ABC has struck ratings gold with quirky, off-beat family sitcoms dealing with serious issues in a comedic way such as “Modern Family,” “Blackish” and “Fresh Off the Boat.” Make way for “The Real O’Neals,” as it joins its fellow messed-up, yet endearing, families on the network.
From the outside, the O’Neals appear to be the perfect Irish Catholic family living in Chicago. But parents Eileen (Martha Plimpton) and Pat (Jay R. Ferguson) reveal they’re getting divorced, older brother Jimmy (Matt Shively) has anorexia, little sister Shannon (Bebe Wood) is a kleptomaniac questioning her faith in God and younger brother Kenny (Noah Galvin) drops the biggest bombshell of all — he’s gay. (The Blade interviews Galvin here.)
The show, which airs on Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m., is loosely based on sex columnist and It Gets Better founder Dan Savage’s life. The Blade spoke with producer Stacy Traub about Savage’s role as executive producer, casting the role of Kenny and toeing the line between Catholicism, gay identity and humor.
WASHINGTON BLADE: When casting for the character of Kenny, executive producer Todd Holland wanted the actor to be gay in real life. Why was that so integral to the show?
STACY TRAUB: I think it’s obviously better if the actor can bring their own personal experience to something. It was such a specific thing and a 15-year-old coming out in that way hadn’t been on TV. I think finding someone who was gay was very important to all of us. When you’re casting, you can’t ask somebody when they sit down. We really all loved Noah and he was cast because he was the best person for the role. The fact that he was gay, just for us, was an amazing bonus. He had his own story to share and it just brought an extra level of something. Like that kid on “Glee” who was in a wheelchair, but wasn’t really in a wheelchair. I understand that, but to have someone who has actually had that experience themselves just brings an extra layer to the role.
BLADE: How many episodes have been green lit and shot? How many scripts do you have written?
TRAUB: We’ve finished production for now. We did 13 episodes total, including our pilot. We’re waiting to hear about a potential next season.
BLADE: Kenny coming out to his conservative family is a big part of the show, but once he’s out, where is his character development going to go from there?
TRAUB: It’s kind of a coming-of-age story for the entire family because they’re all experiencing new things. We’re looking at it like he’s a 16-year-old kid dealing with the same things other 16-year-old kids are dealing with; he just happens to be gay. We’re trying to really normalize it. I think at home is where it’s most difficult because of his conservative family, and especially his mother, but at school we’re trying to tell stories about what kids go through at that age but with a twist.
BLADE: Like you said, the show is about the whole family and how they’re very religious and conservative, but have their faults. It’s very specific subject matter. Did you worry that having such a narrow focus, audiences might struggle to connect with it?
TRAUB: What I think ABC is really good at is the more specific the comedy, the funnier it is. Weirdly, I think it’s more universal because people can see themselves in these characters. Half of the country is divorced, or has had their parents divorce, so the fact that the parents are getting divorced is very relatable to people. So we just kind of come at it that way. I tweet and I watch along on Twitter and seeing the response is amazing. The amount of people who say “Oh my gosh, I’m Kenny” or “I have someone like Aunt Jodi in my life.” You realize it is specific but it’s somewhat universal.
BLADE: With Dan Savage as the executive producer, how involved was he creatively and were any of the storylines inspired by his real-life events?
TRAUB: It all kind of started with him and ABC wanting to do a story based on his childhood. Then when David (Windsor) and Casey (Johnson) came on, it became a step removed because anytime a new writer comes on they bring their own stuff to it. It is based on his coming out, but he came out 30 years ago, so it’s much different than today. But he lived in Chicago, his dad was a cop, so there are certain elements that are based on his life. Then there are a million things that all the writers we had on the show brought to it and made it their story as well. There’s one specific episode that was based on a story that he came to the room and told us. It was about a play that he was in. So we did a story that was specifically based on that. But then we have other stories that all the writers in the room share and then we have a bunch of gay writers, lesbian writers, people from Chicago, people who are Catholics, people who are divorced. So everyone adds their personal stories.
BLADE: Dan Savage has had some controversy over comments he’s made and some people have accused him of being transphobic. Was there a worry to have a family sitcom associated with him?
TRAUB: Most of that fear just had to do with his brand and “Savage Love” and we always knew that was not part of the show. We’re much more coming from the “It Gets Better” brand and I think people who don’t agree with Dan were immediately wanting to dismiss the show or say negative things about it, and those were people who hadn’t even watched the show. They’re talking about things he had said or things he had written. So I’d say across the board, the majority of people who watch the show are like, ‘Oh this isn’t the Dan Savage tone’ because he’s not a writer on the show in a day-to-day way.
BLADE: Given the show’s subject matter, it’s been called bigoted and anti-Catholic. How do you find the right tone? How do you know how far to take the jokes?
TRAUB: We think it’s a faith-affirming show. None of the stories are about the religion being silly or unnecessary. It is such a part of their lives. It’s the family grappling with how can we be Catholic and believe in these things and also accept Kenny and also get divorced. Many Americans today do have to struggle with those things. When you look at Jesus, we’re never making fun of Jesus. Jesus is someone Kenny turns toward to get advice from and we think that’s really a positive image of Jesus, not negative.
BLADE: With Kenny, part of the joke seems to be that he is a gay character. Was that a concern for you at all?
TRAUB: Because Kenny is so young, any kid that age is just trying to figure out who they are and how they’re going to represent themselves in the world. Girls go through it too. We weren’t looking at it thinking we want him to be distinctly gay. His coming out is a real coming out in that he’s trying to figure it out himself. What kind of person am I? How am I going to dress now that I’m out? Beforehand, when he was in the closet, nobody knew. It wasn’t like everyone thought he was gay and was waiting for him to come out. It was his own secret. So now that he is out, he is trying to figure out himself, how he’s going to be in the world and a lot of the episodes deal with that.
BLADE: Do you hope that this show can help a child growing up in a conservative household find a connection within the show?
TRAUB: That is really my greatest hope. That is what I truly love about the show. While we were making it we were trying to have fun and tell funny stories. It’s a comedy first and foremost. But the thought of a kid watching and seeing Kenny, relating to him and feeling heard or feeling brave enough to come out. Or a parent watching and recognizing their child in Kenny or recognizing themselves in the Eileen character and saying, “Wow maybe I’m being too close-minded” or “Look at how the family is handling all this crazy upheaval in their lives and they’re handling it with humor and underneath it all with love.” That is the most inspiring thing about the show, and really what I’m most proud of.