Inside Scoop: ONE BIG HAPPY Showrunner Liz Feldman Opens Up About Lesbians, Comedy & Family

OHSOGRAY attended a recent intimate press lunch in Hollywood with the cast and creator of the new NBC comedy One Big Happy. The premise of the show is that Lizzy (Elisha Cuthbert), a lesbian, is pregnant with her best friend Luke’s (Nick Zano) baby. Luke meets and immediately marries the beautiful Prudence (Kelly Brook) right before he learns of his impending fatherhood.  Showrunner Liz Feldman opened up about her personal investment in the show and her hopes that it will connect with a wide audience.

One Big Happy premieres March 17th at 9:30/8:30c on NBC.

NBCUniversal Events - Season 2015

(Photo by: Chris Haston/NBC)

How do you feel ahead of the premiere?

I feel excited. I feel a little bit pukey nervous. Just the anticipation of waiting so long for something…it’s an idea I’ve had for so many years and the development process, just for this show, has been two years. It feels like television sort of happens fast, but it also feels like it’s molasses…waiting for this thing to happen. But it’s a dream come true. This is literally what I wanted to do and I’m so happy it’s with this story because it really means something to me. It’s exciting!

How many episodes are there in this first season?

We did six episodes, and we’ve been wrapped for some time. So by the time the pilot airs, it’ll have been almost year since we shot it.

Sometimes it’s hard for comedies when they have a short season because there’s limited time to build momentum, is that a concern that you have?

You have to work with what you have. When we knew we were only going to get six episodes, I tried to design the season so that you’re actually getting a pretty good arc in just six episodes. Certainly, I think in the history of multi-camera shows, the first season you are working stuff out. I think for sure we were working stuff out. But what’s amazing about our cast is that—and this isn’t a party line—they really gelled together in an amazing way, pretty quickly. Hopefully, it will feel like a satisfying six episodes. Given a full season, we’ll be able to explore a lot more in-depth stories.

How did you navigate the “best-friend” chemistry versus the “romantic” chemistry between the three main characters?

That’s alchemy. That’s not even something I can necessarily conduct. Part of the reason why I knew I wanted to cast Elisha (Cuthbert) was because we’d cast Nick first (Zano) and they’re friends in real life. When her name came up and I asked him, and I didn’t say why, I said, “Hey what do you think of Elisha Cuthbert?” Just really off the cuff. His response back was so beautiful. He’s like, “She’s a wonderful person. She’s an incredible human. She’s incredibly funny. She’s hardworking. She brings such positivity to the set.” I was like, “This is a good sign.” You feel that together, they really like each other. Then when I brought in Kelly, we had already tested a lot of beautiful girls with Nick…whose not so bad looking…

He looks a little like Josh Brolin.

See some people say Josh Brolin, and I feel like he looks like Brad Pitt and Rob Lowe had a baby. So he’s obviously such a handsome guy and he’s very easy to have chemistry with. He’s a friend of mine in real life also and I feel like we have friend chemistry. So we brought in all these super hot girls and sometimes something works and sometimes it doesn’t. But when we brought in Kelly it was one of those things where the casting director and I were like, “Should we leave? Do you guys want…?” When Kelly left the room, Nick looked at me and was like, “Now that the type of person you marry within 24 hours.” I think you take cues from the actors and you can’t manufacture chemistry, right? You have to find it and work with what you’ve got.

Is the plan to see the baby at some point?

[Laughs] We’re going to treat the baby like Norm’s wife on Cheers. Absolutely, you’ll see the baby. That would be my great wish—to see the baby, obviously, because that means we’ll have more seasons. The baby will be a part of the show because thematically, the show is about creating a family and creating your own version of family. What a better representation than by three adults having to raise a baby together? We’re just going to find the funniest baby we can.

You’ve worked in television for a long time, how was developing your own show different?

