Exclusive Interview: HBO Max’s The Other Two co-creator Chris Kelly “you want to make sure that the jokes are coming from inside the room – if you’re writing queer characters you want queer writers”

Humorous. Funny. Amusing. These are words I freely use to describe comedy shows that make me giggle. Hilarious though, is a word I hold back on using for rare shows like former SNL co-head writers Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider’s The Other Two, which recently got renewed for a third season on HBO Max. As well as being one of the funniest shows on television, it’s also one of the gayest. Its central characters, Cary (Drew Tarver) and Brooke (Heléne Yorke), are the less successful adult siblings of teenage pop sensation Chase Dreams (Case Walker), while their mother Pat (Molly Shannon) has landed her own top-rated daytime talk show.

Heléne Yorke and Drew Tarver in HBO MAX’s The Other Two Season 2, Episode 9. Photograph by Greg Endries/HBO Max.

Over the course of the first season we saw Cary struggling with self-acceptance about being gay, hooking up with his straight roommate, while navigating homophobia in the entertainment industry as he tried to establish an acting career. The second season sees him becoming a little more comfortable with his sexuality, dating a man who’s actually gay, trying out hookup apps, and even sending his first butthole pic to a guy he’s been chatting with, which does not go according to plan.

With the first two seasons of The Other Two now both streaming on HBO Max, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with the multiple Emmy-nominated and Peabody Award-winning director, co-creator, co-writer, and executive producer Chris Kelly about the importance of having queer writers in the show’s writers’ room, how “autobiographical adjacent” the character of Cary is, and why seeing Hedwig and the Angry Inch by queer icon John Cameron Mitchell on stage for the first time as a high schooler was so memorable.

The Other Two co-creator Chris Kelly. Courtesy of HBO Max.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: congratulations on The Other Two being renewed for a third season.

Chris Kelly: “Thank you so much. That was incredibly exciting news because we worked on season two for so long. So it’s nice to be able to do another season right away hopefully. We’re thrilled about that.”

At the end of season one Chase threw a spanner in the works saying that he wanted to stop his pop career and go to college. Did you have an idea of the overall direction that you wanted to take season two in when you made that decision?

“No, actually we didn’t! We made a bunch of bold decisions at the end of season one that were very fun at the time and then when we started work on season two we were like, ‘Okay. Hold on. Wait a minute. Holy shit! What did we do?!’ We were like, ‘Okay, so Pat and Streeter are together, Pat has a talk show and Chase is in college…Now what?!’ We’d made all these decisions that made for very good cliffhangers, but then there was a lot of figuring out involved. But it ended up working out. It was really satisfying to do that, but also very hard because we knew that Chase wasn’t just going to go to college the whole time, so there was a lot of calculating to do. Essentially asking how do we do what we said we were going to do, but then undo it in a way that we can keep doing the show, without it feeling like we just deleted it all. We wanted to still follow that story. The idea was that Chase went to college, but then got kind of bullied, and we’re left with the idea that he can’t be a normal boy, but yet he can’t sing either. So what do you do with someone like that? You just kind of prop them up like a little puppet and keep them famous based on nothing for as long as you possibly can!”

Co-creators Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider on the set of season two of HBO MAX’s The Other Two. Photograph by Greg Endries/HBO Max.

Yes, it’s an interesting idea to explore which Wanda Sykes’ character Shuli, with help from Heléne Yorke’s character Brooke and Ken Marino as Streeter are all figuring out and fueling. What can you do with the singer if they’re not singing? Well, it turns out it’s quite a lot actually!

“Yes! We really liked the idea that singing is actually a very small part of what a singer does and that he doesn’t need to waste his time singing. Honestly, a singer who sings, that’s boring. That’s yesterday’s news. Wanda says something like, ‘We can use this time that he used to be singing to build a singing empire in other ways’. Which is such a convoluted, illogical logic! It makes sense, but also doesn’t at all. So it was a tricky but fun thing that forced us into finding new stories like, let’s give him a fashion line, and have him get baptized at a celebrity church, and guest edit Vogue. Do all these things that we didn’t really have time to do in season one, because he was always fucking singing!”

