Jane Espenson and Brad Bell Interview at MCM London Comic Con


At the MCM London Comic Con, a small roundtable discussion brought together MCM Buzz and the fantastically charming writing duo of Jane Espenson and Brad Bell. They have brought many great scripts to screen for all manner of shows, but together have created the brilliant web-series Husbands – a marriage equality sitcom currently with two seasons online alongside a third in production with CW Digital, as well as a six-issue comic book available both in print and digitally.

Q – I feel that some YouTube series’ have had that little fan following but they really need to be everywhere, they need to be observed more, and I see that Husbands as it got to its second series increased its fan base quite a bit with the Q&A that happened at VidCon. How has the interaction from the fans actually been?

Brad Bell: It’s incredible.

Jane Espenson: Really positive.

Brad: And it grows every time, every year when we go back to something we’ve been to, like VidCon. Our first VidCon we noticed our first increase in the audience, the second VidCon was a bigger room, and that filled the room, it’s very cool.

Jane: We have a slate of conventions we attend every year and that’s good for fan outreach and we both tweet, which means now there’s always a two-way communication going with the fans. And because we made a Kickstarter it also opened up a communication between us and the fans, it makes them feel like they’re a part of the team. Which they are, they paid for that second season.

Q – Obviously you worked on the Buffy comic, Jane. I was wondering what the difference was between working in comics versus television.

Jane: They’re very different, I mean Brad can speak about this too because we did the Husbands comic. Writing a comic book is more like directing television than it is like writing television. It’s so visual. What does the panel look like?

Brad: And you have to describe one still image, you can’t use anything in the present tense or that suggests an action where there’s more than one movement. The sky’s the limit in comics, you can do anything, you can go anywhere, which is why we explored all the different realms we could go into with comics.

HUSBANDS COVER 1Q – I like that about the comic, as opposed to just continuing the story of the web-series you go into all these different worlds like the Holmesian mystery and the spy story issue. I also like how you like to play with the formats, such as the narrator in the comics breaking the fourth wall. Same with the web-series, when you’re actually reading scene directions.

Jane: We like to play with tropes, and on the show we play with sitcom conventions and in the comic book we play with comic book conventions. That fourth wall is in trouble.

Brad: I like that because that’s very much the way we talk and it’s because of the industry that we’re in so we’ll be telling a story and we’ll say, “We had a couple drinks CUT TO: 2AM – Interior Strip Bar…” (Laughter) So it works, because it is breaking the fourth wall without breaking the fourth wall. It’s almost nodding to it.

Jane: It’s the way of breaking the fourth wall figuratively in natural conversation. The character of Cheeks is an actor, lives in a world populated by actors, so speaks like a script without actually being aware that he is in a show.

Q – What inspired you to branch out into the comics side of things, having done the web-series? Obviously, Jane you’ve worked on Buffy comics, you’ve seen that side of it.

Jane: Exactly, having seen it helped, but also we didn’t know if there would be more. We had finished shooting the season that the Kickstarter supported, so as far as we knew this maybe the only way we could bring these characters forward.

Brad: It was a way of continuing the story.

Q – Are you going to consider the stories in the comics as canon?

Jane: Yes. They are canon in that the character Cheeks wrote a comic book.

Brad: Yes, and this is kind of an exclus-… this is some new information. The new material that we’ve done for season three is somewhat of a prequel to the comic book.

Q – Obviously with your series it’s homosexuality in America, they get a bit taboo about that. What inspired you to go forward with this, what made you think you’ve got a market?

Brad: Because we love pushing against taboos.

Jane: Exactly the taboo was not a disincentive, the taboo was-

Brad: -why we did it!

Jane: Yeah! Nobody’s doing this. This is something that is important to us that nobody’s doing. And it’s custom-made for television that has done newlywed comedy well forever. It appears as if nobody’s stepped forward to do this, so why not us?

Q – Are you taking another angle on the debate? With the first season it was more about marriage equality and the second is more about public opinions and how accepting they are, are you going to take it another direction in season three?

