A talk with the producers of It’s All Relative
by Gregg Shapiro
If you haven’t yet seen it, you should consider tuning into the ABC sitcom It’s All Relative. Charged with “redefining the concept of the modern family in prime time,” the producers have created a show that takes the cultural shifts of recent years, in regard to the portrayal of gay and lesbian characters and themes on television, and makes them family friendly. Not as bawdy as Will & Grace, It’s All Relative nevertheless cashes in on the same audience while reaching out to others with a hygienic and manicured hand. Depending on which characters you relate to (the gay couple whose daughter is a young woman of marrying age or the conservative straight family whose son is in love with the daughter), there are laughs aplenty.
I recently spoke with executive producer and writer Chuck Ranberg and Academy Award-winning executive producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron about the series.
Gregg Shapiro: In keeping with the relative theme, I had lunch with my partner and his mother and sister the other day, and one of the things we talked about was gay TV shows. It turns out that my partner’s mother’s favorite show is It’s All Relative. Would there be anything wrong with having a gay sitcom for a primarily straight audience?
Chuck Ranberg: Isn’t that what Will & Grace is? [Laughs] In the business we’re in, we have to think about what’s going to appeal to the widest audience. We have to try to find something that’s going to hook everyone. Most of America can identify with the O’Neil family [parents played by Lenny Clarke and Harriet Sansom Harris], more than with [gay fathers] Simon [Christopher Sieber] and Phillip [John Benjamin Hickey]. We sort of needed the heterosexual family element to be the hook. Basically, we’re doing a family show. Basically what we’re doing is not that different from All in the Family or Everybody Loves Raymond.
Craig Zadan: True to the intention. When we started the show, Susan Line, who is the president of ABC, said, “I think it’s very important that [for] the gay couple who are raising the daughter, that’s the way life is.” [To] not make a big deal or fuss over it. We’re picking up their lives where they’re living it. I think we’ve been successful at that. When you watch the show, there is no issue about two guys raising a daughter. I think people are responding to the normalcy of that in their lives. And I think that’s a good thing.
G.S.: Yes, as Chuck mentioned, it is about family. Keeping that in mind, are you aware of the parents of gay children as well as the children of gay parents as members of the viewing audience?
CR: We’ve gotten some feedback from gay families. We actually got a great letter the other day from a man in a small town in California who said that the show parallels a situation in his life right now. He has a grown daughter with his partner, who is dating a much more conservative young man [laughs]. He said that when their families get together, it’s very similar. That was a great letter to receive. Generally, those people aren’t in the Nielsen families, which is the way things are still measured in this business. But we’ve been getting some good feedback from the gay community.
G.S.: If there is a complaint about It’s All Relative at all, the common one would be that the show is lacking the edginess and innuendo of Will & Grace. Is that something that might change in future seasons?
CR: It’s possible. We’re still airing in the family hour, so there are certain parameters we have to work inside just because we’re on ABC before 9. I think also just the nature of the premise that is built into our show; these people are not single, they’re not dating. We’re not going to be doing the stories quite out there as Will & Grace. That’s their show. We aren’t really, by design, that kind of show. We’ve done some very wacky episodes, but we’re trying to keep the characters a little more reality based in terms of their emotions. I think we definitely would go further with some of the humor if we were on later. I also don’t think Will & Grace started out there. I think it got a lot wilder after they were a hit.
G.S.: Do you think the networks are more permissive with a show when it becomes a hit?
CR: I think that definitely was the case with Will & Grace. I see it with more shows. Once they know you have the audience—not only will the audience go with you, but the network will relax and not be afraid of taking chances.
G.S.: I’m glad that you mentioned the wackiness, because in some ways, It’s All Relative makes up for the previously mentioned complaint with the kinds of inside jokes that gay men appreciate—such as the reference to boy bands, which has such a strong Boston connection because of New Kids on the Block and New Edition; having Olympia Dukakis, who has her own connection to Boston, and who has increased her gay following via her portrayal of Anna Madrigal, playing Mace’s homophobic mother; or casting Louise Fletcher, best known for her Oscar-winning portrayal of Nurse Ratchet as a nurse, and then having her make reference to Jack Nicholson. Was all of this intentional?
CR: Yes and no. We’ve really just gotten lucky in our casting. Because Louise Fletcher said yes, we were able to do those things. It’s sort of everything coming together at once more than something that was premeditated. It was more that we needed a great actress to play Mace’s mother, and Neil and Craig knew Olympia Dukakis, so those things came together for us. It’s really been synchronicity.
G.S.: Craig and Neil, because of the people that you know, will we be seeing more big name guest stars on the show?
Neil Meron: Yes, absolutely. The intention is to call on the people that we have relationships with and fill out our cast from time to time.
CZ: We didn’t do it that much this season because we wanted the audience to get to know our characters. We feel that next season we would bring in more of the stars we know to do guest spots.
G.S.: With the show’s Boston setting and the issue of gay marriage in Massachusetts being such as hot topic, because Simon and Philip are represented as a married couple, are there plans to work that storyline into the show?
CR: I think we absolutely have to. It’s too rich an area to ignore. That’s really just another thing that fell into our laps because we happened to set the series in Boston. It’s something we definitely will be taking on next season. We did an episode this year, back in November, that peripherally dealt with gay marriage, but the starting point was a very traditional story wherein the characters go out in support of a candidate that they like for their own selfish reasons and then the candidate turns out to be not that reliable. Our twist on it was that one of the things he supports is gay marriage, which is why Philip and Simon go out to campaign for him. That was our gay-marriage-issue story, but it was really a story about supporting a candidate who turns out to be kind of shady.
G.S.: What kind of effect do you think the coming out of lead actors Christopher Sieber and John Benjamin Hickey had on the show?
NM: The interesting thing is that it hasn’t created a very big ripple, as big a ripple as might have been caused several years ago. At the same time, what it does for us is [provide] the authenticity of having gay actors play gay roles on a major network. That, in and of itself, is a very important step.
• GOOD RELATIONS
Christopher Sieber and John Benjamin Hickey, the openly gay stars of the ABC comedy It’s All Relative, will speak at the March 20 Human Rights Campaign dinner. Sieber and Hickey play gay dads on the sitcom. HRC executive director Cheryl Jacques will also speak at the event at InterContiental Houston, along with U.S. Rep. Chris Bell, city controller Annise Parker, and attorney Mitchell Katine.