There’s something electrifying about a perfect collaboration. At first glance, Jane Espenson and Brad “Cheeks” Bell don’t seem to have anything in common. She is a writer/producer of myriad sci-fi/fantasy television faves including Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, Torchwood: Miracle Day, and the upcoming Once Upon a Time. He is a performer whose made his home on the internet with music and comedy videos that seem to cater more to the Lady Gaga set than to the Ray Bradbury set. What we shouldn’t forget, however, is that Espenson got her start on sitcoms like Dinosaurs, Ellen, Jake In Progress, and Andy Barker P.I. And what we shouldn’t ignore is that under all the glitter and glitz, Cheeks is an incisive, intelligent talent who couches his social criticism in showbiz flair, because he knows what works. Together, they bring us Husbands, an 11-episode webseries that originated as a script that Cheeks wrote for himself and his good friend, and Caprica star, Alessandra Torresani.
They Call Me Cheeks, and That’s Totes For Reals.
You may already know Cheeks from his YouTube channel, his music on iTunes, or his very active Twitter account. Brad Bell knew that when he moved out to Hollywood from Texas that he wasn’t going to take the same route toward being a performer as everybody else. “I knew that I wasn’t going to drive around town with my headshot and be all ‘I can play this role! I can do that! I’m this guy!’ Because I’m not every guy, you know? I’m a specific type. So when I got here, I wanted to figure out What am I gonna do differently? What’s a different way into this machine? And it took a couple of years to figure out. Especially then, because YouTube came out as a website that people knew about and were using I think, like, two years after I moved [to L.A.]. That’s when I was like, ‘Okay, there are people putting themselves out there in front of thousands of people on their own platform. I can do that.’ And I still audition for stuff, but I didn’t feel the need, that that was my only way in.
“Cheeky was a nickname I had that evolved from my sense of humor and the way I am with people sometimes. And I thought there was something to the persona name thing. I thought, That’s gonna make a resurgence the way David Bowie was Ziggy Stardust. We’re gonna see artists with stage names like that. Then a year later Lady Gaga came out. [laughs] So, I was like ‘Yeah, see? That’s what I was talking about right there!’ That’s why I’m Cheeks, y’all!”
Espenson came across one of Cheeks’ videos online and saw huge potential in him as a performer, thinking that he was someone for whom she’d like to write. She reached out to him, and they became fast friends. What she didn’t realize was that he could write, too.
From “So L.A.” To “Husbands”
Cheeks originally wrote a script for a webseries called So L.A., the story of a twenty-something gay man, his female best friend, and the twenty-something single life in Los Angeles. Espenson read it and “thought it was brilliant, and funny, and hilarious. I read that script and I knew ‘This guy can write comedy. This reads like a professional sitcom writer wrote this.'”
But the concept wasn’t quite right. Then Espenson brought up the accidental marriage premise, and suddenly it became “Mad About You with guys.” After a dinner over which they fleshed out that concept, Cheeks went home, wrote through the night, and had a full, 22-page script broken up into 11 2-page episodes in Espenson’s email by 4am the next day. She was amazed that a script that he’d written in a couple of hours was “so close,” and to this day there are huge chunks of the webseries that remain unchanged from that original script.
“From the start, I was thinking about the length of each episode and how they needed to be short,” Cheeks says. “So I kept everything to two pages. And I remember that last hour I was sitting there going ‘Nope, not funny! Nope. How can I say this shorter?’ And I think that’s why it plays like it does, so quickly and with such short language, because from the first draft, I was working with that time limit.”
Espenson cites his use of language and his rapid-fire sense of humor as the reasons why she agreed to work on this in the first place. “We showed the script to a really seasoned comedy writer, a 20 year veteran like me, who’s also a gay man who read it and said, ‘I need to go back to gay school, because the references of a 25-year-old are different.’“ Espenson continues, ”And there’s a real, genuine youth in the writing, and the references and type of joke and type of language that Cheeks uses that’s really energetic and tight, and short, and not a syllable wasted, that really appealed to me.”
Despite her extensive experience, Espenson insists that they had an equal partnership in the creation of this piece. “He wrote a thing, I rewrote a thing, then he’d rewrite it, then we’d both throw jokes at it, and it ended up being very much a 50-50 writing collaboration, which was really fun, because I don’t normally write with a writing partner. And it was really fun to be able to go ‘I don’t have the joke for this part,’ and Cheeks would have the joke.”
Espenson continues, “One of the reasons I’ve had a 20 year career, is that generally you work on a show and part of your job is to be a chameleon. You want to write so that people can’t tell that it’s not Joss writing, or Ron Moore writing, or Russell T. Davies writing. So the fun thing for me was that Cheeks became my boss when it came to the writing. So, when I wrote the exchange that’s in the clip, that’s me writing as Cheeks. And I knew I had it when I wrote that, because that’s what Cheeks would’ve written!”
Cast of Characters
In addition to a heightened version of Cheeks (who is already a heightened version of Brad Bell), we also have a heightened version of Alessandra Torresani to look forward to in the character of Haley, Cheeks’ BFF, and about as un-Zoe Graystone as it is possible for her to get.
“Haley is heightened the way Cheeks is heightened,” Cheeks explains. “It was definitely something I knew [Alessandra] could do, because it is similar to her personality. She’s big, and not shy, and loves to have a good time, so I just took those elements and cranked them up.”
