“Husbands” could be one of the greatest shows I’ve ever found on YouTube, and I don’t pick favorites just willy-nilly. By the time 4 o’clock hits after having written about the digital space for 16 hours straight in the sweatshop called NMR, one of the last things I want to do at home is watch YouTube videos. But with “Husbands,” it’s an entirely different story.
Watching the pilot episode, I quickly became immersed within the show and its twist on the traditional American sitcom. “Husbands” follows baseball player Brady Kelly and his boyfriend, Hollywood darling Cheeks, who sparks a media storm after they accidentally get married in Vegas. Instead of following their shotgun wedding with a shotgun annulment, the two lovebirds decide to make a go at the married life, which is quickly tested by the prejudices of those around them. This show leaves audiences both rooting for these two sweethearts while simultaneously taking an honest look at where society stands on the issues of marriage equality today. Since its creation two years ago by co-creators Brad Bell and Jane Espenson, “Husbands” has gone on to become one of the most critically acclaimed shows on YouTube and the only show to date that has been written about by The New Yorker. Brad Bell, the writer and star of the show, talked with NMR about how “I Love Lucy” inspired him to create content that challenged the status quo and why YouTube was the perfect platform for discussing the volatile topic of same-sex marriage.
What was the original inspiration behind “Husbands”?
Brad Bell: Well, it was during a dinner I had with Jane Espenson, where we were talking about “I Love Lucy” and how it was groundbreaking in its day because an American woman was married to a Cuban man and considered controversial material by the television industry. I started wondering if that could even be done today. What story today might seem controversial and risqué, only to be considered completely harmless years later? Most content that’s thought to be edgy is intrinsically R-rated. Do we even live in a time when what pushes the envelope is actually quite tame? About the same time I asked the question, a voice in my head said, “Duh, gay marriage.” It was kind of funny because this was before marriage equality was as prominent as it is now, which is hard to imagine, but Prop 8 had passed, California started working to fight it, and other than that it wasn’t really in the headlines. It had kind of just died down and wasn’t a huge part of the national conversation like it is now. Then I started working on the script and New York passed their marriage equality law, so the topic just kind of started blowing up at the same time we were putting “Husbands” together. I’d like to sound strategic and smart and say we planned it that way, but maybe it’s cooler that we sort of psychically sensed it. Yeah, let’s go with that.
Marriage equality has been such a hot issue. Why did you decide to approach this topic with humor?
I don’t really know any other way to approach things [laughs]. I guess because it’s almost humorous in its own way already. It’s just so absurd —this idea that anti-equality advocates actually think they’re justified in their reasoning as to why people shouldn’t be married — and, I don’t know, the absurdity that pro-equality advocates think somehow real equality will happen after they get a piece of paper. Granted, it is incredibly important that that happen and for those rights to be given to LGBT people, but legal protections won’t equal acceptance or mean that you’re going to be judged equally by society, which is kind of the point of “Husbands.” Yes, legal equality important, but you’re still going to be unequal in terms of social acceptance and how you’re perceived. For example, women can vote, but the objectification of their bodies remains. It may always remain. Basically, all women should just give up and become strippers. That’s really what “Husbands” is about.
Was that one of the major goals when writing “Husbands”?
I don’t know if it was a major goal, but it was definitely one of them. There are a lot of double standards for LGBT people, and I think some pro-marriage equality proponents don’t think beyond legal rights; it’s the end goal for them. And certainly, like I said, it’s very important we keep working toward those right, but the point of view in “Husbands” is that real equality is in the mind. It’s in the heart. That was the overall message, for lack of a better word, along with the notion that real equality means having the freedom to make mistakes and be human, not a paradigm of perfection. Oh, and the all-women-should-just-be-strippers thing.
How have you seen the show grow now that you guys have two seasons under your belt and are hopefully moving forward into a third?
Yeah, it’s grown in really huge ways. It’s broken some digital ceilings, really. It was the first — and I think only to this day — new media series in The New Yorker, as well as the first to be hosted and presented at The Paley Center for Television. It’s taken on an incredible life among the fans and within the industry; the number of guest stars that wanted to work with us on Season Two, and yeah, it’s really taken off. It’s gotten a lot more critical attention and positive reviews than most things I see online.
