So, on to part two of my delightful conversation with the renowned television writer Jane Espenson. You can read Part 1 here.
Jane Espenson’s critically-acclaimed and popular web series, the “marriage equality” situation comedy Husbands has just completed its second season. Written with star Brad Bell and directed by Jeff Greenstein (Desperate Housewives, Will and Grace), the series revolves around the typical conflicts and idiosyncrasies of a new marriage—with one important addition. The newlyweds are gay, which is all well and good for actor Cheeks (Bell, who also goes by Cheeks even when not on screen), but not so easy for husband Brady Kelly (Sean Hemeon), a major league baseball player whose career (and popularity) could suffer a big hit as he comes out of the closet. Season two addresses the issue directly as Brady’s agent tries to do some damage control, while Cheeks isn’t cooperating, not sure that there is any damage to control.
Cheeks has no interest in tamping down on the “gay” even for the love of his life. But Brady is as concerned as his agent about not ruffling too many feathers too quickly or to visibly—for the sake of his thriving career, and because, as his agent says, there may be issues with the morality clause in his MLB contract. From Cheeks perspective, they are who they are (and Cheeks is a pretty free spirit, not given to doing anything low key, including his sexuality!).
Season two features last year’s cast of Sean and Cheeks, and Allesandra Torresanni (Caprica) as Cheeks’ best friend Haley. But this year, Husbands features a whole new crew of guest stars, including Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and this summer’s hit movie The Avengers) as Brady’s agent.
The series also boasts some other big names, including Tricia Helfer (Battlestar Galactica, Tron: Uprising); Jon Cryer, who just won an Emmy for Best Actor in a Comedy series for his work in Two and a Half Men, and Felicia Day (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), who was a pioneer in developing professionally-produced web-based television series.
The first season was made up of 11 very short segments, but for season two, the creators decided on three longer episodes. “But,” explained Jane, “it’s the exact same length as season one. It’s just sliced into three instead of 11.” The longer format works well, letting viewers settle into the story and characters a bit more.
Jane agreed. “I just think it felt right for season two. Season one is…people are reluctant to commit to a new thing. They don’t necessarily want to commit to nine minutes of people they’ve never met before. But season two, people wanted to settle in more.” And fans will be able to settle in even more than that; a Husbands comic-book series is set to launch October 24.
Jane writes Husbands with star Cheeks. “That has just continued to thrive because we have, well, not only did we write season two together and season one, obviously, but we also are writing these Husbands comics now.”
Their writers’ room is virtual—email. “Every week there’s a piece of writing going through e-mail one direction or the other. And the way it seems to work really best is that we sort of take turns. He’ll write the first draft of a scene or an issue of the comic book and I’ll polish it. Or I will and send it to him and he’ll polish it and then, you know, it bounces back and forth a couple times. But it’s interesting that it doesn’t seem to matter who starts it. We end up in a place that we both agree is sort of optimal, I think just because our styles are so similar.”
Although writing partnerships in television are pretty common, Jane usually writes solo. “I had never wanted to [write with a partner] because I feel like I’m so proprietary.” Although she has written with “ad hoc” partners from time to time, including, Doug Petrie on Buffy, and Drew Greenberg, with whom she recently wrote a new Buffy comic coming in a few weeks.
But this is a new sort of experience for her, where “the voices of these characters are going to belong to the two of us together. That was new for me. And I didn’t think I would be able to do it. I thought I’d be too precious with my own words. But it actually turned out to be really, really good for me. It works really well to have someone there.” She explained that writing with a partner is “a very different thing because you have the courage of your convictions, but you also have someone to back you up and go, yes, your courage and your convictions are both in the right place.”
According to Jane, Cheeks is “the one with the vision.” She explained that he “has these nuanced points he wants to make about sort of, his community. And I help, you know, sort of give feedback on the way we are choosing together to say it. But very much, the points that he makes are very much his own and so that, I never feel like I’m putting words in someone’s mouth. He’s very smart and he has very reasoned opinions and I think the show does a good job of getting them across.”
Season two really ups the ante on the series. “I’m very, very proud of it. And so is Cheeks, of course. We feel like we really found the show. You know, there’s a thing in between the pilot and the first episode of most shows where you sort of find the show,” Jane explained.
Jane is probably best known for writing hour-long dramatic series, especially in the realm of sci-fi and fantasy. I wondered whether there was a difference in writing sitcom like Husbands. “Well it actually isn’t so very different,” she explained. “I got my start in sitcoms, so this is much more of a return to where I came from. The fact that these segments are eight to ten minutes is sort of an illusion [it is really just] three acts of the typical 24-minute sitcom. So writing this just felt like an episode of Ellen (the sitcom, not the talk show), which I [worked on] with Ellen [DeGeneres].
“I guess to dig little deeper into your question,” she added, “I don’t think writing drama and comedy are as different as everybody always says. I know very few people who only watch one or the other. I think moments in our lives, depending on what’s happening in our lives, either play out as a comedy or as a drama and it doesn’t mean we’re different people. We all have comedic and dramatic moments in our own lives and they don’t feel discontinuous. You don’t go, oh, I guess today we like the comedy.”
Team Husbands got a real feel for how much the fans are enjoying the series when they used a Kickstarter to fund season two. “That was one of the most successful and gratifying parts of this whole process.” Trying to decide how much to ask for using Kickstarter is a bit of a balancing act—not to ask for either too much or too little. “We went back forth on how much to ask for and we finally decided that $50,000, and we were pretty sure we could raise it. But we were pretty sure we’d be raising that last dollar in the last hour. As it turned out, we had the $50,000 in like, a week!”
They were beyond thrilled with the response. “The engagement from the fans has been just so huge that we really feel like we’ve got this whole team behind us, separate from the producing team, there’s this team of fans.”
As a result, the team had more funds to with which to play, allowing them to up the production values of season two, including scoring a gorgeous location for the shoot. “We were able to get this fabulous production house to use. We shot almost every scene there. Other than the agent’s office, everything was shot in or around that house. So it played different houses and different places. Without the Kickstarter, we wouldn’t have had the production values; we wouldn’t have had that set. And without that set we wouldn’t have been able to shoot as efficiently as we did.” In addition to shooting there, the house doubled as a residence to house Brad and some of the crew, who lived too far away to commute easily.
Now that the second season is put to bed, Team Husbands is about to launch a new venture—a comic book series published by Dark Horse, which also publishes the Buffy comic books. “They’re a great operation and so we decided that we to team up with them. Brad and I wrote those together and we actually just turned in the script for Issue Six, the last issue, so those are actually still happening as we speak.”
Jane is ecstatic about the quality of the comic, especially the artwork. “We always joke that Husbands was sort of (sci-fi/fantasy) genre adjacent,” given Jane’s credits, and the number of genre guest stars putting in appearances from the earliest episodes. The comics are set in a “world in which there’s national marriage equality, so that sort of alternate universe. We’re genre adjacent and the comic books take it into full-on genre. We sort of have come up with a construct to take them, in a sensible way, through, to different fictional genres and get a little different angle on their relationship.”
Jane, Cheeks, and Sean have another project upcoming as well, but there will more to say about that a bit later in the month. In the meantime, enjoy all three season two episodes, and several behind the scenes featurettes on the official Husbands website.