Drew Tarver in HBO MAX’s The Other Two Season 2, Episode 8. Photograph by Greg Endries/HBO Max.

One of the things I find really exciting about this show—and I think is probably the direction that we’re going in with some other comedies like Schitt’s Creek or The White Lotus—is that we can have an queer character right at the centre but that doesn’t necessarily make it a niche LGBTQ show. Whereas maybe a few years back when your film Other People opened Sundance for instance, people in the industry might have been quicker to categorize things in that way. Going back to when you were creating the show was that something you were considering or conscious of at all? Whether putting a queer character at the center of The Other Two made it a queer show, or did you think, we’ve moved past that kind of thinking now?

“It’s something that I didn’t really think a ton about. Which is maybe my own naïveté. It was a case of we’re going to write the show, me and my co-creator Sarah Schneider, and it’s based on versions of us. I’m gay, the lead is going to be front and centre be gay, and the show is going to be gay and I’m going to pitch it around town. I’m not my saying that people passed on it because he was gay, but not everyone wanted it. I’m not saying that was because they’re homophobic. Actually, I’m saying it here and now they’re homophobic! (laughs) I was like, ‘This is the show, this is what it’s about, does anybody want it?’ I didn’t really think too much about it being gay or too gay or niche or classified a certain way, which again is either bold cool confidence on my part or I was dumb and didn’t know any better! But I do think one of the nice things about working on the show with Comedy Central with season one and HBO Max on season two was that it was just not a conversation. This is the show, the show is gay. The show is an LGBTQ show. It’s fully gay all the time, 24-seven! That’s what it is and it’s a privilege still today not to have to think about it too much, which I guess maybe isn’t true for everybody.”

Drew Tarver in HBO MAX’s The Other Two Season 2, Episode 9. Photograph by Greg Endries/HBO Max.

I think that’s why it feels authentic and not watered down for a non-LGBTQ audience. But were you conscious of amping up the gay at all this season in line with Cary becoming a bit more comfortable with being gay?

“We don’t really think about it in a macro sense of, ‘This season we’re gonna make it gayer!’ There’s no sort of stepping outside of ourselves to decide what we’re going to do in that way. With anything like Cary’s sexuality, or Brooke’s relationship, or their careers, or the family dynamics, we just write things that feel good and that feel authentic. In the room with all of our writers we’re always like, ‘What are things you’ve been through?’ Or, ‘What are fears we’ve had? What are insecurities we’ve had?’ And I’m gay, so it inherently makes sense that a lot of the things I pitch are going to be from a gay perspective, so that’s what ends up in the show. It’s not us being like, ‘You know, if you thought season one was gay, season two is gayer!’ Or, ‘Actually, we were getting too gay in episode four, so in episode five let’s calm it down’. We don’t think about it that way, we just write what we know.”

When it comes to the writers’ room on The Other Two are there other queer voices in the mix?

“Yeah, absolutely, and there were on season one as well. You want to make sure that the jokes are coming from inside the room. If you’re writing queer characters you want queer writers to do that. Brandon Scott Jones for instance, who plays Curtis in the show, is also one of the writers. I think it goes without saying that it helps to have queer writers in a room if you’re going to have a show about a queer character. The best part of the writers’ room is to be like, ‘What could happen this season?’ And to get a thousand ideas from different people and then figure out what works the best.”

Drew Tarver in HBO MAX’s The Other Two Season 2, Episode 9. Photograph by Greg Endries/HBO Max.