Brad: I think there are different elements of the same story to tell. How are we perceived by the public as a couple? Why are we the poster children for all gay people everywhere? Are we setting a bad example or are we just doing what any straight couple would do? And just exploring realms of that conversation. Domestic, public, intimate, fame…

Jane: And always just bringing it back to this relationship. At the heart it’s about a relationship, not about a cause. And so, bringing it back to “Are Cheeks and Brady gonna make it?”

Brad: That’s what marriage is. It’s what makes marriage work for them, for any couple.

Jane: Which actually speaks better to the cause than waving the flag. You may see stories that are more intimate and domestic with less of the big press angle.

Brad: I think the more intimate and domestic stories still have that socio-political satire and comedy, because we can’t really…well at least I can’t… you could probably write a story without all of that.

Jane: Yeah, we could just make it about them arguing about whatever, but-

Brad: -you feel uninspired about doing that. What’s the bigger idea here?

Jane: We definitely set out with the idea that this is a show with an idea at the heart of it, with a reason to tell it.

husbands-castQ – So with that level of awareness when you’re originally writing the show and the characters, were you going through like, “Okay, so, here’s things that the straight community might be against so we might look into that, or the gay community might be weird about to try and tailor it?” Or were you more “Here’s the characters. Here is a narrative arc. People can either deal with it or not like it, here we go.”

Brad: More the second one. And sometimes while we’re writing the story I will find something interesting in the scene like, “Oh, this would be a good moment to make a point,” make a parallel or analogy for this, and we have room for some commentary there, or I’ll be reading comments on some news story on a gay blog or a conservative blog and I’ll see this idea people have and I’ll think, “Well that’s a completely bullshit idea!” Like why are people acting as if this is true, and find a way for that to work in the story that we’re telling. I have a passionate reaction to something, we start there. What intimate, domestic, marriage equality sort of story would work to communicate that idea.

Q – Do you think it’s interesting that media hasn’t fractured, but you’re able to do things now such as YouTube and Netflix, where there was Hemlock Grove, you can commission series’ now without the big networks. Do you think it’s quite liberating for creative people? If you get turned down you could always go and take it somewhere else.

Jane: Absolutely! We even skipped the stage of getting turned down! (Laughter) We just want to do this and we want to do it our way and we want to do it right now. There is access to content making in a way that’s never been possible before. You could even do it for a whole lot less money, this is where people can just go with a webcam and say what they’re going to do, and if their content is really good, it’s got a shot. You don’t have to demonstrate that there is an audience for it; you can do it as a way to demonstrate that there is an audience for it that was important to us.

Brad: I think that that was more important to us, than, you know, we get asked a lot of questions about profit and what’s the new model, and those are all the things that are being figured out and will continue to be figured out. For us, that was not why we got into it. We got into it to prove that there was an audience, and not to prove that there was an audience so we could sell the show. We wanted to prove the audience for the sake of moving culture forward and showing the powers that be that there was an audience for this and even if we weren’t gonna get the money for it or it wasn’t our face on the flag, we wanted to set that trend and be a part of that wave of change.

Q – Season three’s under CW Digital. Is that changing anything in your process? Does it give you more funding?

Jane: Oh, it gives us more funding (Laughter)

Q – Do you still have full creative control?

Jane: Absolutely, that was really gratifying. That they didn’t want to change anything and didn’t particularly want to be part of the making of process. They were very much like “Give us the show that you’ve been making.”

CW SeedQ – So it’s going to be distributed on that? Or YouTube?

Brad: Yeah, they have CW Seed, which is where they’ll have original programming and they have a lot of interactivity, it’s a whole new thing they’re launching this summer with the shows they have on broadcast as well as seven original digital shows.

Jane: Seasons one and two will still be on YouTube but this new one will be Seed-

Brad: -they’ll be exclusive to Seed.

Q – Is that paid content? Or is it free?

Brad: It’s free.

Q – Where do you develop your storylines?

