Husbands, the marriage equality webseries created and written by Brad Bell (VH1’s Pop-Up Videos, Torchwood) and Jane Espenson (Buffy, Firefly, Once Upon a Time), just finished off its second season, funded by a $50k Kickstarter that yielded amazing results, both financially and creatively. With this buy-in from its audience, the Husbands team brought us back into the world of Cheeks and Brady, complete with a cast of geek stars (including Joss Whedon in his acting debut) guaranteed to please.
Bell and Espenson, along with Bell’s co-star Sean Hemeon (True Blood, Criminal Minds), sat down with CB at this year’s GeekGirlCon to talk about the Kickstarter, the new season, the perils and opportunities of coming out, and the nature of men—gay and straight.
Laura Akers and Chris Hicks for Comics Bulletin: So when you guys set up the Kickstarter to fund season 2, what did you expect and how did that compare with what actually went down?
Jane Espenson: We thought that we would get the $50k but that it would be a slow crawl and that with 3 days to go we might still need 50%. What we got was the opposite; we made it all in the first 3 days, and then we got a slow crawl because we had hit the goal. So we didn’t think we were going to go over it; we thought we would hit it but that it would take the whole time.
Brad Bell: Yeah, we had $5600 in 4 minutes. I had no idea it would create that kind of reaction.
Espenson: Yeah, we didn’t know it would be that fast.
CB: You had $45k or something like that in three days?
Bell: 12 hours was $30,000 and then 7 days was 50k.
Espenson: It was great.
CB: Who contributed?
Espenson: 1000 people gave an average of $60 each. They were fans of season 1, which made us feel really smart that we did season 1 and then did a Kickstarter instead of doing a Kickstarter to make season 1.
There was a lot of interest in the incentives we offered, with Buffy incentives, but there was no sense of anybody coming by with the attitude of “I support Husbands because I like Battlestar and Buffy, I don’t care what this Husbands project is but I want the swag.” There was none of that; it was all people who were generally invested in making season 2.
Bell: And I would say that the demographics were… there were married men, like men married to each other, there were moms, there were college students, you know what I mean? And yeah, I think the people had seen it, and they wanted more.
Espenson: A lot of them really wanted the DVD (of season 1 of Husbands) especially.
Bell: And it seemed like they were fans of us. They had faith in what we were going to create again.
CB: So you had no ringers lined up? Friends who at the last minute are going to jump in and help you?
Bell: No, and I thought we might need that. Before we launched it, I was like, “Ok, worst case scenario, maybe somebody can…”
Espenson: Which you’re not really allowed to do.
Bell: No, but it was only ever like, “Maybe that will be some sort of option that we’ll have to entertain if worse comes to worst.” But it was such a big response, thankfully.
Espenson: Yeah, it was very, very gratifying and really made us feel good. Because we knew season 2 probably could be better that season 1.
Bell: I was telling Sean that when people say they love the show, in my mind I’ve been immersed in all of this stuff (season 2) that the public hasn’t seen yet. So when people say they love the show, I’m like, “Yeah, right!” I understand it like, “Yeah, isn’t it so fun?” And then I think about it and I’m like, “Wait a second; you have seen only this much. That’s what you’re talking about?”
Sean Hemeon: We watched the first season, and we were like, “Okay. It’s gotten so much better.” We made it and then saw it, the first time it was like, “Wow, this is amazing,” but now a year later, after the second season, when you see the first season you’re like, “eh…”
Espenson: Season 1 is good, but season 2 is great. If you’re coming to the panel, you’ll see a clip.
CB: Is it the same one you showed at San Diego?
Bell: Yeah. [Editorial note: Actually, we got to see the entire first episode at the GeekGirlCon panel]
CB: ‘Cause I was there. I’ve already been blown away by the Joss.
Espenson: Well, you might not have heard all of it because there was a lot of noise, at the showing of that clip. This is a smaller crowd; you may hear more that you heard last time.
