Relatively revolutionary

A sitcom featuring a gay couple with a daughter—shocking, or just good business sense? Both, say producers.

BY Mike Goodridge

September 29 2003 11:00 PM ET

Meron and Zadan,
who had not yet produced a sitcom but had ABC credits
including Annie and Rodgers &
Hammerstein’s Cinderella,
started to
meet with writers. “Many of the ideas fell into
stereotypes,” says Zadan. “Our
sensibility is more sophisticated. Then we finally met
Chuck and Anne.”

Ranberg and his
writing partner, Anne Flett-Giordano, came up with what
Ranberg describes as “Frasier and Niles, if they were
a gay couple, meet Archie Bunker.” The two
writers, who had spent so long on Frasier,
devised the class conflict concept. “Everybody at ABC
flipped out,” says Zadan.

The two writers
are drawing on their own experience in It’s All
Relative.
“I’m gay and in an 11-year
relationship, and Anne is a California girl from
Berkeley whose husband is from a traditional
Italian-American family from New Jersey,” says
Ranberg. “This is the first time we’ve
written gay characters—well, openly gay
characters,” he notes, chuckling, in reference to the
gay sensibility that Frasier and Niles so famously
possess.

So do Simon and
Philip need to come across as stereotypes? “You could
look at any comedy and see stereotypes,” says Zadan.
“The goal is to use stereotypes and break them
down as you go on. If you don’t use some
essence of a stereotype, the characters are bland and you
can’t find the conflict. The key is to make
sure you blend the stereotypes with humanity.”

The creators also
opted to create clear character traits in each gay dad.
Simon is “the more nurturing, does more of the
cooking, is more reasonable and tolerant,”
explains Ranberg. “Philip is the one who goes
from zero to 60. We’re looking for those surprising
moments where Mace and Philip find themselves on
exactly the same page and then quickly back away
because they don’t want to have anything in
common.”

Casting, of
course, was crucial to the show’s success. The
chemistry evident in the casts of Friends,
Frasier,
and Will & Grace is clearly as
much an element of those shows’ success as the
writing.

“It’s all about chemistry in an ensemble
cast,” explains Zadan. “Some sitcoms
have one terrific person shining out in a bad cast. We need
a great ensemble. We found people we like in
auditions, but we didn’t cast anyone without
pairing them up. Once we did that, we discovered the
chemistry of the cast.”

That casting
process resulted, coincidentally, in two gay actors playing
Simon and Philip—another first for the show.
“I think that the fact we are both gay really
adds to the chemistry,” says Hickey. “We have
to play a couple who have known each other for years,
and Chris and I are just getting to know each other,
so you use whatever you have. If only life could
imitate art,” he muses with a smile. “Chris is
the most gorgeous man imaginable!”

Playing their
daughter, Liz, is Maggie Lawson. “We are definitely
trying to make the relationship realistic. Yes, my
character is friends with them, but they are still my
parents, so when they start reminiscing about some
great time they had in St. Barts, Liz gets uncomfortable. I
don’t know one child that is OK listening to
their parents talk about their sexual relations.
Hopefully, everybody can relate to it.”

The timing may be
right for the show, which arrives as Friends and
Frasier draw to a close. “There’s room
for new voices,” continues Meron, “and a
redefinition of a family show. People can now relate to the
fact that love, not blood, creates the strongest bonds in a
family in the next generation.”

The political
uproar over gay marriage this season amounts to priceless
publicity for It’s All Relative. And with the
help of Paramount’s media relations department,
the show’s executive producers have been
offering to act on cable news shows as spokespeople for
civil unions. “We’re capitalizing on the
fact that civil unions are a hot topic in summer
2003,” explains Paramount’s Wentworth,
“and it’s also serendipitous that
it’s the summer of the Supreme Court ruling on gay
sex and the success of hit shows like Queer Eye for
the Straight Guy
and Boy Meets
Boy.

It would be even
more serendipitous for the show’s producers if
It’s All Relative could achieve even
a fraction of Will & Grace’s
financial success. “If the advertisers are embracing
us, which they are, we know that the gay dollar is
significant,” says Meron. “People love
the gay dollar. I love the gay dollar.”

“I feel we
are riding the wave of the gay TV zeitgeist, and it’s
thrilling,” adds Ranberg, “although our fear
right now is that we are going to get on the air just
in time for the backlash. Trends usually end, but I
don’t think this is a trend. Being gay is not a
trend.”

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