NYCC 2013: Jane Espenson Talks "Husbands," Complex Gay Characters on TV

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How did a linguistics and computer science major from Ames, IA become one of the most well-known and beloved TV writers working today? I sat down with Jane Espenson Sunday afternoon at New York Comic Con to talk about her rise to prominence in television, how she chose her projects from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Once Upon a Time, and how her work on Husbands is changing how TV portrays gender dynamics in gay couples.

I read that you grew up in Ames. I actually grew up in Cedar Rapids!

Really? Oh, I can see that. (Laughs) We look like a couple of Iowa girls, don't we?

You have written and produced exclusively for TV. What first drew you to television as a medium, and why did you decide to produce Husbands as a web series?

Well, first of all, Husbands is not a web series. We don't look at it that way. If House of Cards can win Emmy awards, Husbands should be considered a television series. In the early episodes, you might notice that we have a mix of network TV stars and internet personalities. The second episode had Nathan Fillion and Michael Buckley.

That's actually how I heard about Husbands in the first place, through Michael Buckley's show.

Wasn't he great? He recorded his whole segment for us and just sent it in.

And Felicia Day has sort of crossed between both of those mediums. She has done TV, and her online work is tremendous.

Yes, she has shown what you can do in this new age of YouTube and online entertainment. So when we were casting Husbands, we wanted to reflect that change in television by including people like Felicia, Nathan, and Michael.

When did you decide that you wanted to work in television?

I got into television when I was growing up, watching sitcoms like I Love Lucy. I even wrote a spec script for MASH. I felt myself drawn back to it, that I wanted to work in TV, but I didn't pursue it in school.

What did you study?

I studied linguistics and computer science.

With that background, how did you get your start in TV writing?

At the time I was in school, Star Trek was accepting open submissions for spec scripts. I wrote a bunch of spec scripts and kept sending them in.

Is that a route you would recommend for aspiring TV writers?

Unfortunately, TV shows really don't accept spec script submissions the way that Star Trek did. What I would recommend is the ABC writing fellowship. That was how I really got my big break, through that program. That was the best day of my life, the day I got that call.

I am such a fan of the work you and Brad are doing on Husbands, and it definitely seems influenced by classic TV sitcoms. I mean, it's this brilliant comedy that addresses the growing acceptance of gay marriage in America while acknowledging its lingering discomfort with gay male sexuality and the need to put people and relationships into neat boxes. Issues of feminine vs. butch, someone being the “man” or “woman” in the relationship, even between two men and two women...Did this grow out of a frustration you had with gay representation in the media?

I would say the project grew more out of Brad's frustration, and he had developed this character Cheeks even before we started working on Husbands together. And you're right, there are these subtle points made throughout the show, usually by Cheeks, about “feminine” still being perceived as weak by society and all these other fights that still need to be won. In “I Dream of Cleaning,” they talk about Brady as a sports figure being brave for coming out, but what about people like Cheeks who have been out for years? There are attitudes and battles that still need to be fought in addition to gay marriage, and sometimes people forget that.

Yesterday at the “Geeks of Color, Assemble!” panel, they talked about how young people need these prominent figures to look up to and help them realize what they can be or accomplish in their life. Like a black child will grow up seeing President Obama and subconsciously place that in their minds, that it is achievable for a person of color to be president. Or a fictional character like Cheeks or Brady can break the mold of how a gay person looks or acts, and that a kid might realize he is gay but believe that he doesn't belong in gay culture because he doesn't fit these other notions of what being gay means.

Yes, and having written Buffy, I had an idea of the influence of TV for gay teens. We were just down at the Anti-Bullying wall, and I saw notes that said, “Buffy helped me make it through high school,” that this show had a positive impact on how they saw themselves. We're already seeing the impact from Husbands in what we're hearing from our young fans. Hopefully characters like Cheeks and Brady will push people away from using “gay” as a sole defining characteristic for a character. Being gay or straight is one part of a person, and defining someone as the “gay character” is lazy.

I was talking with a friend just recently about the difficult balance of writing gay characters and relationships when gay marriage is still not legal in all 50 states, though Iowa was the first.

We were the first!

But on the one side, there is pressure to write positive gay relationships to hopefully win over people who are on the fence with this issue. On the other hand, writing gay relationships that are all smiles and rainbows and lack complexity is not accurate.

Black characters on TV went through the same issue! They had to be perfect and easy for audiences to like, but I think writing a positive character doesn't mean writing a perfect character. Cheeks and Brady are not perfect characters, but they are positive characters. Their relationship is positive, even if it isn't perfect.

Are there any shows on TV that are getting this right?

Well, of course Husbands! You know, I don't know if I want to name any current shows, but Will & Grace got it right. Will was gay, and he was this grounded character, very professional, but you also had someone like Jack. Jack was funny and very different from Will, but he was never a point of derision. Ellen is another one. I wrote a couple episodes for Ellen, and we were criticized for being “too gay.” Really, we were showing a woman that age as far as her dating life. She just happened to be gay.

When you're writing Husbands, which character's voice comes most naturally to you, and which character do you find most challenging?

On Husbands, Brady is difficult to write because he is such a grounded character, but I also think I'm good at writing his character. Brad writes Cheeks so well, mainly because he had worked on the character before we had the show, so he slips into that voice easily.

Since you write the show together, do you split up episodes evenly, do you sit down together and write it, or how does it work?

One of us will write the first draft of the script and send it over for the other to punch up. Usually we will go back and forth a couple of times before we have a script we are both satisfied with. After that, we do a table read just like a traditional TV program. We invite people to sit in and listen to it, and we pay attention to what works. Which lines got a laugh?

Would you say that comedy or drama is more difficult to write?

Oh, comedy is much tougher. A comedy requires everything you need for a drama, but it has to be funny. That's why we do the table reads, to get that honest response and see what people find funny.

You have written and produced such a wide range of shows, both comedies and dramas, that are aimed at very different audiences. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, while it has a healthy adult fanbase, is more aimed at teens. Once Upon a Time is more of a family show. Battlestar Galactica is a very adult show, and you wrote several episodes of Gilmore Girls, which was just delightful and so unique. Is there a method to how you pick your projects, or do you like to keep your fans guessing?

Awhile back, I was told to keep three things in mind when you pick a project. Money, people, and product. Today, I'm not even sure I would include money on the list. It is important but not nearly as important as the people you are working with and what you are creating. When it comes down to the work, you want the right people around you, and you want the drive, that you care about what you are making together.

We are almost out of time here, but one last question. You've had so many great guest stars on Husbands. Nathan Fillion, Michael Buckley, Joss Whedon, Tricia Helfer, Michael Hogan, Amy Acker, and Beth Grant, but I think the question on fan's minds is whether Felicia Day will be returning as the Sexy Pizza Girl.

(Laughs) Oh, definitely! The pizza place could have a series of ads with her character. Maybe we will see her again soon.

On one last note, Jane Espenson stuck around after the interview for a quick picture. I had brought along my Jayne hat, famous from the TV series Firefly. She had written my favorite episode from the show, “Shindig.” I had planned to wear the hat in the picture, but Jane asked if she could wear the hat in the picture, explaining, “I've never had the chance to wear one of these hats!” Jane as Jayne was just too good to resist, so she posed for the picture and sent me on my way with a hug.

Season 3 of Husbands is available now on CW Seed, and you can follow Jane Espenson on Twitter @JaneEspenson.

Oct
27
2013
Rachel Kolb • Staff Writer

I love movies, writing, and breaking into song in public. You can follow me on Twitter @rachelekolb or check out more of my work at http://rachelekolb.wordpress.com.

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