We don’t see Cary coming out in the show and how that was received, but in the present day his mother Pat, played by Molly Shannon, and his siblings, including Chase—who even wrote a hit song about his brother being gay—are very accepting. Really the only drama about his sexuality comes from either his internalized homophobia or how he perceives what being public about being gay might mean for his acting career, and the voices his listening to from within the entertainment industry about that. Why was that something that you wanted to explore—someone who has that support network, so the struggle is more about their own journey of coming to terms with being gay—and how did you want to take that further with with season two?

“We obviously don’t see the moment where Cary came out, but I think it’s slightly implied that maybe Pat wasn’t perfectly wonderful when he came out, and certainly his dad wasn’t super great about it. We see little hints and pieces here and there of his really religious Catholic upbringing, like the episode where you see his pastor talking about the evil TV show he’s just watched, Will & Grace. Then, like you said, the entertainment industry is just inherently so fucking homophobic 24-seven, so there are so many people in his ear telling him how to be or how much to be or not to be or when he should be.”

“Even though we don’t see him come out, we’ve seen that a lot on television, but what we haven’t seen a ton of is those kind of post-coming out years where you think you’re done, but you’re most certainly not. Where you’ve said the words ‘I’m gay’, but you’ve still got a lot of baggage and bullshit to work through. You’re trying to get rid of those voices in your head. So those years were what we really wanted to explore in the show.”

In terms of him being gay with a religious conservative background, is that one area that’s a version of your own experience?

“Yeah, definitely. I can definitely relate to a lot of that and almost everything in the show is autobiographical adjacent to either myself or someone in the writers’ room.”

Jimmy Fowlie and Constantine Rousouli in HBO MAX’s The Other Two Season 2, Episode 4. Photograph by Greg Endries/HBO Max.
Jimmy Fowlie in HBO MAX’s The Other Two Season 2, Episode 9. Photograph by Greg Endries/HBO Max.

I love the instagays in season one and one of them is a recurring character in season 2, Cameron Colby played by Jimmy Fowlie, who’s starring in his own Grindr series, Bridesman.

“Jimmy is relentlessly funny. He’s just the best. All of the instagays in season one were incredible and we felt so bummed that we didn’t have a storyline for all of them, but we like the idea of Colby and the other instagays popping up in various iterations throughout the series.”

When it comers to fame, both Pat and Chase have found success by essentially being their authentic selves, whereas in contrast the other two are completely obsessed with what they need to do or change about themselves to succeed. They’re constantly concerned by how their actions will be perceived, rather than just living their lives.

“We talked about that a lot with Cary from the very beginning and we think part of the reason that he isn’t as successful as his little brother, and now as his mother—and successful, like what is success anyway?!—is because he doesn’t know who he is. If you don’t know who you are, how is anyone else supposed to know who you are?”

Molly Shannon and Case Walker in HBO MAX’s The Other Two Season 2, Episode 10. Photograph by Greg Endries/HBO Max.

“Chase became famous by just being like, ‘Here I am. Here’s a song. I wrote it and I like it.’ Pat became famous after this huge blow up on a plane where she really poured her heart out. So she’s a famous grieving widow and mother as a result of saying something that felt very authentic which a lot of women could relate to. She felt very real. Cary on the other hand is still guessing at who he is supposed to be and is not comfortable in his own skin and isn’t sure if he is 100% comfortable with being gay—yes he is!—but you can tell he’s lying. That’s what we explored in season two. Once he gets a little more confident in his sexuality, once he gets more comfortable in his own skin, and once he has the balls to send a photo of his full butthole to a stranger, things start to happen for him. Once you become a little more rooted and grounded and you feel like you’re being your authentic self, then other people can look at you and see a full person in front of them. We really like that the confidence in his sexuality sort of kissed the success in his career.”

Heléne Yorke and Drew Tarver in HBO MAX’s The Other Two Season 2, Episode 9. Photograph by Greg Endries/HBO Max.

I love that butthole pic episode where the fallout just spirals and it keeps going and going! Brooke is very supportive of him and when it comes to them talking about sex and dick pics and butthole pics, she’s very open-minded. Their conversations wouldn’t shock us in real life, but somehow on TV conversations like that can take us by surprise because it’s refreshing to hear characters talk like real people about these things.