CB: So one of the great moments in season one is the comparison of Brady and Cheeks’ coming-out experiences. “I’ve been out longer than you so I’m older than you,” that.
Hemeon: “You count it that way? “
CB: So how do your own experiences reflect the characters, or not at all?
Espenson: Oh, they’re kind of parallel.
Bell: I think it’s the exact same. Yeah, I just could never hide that I was gay, so if you can’t hide that you’re gay, what do you do? You say, “Fuck it; I’m gay.” That’s how you react.
CB: In Dallas.
Bell: In Dallas, where you’re supposed to be a good old boy. The reason I developed humor was to give people something to like about me, like “I’m gay, but I’m really funny.” And I think that the reason I became so observant of people is because, for one, I’m always observing to make sure I’m not in danger; I’m always reading the other person to make sure, “How much can I be myself around you?” And I think that it’s the reason I just sort of embraced the feeling. There’s nothing I can do about it.
And the more I try to fit in, the more I’m going to stand out, so I might as well go to the extreme and be whoever the hell I want to be – which is not the experience you have when you have the option of hiding. If I had the option of straight privilege, why would someone give that up? I mean, there are plenty of reasons to, obviously, but if you’d always had that choice and you’d never known what it was like to not have that choice, then you might very well make that choice, which is what Brady did, what Sean did.
Hemeon: Yeah, that was miserable, so what’s the other option? What’s interesting is that I have that same quality of being very perceptive of people, being to read them right away. It’s a survival thing.
Bell: It’s absolutely a survival thing.
CB: It’s also common in abuse victims.
Bell: Yeah, you’re extremely hyper-aware of what that other person is thinking, what information they’re gathering about you, and you’re scanning for safety basically.
Hemeon: Yeah, I was scared. I was Brady in that I was an athlete, the homecoming court, the captain, all that stuff, and I tried so hard to fit in. I drove a cherry-red Jeep; I was going to a frat.
Bell: ‘Cause a cherry-red Jeep is so not gay.
Hemeon: Oh. I was so living the beginning of a porn movie. I would have flipped my collar but that wasn’t around back then. But no, then I hid behind that, and it was like it mattered what you thought and what you said because that was how I built the picture.
Bell: Didn’t you tell me that you would change the music that was playing in your car.
Hemeon: I was secretively listening to whatever pop songs were on, I don’t know, Britney Spears or something, like, “I kind of like this,” but would immediately change to Dave Matthews or Stone Temple Pilots, which I generally like. But no one would ever know that I was listening to that kind of stuff [pop music], let alone very loud, in the Jeep. Everybody had to know how straight I was, so I turned up the straight music really loud in the parking lot in the Jeep.
CB: Sean, you mentioned at San Diego that you’re also…I wasn’t clear whether you were a Mormon or are a Mormon.
Hemeon: I was a Mormon. I got out in high school, right before my mission. The final straw was, the Mormon faith, when you’re in high school, you go to church before you go to school. By that time I knew I was gay, I was falling out with other guys, still trying to do that undercover, and I was just like, “I can’t do this anymore.” But yeah, my elder brother, who’s very Mormon, he was at Comic-con, and he was almost on the floor laughing his ass off at the show. He loved it so much, and that was very rewarding.
CB: I can imagine.
Bell: He’s a big champion of our show. He wants us to be able to make more of our show.
Hemeon: I actually didn’t know this. And I just found out that he’s like a big champion of the Mormon Church accepting gay marriage. There are starting to be segments for Mormons who are for gay marriage. And he’s starting to champion that. I had no idea.
CB: Do you think he would have done that if you weren’t his brother?
Hemeon: I thought the same thing. I doubt that. Because he’s so dedicated to his family, and I’m a branch of that, so the gay thing just wouldn’t exist in this world. He’d be like, whatever. But now that I’m part of that, he is proud of me. I was just with a lot of my family last week, and what’s really interesting now is that as long as I’m comfortable with it, they’re comfortable with it.
