Somebody Somewhere, a new comedy series created by High Maintenance writers Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, which premieres on HBO this Sunday January 16th, feels like a breath of fresh air with its layered characters, unhurried pace, mix of poignant moments and gentle humour, and a compelling performance by comedian and singer Bridget Everett (Inside Amy Schumer, Patti Cake$), who also serves as an executive producer. Everett stars as Sam, a middle-aged woman who returned to her hometown of Manhattan, Kansas to look after her terminally ill sister. Six months after her sister’s passing, Sam remains in Kansas as she struggles with grief and finding her place within her own family and small town life.
While working at her mundane job grading exam papers, Sam is reunited with a high school classmate who idolizes her for her singing ability, Joel (Jeff Hiller, who you’ll recognize form memorable guest roles in shows like 30 Rock, Ugly Betty, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Broad City, Difficult People, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt). Sam however has has no recollection of Joel from school, but they soon forge a touching friendship. As a gay Christian living in a conservative town, Joel has discovered a community of fellow outsiders by creating an unsanctioned after-hours “choir practice” at his shopping mall-based church. It’s an assembly of like-minded folks who gather to socialise and sing, hosted by the flashy suit-wearing, warm-hearted soil scientist by day, Fred Rococo (NYC comedy legend Murray Hill).
Ahead of the series launch, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Bridget Everett, Jeff Hiller, and Murray Hill over Zoom to discuss the show’s setting, inhabiting their characters, and their favourite queer culture.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Manhattan, Kansas has no shortage of actual churches, but there’s a beautiful moment towards the end of the season where your characters are on a minibus enjoying each other’s company and say that they’ve found their church. To what extent is friendship and finding fellowship and community at the heart of Somebody Somewhere?
Bridget Everett: “It is the heart of the series. It’s what Sam’s looking for. She’s looking for her people and by finding them, she’s finding herself. So it’s everything. What do you think, Murray?”
Murray Hill: “I think that James’s progress rainbow flag Zoom background is unbelievable. I applaud your queerness and just putting it all out there because now we know what’s up with you!”
Exactly, yeah. My flag is flying!
Murray: “The show really speaks about community and chosen family. In this big crazy world that is nuts, you have this little tiny microcosm of people that get together and that’s how they survive. I think it’s beautiful to see.”
Jeff Hiller: “I think that it’s especially important for queer folks who are in a smaller town where you might not see everybody everywhere. Sometimes there are places where you can be you, and then if you’re lucky sometimes there are places where you can be YOU! It’s so important to find those spaces and find those people that you can really be your authentic self with. I do think that that’s what this show is about; finding yourself through community, through other people.”
Thinking of the smaller town setting, Murray, your character makes the point when we first meet him at choir practice that this is Manhattan, Kansas, not the other Manhattan. In terms of the way the narrative plays out it could potentially have been set in a big city, but why is it significant that it is set in a smaller conservative town?
Murray: “Bridget and I have known each other for around 20 years, maybe more, right?”
Bridget: “Yeah, around that time.”
Murray: “But we’re still in our thirties, OK James?! So go figure that one out! Bridget and I both left our small towns and we met when we arrived in the big city, the place where we always wanted to go to find our community and find people like us. So I think what’s cool about this show is that it’s almost like the Sopranos prequel. It’s what happened before Bridget goes to the city. And in the series maybe she’ll never go to the city, we don’t know, but it’s a snapshot of the stuff before that and I think that’s really cool.”
Jeff and Bridget, I loved your version of the Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush duet Don’t Give Up. Not only does it sound beautiful, but there’s also a lot going on in that sequence in terms of your characters isn’t there? Could you give me a bit of an insight into what that was like to film?
Bridget: “It’s a moment where Joel is pushing Sam to do something that she’s buried deep inside of her. He’s pushing into the thing that makes her feel special and valued. He still sees that in her and she doesn’t see it in herself. On the day that we filmed it I had a lot of moments of reflection about the the friends and all the people who have lifted me up and got me to the point where I am now, everyone that has supported the wild, tit-slinging character that you might see on stage from time to time!”
How about from your side, from behind behind the keyboard, Jeff?
Jeff: “For Joel, it’s this moment of validation. This person whom he has admired so much and who wasn’t really even aware of his presence before this, is now coming to his choir practice, to his church and blessing them with this amazing gift that she has. It’s sort of a spiritual experience for him. In terms of the logistics of filming, I’ll give you this little tidbit: we sang live in the room. We were like Anne Hathaway in Les Mis!”
Murray: “Well, James, let me give you another tidbit. They sang live, but that keyboard wasn’t plugged in! That’s an exclusive for The Queer Review.”
Thank you, Murray, we’ll have to lead with that! Sticking with you for a moment Jeff, in terms of your character, I think it’s very rare that we see an LGBTQ+ character of faith on screen, in this case a Christian, who has his fair share of anxiety, like we all do, but it isn’t attached to being gay or whether he’s accepted by his church.
