Relatively revolutionary

By Mike Goodridge

Originally published on Advocate.com September 29 2003 11:00 PM ET

After a summer of
pundits jamming the airwaves with debates on the pros
and cons of gay marriage, ABC is launching It’s
All Relative
—a new sitcom that might
just turn into one of the season’s more effective
arguments in favor.

Here’s the
pitch: It’s All Relative centers on a
long-committed gay couple whose highly intelligent
daughter is determined to marry a working-class
bartender whose dad doesn’t take kindly to gays.
These future in-laws will try to get along for the
sake of the kids. How? That’s the comedy.

Stereotyping
aside—and the show’s creators argue that a
degree of stereotyping is essential in getting
laughs—the comedy could be more subtly
subversive than ABC at first intended.

“Just
presenting a gay couple matter-of-factly might be the most
revolutionary thing we are doing,” explains Chuck
Ranberg, the cowriter, cocreator, and
co–executive producer who previously spent five
seasons working on Frasier. “They are
middle-class, they go to work, they’re not out
dating, they are not always hot for each other, they have
to cook, go to work, pay the bills.”

“Having
two gay parents in a committed relationship who love each
other and have raised a child speaks volumes,”
agrees Neil Meron, who executive-produces
It’s All Relative with Craig Zadan, his
partner in Storyline Entertainment. “You see
them in bed together in the first episode, and they
kiss each other on the way to work in the second one.
It’s just like life.”

To be sure, Simon
(Christopher Sieber) and Philip (John Benjamin Hickey)
behave in ways that will make some gay men cringe. In
episode 4, titled “Take Me Out,” the
affluent gay Bostonians are given free use of a luxury
box at a Boston Red Sox game and invite their
daughter’s fiancé, Bobby, and his
homophobic father, Mace, to join them. You can guess the
rest. While the avid Red Sox fans Bobby (Reid Scott)
and Mace (Lenny Clarke) sit watching the game, uneasy
with the comfort of such privilege, the pastel-clad
Simon and Philip are distracted by Trading Spaces on
the in-suite TV, admire the crisscross design of the mowed
grass on the field, nibble on sushi, and offer
meat-eating Mace a soy “not dog.”

Such is the broad
humor of class conflict at the heart of the show, which
trades on stereotyping a working-class Boston family as much
as it does Simon and Philip. What makes this sitcom
different is the character of Liz (Maggie Lawson),
Simon and Philip’s 23-year-old daughter, a Harvard
student whose winning personality makes it obvious that
Simon and Philip are outstanding parents.
Also—P.S., Jerry Falwell—Liz is heterosexual
to the core.

Everybody working
on the show is emphatic that It’s All Relative
(previous titles brainstormed included Don’t
Ask!
and The Out-Laws) is not an
“issue” show with an agenda of tolerance to
preach. Perhaps the demise of Ellen and the enduring
popularity of Will & Grace have taught
those lessons. “The humor comes from the
conflict between blue-collar and snooty people. They are
different classes,” says Zadan. “The
writing doesn’t have to be about the gay
couple. As our episodes have been written and the shows
taped, you start to realize that it still would work
if you remove the gay elements.”

“The
audience will tell us if it’s funny or not,”
says John A. Wentworth, executive vice president of
marketing and media relations at Paramount Television,
which is coproducing It’s All Relative with
Disney’s Touchstone Television for ABC.
“They will reject it or not on its
funniness.”

In fact, if ABC,
Touchstone, and Paramount are nervous about It’s
All Relative,
it’s because they all
want a hit sitcom badly, not because they are breaking
new ground in the depiction of gay long-term
relationships.

“It stands
in exactly the same place it was two months ago—on
the ABC schedule in a great time period with the
network fully behind it,” ABC Entertainment
Television Group chairman Lloyd Braun tells The
Advocate.
“As for being nervous, I worry about
every show on the schedule every day. But I’m
not worried about controversy here. I think people are
going to like these characters—no matter what their
views are with respect to such matters.”

Will & Grace has done a lot of the work in
removing stigmas from gay-themed comedy with blue-chip
advertisers. Of the sitcoms targeted at the key
18–49 demographic, Will & Grace is one of
the highest-earning shows in advertising dollars on TV
today—and it’s in syndication, the
ultimate aim of any new sitcom, which is possible after
the show has had, roughly, 100 episodes on the air.

“I have to
give most of the credit—not all, but most—to
Will & Grace,” says Zadan.
“That show is making a fortune for the network
and the studio [NBC is both], and it all comes down to the
money after all. If you are a network, you’re
bound to want your own Will &
Grace.

Indeed, the idea
for a show involving gay dads originated with none other
than Braun, who approached Meron and Zadan two years ago
with the suggestion that they develop a series
revolving around gay parents. “I loved The
Birdcage,
which was a broad, biting comedy with very
warm, inviting character,” Braun says. “I
thought seeing two gay fathers raising a grown-up
heterosexual kid was a great arena for comedy.The key
was that the characters had to be very likable—and,
of course, funny. I wanted a loving family at the
core.”

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.”