I’ve been out for 11 years, since I was 19; they’ve had only so many years to kind of catch up. So, I’m walking them through the process. I’m like: “It’s okay. Yeah, I have boyfriends. It’s okay.” But I’ll bring it up and I’ll, I guess, desensitize [them to] it. There was a point where I was very angry, and I threw it in their faces because, “Love me!” But all that aside, I just talked about it, and they’d talk about it as if it’s a normal thing.
Bell: That’s an interesting point though; how often are they confronted with it? You know what I mean?
Hemeon: Totally. My little brother told me a story about my brother where he…
Bell: No, I mean you being gay? So like I go home and I hang out with my mom and I watch TV; I don’t go home and make out with a guy in front of her. How often is your family actually confronted with you being gay?
Hemeon: It depends; I guess being married and having a family has been a big thing in my family, so when they bring up the marriage thing or the family thing… Like this last trip, there were many jokes about adopting a baby from China; there were many jokes like that. Actually, this is kind of the funny one, but this is how I make them okay with it.
We were talking about the premier of Husbands next week and that we’re going to be the center of attention and I was like, “Yeah, in Ben and Jerry’s, they have like a flavor for [Husbands],” and my little brother’s like, “What is it? Fudge-packer?”
Espenson: That’s pretty funny.
Hemeon: So I grab that and I deliver that joke later on with some other siblings and they die; they love it. It’s totally…it’s fine.
Bell: Yes, with extra salty nuts.
CB: So is religion something that Husbands is going to touch on at all?
Hemeon: Nah. The closest it gets to is that I’m Mormon in the show; that’s the closest it gets to it.
Espenson: Yeah, Brady was also raised Mormon.
Hemeon: There’s no focus on God or spirituality or like even Mormon beliefs. It’s just that he’s Mormon.
Bell: And I’m not interested in what insisting or demanding or highlighting the importance of tolerance among religions. Your religion can believe whatever it wants; I don’t want anything to do with your religion. We’re talking about social acceptance, civil marriage, you know, that’s our point. You know, yes, as long as you’re not throwing bricks through my window, you can believe whatever you want in your religion, and I’m not going to try and make something that shows how important it is that your religion accepts me, ‘cause your religion doesn’t have to.
But yes, if we’re going to live in the same society, then there are a few things you have to get over that I am entitled to.
Espenson: I think that somehow specificity is what makes characters feel real, but there’s a certain place where you get so specific and things stop being identifiable. We want people to watch and identify with Cheeks and Brady no matter what their religion is; we’re already asking them to identify with characters whose orientation and income level may be different from theirs. So to suddenly go, “Now we’re talking about the fact that Cheeks is Lutheran,” feels like it might not be a useful avenue for a storytelling.
CB: I was imagining it more coming from the outside rather than in the relationship.
Bell: Yeah, like taking on the preacher that’s…yeah, and I think that maybe if that was in the cards, then it would always be more of a social…I could see a satire where Cheeks is actually all of the things that they’re criticizing, like maybe there was an outside group attacking them for an action that Cheeks has taken that is literally a modern-day allegory of something Christ did.
Maybe Cheeks goes and washes the feet of homeless children, and they’re saying that he’s a paedophile. You know, something like that, to make the fact that Christians are very anti-Christ these days.
CB: You guys have really aligned yourself with the geek world throughout the creation and marketing of Husbands; how do you think that’s affected the project?
Espenson: It has affected the make-up of our fan base, I think. People, even though anyone who found our show would love it, the first people who found it, some of them were already fans of mine following my career doing sci-fi and fantasy shows, but I don’t think it has influenced our story-telling.
Bell: I think having geek fans allows us to make a fearlessly smart show.
Espenson: That’s true because we have an audience that already loves fearlessly smart programming like Battlestar and Buffy. We’ve got smart people to watch our show.