Any creative person wants to be able to tell their own story and it’s been an incredible road for me in this business. I’ve gotten to work on a lot of really successful shows like 2 Broke Girls and Ellen and The Oscars with Ellen, Hot in Cleveland, and even way back when I was on a show called All That. I was a writer and performer on that show twenty years ago. So I really have been doing this a long time and I’ve been waiting for this moment. You always think, as you’re going and as you’re facilitating other people to tell their stories, you’re always going, “How would I do this different?” For me it was just really exciting, not just to be able to share something personal that I hope and feel will connect with people, but also to be able to create a work environment that is positive and loving and familial, which is always something I wanted in the work environments that I’ve had in the past. As a female showrunner, I tend to look at things as “we’re a family.” Some male showrunners think more like “we’re at war…this is a battle…we’re going to win this thing!” [Laughs] I really look at it as we are sort of building our own non-traditional family behind the scenes of the show about that same exact thing. So to be able to cast a friend and Elisha and I became very close friends is just a dream come.

There are a lot of jokes about lesbians on the show, how did you make sure that they come across as laughing with the gay community more than laughing at the gay community?

That’s a really good question. I am a lesbian in real life. I’m a professional lesbian. In case my suit matching with hightops didn’t tip it off for you. I’m a real life lesbian as is Ellen. We are gay gay people. So for me, and there’s another lesbian writer on the show named Erin Foley who’s a brilliant stand up…for me and for us, it has to pass the test of how do I feel about this. I know what’s offensive to me and I in no way would ever want to offend anybody else. We dealt with the lesbian specific humor on the show in a dichotomous way. On the one side, it’s what’s funny to everyone, that everyone will get, references that aren’t going to go above people’s heads cause for me it’s really important that the audience is with us, not behind us. The other side of that is what jokes can we make that the lesbian community will appreciate, be able to digest and feel represented and without putting anybody down. My humor is similar to Ellen’s in that I don’t do anything mean. I don’t think you’ll find a mean joke in there. Maybe we made one joke about Simon Cowell, but I don’t think anybody’s going to be mad about that. And that wasn’t a lesbian joke. Don’t worry, lesbians. For me, it has to pass the test of is this palatable to me. If I didn’t write this and I heard it, how would I feel? That’s sort of the test I ran every joke through.

Is Elisha’s character Lizzy ever going to have a serious relationship now that she’s pregnant?

There are certainly stories that I want to tell about the uniqueness of being a pregnant lesbian. That’s always what I look at when we’re deciding what stories to tell. What can we tell that no other show can tell because our lead character is a lesbian? But in real life, when I was the age of the character, I was single and I wanted to have a family and I wanted to figure out a way to do it. Now, many years later, I am married, so I can certainly relate to being happily involved with somebody and I absolutely want that for the character, it’s just a matter of when. At eight months pregnant, you don’t necessarily you’re most hot or attractive or even have room emotionally for another person because you’re making room for that child. I think first and foremost, I want to make her a mother. Then I want to make her somebody’s person.

How involved was Ellen on a day-to-day basis?

She’s the executive producer, so she gets every script. She gets every cut. She would come to tapings and in her magical way she would…for example at the pilot taping, she came and did ten minutes of stand up for the audience. You know that SNL sketch where Oprah’s giving things away and the audience’s head explodes? That’s what it reminded me of. It was like literally, I got to introduce her and they weren’t that excited to see me, the audience, they were like, “Oh yeah, that’s interesting. The creator of the show.” Then I was like, “I’m happy to introduce Ellen DeGeneres.” Then it was like ‘pe-chew’…cue heads exploding. She knows exactly how to use her influence on the show in a helpful way without forcing her own agenda, I guess. She’s not afraid to give me a note, she’s not afraid to show up on set, and go, “Hey, Elisa, try this…” Mostly, she just shows up and tries to scare us. She’s a bit of a prankster. You’d have to ask her about how she views her own involvement, but for me it was like she was there if we needed help and she gave us a lot of space to do what we felt was right. She trusted us completely.

It must be good to have someone who’s done comedy and a sitcom available to help.