Do you sometimes have to pinch yourself?
Yes! I don’t realize how surreal it is until certain moments happen. I’ll be at Starbucks, and somebody is like, “Oh my gosh, I love what you do. It’s so important. ‘Husbands’ is great.” And I’m like, “What? I’m getting recognized in public — this is weird.”
Why was YouTube the perfect platform for this show?
Well, it may not be specific to YouTube. I think new media, and the online sphere in general, is the perfect platform because, even still, networks would be hesitant to make a show like this. This is a show that has to be handled in a very specific way in order to keep it funny, in order to keep it from being super didactic, in order to have the right ratio of everything, maintaining the delicate balance of perspectives and experiences that are built into the story. I don’t think we would have that kind of creative freedom on a network. “Husbands” sort of tested the waters, to see just what exactly America does find acceptable to watch; is there an audience for a story about two men? I find it really fitting that “Husbands” lives in the newest medium for entertainment because, along with proving that American audiences are more progressive than broadcast networks might think, the show also demonstrates that viewers are happy to consume entertainment in a new medium, which is actually an old medium reinvented, which is actually the entire conceptual frame of Husbands as a sitcom. [laughs] So it’s all quite poetic really.
What has been one of the most memorable moments for you thus far?
It was pretty memorable, pretty strange, to hear Joss Whedon delivering lines that I wrote [laughs]. And to hear him complimenting a joke that I’d written, that was very weird. Then to have people on the set whom I had admired for a long time and watched growing up, to see them working on something that I created was just a little intense, but in all the best ways. It was as if I’d suddenly woken up in the reality I’d wanted to create for myself one day; that one day had arrived! I was living that day!
How long have you been writing for?
I’ve been writing professionally for a few of years, but I grew up writing. I was, I guess, a natural writer. I would enter competitions at school and stuff for creative writing. I was the annoying kid who always had his paper read by the teacher because she thought it was really good [laughs]. But I never really considered myself a writer, and then I had this idea and Jane was like, “Write it down,” and I was like, “I’m not sure I’m a writer,” and she said, “I think you are.” I wrote the YouTube videos that I had been performing before that, so yeah, I guess I’ve always been a writer. I started working on YouTube in 2008, so as far as writing something to edit and perform and produce, it’s been about four or five years.
“Husbands” was just nominated for two Streamys — big congratulations. What was your experience at the awards show?
It was great! It was a lot of fun. Vanilla Ice was awesome [laughs]. Yeah, I thought it was a really great show and really entertaining, and everyone was there. It was cool to see all the internet in one room.
I feel like that’s what I’ve heard from so many people, “Oh, I was around people who do the same things that I do!”
Yeah, you know when people you may see every week or maybe you just saw them once because they were in some once popular video, and it was kind of funny because it’s different than television in a way when you go to the Emmys and you’re surrounded by actors, surrounded by faces that you know, but they’ve all played characters that are different people. There is a different sense to it, but you go to something like this and I think people are more or less themselves, you know? They might be a bit of a persona or something, but you’re used to these people being them, and then you see them as them, and one gathering — yeah, it was a trip.
What are your future plans for “Husbands”? Are you guys filming and getting ready for another season?
We’re working on making another season happen, and I’m confident that it will. I can’t really say any more than that now. Hopefully, I can say something soon that will be good news, but the truth is you just never know until it’s done! [laughs] You never know. I don’t celebrate until a project is out of post production, just to be safe. [laughs]
I’m super into the show, so it has to come back!
I’m super into it, too! I’m a huge fan of “Husbands”! I want to make more, and I want to give more to people because that’s really the most rewarding part — seeing the reaction and being able to share it with people and knowing you’re helping create that fan experience. When you, as a fan, see the continuation of something you love, happening exactly the way you want it, and given to you in such a fun presentation, that experience is what gets audiences cheering in a theatre. Knowing you can contribute to that experience as a creator is the best part. Although, it’s a close tie between that and the free food.
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