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The Brains Behind Husbands

The Brains Behind Husbands


Creators Jane Espenson and Brad Bell talk archetypes, identity, and honorary lesbians.

The Web series Husbands follows gay newlyweds and celebrity couple Brady (a professional baseball player) and Cheeks (a famous actor) who woke up following a drunken weekend in Vegas to find themselves married. Their wedding becomes public and the couple -- fearing a quickie divorce would only provide fodder for the anti-marriage equality contingent -- decide to stick it out, to humorous effect.

It is the only show in which two openly gay actors are featured in a relationship and is also the most critically acclaimed program to emerge from new media. We talked with Husbands creators Jane Espenson (the TV writer behind hits like Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Brad Bell (who plays Cheeks on the show, opposite Sean Hemeon as Brady) about having the only sitcom built around marriage equality, transforming Husbands into the new graphic novel of the same name, and bringing the series to

The Advocate: So obviously, Husbands is hilarious, but the first question I'm sure everybody asks you is why did you guys decide to start with a Web series rather than trying to go the traditional sitcom route?
Bell: I think that we felt like America was ready for it. But we weren't sure if the gatekeepers on the other end of traditional television would feel that way, so we wanted to make it sooner rather than later.
Espenson: Yeah, even if we had been able to take it out and pitch it and sell it, it would have been six months to a year before we got it out there. This way we were able to assemble a team and start shooting.
Bell: And we got to make the show we wanted to make. We didn't want someone to say, "That's a great idea, except it should be about a bunch of girls at a sorority."

Espenson: "And we want Ben Affleck to star." We wanted to do it the way we wanted to do it.
Bell: Well, I would have loved to have Ben Affleck in it [laughs], but you know the point is that they turn around the vision oftentimes and we wanted to make the show we saw to better express, "Here's the kind of show we would produce on a higher cost scale."
Espenson: And I think in the time that's gone by since, I think traditional television has moved a little bit so that CW Digital, who we're signing with now, is very respectful of continuing to make the products exactly how we've been doing it.

Wow, working with CW Digital. When will that happen?
Bell: We're writing the script right now. I actually have index cards taped to the wall of my hotel room for an outline. And we hope to be shooting in May. That's the tentative slate for production right now.

So you're obviously the show writer but you're also the star, so is Cheeks a lot of you, or are you very different from Cheeks in real life?
Bell: I think if I'm having a good time and I don't have anything to worry about -- if I'm out having fun and having a drink -- then I'm definitely very Cheeks. I used to be a lot more Cheeks. But with responsibility comes Brad Bell. Brad Bell is actually my persona that I invented, in able to function in the real adult world where you have to actually [pay bills].

So since Cheeks is a little bit of you, I have to ask, have you ever been told to tone it down and not be so gay?
Bell: Oh, yeah, sure. [Laughs]
Espenson: That line in season 2, where they say, "If only Cheeks were more appropriate" -- somebody actually said that.
Bell: After watching Husbands, an industry person said that I needed to be a little more ... "appropriate" is not the word, but that's definitely what they meant. That was based on real life.

So that's real to you. But Brady -- the other main character on Husbands -- is what we used to call "straight-acting." It's a common archetype. I just want to know, what creatively led you guys to do that?
Bell: It's interesting because I hear that it's a common archetype a lot, but I mean other than The Birdcage and maybe The New Normal, which came after our show, really where can you point to that example?
Espenson: Which archetype are you talking about? Cheeks or Brady?