“We really didn’t want to make it like, ‘Whoa! With this shocking butthole episode we think we’re so cool and edgy!’ We wanted it to be treated very matter-of-factly because it’s what people do, it’s a huge part of dating. It’s funny, because of the delay in shooting we worked on the show and wrote that episode over such a long time and we edited it for so long that it’s absolutely lost all mean to me, along with the word hole! So seeing people be like, ‘God! I’ve never heard the word hole be said so much on TV!’ I’m like, ‘Really? Do we say it that many times?!’ And, actually, yeah we do! I think we maybe say it 100 times, but I’ve gotten completely numb to it.”

I love it when Cary is being euphemistic with the lawyer and he refers to it as a photo of his ‘BH’, and it’s like, how would anyone know what that was?!

“Exactly, but he’s trying to be a gentleman, he’s trying to class up the hole a little bit!”

Drew Tarver and Joe Curnutte in HBO MAX’s The Other Two Season 2, Episode 5. Photograph by Greg Endries/HBO Max.

The way he keeps going into the wrong offices and telling different lawyers about his butthole pic, then being pulled back out again by Linda, brilliantly played by Shannon DeVido, is hilarious.

“Yes! And Shannon is also in that same Grindr series with Jimmy Fowlie. She was really great. She’s so funny! And I love just how many times Cary had to go tell another man about his BH!”

When you’re writing and directing, knowing that you’ve got such a strong cast, what are some of the things that you don’t need to worry about because you know that they’re going to inherently bring that to the table as performers?

“That did make season two easier to write in some ways. I mean it was still hard, but you could picture the actors saying the lines. Whereas when you write a pilot you don’t know who’s going to be in it, so you’re picturing yourself, or nobody, or somebody else. But knowing, ‘Oh, this episode is going to be so funny once Heléne Yorke gets her teeth into it’, or, ‘Once you see Drew Tarver doing this as sad as humanly possible it’ll be so funny and uncomfortable’. It makes it easier and you can pitch ideas being like, ‘I think Heléne would be really funny doing this’, or, ‘I can’t really picture this in her voice’. It does help shape the season. The same thing for Molly and Ken and Wanda and Case. I mean they’re all just great and we feel very lucky to have them. We think that we did a good job writing it hopefully, but we can take almost no credit because we have the funniest person in every single role and so we always feel like if this scene isn’t as funny as we think it could be then they’ll make it funny!”

Molly Shannon, Heléne Yorke, and Drew Tarver in HBO MAX’s The Other Two Season 2, Episode 10. Photograph by Greg Endries /HBO Max.

Molly Shannon is wonderful throughout, but particularly great in the finale of season two, and you’re almost making her do as much as an actress as her character Pat is having to do!

“I know! We were always joking to Molly that she became the character because she would show up to set and we’d be like, ‘Okay, now you’re shooting the scene where your hands and face are painted green’, and she’d be like, ‘Why again?!’ And I’d be like, ‘Because you’re the Statue of Liberty’. It was like we were having the same conversation with Molly as the actor on set that the PA was having with Pat the character in the show. It was very similar!”

Towards the end of season two Brooke starts downplaying being manager when she’s in public and on the flight to LA she says that she doesn’t work in the industry. I wondered whether any inspiration for that came from you being in the reverse situation when you were younger, telling someone that you were a writer on SNL, way before you were actually a writer on SNL?!