Jeff: “Right! It is so interesting and it’s something that I latched on to immediately. I was a theology major, I went to Texas Lutheran University, and so for me growing up the church was not the scary place that we’ve previously seen in every LGBTQ story historically, it was actually a safe space, it was the place where I wasn’t picked on and made fun of. It was the only place that was safe for me as a very obviously gay child. I know it’s hard to believe now, but I was! I loved seeing that in the script and I know so many openly queer people who are still members of faith communities and I think it’s such a wonderful thing to finally see told through a TV story.”
One of the things that I really enjoyed about the series is the pace because it feels very unhurried and natural and I think that’s something that really invites us in as an audience. How does that affect the way that the characters unfurl and the comedy? It’s often very funny, but I think sometimes we associate comedy with being zippy and fast.
Bridget: “I think it’s important to have some sort of story structure for sure, but anytime we tried to make it too plot-driven it didn’t feel right. What was more interesting to all of us was the stuff that was happening in the cracks and in between the plot points. We had great actors and good chemistry and it just felt that that was where the show lived best, so we really leaned into that and hoped for the best.”
As you mentioned Murray, you and Bridget have known each other for a long time, so did that allow for a bit of input into the script, maybe in terms of some improv or does it just seem that way because it’s so natural?
Murray: “Well, James, you know I had a lot of notes on the script! Seriously though, one of my favorite scenes to do with Bridget was in the café when we’re talking about high school. We did the scene as we were supposed to with the lines as written and then on maybe the third and fourth takes they kept the cameras rolling and Bridget and I got to play with each other. We just stayed in character but kept pushing it and kept beating jokes to death. We kept on going and going and going back and forth. There’s a very natural chemistry that we have when we’re hanging out together at three o’clock in the morning after one of her shows at Joe’s Pub, so it was cool to bring our own chemistry and vibe into these scenes in Kansas for Christ’s sakes!”
Bridget: “Yeah and then Murray would yell ‘cut’ by the way! He’d decide when the scene was over. He’d be like, ‘OK, I think that’s over, you’ve got the stuff, cut!’
Murray: “Yes, I’d be like, ‘I don’t need to do this anymore, we’ve done it!’ That’s why they call me ‘Two Take Murray’!”
Murray, your character Fred is so gentle and such a warm, lovely human, and he seems to be one of the few people in the series who has things sorted, he’s got to that place in his life. I wondered what that was like to inhabit?
Murray: “Well, that’s a stretch for me in terms of acting because my shit’s not together! I should get a fucking Oscar and an Emmy and a Tony for this fucking shit! As you could probably tell, it’s still very early in the morning here in New York…”
Bridget: “It’s 2:30 in the afternoon in New York by the way!”
Yes, I’m in New York as well, but it still feels like morning to me too!
Murray: “What was the question again?!”
I was asking you about inhabiting this very gentle character. For instance, at one point he gets misgendered in the café and says to the waiter, ‘You had it right the first time’. He does it in a very sweet way.
Murray: “Yeah and I think some of those little touches are things that Bridget has seen when she’s been with me in a café. I mean, I’ve been misgendered five times today already and I haven’t even seen anyone! Some of these things that I’ve experienced she was able to put into the script so that people could see my perspective and her perspective as a friend seeing that. I think him responding in a sweet way is because it’s all about the humanity with Fred. So he’s not going to be like, ‘call me this’ or ‘call me that’ or ‘I’m going to teach you this’. Instead it’s, ‘No, you got it right the first time’. So it keeps a little peace and everybody eventually becomes disarmed and we all end up in the same place, ordering pancakes at the café.”
One final question for you all. What’s your favorite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s made an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?
Bridget: “Barry Manilow. He came and he gave without taking. That’s my answer.”
Jeff: “My highbrow answer is Angels in America which is the show that I I saw that really rocked my world and my lowbrow answer is RuPaul’s Drag Race. I watch every single incarnation of Drag Race that you can imagine. I have a subscription to World of Wonder, so that’s where I’m at, okay!”
The Italian one is pretty good actually, isn’t it?
Jeff: “Yeah, I’m really into it. I love the Spanish one, too.”
Yeah, don’t tell RuPaul, but I think the Spanish and the Italian versions actually have higher production values than the US one.
Jeff: “Alright, I won’t tell RuPaul on the next conference call we have together!”
Murray: “Well, I’m going to call Ru right now just to tell him! You know, we’re joking around James, but Bridget does identify as heterosexual and for people in the queer culture, Bridget is somebody we look up to and who impacts us because of her strength, her vulnerability, her talent, and her originality. As much as I tease her, she’s straight and she’s also a queer icon.”
Jeff: “You’re cheating, I didn’t know we could say each other!”
Bridget: “Murray, if there’s a season two, you’re in. Don’t worry about it!”
By James Kleinmann
The seven-episode HBO original comedy series SOMEBODY SOMEWHERE debuts on Sunday January 16th at 10:30pm ET/PT on HBO and streams on HBO Max.