Husbands-cheeks-brad-bell-sean-hemeonx400_0At left: Bell and Sean Hemeon

The combination of the two as a couple: the masculine and the feminine. I mean, for example, Jack and Will on Will & Grace certainly had that dynamic, even if they weren't a couple on the show.
Bell: I think that for one thing it's an interesting narrative choice. You don't want two people that are so similar that they're not interesting in their dynamic. You want different bits where you have the odd couple. I also think that my intention behind making the two different ends of the spectrum was to highlight the range of experience for gay men. There are the men that have the "straight privilege" and giving that up and having to suddenly deal with possible ridicule or bullying or judgment, what that experience is that like for those men; whereas when you can't hide the fact that you're gay. Like me. Every day since I was 5 years old, everyone kind of figured it out, and that takes a completely different personality coming up in the world. You have a very disparate experience. And I wanted to show that, the diversity in the gay community through those two experiences.
Espenson: We're also very clear that Brady was much more eager to say "love" than Cheeks was. That these things don't line up, that putting them at the opposite ends of the spectrum doesn't dictate everything about their personalities.
Bell: Right. Brady is much more sensitive and commitment-oriented and vulnerable, and Cheeks is much more "Let's not talk about relationships, let's keep this casual, I'm freaking out, you're suffocating me."
Espenson: Subverting the masculine and feminine.
Bell: Yeah, absolutely. And I think sometimes, for the sake of an interesting subversion and sometimes because that is the result that you get from the experiences of those people. Sean and I are very close to our characters, so we've had very different experiences as gay men. I just thought it would be an interesting character choice and an interesting representation of the complexity within the community.

So Jane, The Advocate interviewed you last year and the interviewer came and reported back, "She's straight!" Our executive editor said, "No-o-o. That couldn't possibly be true, she's so cool, she has to be a lesbian!"
Espenson: [Laughs]

Why aren't you queer? Can we at least call you bi-curious?
Espenson: No. [Laughs] I wish I were, because this is a movement I feel very strongly about and I would love to be able to say, "I'm on the inside, fighting the fight!" It's just things don't line up that way for me.

Alessandra Torresani, Bell, and Hemeon

Well, you will always be an honorary lesbian.
Espenson: Thank you. I love that. And who knows? I'm not that old; I could still try things out!

Right! So tell us about the collaboration with Dark Horse.
Espenson: I knew Dark Horse well because they did the Buffy comics and they just struck me as such a good medium to take Buffy forward when we weren't shooting anything anymore, that when we had a lull between shooting seasons of Husbands it seemed like, well, this is the perfect place to keep the story moving forward.
Bell: Yeah, and in a big grandiose way that you can't always do. As a comic -- and because we were going a different medium where it was artistry, it was fun to sort of imagine, "What if they went back in time? Or into space?" It was a great way to continue the story and sort of explore it through a different filter.

The book is sort of a mash-up of a lot of different genres. What drove you to that?
Bell: Well, we like doing that with the sitcom, sort of taking tropes and the waking up in Vegas scenario, the odd couple scenario, taking classic things that you've seen and sort of reinventing them and looking at them through a 21st-century lens and through a same-sex couple with that experience. So that idea appealed to me, to sort of take a trip through classic realms.
Espenson: Sort of doing what, in comic book terms, all we've done on the show. Which, the show is a great American sitcom, so let's reference sitcoms, now we're into comic books, let's reference some different classic comic book forms.
Bell: Right. But more of an exploration rather than referencing for the sake of referencing. More of like, "What does this say about gender roles? Like the prince and the princess?" and in that issue you'll see that Cheeks is kind of like, "OK, I may be locked in the tower, but I don't need you to rescue me, dude." [Laughs] How do you approach these classic gender roles?
Espenson: Not that princesses should feel that comfortable about being rescued either.
Bell: Exactly. Of course, we make the point that sometimes it's OK to be rescued. Sometimes you do need it and sometimes it's OK to enjoy being rescued.
Espenson: There's something wonderful about being vulnerable.
Bell: Exactly.

Now that marriage equality is such a huge issue -- it's before the Supreme Court now -- do you feel pressure to get it right since you're the only sitcom that does deal with marriage equality?
Bell: Interestingly, we're the only series of any medium that's making entertainment out of this. Which is kind of shocking. So no, I don't feel pressure to get it right, because we're just being authentic. Being entertaining. And at the end of the day, if anyone is criticizing us for not getting it right, there's obviously plenty of room to do it themselves. [Laughs] If we're not getting it right, in someone's opinion, what matters is at least we're doing it.
Espenson: I sometimes feel that I'll put out a notion like this -- Is this the right way to say this? And Brad Bell is so on top of all the nuances of all the arguments that he'll sort of go, "No, that's not actually the point we're making. We're actually making the point that's three inches over this way." So I feel very confident that Brad Bell knows how to negotiate these waters.
Bell: I want to make something that represents different facets of everything. Gay people, straight people, relationships, the universality of it, the specificity of it. You know, and so I can only go on my own experience and hopefully that's something people can relate to. And if it's not then they should get out there and make their own thing that other people can relate to.

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