Scroll To Top




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

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 fiance, 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."

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Mike Goodridge