The Liz Feldman-created, Ellen Degeneres-produced NBC sitcom One Big Happy premieres next week. I sat down with Liz, made my girlfriend take pictures of us, and asked her a bunch of questions. I am pretty stoked on this show because it’s on a major broadcast network, in a primetime slot, and the lead character is a lesbian, which feels a little life-changing for me. We live in a time where a lot of queer content is on the internet — be it Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, YouTube, whatever — but I keep wondering why there aren’t more queer-themed shows on TV. There has especially been a dearth of sitcoms with queer female characters.
One Big Happy wasn’t created with any agenda, but it is so nice to see something cute, funny, and gay-as-shit hit middle america.
Here are Liz and I talking about stuff:
And here is our interview:
Give me the elevator pitch. What’s the show about?
Okay, first of all: what floor am I going to? How long can the pitch be?
Okay, I’m gonna say we’re going to the 14th floor and I’ve never heard of your show.
Okay, who are you? Because that would depend on how I sell the show.
I am a queer, gender-neutral person in my mid-to-late twenties. I’m a feminist.
Hey, you! You seem cool. You should watch my new show. It’s about a new kind of family. Well, I gotta get off. It’s the 14th floor.
I guess fancy buildings have fast elevators?
Wait, what year is it? You didn’t say it was 1983!
[We laugh together]
I would say it’s a very funny show about a lesbian and her straight guy best friend who want to start a family together and then he meets the love of his life and that changes the course of their lives.
Does the show focus on their relationship — the lesbian and her best friend?
I would say the focus is on what happens when a new person comes into that kind of relationship. It’s based on my real life. I mean, me and my best friend were inseparable and spent our entire twenties hanging out together, and did have a plan to have a baby together. Then he met this girl, it was love at first sight, and what it did to me really surprised me. It was very threatening to me. I’ve always been a possessive and competitive, um, I guess, asshole. All of a sudden there was this other woman, and that obviously changed our plans.
I don’t have a child with him. So this show sort of became the fantasy version of what would have happened if we had already been in the process. That’s pretty specific, but the general notion of having a best friend who starts dating somebody and you have to learn to like that person, that’s what we’re examining in this show. In their situation, it’s just a little more heightened: they live together, they’re having a baby together, and now there’s a new person.
So it’s also about this newlywed couple who just got married very quickly and is getting to know each other. It’s also about this uptight, set-in-her-ways lesbian who now has to deal with this free-spirited, super outspoken English chick who is living in her house and walking around naked. It’s about the three people learning to deal with each other as a new unit, and it’s about two best friends who are looking at each other from a new lens because there’s a new person in the picture.
I assume the show is very funny, because you’re funny.
I appreciate that. And all the scripts did come through me. Some of them we wrote together, some of them I wrote myself, but I have the last say on every word. So know that it comes through me. It’s not being written by a bunch of straight people in a room, like, “What would a lesbian say?”
Well I was wondering how much secret lesbian slang will be in the show.
“Secret lesbian slang,” can you give me some? Do I even know any?
Well a lot of times, gay shows that are written by straight writers, they’re like, “Here’s the gay stuff! Here’s the gay guy who loves Madonna!”
Oh, yes. Yeah, I never do that. I mean, the character is really a fictionalized version of me. It’s definitely as close to me as any person I’ve ever written. Then we cast Elisha Cuthbert and I think she brings her own thing to it, but we’re also oddly similar, Rachael, [my wife], calls us “Frick” and “Frack.” I mean, she’s a wonderful Canadian person who is married to a hockey player, but I really made sure to make this a really authentic character. So it always had to pass the test of, “Is this true for me? Is this authentic for me?”
Yes, some of the jokes will be maybe more expected, because it is for a broader audience. I recently sat down with one lesbian journalist who said the jokes feel a little stereotypical, but I did that on purpose on some level. Now, that’s not in every episode. But there’s one episode that’s particularly focusing on how you can tell if a person is a lesbian or not. So yes, of course, I did make some more obvious jokes. But even Ellen thought they were funny!
Truthfully, I did that because this is a show for the mass audience of America, not just for lesbians. I can’t make a network show for just lesbians. So these are jokes you know that America has never heard. Have we heard them? Maybe.
But also to let the mainstream feel comfortable in a lot of ways, you have to let them laugh sometimes.
Exactly. There are a lot of ways to make people laugh. One way is to surprise them. We do that a lot. There’s a lot of funny, surprising things that happen on the show. But the other thing is that you laugh because it’s familiar to you. Or at least you know you’re in on the joke. And you don’t always want the audience to be behind the joke; you really want them to feel like they’re a part of it, like they’re in on it with you. And if I want that, I have to make jokes that are going to be tangible to most people, not just for us.
So this is a prime time network with a lesbian lead role. When did you write it and when were people finally ready to put that on?
That’s a really good question, and most people don’t know this, but because we’re friends I’ll tell you. I actually wrote a very early version of this in 2008, which is when it was happening for me. So I didn’t write it for public consumption, I didn’t write it for anyone to read it. In fact, it was the Writer’s Strike at the time. I wasn’t supposed to be writing at all, but I wrote it because it was how I was dealing with going through the actual thing at the time. Some people keep a diary, I write sitcoms. I don’t know. It’s weird, but that’s what I do.