Bell: I never feared.
CB: And your selection of guest stars greatly influences the show. Influenced by the fact that you have access to geek celebrities like Nathan Fillion and Amber Benson because of your work on Buffy and Firefly.
Espenson: Which influences who then watches Husbands in turn. So yeah, it’s sort of circular. Again, going back to Roddenberry: infinite diversity in infinite combinations. Diversity is built right into the geek world; sci-fi, when done right, loves to explore things, like the fact that Battlestar Galactica took place in a culture where there had never been discrimination in the colonies based on gender orientation. It meant that that was a show that explicitly was welcoming to gay characters or fans. That feeling is the right feeling for our show.
CB: So Joss has his acting debut in the first episode of season 2. What do you guys think of Joss as an actor?
Espenson: We all three were in the room for his performance.
Bell: It was the opposite of what I felt when I read it; I was like, “Okay, he’s going to do it like this,” but then he totally did it his own way.
Espenson: He did it his own way; he’s really good.
Bell: Yeah, and very subtle? Is that the word? Yeah, understated.
Espenson: We’re cutting it together, and we looked at it in the editing room, you see even more because he’s very subtle. And he’s in all 3 episodes of season 2. So there’s more than you’ve seen. And I think he always had that in him. He’s really good.
Hemeon: He was so nervous; he was so adorable.
Bell: When he does the Joss delivery that he puts so many Whedon actors through… Oh, gosh, when I was watching Avengers I heard it, it’s the…
Espenson: Jeff Greenstein, our director, commented on that, he said, “We’ve heard that delivery for years”
Bell: This weird rhythm I can’t quite explain, but you know it when you hear it. And Joss built his entire performance on that sort of delivery.
Espenson: There’s a line early in Avengers that went something like, “We don’t know if we’ll live, or the other thing.” That rhythm, that kind of wording. So when we wrote the part for Joss, we were definitely thinking of Joss. I mean I’ve written lines for years where I was trying to sound as much like Joss as I could. That’s been my career.
Bell: And so writing Joss-style dialog for Joss…
Espenson: It’s perfect.
Bell: So appealing.
Espenson: I assume if he writes this way, this is how he would like to speak as an actor and it seemed to work.
CB: I just read the companion book to Dr. Horrible Sing-along Blog, and I’ve kind of wondered, I don’t know how much you guys are aware of the creative process that that went through. It was very, incredibly collaborative; there’s family involved and everybody’s sort of getting really excited about this one project…
Espenson: Well, we were very collaborative on this. We did a table read, and we invited writers in to watch it and collected feedback from them. We also re-wrote lines on set with input from actors and from Joss and from Jeff. You can get a little tunnel vision where you go like, “We’ve been looking at this for so long, we aren’t seeing the story, we aren’t sure of this line, is this joke funny?” So it’s always good to have outside input.
Bell: Yeah, you take input collaboratively, but executing it is really you and me, collaborating. It’s not like, “Somebody give us a joke. Hey, that’s funny, let’s do that.” But yeah, we take feedback.
CB: While we’re on that subject, have you guys ever found yourselves at loggerheads at how to deal with something on the show?
Espenson: Oh, God yes.
CB: How do you resolve that?
Espenson: Generally the way I see it…
Bell: The one who doesn’t run out of energy wins it.
Espenson: Generally, though, I would say, like early on in Buffy, Joss Whedon had created the show and was running the show, but he’d never run a show before, so David Greenwalt, he’d sort of take him through the process. I’m David Greenwalt, Cheeks is Joss: it’s his vision. It’s much more his life experience than mine, and so if there’s a disagreement I generally will tip it to…
Bell: Yeah, and I feel like, “A or B?” I say A, Jane says okay that sounds good; or I say A, Jane says B. I think it should be A, because this is why, Jane says, “Oh, okay, yeah, all right, let’s do that.” Or I say A, Jane says B, and Jane says, “Look I’m really convinced about B, because this is really the way I feel about B.” And I go, “Okay, all right.”
