Every once in a while, I meet a seasoned professional whose generosity astounds me. TV writer Jane Espensonis one of those people. Instead of being jaded by the industry, she seeks out new projects with enthusiasm; instead of being guarded from fans, she allows them to get close. Sometimes close enough to have an omelet and home fries with. I was that lucky recipient of Jane’s generosity on my recent trip to L.A.
While it would have been easy to fill our conversation with tales of the many shows she has written on, including Torchwood, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Caprica, Battlestar Galactica, and Andy Barker, P.I., what I really wanted to know was … why was she launching an online sitcom?
I’ve heard of new writers using web series as a way to break in, but Jane is no newbie. I mean, come on; she’s a goddess to all writers. So why would someone who has the chops to write shows like HBO’s Game of Thrones decide to not only launch a web series, but to write it with a relatively unknown writer?
Because she’s Jane, and paying it forward is what she does.
“I saw his videos, and I was struck by his humor -- the way he performed the pieces, and the way they were written. I found we had a mutual friend and asked to meet him over a lunch. We got along great and became lunch-and-dinner friends.”
As you can imagine, Jane finding him on YouTube was probably the last thing Cheeks expected, “I was flattered and excited, but also kind of nervous. ‘She thinks I'm interesting? Why?’ Then we had lunch and it was clear our senses of humor, our whimsical imaginations, they're very similar. I realized it was one of those ‘Hey we'd get along, let's meet’ kind of things.”
Who would have thought YouTube would bring an established and unknown writer together to collaborate. But the real irony is the subject matter of the video that lured her.
“It was one of the videos – the one where he takes on Miss California, I think. Yeah – that year's Miss California had made some anti-marriage-equality statement about how she had to oppose it because of the way she was raised or something. And Cheeks made this totally funny/angry video in which he just tore apart the argument. He was speaking very quickly, very smoothly, making jokes and just delivering this almost lawyerly argument. I really wanted to meet someone who could pull that off. It's just now occurring to me it was marriage equality that started this whole thing!”
As if by fate, Husbands was born.
Husbands launched September 13th and is a hilarious web series focused on two gay men, who after only dating six weeks, had a quickie, drunk wedding in Vegas, leaving them to decide if they should annul or ride it out.
“Cheeks does a lot of things for the web, so this grew out of a project he was already planning with (Husbands co-star) Alessandra Torresani. I kind of jumped on board and then we changed the premise, and at that point it was really obvious if we wanted to make the show exactly the way we were envisioning it, the web would give us the greatest chance of doing that.”
It was a perfect fit for their respective talents, and once they added Sean Hemeon as Cheek’s on-air husband, the chemistry popped.
Since “writing with Jane Espenson” is on every TV writer’s Bucket List, I asked her about their process.
“We did it in turns. Cheeks wrote the first draft and then I did a polish, and then he gave notes, and we did that for a while until all we were doing was just tweaking jokes back and forth. So yeah, we checked and rewrote each other until we were happy and then we did ultimately have a table read where we brought in some really top-flight comedy writers who pitched jokes and ideas.”
It all comes down to collaboration and teamwork, including that of the cast and crew.
“We hired a line producer, M. Elizabeth Hughes, who helped us assemble a crew that did incredible work for us with great indulgence and patience. We also brought in some people of our own – we brought in Jeff Greenstein to direct, and he quickly became our producing partner on the project. And we brought in Shawna Trpcic for costumes and Kay Sarazin for hair, Tania del Rio for graphic design ... people we already knew and loved. There are so many amazing people who made this happen!”
With Jane’s TV experience, one would think a web series would be a cakewalk, but unexpected surprises awaited them.
“Oh god, what wasn't a surprise? The size of it surprised us – Cheeks and I both imagined a much smaller crew and soon realized we did need all these people. The enthusiasm – I thought the crew might sort of go through the motions, but they really all loved the project and got very invested in it. There were production glitches and surprises too, and then you see a cut and something doesn't look at all how you remembered it, but Jeff is a very calm director/producer and he helped us stay calm through all the surprises and kept us on track. We're really, really happy with the final product!”
As they should be. Their hard work shows.
Cheeks was moved when describing a moment on set, “At one point we had a crew member say he was a little misty-eyed after a take. It was then that I thought, wow this is really something that's going to have an effect on people. Here's a guy who can see all the working parts, that it's all just pretend, and even he is moved.”
In my opinion, Jane and Cheeks are a perfect example of the benefits of paying it forward. A more generous woman, you will not meet. On Twitter, Jane’s a legend for reaching out to writers by showing support and encouragement. I know why all of Twitter loves her, but I wondered what attracted her to that form of communication.
“The brevity and for some reason there's a sense of safety that I never had on Facebook – I tried Facebook for, like, a day and just felt way too exposed. Twitter felt more like a tiny, tiny blog. I like being able to just pop into the room and say something and pop out again. Oh! It's like the old joke wall on Laugh In!”
Another genius use of Twitter is writing sprints. A sprint is when you set a clock for a certain time period and just write, write, write. Jane is brilliant at calling impromptu sprints, and we all jump in. In fact, I’m doing one right now to get this interview written. I thought it only fitting as yet another way to honor her support.
I fantasized she wrote Husbands during those sprints, and she confirmed many a rewrite took place as we all worked side-by-side virtually. In a way, that is a perfect example of the community support on the Internet, and even more fitting her show is yet another part of that online energy she so dearly appreciates.
Community spirit of an in-person writers’ room is also something Jane knows well, having brought so many show creators’ visions to life. But what does creating your own independent show feel like?
“Good. Scary. Freeing. It was nice that we only had to please each other with what we were writing. And we have a very, very similar sense of humor, so that actually worked out great. But it's also scary, because if people don't like it, it's like they're calling my (metaphorical) baby ugly!”
I don’t think Jane could make an ugly baby. Even if some people can’t appreciate the show, one still has to respect the courage it took to step outside of the box and tackle a new way of storytelling. Because that’s what innovative writers do. They see an untapped, emerging opportunity and cease it. For Jane, she did that twofold … both in discovering Cheeks and in partnering with him on the web series. She is fearless in her passion for writing and for finding creative ways to tackle touchy subjects.
The question still remains, where will Husbands go from here?
Jane shared, “I always said I wanted it to reach its widest audience, which would suggest it should make the jump to TV. But it was nice to be able to do it with the people and script and message that we liked, which is certainly easier to do as a web product, so I could imagine it living on in that way. We'll see!”
As for the king of YouTube, Cheeks would clearly love a shot at jumping the fence and bringing Husbands to the television audiences. “TV has the money to direct everyone to their outlet in a way most Internet content does not. However, while I do think that will become less and less true in the coming years, as the Internet and television merge into one, I think Husbands would be best suited for television in this political climate. Aside from being an entertaining beacon for social change, Husbands also has huge appeal with the most favorable demographics for television advertisers.”
Watch the premiere episode of Husbands and see for yourself how much fun collaboration, creativity, and taking a risk can be whether on your television screen or on the World Wide Web.
Regardless of your media preference, one thing is for certain – paying it forward always pays you back. This time, in laughter and the creative freedom a writer dreams of.