So my best friend was getting more serious with his now-wife and the only way I knew how to process it was to write a version of it, so I wrote a really early version and I never sold it to anyone. I kept it for myself and showed it to him and he was like, “It’s good, it’s funny.” That’s sort of all we ever talked about it, which is classic.
Then I put it away and I started developing other pilots and I pretty much exclusively have written pilots with a lesbian lead character. Literally every single pilot I have been paid to write has had a lesbian lead character in it. And that’s honestly not part of some agenda; it’s part of the fact that it’s who I am. The television that I like best seems to be semi-autobiographical. It seems to come from truth, from reality, from a place of real vulnerability.
I think there are other really great TV shows too, like I thought 30 Rock was great, but guess what? That came from reality. That came from Tina Fey’s life and she made it a crazy version of it. So Girls, you know, or Transparent, that comes from Jill Soloway’s life. Those are my favorite shows; that’s why I do that. For years I worked on pilots that didn’t get picked up. Then in my third year, I was allowed to develop a show and I thought, “Wow, I actually have a story that’s good but I’ve never actually told it to anyone but myself.” I decided to reinvent that original pilot that I wrote in 2008.
I kind of felt like maybe the world was ready for it, but I really wasn’t sure. Because as I took it around to the networks to pitch, they all said no, except for NBC.
They all were really kind. At this point, I’d been doing this a long time. I had nice relationships with these people. These were lovely people, but their feedback was: “This is a good idea, and we’d love to work with you, but this will never make it on the air.”
Were there specific reasons? Was it because there is a lesbian lead?
Well, I mean they’re not going to come out and say…
Right. They’re not going to say that.
It’s not, honestly, just that there’s a lesbian lead. It’s also that it’s a very non-traditional concept. Having a baby out of wedlock, and having a baby with your friend, and a lesbian having a baby.
Yeah. It’s a lot of new information.
It’s a lot of information for middle America. I was really lucky in that Ellen DeGeneres’ company wanted to produce it because that obviously lends a certain amount of palatability. She’s a lesbian everyone can digest. Is that a bad turn of phrase?
No, it’s true.
It is true, but, you know, I’m very much in the same ilk as her. And not just because we’ve worked together so long. In my nature, I’m just kind of the lesbian next door. I really am. I’m not that edgy. Though I’m super liberal in my politics and socially liberal, I’m pretty conservative in my way.
So why do you think people are ready for this now?
Isn’t it crazy that Ellen came out eighteen years ago? It was eighteen years ago, almost to the day. So eighteen years later there’s a show with the anchor character being a lesbian. It’s funny. We’ll see if America is ready for it. NBC is very cool and has always been pretty progressive with the kind of shows they put on the air so hopefully they’ve tapped into something but they test it for audiences, they do the whole thing they do with every show, and it’s tested really positively.
I’m wondering what kind of things you were thinking when this got picked up. Like, “Whoa. This will change the world.” Did you have any of those thoughts at all?
You know? No. Because that’s not a great place to start creating comedy from. You don’t set out to create a groundbreaking show. Really I’m just telling a story that felt authentic to me. I know what Ellen did for me when she came out, so somewhere in the back of my mind I understand that there’s a possibility that this show can positively affect young people, or maybe older people who might be struggling to accept who they are, or accept who their children are. So obviously, yes, if this show continues some sort of conversation about acceptance and love and what it means to be a family, that will be awesome. But truly my intention is to make people laugh.
Have you been surprised by any questions about the show?
Yes. So let me just paint a picture for you. The TCA is the Television Critics Association, and they’re this thing that you never really think about. Maybe other people do, but when I’m writing a pilot I never think about critics. I was just trying to write something funny so people don’t think I’m a total fucking asshole. I mean, they’re paying me to write this pilot, and I just wanted them to read it and be like, “Okay, she’s not a dick.”
That’s my goal. You just want to make a great pilot. You never think in a million years that it will get on the air. Then it gets on the air and you’re like, “Shit. I really haven’t thought this far.” Because the odds are so not ever in your favor. Then all of a sudden you’re at the TCA’s, which is the weirdest press event in the history of press events. So it’s you, it’s the creator, the executive producer — who is me — and then Ellen, who is the executive producer, and the cast. We’re sitting on a panel and they show this fun preview of the show; then the lights come up and all of a sudden you’re sitting in front of two hundred and fifty reporters and their computers and no one claps. It is so bizarre. I’ve been a performer most of my life and I’ve never been on a stage before where you wouldn’t clap for Ellen.
Anyway, the first question they asked was, “Why aren’t there more lesbians on the show?” I have to admit, this was not a question I ever thought I would be asked. You have a few talking points you know you can rely on if you have to, but that’s not something we were expecting at all. The first few questions really dictate the narrative that comes out in the press. So Ellen, in her response was like, “Well, this isn’t a show about lesbians. This is a show about a lesbian, and her best friend, and their family and their friends.” So that becomes the narrative in the press. Ellen says this isn’t a show about lesbians. That is why that was the headline. Because that is the first question that was asked.
