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The Women Behind TV’s Real Golden Age

In the spring of 2015, Joy Press had an epiphany. As she writes in her extremely engaging new book, Stealing the Show: How Women Are Revolutionizing Television, that year saw the premieres of more than a dozen new series, from Marvel’s Jessica Jones to rom-com musical Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, centered on and created by women — “as many as had emerged in the three previous years combined.”

Television, particularly network prime time, has traditionally attracted more female viewers than male. Yet, as Press — a former Village Voice TV critic — recounts, it took decades of female writers, performers, and creators to persuade the mostly male executives who literally ran the show that stories about women were not vegetables; that they could be just as meaty as programs centered on men, if not more so — even as they mixed in some “mind-nourishing feminism,” like shredding carrots into cupcake batter.

Stealing the Show is a wildly entertaining and informative jaunt through the creative upheaval that’s been taking place on TV screens over the past thirty years. Crucially, the book doesn’t treat women’s contributions to this awakening as a sideshow. Rather, Press’s book is something of an alternate history of the modern TV era, a persuasive rebuke to the now-familiar story of the brilliant male showrunners and their brooding male characters who breathed new life into the medium and ushered it to the top of the cultural food chain. (For more on this, see Alan Sepinwall’s 2013 book, The Revolution Was Televised; Brett Martin’s 2014 book, Difficult Men; and Tad Friend’s recent, fascinating profile of Donald Glover.) A savory blend of reporting and criticism, Stealing the Show reorients this conversation, placing women front and center, starting with Murphy Brown’s 1988 premiere and ending with the arrival, in 2014, of Transparent.

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Stealing the Show is a corrective to young viewers who might think the debate about “likable” female characters began with Hannah Horvath. Diane English, who created the CBS sitcom Murphy Brown, remarks that the network was concerned no one would like the title character, a middle-aged, single, career-driven woman played by Candice Bergen: “The word unlikable came up all the time. All…the…time.” While the title character of English’s show was “a human tempest, a ruthless dervish whirling through prime time,” Press writes, English herself “worked smoothly and quietly to get what she needed.” Elsewhere, she points to the similarity between Murphy Brown’s fussy perfectionism and that of Gilmore Girls matriarch Emily Gilmore (Kelly Bishop) — the former cycles through a different secretary every week, while the latter does the same with her housemaids. Both gags, Press suggests, gesture toward the perfectionist impulses of the series’ creators.

There’s a slight irony in writing a book about women’s contributions to television that argues against siloing female creators. But, like so many of the women she profiles — including Shonda Rhimes (Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy), Jenji Kohan (Weeds, Orange Is the New Black), Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project), and Amy Sherman-Palladino (Gilmore Girls) — Press seems to understand that women often have to sneak their ideas into the mainstream in whatever packaging the entertainment industry sees fit, even if those ideas have nothing to do with women’s issues per se. (Or, sometimes, when they do: I’d completely missed the fact that the word vajayjay entered the popular lexicon after a Grey’s Anatomy writer used it in place of vagina — which ABC’s Standards and Practices department initially objected to, even in a medical context. It did not have a problem with the word penis.)

The book is full of vivid illustrations of women who helped push television to the culturally dominant position it’s now in. Tina Fey, Press writes, helped steer Saturday Night Live “back into the zeitgeist” when she was promoted to head writer in 1999 — the first woman to hold the job in the show’s history. Jenji Kohan’s Weeds reframed Showtime “as a creative daredevil…a brash upstart nipping at HBO’s heels.” Press calls Sex and the City “HBO’s first zeitgeist-defining hit” — even though, as former HBO president Sue Naegle tells her, “every time there was a female-lead show that worked, no one wanted to repeat it.”

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Stealing the Show is, essentially, a study in how the television industry suppresses and belittles women’s stories. (“This is the business model: If you get men to watch it, you make money,” New Girl creator Liz Meriwether quips.) Press points out that genres that skew female, like soap operas and melodramas, often come with “a kind of lowbrow stench”; elsewhere, she writes that producer Lisa Vinnecour, who’s worked on United States of Tara, Weeds, and Orange Is the New Black, takes issue with using the word diva to describe fussy female performers: “These are artists,” Vinnecour says. Press describes how Transparent creator Jill Soloway learned to structure an ensemble series from her time writing for Six Feet Under — that show’s creator, Alan Ball, was a fan of General Hospital, and he “elevated the soap structure into a finely woven tapestry of ideas.”

At just under 300 pages, Stealing the Show is such a fun read, it’s almost deceptively informative. Press’s research yields unexpected delights — particularly for readers under thirty, who may not remember some of these details — like the rumor, swirling around the internet after Gilmore Girls premiered, that creator Amy Sherman-Palladino was actually a pseudonym for Aaron Sorkin and two other male writers who’d worked on his shows. (“What’s funny is that the rumor wasn’t even that I was fronting for him,” Sherman-Palladino told a reporter in 2001. “It was, I didn’t even exist.”)

