Tuesday, September 9, 2008

And Now, a Word From...

Abraham Higginbotham
Creator/Executive Producer, FOX's

This past July, Abraham Higginbotham, the creator of Fox’s new sitcom Do Not Disturb, appeared before a panel of TV critics at their semi-annual convention in Beverly Hills. The out gay Higginbotham has an impressive resume in comedy: for two seasons, he wrote for the beloved cult comedy Arrested Development before jumping ship to join the final season of Will & Grace and then Fox’s under-appreciated Back To You.

That last show, the critics noted, was hailed upon its premiere as the Great Hope for the return of the traditional sitcom – but Fox cancelled it after one ratings-challenged season nonetheless. So how is Higginbotham’s new show, set at a wacky Manhattan boutique hotel, different? And will it succeed where Back To You failed, in breaking the apparent multi-camera sitcom curse?

“I was very surprised that [Back To You] didn’t work,” Higginbotham began by saying, “because of the pedigree of the people who were associated with it, from the cast, to the directors, to the writing staff… [which] was actually one of the most fun groups of people and intelligent and quick writers I’ve ever worked with… But I guess in terms of what we’re doing differently, I think—“

“—Hm-mmm. Working with this,” Niecy Nash interrupted him, pointing herself out with her trademark sass. “This is way different right here.”

Apart from his fun leading lady – who made a fabulous guest appearance on The Frank DeCaro Show a few weeks ago – Higginbotham says he has a few other tricks in mind to break the multi-camera sitcom mold. For one thing, the show will be spending Mondays exploring its unusually elaborate sets (built by masterful Will & Grace set designer Glenda Rovello) filming “walk and talk”-type scenes without a studio audience. That way, the show can “find some interesting places within the set to shoot, and just to expand the world a little bit so it doesn’t feel like you’re just doing a proscenium, and just watching five people talk in a room of fifty.”

The Gay Secret Weapon

Another of Higginbotham’s secret weapons to garner Do Not Disturb some attention: one of this season’s few new gay characters. Played by The Class’ standout Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Frank’s guest yesterday, as a matter of fact), hotel worker Larry may seem, as one critic pointed out to Higginbotham, rather stereotypical. In one scene, after hearing that a well-endowed homeless man is flashing people on the corner, Larry’s response is “What corner?”

“It’s my hope that all the characters… grow as the season goes on,” Higginbotham answered. In a pilot, “you have 21 minutes to introduce six or seven characters… and you don’t necessarily get to do everything you want to do… But that character is very important to me personally because he’s grumpy and married, and that’s me – grumpy, gay and married.”

“To me,” he continued, “the originality of that character comes from the fact that he’s the one person on the entire show who’s in a relationship.” As for that penis-on-the-corner joke (which I think is kind of funny!), “There were about five different jokes there, [and] that’s the one we went with in the final analysis. But I guess where I want to take the character is more that he’s more interesting than…being gay… That is one characteristic… We want to make him as interesting as possible and certainly not have the fact that he’s gay and likes giant penises as his most interesting trait.”

After the panel, I caught up with Higginbotham and asked about the genesis of the Do Not Disturb idea – as well as some more personal questions about the Larry character and the perfect political timing of his TV -- and possibly real-life -- gay marriage.

Must-Hear TV: On the panel, you referred to the “upstairs-downstairs” dynamic of working in a hotel. Did this idea come from your own experience?

Abraham Higginbotham: I worked at the Paramount Hotel in New York in 1992, when it first started, and I always thought it would be a great setting. It was one of the first of all these boutique hotels that have shown up that are hyper stylish – “cheap chic,” they called it at the time. And there was so much drama, with all these idiot twentysomethings running around with their first paychecks, making huge mistakes. It was such a perfect place to put someone like Niecy who is a loving, tough-talking mother figure.

MHTV: So should I presume that the Jesse character is the one you most relate to in the show? Is that you, back in your days at the Paramount?

AH: I don’t know about that. Jesse is a really easy character for me -- it’s who I am in many ways, but there’s also such a big part of Rhonda in me. Where I grew up, one of the most profoundly important relationships I had in my life was with a black woman who was probably 30 at the time, who was a mother figure to me as well. She was a dancer and I was a dancer. She was my teacher. [Joyce Ellis was the founder and leader of Pittsburgh’s WAMO (106.7 FM) Hot Trax Dancers, a group to which Higginbotham belonged while attending Trinity High School in Washington, PA in the late ‘80s.]

So that was a huge part of it. And while Niecy is a lovely human being who says she can get along with the devil, I can’t. So I took that part of my personality and put it in the Rhonda character, and let Niecy fill in the rest. But also with Neil and Nicole – I have my eating issues, I have my order issues, I have my power issues. So yes, Larry’s character is very clearly [like me] – it’s the persona that I do at work to entertain my writer friends, but it’s not necessarily the truth of my life.

MHTV: You referred to Larry as “married,” even though your show is set in New York. But you live in California, where marriage is legal. Are you actually legally wed?

AH: No, we’re not actually married. But I’m in a 5-year relationship with my partner [an event planner.]

MHTV: What can we look forward to from the gay character? What will their storylines entail?

AH: We’re definitely going to meet [Larry’s husband] Victor. Victor is not going to be some weird entity on the phone. It’s not Maris, it’s not someone we’ll be only talking about. He’ll be a part of the show. I hope to show a relationship that shows the truth of gay marriage, the possibility of gay marriage becoming legal -- and the panic that that sends certain men into. That [as a gay man] you were like, “I thought I was going to get away without having to do this, and make these big decisions. Or have kids.” And now you might have to. Larry is ambivalent about his relationship anyway, so it’ll be interesting for him to decide whether to move forward and invest or pull out. We all talk about wanting gay marriage, and we do, but it’s terrifying in some ways. Because it’s a big commitment.

MHTV: Do you and your partner think about it?

AH: Yeah. We will probably do it soon. Any time a straight person says, “I’m getting married,” I’m thinking, “Are you sure you want to do that? Really?” And every time I go to a wedding, I’m always like, “Eh.” I’ve never had that thing in my head where I imagine my wedding. I don’t care about my own gay marriage. But I want it for the world.

Do Not Disturb
Wednesdays at 9:30 PM Eastern

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