogamous romantic love]; there was no “you get to go to prom,” there’s no dating experience, there’s none of that validated so we’re all behind in relation to that stuff.
Bell: So you’re 21 years old, and you might as well be 15 or 16. I mean it’s ridiculous. And that’s where you get the catty mentality, it’s where you get the viciousness, and the backstabbing. Because, yeah, emotionally they’re stunted. I mean, I will say it: the gay community is emotionally stunted. And until you make the decision to actively work beyond that, which eventually happens…
I know particularly well because I worked in a gay matchmaking company for two years, and the majority of our clientele were really amazing guys. There were these really amazing guys who were in their 20’s or 30’s, who had no idea where to go to meet a quality guy because they’re more interested in going to the bar scene. And online is this weird experience where you create a perception of something that you’re not. Or a second type of guys that were 40 years old, had never been in a relationship and didn’t realize that [in that kind of an environment] you turn 30 and you disappear; you disappear in the gay community.
And these guys would roll in, usually right after their 40th birthday. And, yeah, they were amazing and didn’t know where to go or they were like, “I’m 40 and I’ve never had anything significant for more than 3 weeks. I don’t understand. How did I go this long?” And there’s no glorious role model for gay guys; there’s no leader or example saying here is an option that’s not the option offered by the culture of gay.
Hemeon: There’s a few books that I can tell you, there’s a few options out there like, why the gay man is the way he is, what is he missing out on and how he can change and why every gay man’s relationship lasts 3 weeks.
Bell: And most of my friends are straight men; the majority of my friends are not gay. And straight men are sensitive, emotional. I guess they put on a different face for their straight buddies and women because that’s not the men I know; that’s not how they are with me. But that’s not the prototype for man. The prototype for man is somebody who’s not really allowed to act that way [with sensitivity], in society and he’s told that from his earliest, formative years.
Hemeon: Cheeks just described himself. He’s very sensitive and caring like that and I think he surrounds himself with straight men like that, but the prototype of what a straight man should be is insensitive, do it on your own, don’t ask.
Bell: That’s not actually the nature of the man.
Hemeon: That’s not the real nature of man but that’s generally what the man o
f this…that’s my brothers and my father, that sort of thing. And it is out there and most gay men are raised in that, so they take that on. And it’s like they have all these emotions going on inside and they’re wondering, “What do I do with it? Oh, I’ll just drink, I’ll just fuck it away.” Anything is better than dealing with themselves, and then they wonder why they can’t last longer than a month or two months in a relationship. ‘Cause they get to that level where they actually have to face that stuff and it’s like, ‘Crap!” and then they go back out and start drinking again.
Bell: And then your youth and your beauty goes away and then you really don’t know what to do.
Hemeon: Because that’s all you have.
Bell: Yeah, based on…
Hemeon: I mean, all this is in the straight community as well, but in the gay community, it’s just so focused.
Espenson: Yes, and women have to train the men they go out with because they don’t understand.
Bell: That is the benefit of the balance. I have a straight friend who says, “It must be so much easier with two guys,” in the sense that I don’t have to deal with needy, emotional, erratic. I don’t have to deal with that, but it’s more difficult because there is no balance. Yeah, it’s two guys, you know, guys are always up for having sex, so let’s have sex. So you never have the guy who understands, “Oh, while I’m not having sex, I’m actually really attaching to the other things there are to like about you,” which you’re forced to learn with the male-female dynamic.
And guys put the brakes on a woman’s desire to get together and make babies right away, which is why you got the whole joke about lesbians, [where] they go on their first dates with U-hauls. And the thing that got the men “Let’s keep it casual, let’s keep it casual, let’s keep it casual,” and you have a whole lifetime of keeping it casual, which is why I think that a necessary balance of male and female, not masculine and feminine but male and female within all genders is important.
CB: Coming from within yourself?
Bell: Right, exactly.
CB: I wanted to ask you one last thing, Brad. Cheeks says in the first season, “I’m all about me.” Which is one of those things that can tend to be seen as very negative, but he meant something different by that. Can you talk about what he means?
Bell: What I mean is individuality, not trying to make a marriage work [to the exclusion of the individual’s identity]. But it’s a dangerous thing because I’m about living a life of others, living a life of others is the life to live. But a life of serving others doesn’t mean a life of trying to make other people happy by being what they expect you to be – not living only to others’ expectations.
Espenson: The Cheeks character is a little different than Brad’s Cheeks persona. Sometimes, the character is shallow and really might have just meant “I’m all about me.”
Hemeon: This is where they parallel; this is what’s so good about it. I think what he means with “I’m all about me” is that, I think the greatest service that we can do as individuals on this planet is to be the best human beings we’ll be, which is removing the blocks and limitations and shining bright.
I mean this is where that whole, “We made of the same stars” stuff comes into play, because if I can show I can be an open, loving, and balanced human being, full of integrity, that is the greatest thing that I can do. I can’t be of service to you if I’m still living with my own shit. And so when you’re all about you and focusing on you, that’s exactly what you’re doing, is you’re standing on that cliff saying, “Look at me, this is true, this is actually me.”
Bell: I think it’s the funniest way to say, “I stand for artistically expressing one’s most authentic self.” It’s the funniest way to say that. I stand for the same thing too, I’m all about me. It’s clearly going for the humor, but…
Hemeon: You’re selfish in that way. We have to be if we’re doing the art for ourselves. But at the same time, when we’re out there doing it, it affects other people and inspires them. Joss Whedon inspires other people to be writers by being himself, you know what I mean? So, in that way, it is essentially all about you and doing what you like.