She was incredibly supportive and it was really close to home for her, as well. Though it’s a story that close to me, it’s very universal, for her especially. For lesbians, in general hopefully, but for her specifically in that eighteen years ago she came out and literally there has not been a lesbian lead character on a comedy in eighteen years! It’s crazy to me. I think she feels a certain amount of, I don’t want to put words in her mouth, but I think she feels a certain amount of pride being able to be a part of the Renaissance of that.

Do you feel any pressure to succeed because there hasn’t been a lesbian protagonist in a sitcom in so many years?

I would say that anybody who is about to have a show premiere probably feels a certain amount of pressure no matter who the characters are or who their producers are. But, I think more than anything, I feel very connected to the lesbian community and I want to be a positive influence on them and a visible, well-adjusted person for them. If there’s a way to touch anybody the way Ellen touched me when she came out…that sounds weird, maybe don’t use the word ‘touch.’ Now that I’m saying that… When Ellen came out, it really changed my life and it really allowed me to become more comfortable with myself and to love myself, which is really cheesy but it’s true. Instead of pressure, I think what I feel is more hopeful that maybe in a way the show can reach other people and have a small influence on them like she did on me.

There have been several shows with a gay male protagonist. Is it easier for audiences to accept a gay male than a lesbian?

That’s a really good question. I’m not a sociologist, so I don’t know the right answer exactly. But I think in a way, television teaches us who to be comfortable with. I think with Will & Grace, it taught us that gay guys are adorable and human and hilarious and likeable. That show I think really cleared a path for accepting gay men and I think Ellen herself has done that for women. I could get into a whole patriarchy thing…but I guess I can’t say why, there hasn’t been a lesbian lead character. I actually have tried and been writing lead characters who were lesbians for many years. Why this particular dynamic works for NBC is maybe, again, that alchemy kind of came together. I think there might be something about lesbians that are threatening to certain people. Hopefully, a show like this having such a palatable and likeable character played by Elisha Cuthbert, who you’d have to have a cold dead heart not to adore her… In real life, she’s such a warm, wonderful person, and I think it really translates on screen as well. Maybe she can be the person that will help educate and breed a little bit more tolerance for lesbians in the future.

Was there any thought about hiring a lesbian for the role?

Absolutely and Elisha’s knows this. I wanted to. I would challenge any of you to tell me three out, hilarious lesbians in their early 30s who can anchor a television show. I don’t mean that to be facetious, I mean, tell me. Who should that have been? The fact is that there might be gay actresses who could do this, but they aren’t out. We did see a few comedians who are funny, but this is the lead on a network show. You need a name and that’s just the reality of this business. So when Elisha’s name came up, I did my research on her, asked Nick about her, and then I watched her. Her interviews and Happy Endings…she’s just hilarious and I felt a simpatico thing with her. I watched her interviews with Conan and Kimmel, and she’s got a lovable swagger to her. I thought, that can translate to lesbian on television.

How much of your own life and personality ends up on the show?

It’s certainly in the DNA of the show. Obviously, Elisha plays a character named Lizzy, which is really close to my name. And that is what my friends and family call me. So the character is definitely inspired by me, but when you cast somebody like Elisha, she is going to add her own thing to it. It’s definitely become something outside of me. The uptightness…I relate to. Her sort of buttoned up wardrobe feels familiar. The relationship with her straight guy best friend, played by Nick Zano is based on my relationship with my straight guy best friend, who’s actually a writer on the show. We did have a plan to have a baby together and we’ve been friends since we were teenagers. He did meet and fall in love at first sight with a beautiful woman and that did change the course of our lives. In real life, we did not have a baby together, but the great thing about writing and being a creative person is that you can make any kind of reality you want. So it is definitely inspired and based on true events. Then I sort of take it from there. He and his wife actually have a two year old son, and my wife and I are his godmothers. We kind of are One Big Happy. It’s weird, but we are. And that’s what the show’s about…making your own family structure.