Jane: One of the things we do is that we look at classic TV and we go, “What are the classic stories that have been told about newlyweds? How are they changed by the same-sex situation?”

Brad: And how are they the same?

Jane: We also think about just what are basic topics that Cheeks and Brady would have different takes on.

Brad: Or relationships themselves. I know that I’m regularly thinking with my boyfriend, like the other day, I was about to kill a spider, and my boyfriend was like “You’re gonna kill it? I would set it free”. And I’m like “Really? You’re gonna set it free?” (Laughter) “Like, are you that guy?” (Laughter) “You’re gonna take this spider and put it outside?” And he’s like “That’s what I would do…” (Laughter) Here I am with a shoe (Laughter) “Fine…Set it free! You know, if I kill it I’m going to be the bad boyfriend!” So, things like that, they could be a whole conversation and then Brady’s like the “sweet, kind one” and what does that say about Cheeks, because he was going to kill the spider, and do I really know him? (Laughter)

Jane: Absolutely. We draw from media, we draw from life, we draw from just thinking about characters and conflict. I think there’s even competitions we’ve had, you and me, where we go, “This would be a Cheeks and Brady conversation.”

Brad: Totally. Well we just have such different approaches to things. Jane is very, “Oh you wanna be first to get on the plane! So you can get your bags on” and I’m all “Yeah, then you have to sit on the plane forever! You wanna be the last one on the plane!” (Laughter)

Q – How did you two come together to develop the show? What inspired you to?

Jane: Brad used to do these hilarious short-form humour videos for YouTube that I came across and was just so impressed by the writing, the maturity of the writing, the quality of the joke, the discipline of the editing. I reached out to him, just, “These are great! Let’s get lunch!” And we became friends, and after a couple years of that we started looking around for something to do and he knew that online content was going to merge with television in a way that’s even quicker and decisive than I had ever realised, and he brought me this idea. It made absolute perfect sense to do it. It has been a remarkably simpatico writing relationship. We write very similarly, similar instincts, we rarely go like “No! My version of the joke is better!” Sometimes, but not too often.

Brad: Very rarely. We are not invested in what’s funnier because we wrote it. Because we were friends for a couple of years, I think the reason why we wanted to work on something together was because we noticed how consistently aligned our career choices were. We would watch something and say, “I like this, I didn’t like that!” and it was always the same thing.

Q – How would you sell the show to someone in Britain, who’s never seen it before, about to go to YouTube and watch it? How would you set up the scenario?

Brad: Well, two opposites that have been dating for a few weeks go out to celebrate marriage equality in Vegas, they get drunk, they wake up married, and the gays are mad, the conservatives are mad, and in order to not betray the cause and make marriage equality look bad, they decide to stick it out.

Jane: And they might just love each other a little bit! Will their love be strong enough to take the couple through that don’t know each other that much? It’s very funny. We’re never sacrificing humour for message. We use humour for the message.

Brad: And vice versa, we’re never sacrificing the message for humour. And if you like classic sitcoms, if you feel like classic television, it’s modelled after that. It’s Bewitched and I Love Lucy and Dick Van Dyke… with two guys! In the 21st century!

Q – You’ve had a selection of celebrity guests, is there any hint towards someone popping up in season three? Or is it all top secret?

Jane: It is top secret! But you’ve given a hint-

Brad: -I did give a hint! We do have a guest star whose… just a doll.

Jane: That’s the hint.

Q – Is it going to be Felicia Day’s cameo? Because that was a brilliant cameo.

Jane: We had Felicia Day already, so we’re hinting someone new.

Brad: Someone once asked if anyone is coming back, and… no.

Q – Not even Joss (Whedon)?

Jane: Not Joss. We may reference Joss…

Brad: …And we may bring him back in the future… but this time around we’re telling a different story and we have a guest that’s just a doll.

For all things Husbands, go to http://husbandstheseries.com/. Jane Espenson can be found on Twitter at @JaneEspenson, while Brad Bell can be found at @GoCheeksGo.

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