Espenson: Yeah. Unless Cheeks is equally strong in the other direction; we’ve had a few where we both had a…
Bell: That’s a rare thing where we’re both really, really adamant about what it needs to be.
CB: [To Espenson] So you’re not a gay man. So how does writing for gay men differ from other experiences or is it exactly the same?
Espenson: It’s exactly the same; you write people. I think Starbuck isn’t like Willow, and neither of them are like me. You write that person. Cheeks and Brady are people who are no more different from me than Starbuck is. Yeah.
CB: But there’s also no politics involved around Starbuck. [chuckle] Well, okay, there were somepolitics involved around Starbuck, but after the…
Espenson: I mean the writing is also really 50-50 between the two of us, and if anything doesn’t ring true, Cheeks is going to catch it.
Bell: Well, anything that ever catches my eye has nothing to do with the choice of the gay man or the politics thing. I remember one specific example where you wrote Cheeks’ reaction as hurt; he was hurt, or offended, or sad, or something, and you had him react in a way that was more emotional and female. And I thought, “That’s not how a male would react in a situation that would be competitive. It would be one-upmanship.” And I think that’s more making a choice based on gender but not on sexuality, or age, or…
CB: Although it’s hard to imagine Starbuck reacting hurt.
Bell: Yeah, yeah, yeah; that’s true.
Espenson: But I feel more that it comes across in a line like…I’m not sure that I would be able to write the exotic femininity of Cheeks; that’s a point of view that you [to Brad] have had to develop through years and years of living it, so the authenticity of that line rings through. I feel like I write the first draft of those lines sometimes and then you refine it, so that it is exactly your specific point of view is on something.
Bell: Yeah. Yeah, but your ability to – what is it? – to see, to empathize, or to imagine the emotional state of somebody that you aren’t, is much better than mine.
Espenson: What we do is the perfect combination because we have a character that is very close to you, so you know when a line is what Cheeks would say. I’m good at getting into the head of a character that’s not like me, and Cheeks is very much not like me, so between the two of us, we can write Cheeks.
CB: Brad, is the work that you’ve done as Cheeks, is that work that Cheeks in the show has done?
Espenson: Cheeks has a job that you don’t have on Miserable Rich Kids.
Bell: Well, not anymore.
Espenson: So did Cheeks record those videos? I think he did.
Bell: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And now he doesn’t have to work. Which, of course, he loves but not if that means he’s the housewife – which we didn’t explore really in season 2, but hopefully we will.
Espenson: But yeah. It’s in: Cheeks’ songs are Cheeks’ songs.
Bell: Yeah. Except bigger and better, you know like it’s a download off an album with a world tour…
Hemeon: Sure, we could do the housewife thing ‘cause it’s sort of 1% joke about that…
Bell: Cheeks loves the idea of not having to work until it means that he’s now a Real Housewife of Orange County. I can’t have that. I have to be relevant!
CB: It’s interesting that both of your characters are in professions that have a very short life-span.
Hameon: Yeah, that’s true.
CB: You guys are going to make all your money in the next ten years, and then you’re pretty much done.
Espenson: Cheeks within the show, fictional Cheeks is a character actor and he could work forever; he could be the wizened 80-year-old guy next door.
Bell: Yeah, but well, I think he’s a little more tabloid-driven than a character actor. He’s more Heidi Montag than he is… you know. [everyone laughs]
Hemeon: Brady will probably have a revival.
Espenson: Mickey Rooney?
Hemeon: After he retires, like Dancing With the Stars, and head into acting in some way.
Espenson: I think Cheeks could be Mickey Rooney; I think Cheeks could age and get character roles.
Bell: I think that if he wanted to, he could eventually get there. I don’t think that’s his goal right now.
Hemeon: He’s just trying to be married.