“I’ve loved SNL my entire life, but I remember one time I was on a plane and I was maybe in my early 20s and someone asked me what I did. In my mind I’m like, well, I’ve really always wanted to be a writer for SNL, so on this flight I’m going to be! So I told them I was a writer for SNL. I knew SNL so well, I was such a fanboy that any question they asked I knew the answer to. They were like, ‘So what’s a week like?’ And I was like, ‘Well on Monday you pitch to the host…’. I I knew all the answers, so I was not worried that I was going to get found out. Then on the return flight a couple days later I sat next to the same person, but then in front of me was Will Forte and I was so nervous that Will Forte was going to hear me pretending to be a writer for SNL and be like, ‘No you’re not!’ But luckily that didn’t happen. But yeah, I would lie on flights and say I worked for SNL. But now if somebody asked me I wouldn’t say I was a writer because I wouldn’t want to talk about it, so maybe that’s where that comes from in the show. The idea that when you don’t have the job you want to talk about it, but when you do have the job you’re like, ‘Please don’t talk to me about it!'”

Heléne Yorke in HBO MAX’s The Other Two Season 2, Episode 1. Photograph by Greg Endries/HBO Max.

I think it also taps into the idea of fame and success maybe not being all that Brooke thought it was going to be.

“Yeah, and we do explore that a little bit with Brooke in season two. When you first meet her she’s talking about how she’s a manager and she mentions that she bought a bunch of ‘manager costumes’! She’s wearing a thunderbolt earring in one ear. She’s performing what she thinks a manager is.”

Heléne Yorke and Drew Tarver in HBO MAX’s The Other Two Season 2, Episode 8. Photograph by Greg Endries/HBO Max.

“Then by the end of the season she’s learned what a manager is and it’s harder and it’s a little more lonely and it’s more stressful than she’d thought. Heléne did such a great job with that along with our costume designer Jill Bream, as well as all of our hair and makeup people, to start her looking one way, like a little girl who thinks she’s in dress-up as a manager and then by the end of the season she’s just a confident woman who is. She’s on a plane and she looks like a manager but she doesn’t want to talk about being a manager. The whole vibe has changed because she’s not pretending to be the thing anymore, she is the thing, which is something we loved about the season.”

John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001). Photo by Miguel Villalobos. Courtesy of Criterion Collection.

Finally, what’s your favorite piece of LGBTQ+ culture, or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years and why?

“John Cameron Mitchell and Hedwig and the Angry Inch is the first thing that comes to mind. I remember I first saw Hedwig when I was in high school. We went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and did a play that I co-wrote. So I was like, wow, I’m a real international theatre writer! While we were there our drama teacher bought us tickets to see Hedwig on stage. I had no idea what it was and sat in the front row. I wasn’t out yet and there’s a part where Hedwig comes and stands directly over somebody in the audience and says, ‘It’s a car wash, ladies and gentlemen!’ Well, he did it to me and it was the worst experience of my entire life! It absolutely destroyed me because I was like, ‘Why did he pick me?! He picked me because I’m gay! Everyone knows I’m gay!'”

“It was so terrifying, but then I could not get that musical out of my head. Then I saw the movie that summer too. I love everything about that musical, it’s so beautiful, and I love John Cameron Mitchell. So that was one of my most formative theatre experiences and I remember it so clearly. I remember at the end when the play was over they passed out these little things that said Hedwig on them. They were big pink dicks, like dildos or something, but they were edible I think. I just remember all the kids getting one and me being like, I can’t be seen holding this! Only the gay kids were terrified to hold them.”

“Also, about 12 years ago I broke up with my boyfriend and then I performatively rode the subway listening to the Hedwig soundtrack to make myself cry, pretending I was in a movie about somebody who had just broken up. As I was listening to The Origin of Love on the subway, I realized that John Cameron Mitchell was sitting right across from me. I was like, do I say something?! But then he got off the subway and I actually followed him for a few blocks, telling myself, ‘Say something, you’ll always remember this moment, go on say something!’ But I never did, so there’s no end to the story. I didn’t do it!”

By James Kleinmann

Seasons one and two of The Other Two are streaming now on HBO Max.

The Other Two Season 2 | Official Trailer | HBO Max
The Other Two Season 2 | Official Poster | HBO Max

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