The book shrewdly contextualizes the contemporary reactions to the series it describes — including the backlash from female viewers who took issue with, say, 30 Rock’s casting a privileged, wealthy, white woman as a feminist hero, or the fact that the Brooklyn of Girls is so blindingly white. Usually, the writers “embedded” such critiques in the shows themselves; the entitlement of the women on Girls, Press writes, “was an intentional feature of the show rather than a mistake.” As cultural critic Lili Loofbourow writes in a recent essay in the Virginia Quarterly Review, “We still have not quite learned to see female storytellers as either masterful or intentional.” As admiring as she is, Press does not wax poetic about these storytellers’ inherent brilliance; her emphasis is on the specific ways in which they got their respective visions to air; not on their inscrutable genius, but on their steady work ethic. As Broad City‘s Ilana Glazer says, “We work so hard to create the space within we can just play” — and, as Press adds, “They are also making room for all of us to experiment.”

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NY Mirror

I lined up to see USHER in Chicago, and I have to say she was absolutely great. She looked at my ticket stub, briskly showed me to my seat, and handed me a Playbill while mustering a warm half-smile. The star of the show was OK too—you know, Usher, who plays sleazy lawyer Billy Flynn with a mild hint of Johnnie Cochran. Can he act? Not really. Does it matter? Probably not, since he has the smooth showmanship of a variety show guest and a healthy taste for being onstage. It seemed like the guy was dying to break into a higher key and let loose, but he stayed professional—damn—and you also had to admire him for making his first fully clothed public appearance on record and not seeming that embarrassed about it. He makes me wanna!

Two nights later at “It Takes a Nation,” a Crobar fundraiser for post-Katrina rebuilding, co-host ROSIE PEREZ told me she’d seen Usher in the show and “I was pleasantly surprised. The acting? Eh! But he had a lot of charisma and sang well. My friend said, ‘I thought he was gonna look a little gay on the Fosse steps.’ I was like, ‘You’re stupid.’ ” Yeah—you don’t need Fosse steps to look gay. Look at me.

Anyway, the Public just had a reading of a screenplay Rosie wrote about two underprivileged New York kids, and they’ll pair her with a playwright (maybe STEPHEN ADLY GUIRGIS) to make it stage ready. She also just shot a movie, The Take, with BOBBY CANNAVALE and JOHN LEGUIZAMO—I didn’t know those were two different people—and said the latter spitfire kept telling her their scenes should be done naked. “I said, ‘John, Do the Right Thing was a long time ago!’ ” Rosie told me, laughing.

But let’s go back to Usher, whom you’ll remember also kept his clothes on. PENÉLOPE CRUZ showed up to see him with her sex-on-a-stick rocker brother, Eduardo, and not only was she clothed, she was resplendent in a Chanel dress she had just borrowed from her Paper cover shoot. I hear PEDRO ALMODÓVAR told the same mag that for his film Volver, Penélope’s portrayal of a busty woman in flux was influenced by SOPHIA LOREN in Two Women and (completely unrelated) they padded her butt for the performance. By the way, I’ve seen Volver and all is forgiven, Penélope. You can really act. You’re even better than as Tom’s girlfriend. No, seriously. Brava!


CONFESSIONS OF A DRAMA QUEEN

That other female-dominated family epic, Grey Gardens, is going through some changes of life in its move to Broadway. A know-it-all on All That Chat says three new songs are being written, plus the family drama will be beefed up, especially the part shedding light on Little Edie’s personal damage. They’ll probably get a new usher too.

Shockingly intact is the revival of The Fantasticks, that charming, fey little thing that’s like a Precious Moments musical with a hint of that Twilight Zone episode about a group of toys trying to climb out of a donation box. The problem is, every time they sang the big song, I was dying to scream over them, “Try to remember the size of his member and swallow.” But I stayed put and smiled beatifically.

Members were carefully tucked for drag waitressing legend ROSE ROYALLE‘s birthday gala at Vlada, hosted by SWEETIE and DANIEL NARDICIO. The invite intriguingly promised, “You’ll be shitting glitter for a week,” but it’s been eight days now and I’m starting to worry. Among the highlights, JULIE ATLAS MUZ—not a drag queen, I don’t think—was dressed as JonBenet and doing cartwheels as she adorably lipsynched “I Will Always Love You,” and PRINCESS DIANDRA— a drag queen, I’m pretty sure—gave a touching tribute, remembering, “When security came to throw me out of Jackie 60, Rose said, ‘That bitch deserves it.’ But fuck me! Fuck you! I love Rose Royalle.”

Extra security was needed Tuesday at Happy Valley, when half the crowd ran to the stage after it was announced, “And now for the world’s most famous transsexual!” But they meant AMANDA LEPORE, who sang “I Know What Boys Like” with way more exposed flesh than Usher in Chicago. Backstage, I asked Amanda about her other immortal song, “My Pussy.” How does it go, pray tell? “Pussy, my pussy, my pussy, my pussy,” she recited, dutifully. “Pussy, my pussy, my pussy, my pussy. Times 15.” Yikes, that’s 120 gaping vaginas—more than the entire cast of The View!

