Jane Espenson and Brad Bell on Husbands, Creating a Web Show, and TV’s Future

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Jane Espenson and Brad “Cheeks” Bell. Photo by Ruth Suehle. CC-BY-SA

If you haven’t yet discovered Husbands, it’s a charmingly witty, web-based sitcom from Jane Espenson and Brad Bell that launched just this past March but has already won a Telly Award and been nominated for a Webby Award and Indie Soap Award. The show follows a new couple: Cheeks, a well-known entertainment personality played by Bell, and Brady Kelly, a Dodgers baseball player played by Sean Hemeon. At a marriage equality event in Las Vegas, they end up getting drunk and getting married. The final episode of season two hits the web tomorrow.

The episodes are super short–you can watch two seasons in about an hour. (“We’re the kind of show you can watch in a night!” Bell exclaimed in our interview.) Its YouTube channel has more than 16,000 subscribers and nearly three million views. In their Dragon*Con panel last week, with the second season coming to a close, the team announced that the show will now become a six-issue comic from Dark Horse. Each issue has a different artist and an alternate-universe premise.

Moving to the page affords the project a lot of options that couldn’t be done on a web-show budget. Also during that Dragon*Con panel, Espenson and Bell joked about the many ways to “burn money” producing a show like this one. Its second season was funded by 956 backers on Kickstarter, donating $60,001, but Espenson said they’re reluctant to turn to Kickstarter again for a third season.

“I would not have been able to put in the amount of money in it took to make season two without Kickstarter,” Espenson said. That funding let them make some significant changes, including upgrades to the camera and using professional sound.

Even on what might feel like low funding, season two hasn’t been hurting for amazing guest stars, including Joss Whedon as Brady’s agent uttering perhaps the best word in the series, “Disasticle.” Many Whedonverse veterans also make appearances, such as Nathan Fillion, Felicia Day, Amber Benson, and Emma Caulfield.

They were also able to get a new location for season two. Espenson recalled a conversation with Felicia Day about how the one place it’s almost impossible to save money in a production is on location. “It costs what it costs,” she said. “They’re going to charge you the same thing they charge a big TV show.”

They lucked up on that new location, finding it just in time. “It’s beautiful and photographs beautifully,” Espenson said. “We were starting to despair, because we were close to our production date. We had our crew and cast. It was impossible to move it, and we didn’t have a house.” Fortunately they did find it, near Sunset and Doheny in Beverly Hills. It was actually the second choice, but their original find had an owner who was concerned for the safety of the art in his house. In the house they used, however, the floor is reclaimed wood from an old pier, meaning it’s somewhat pre-damaged, so to speak, and the walls are dark red, so they don’t show dirt.

Despite the changes, you don’t feel a lack of continuity, thanks to both the actors and little details, like one of my favorites–the zebra the guys steal from the Las Vegas hotel in the first season, which you still see in their bedroom in season two. Her name is Rachel.

Both during their Dragon*Con panel and in interviewing Bell and Espenson, it was clear what a close team this has been. Convention panels of cast and crew are often just a group of people sitting on a dais answering questions alone and largely ignoring one another. But the Husbands team truly feels like a team–friends who have created something really great together. It reflects in their interactions and on the screen.

Espenson and Bell knew each other first. She describes how they met, “I saw some funny videos on YouTube and noticed he writes the way I write. I wanted to meet him. Then we became friends.” They found Hemeon through auditions.

“When Sean walked into the room, it was to audition for the show, and we made him do the proposal scene,” Espenson said. “So the first time he met Cheeks, he proposed to him.” Even better, Hemeon didn’t realize during that audition that he would actually be acting with Bell (who goes by Cheeks in real life as well) in the show–he thought Bell was the casting assistant. “The first time we really met and hung out was shopping for tuxes,” Hemeon said. The next day, they were shopping for rings and posing for wedding photos for the show.

It’s certainly a speed of production that’s different from TV, where Espenson in particular has had extensive experience, from Buffy to Battlestar Galactica to Torchwood and now Once Upon a Time, among many others. I asked her and Bell how else producing for a web show was different–and how it’s the same.

“The final product is a lot more along the lines of what the conception is,” said Bell.

Husbands is exactly how we thought of it,” Espenson added. This is in contrast to another show she worked on, Warehouse 13. During that show’s Dragon*Con panel, she explained how the show’s concept had evolved from its original, in which Pete and Myka would be opening boxes of artifacts that were already in the warehouse. (The idea was that Artie had been there for 30 years and managed to open only 15 of them himself.)

“You’re going to be spending a lot of money and hiring a lot of people–you have to be really convinced that you’ve got your show done,” she added. “You can’t wait to find the show, so you do more prep work with an online show because you have to. You’re putting a lot out there.”

Similarly, however, web shows still need characters, of course, and a script. And in a show like Husbands, where an episode might be as little as three minutes long, it has to be a very tight script. “[The scripts] have to work individually and as a whole,” Bell said. “And every syllable has to be pulling its weight,” Espenson added.

Web-based shows like Husbands are only becoming more popular, while traditional television is in many cases fighting for the ratings they’ve come to expect. I’ve been imagining this leading to a coexistence between the traditional television production and new media, with content that flows each way. But when I asked what the ideal version of that coexistence looked like, Espenson had a better word. “Convergence.”

“We haven’t yet caught up to it in providing for it,” Bell said. “Like the technology to make it easier to interface online with that big screen in your living room that we used to call a television–it’s all television now. And making content for it–there’s this perception that the Internet is a lesser medium, which is what all new media goes through. It was an embarrassment to appear on when it was first invented, and it was a good 25 years before they figured out what to do with it and really gained an audience for it.”

But now there’s Husbands, and a growing number of other great web-based shows. There was the spectacular success of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. There’s The Philip DeFranco Show, a show about “news and pop culture that matters to me and should matter to you,” as its YouTube description puts it. Each episode easily breaks half a million views, and many are well over a million. Bell compared that to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which for the last few months has had 1-1.6 million viewers per episode.

They both describe it as a merging world of entertainment, where content will simply be content, and a screen will be a screen, whether it’s the size of your cell phone or the size of your wall.

But whatever the future of content, I hope to see more of them on it.

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