That is so interesting.
I’m so glad you asked me that because I’ve been dying to say that. We didn’t go to the TCA to be like, “This isn’t a show about lesbians!” Of course this is a show for lesbians, it’s for everyone. It has to be. When I saw all those headlines coming out, I was happy to see that the show was being written about at all, but also if I was a lesbian at home reading that, I would feel alienated by that headline. But that is truly what happened.
It’s so interesting too because I bet they thought that was a positive quote. “The show isn’t just for lesbians!”
I guess, or they’re just trying to get you to click the link. I get it, that’s their job. I think that’s a pretty hot button quote. Ellen says this isn’t a show about lesbians! Ellen says she doesn’t have an agenda! That was the first question, then I think the second question was: “Will there be more lesbians?” Which is something I’ve really started to understand better, which is that we, as lesbians, are so, so hungry to be represented. We really are. We want to watch something and say, “That’s like me.” Because we never get that. But, instead, because there is such a lack of representation on television, we look for it in these very subtextual ways on shows that are not at all about us.
You know, Rizzoli & Isles, which is a fine show, that’s not about lesbians. Even 2 Broke Girls, the show I worked on, people try to find that lesbian undertone. There is no lesbian undertone. They’re friends. We create lesbian storylines where there aren’t any. Then when there is actually something for us, which I hope is how you’ll feel with my show, this is about a real lesbian character. She’s living her life as a lesbian, wants all the things that we all want, and what I found initially is that there was a bit of resistance to it from our community. There’s a lot of really harsh scrutiny about it. So we’re willing to accept these little bits and pieces of just subtext on another show, but when there’s actually something that’s for us, we kind of immediately reject it.
That much be so interesting for you, because the main character is you.
A version, yeah.
It is weird that there’s a show with a queer person and you have to be like, “But no! It is a real lesbian!”
But that’s the point I’m trying to get out there. The point that I really wrote this, guys. This is really from me. This character is certainly a version of me. She’s a way better looking version of me. And wouldn’t you all cast Elisha Cuthbert to play you in a show?
One hundred percent.
Of course you would. She’s fantastic. She’s awesome. Like, she came out with me and a lot of my friends, like she hung out with us, and you know, did her research. She really did it. We spent a lot of time together in social situations with our other lesbian friends and she really, truly was just trying to get it right. And she did a great job.
I was also wondering if there were any questions you thought you had to be prepared for but nobody has even asked?
Yeah, I thought somebody was going to ask me why I didn’t cast a lesbian. Because I tried. I did. I would’ve loved to cast a lesbian. Tell me who I should have cast is what I would say. Unfortunately, there are not many out comedic lesbians in their thirties. That’s the truth. And the truth is, this is the star of the show. It wasn’t going to go to an unknown person. It would have to go to someone who you’ve heard of, who has had success in television before. And I would have loved to cast a lesbian in this part. But the truth is that when those auditions came and went, there were some great people, but when Elisha’s name came up, I was like, “Of course. Yes.”
So those were all the questions I had, unless there’s something you want to talk about?
Absolutely. So I used to do a show called This Just Out. It was through AfterEllen, but it was my show. They were very kind to put it on their website. The whole thing was that I interviewed famous lesbians and women who were interesting to the lesbian audience in my kitchen. Basically the gist of the show was that I hit on them. Pretty much. I was single. I had such luminaries as Kate Moennig, Tegan and Sara and Emily Deschanel, some really interesting, great people. Like Clea DuVall and Leisha Hailey, pretty much the entire cast of The L Word. I stopped doing it a few years ago because I had to start working for money.
Oh I thought you were gonna say you ran out of lesbians.
Well, that too. I mean truly it was getting harder to book people. But I recently relaunched the show!
I want to be able to tell my story the way I want to tell it as opposed to the way it’s sometimes told in the press. Sometimes it’s wonderfully told in the press, but sometimes you get quoted in a way that makes you feel crummy, in like “This is not a show about lesbians.” Because I’m really about making people feel good about themselves. Literally the tagline of that show was, “You’re so gay.” In a good way, you know? So I started doing it again, just as an outlet for myself because I have some free time while I’m waiting for the show to air.
Also just as a way to reconnect with that audience because it’s amazing. I literally stopped doing the show about four or five years ago and on a daily basis I get a Tweet or an Instagram comment or someone coming to me asking when I’m going to do it again. So I decided I’m going to do it again. You can find it on our YouTube page, but don’t worry, if you follow me on Twitter @thelizfeldman, you’ll hear about it. There will be a new episode up this afternoon.
[Editor’s note: You can watch the new episode below, thanks to the magical power of YouTube embedding!]
Okay, great. I can’t wait to see it and hear about it and also see One Big Happy.
I can’t wait for you also. Thank you for reading this and thanks for watching One Big Happy. It premieres March 17th, 9:30pm/8:30 Central.