Espenson chimed in, “And [Alessandra’s] actually not a big drinker, but Haley is. She’s kind of like Karen Walker Jr. [from Will and Grace]”
“She’s kinda like a one-woman Karen and Jack,” Cheeks adds, laughing. “If they had a kid all those years ago in New York, and they told no one about it, and the kid moved to L.A ” However, Cheeks emphasizes that while Karen cares less about people, Haley is very supportive. “She’s a lush, and has bad ideas, and makes bad decisions,” Cheeks says. “But she really has a big heart.”
A stroke of luck led them to Sean Hemeon, who was the last piece of the puzzle they needed to find when casting the role of Brady, Cheeks’ pro ballplayer husband. They auditioned hundreds of actors, had one they thought they liked, but decided to hold out for one more day of auditions. Sean Hemeon, whom you may have noticed as a vampire lieutenant in an episode of True Blood, was the last person auditioned and ended up landing the part, because he could believeably play someone who had passed as straight for years and only recently come out of the closet. Espenson was also struck by the subtlety of Hemeon’s comedy. “We got so lucky,” she says. “He did a lot of really subtle stuff that I didn’t even notice until we were editing. People should look out for Sean Hemeon.”
It was important to Cheeks to include a character like Brady in a show like Husbands to ensure a sense of balance. “Brady has to be the antithesis of Cheeks, not just because it’s a funny dynamic, but because I know that that kind of man exists. The only thing that ‘makes you gay’ is if you’re exclusively having sex with members of the same sex. Everything else is up to you. But there is sort of a culture in the gay community built around ‘You don’t look like me, or dress like me, you’re not the right kind of gay. You don’t fit in here!’ And that’s terrible! It’s terrible to discriminate against boys that aren’t doing the club thing and it’s also terrible to discriminate against boys who are. And I wanted to have that unity in the script, and I wanted to have both sides represented. There are gay guys like this, and there are gay guys like that, and it takes all kinds.”
The Freedom of The Web
Espenson and Cheeks have a unique advantage in that she is an experienced television veteran, while Cheeks is an experienced internet entertainer, creating a winning webseries combination. As Cheeks puts it, “We were able to take the rules of our worlds and figure them out in a new way.”
While the original intention behind creating Husbands for the web was to show a television network that there was actually an audience for programming like this, Espenson says that “We’ve had so much fun doing it our way with this group, that if it turned out that this continued to live on the web, but was in some way monetized, that would be good too. Because then we could keep our cast. That’s my huge fear is that it’ll go to TV, and they’ll want to recast it. My main priority, at the very least, is keeping Cheeks as co-creator/co-writer.”
Creative control over the material is something that was important to both creators. Cheeks also brings up the fact that going smaller can often inspire more creativity than having enormous resources. “The first [few] years I did anything on YouTube, I didn’t have any kind of budget. There was a time when $20 was my budget for the week. That forced me to be really creative, and I think those kind of constraints are great. Financial, and time, and all of that, really forces you to go OK what do I have?”
While she had a blast making Husbands, Espenson isn’t sure that she’d want to create any other web content on her own just yet. While she would happily partner with Cheeks again, or with The Guild‘s Felicia Day, who advised Espenson on the web production aspects of Husbands, “I wouldn’t feel secure wandering out into the web by myself.”
Husbands is meant to be a mainstream romantic comedy. Period. Any political agenda is implicit in the fact that the show is about two men who are married. However, the creators insist that the show is more about making people laugh, and that giving them a couple whose trials and tribulations are easily accessible was the priority. “I actually think we did a pretty good job of being clear,” Espenson says. “Our agenda is a precondition for the story we’re telling. I don’t think you’d write this script if you weren’t pro-marriage equality, but that doesn’t mean the script is a political message.”
When I asked if they were concerned about a negative reaction from the gay community regarding the accidental nature of the marriage on the show (the guys wake up drunk in Vegas and realize they’d gotten married), Cheeks replied, “If anyone reacts that way, they’re missing the point.”
Ultimately, the focus in Husbands is less on politics, or snark, or cynicism and more on the genuine love the characters have for each other and genuine support they offer each other. Despite the muted animosity between Brady and Haley over Cheeks’ time and affection, they don’t take anything out on each other. Their animosity manifests itself in their holding on to Cheeks all the tighter. For Cheeks the writer, it was important that on this show, “No one [is] tearing each other down. It’s not that cutting sort of comedy.”
Husbands premieres tonight during a live-stream (along with a cast/crew Q&A) at Streamin’ Garage at 9:30PM ET/6:30PM PT, and can be found weekly at HusbandsTheSeries.com.
Teresa Jusino fought for marriage equality in New York, then moved to Los Angeles so she could straighten out California. So to speak. She can be heard on the popular Doctor Who podcast, 2 Minute Time Lord, participating in a roundtable on Series 6.1. Her “feminist brown person” take on pop culture has been featured on websites like ChinaShopMag.com, PinkRaygun.com, Newsarama, and PopMatters.com. Her fiction has appeared in the sci-fi literary magazine, Crossed Genres; she is the editor of Beginning of Line, the Caprica fan fiction site; and her essay “Why Joss is More Important Than His ‘Verse” is included in Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon By the Women Who Love Them, which is on sale now wherever books are sold! 2012 will see Teresa’s work in two upcoming sci-fi anthologies. Get Twitterpated with Teresa,“like” her on Facebook, or visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.