“It’s hotter than PARIS HILTON‘s music,” Amanda decided, citing a socialite with a dog and a pussy. Ooh, tranny enmity, ma chére ? “We had a food fight once,” she admitted. “But I like how she matches all her accessories. And she’s smart. She’s the world’s highest paid club kid.” Except for my pussy, my pussy, my pussy . . .


HAIL THE CONQUERING HIRO

Over at the fruitily festive Sunday gay night at Hiro Ballroom, the highly paid club kids have moved downstairs, where host ERICH CONRAD has interestingly decreed that all the promoters now sit grandly on the stage. That makes the party like a giant Buñuel movie, and as they’re all joined by their friends and hangers-on, it also becomes the most concentrated area of caked eyeliner in the world, not to mention the shakiest platform since the Republicans’.

But can I climb with my pussy onto my high horse and pause for a rant, please? Too many clubbies are shameless name-droppers who are desperate to grasp at status by claiming they’ve brushed against celebs and therefore they actually exist. Alas, rather than impress me into some kind of genital salute, this practice tends to make the person seem way more pathetic as I gag, running to the nearest monastery. Besides, it’s so easy to top them. At one club, a guy recently ran up to me shrieking, “I’ve been doing COURTNEY LOVE‘s hair!” Oh, yeah, well she used to stalk me back when she didn’t even have hair. “I was once a personal trainer for JON CRYER,” another freak whinnied, handing over his card. Well, it didn’t work. And one more woebegone wannabe just screeched to me, “There were cameras in my house when I was seven because my father knew KATO KAELIN!” Well, MICHAEL ALIG once tried to suck my dick. Why don’t you do the same? At least it’ll hush you up for an hour and a half.

Hey, this should plug you club freaks up for a while: Murmurs say that any month now, the legendary Roxy will be razed and turned into condos. But majordomo Gene DiNino says that’s pure horse hooey. Yay! You don’t know how much that place means to me! My picture was on the drink tickets! Fuck me! Fuck you!

On an even happier note, I caught an advance screening of Infamous—the other Capote movie—and not only did it turn out to be fabulous, but it has way gayer elements than the last Capote movie. That will leave some people breathless with excitement while rival film companies inevitably squeal, “This is an outrage! That never happened!”

Wait, I’ll tell you what did happen. On eastvillageradio.com, host Daniel Nardicio asked MICHAEL LUCAS (“the ZSA ZSA GABOR of gay porn”) which Queer Eye guys he’s done it with. “I don’t know,” Lucas replied. “I don’t watch TV.” They cut to a song, during which Lucas whispered to me, “Two of them. I made out with JAI and did it with KYAN, who likes it rough with a little slapping around.” But don’t tell anyone.

And keep it mum that I enjoyed the Emmys, which reached a gay peak with the South Park bit, the LESLIE JORDAN speech, and the early clips of Aaron Spelling as an actor! The Spelling tribute started shakily with HEATHER LOCKLEAR gushing as JOAN COLLINS flinched and STOCKARD CHANNING looked sick from the audience. But then Charlie’s original angels reunited and “reclaimed the brand,” coming off amazingly sweet and restoring my faith in guilty pleasures. On a higher plane, HELEN MIRREN won for Elizabeth I and now she’s an Oscar front-runner for playing Elizabeth II in The Queen. There’s no stopping the bitch. Now where’s that usher? I’ll go out the way I came in.


WEB EXTRA

On the Emmys, HELEN MIRREN may have been terrified to fall “ass over tit,” but The Office‘s MINDY KALING was not the least bit reluctant to go “tit over the entire TV-viewing world.” Few noticed, but when the cast and crew of that show went onstage to collect the Best Comedy Series award, Kaling hugged a cohort, then pulled away, only to have the right part of her dress fall and go boom just like FARRAH used to. The result would not exactly beat JANET JACKSON for Best Wardrobe Malfunction of all Time, but it was still quite tit-illating.

musto@villagevoice.com

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and a Little Bit of Bloodletting

Close friendships are brutal. Add intense collaboration and somebody’s nose is likely to get broken. This very misfortune befell Brenda Withers last Friday during the 7:30 performance of Matt and Ben, a hit from last year’s Fringe Festival in which two female writer-actors, jaunty Withers and charismatic Mindy Kaling, imagine the process that resulted in Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s Good Will Hunting. Here, that “process” involves a script literally falling from the ceiling into the hands of the boys, who abandon adapting Catcher in the Rye to wrangle over this otherwordly ticket out of the School Ties backwater. When frat-ified jabs escalate to fracas, a roundhouse is delivered Matt-ward. On Friday, that punch connected, sending Withers to the ER. Withers returned on Saturday, playing though the pain to uproarious effect.

Since its 2002 debut, the real Affleck has done Daredevil and two flicks with J.Lo. Damon has detoured from superhero-dom, jumping from The Bourne Identity to Gerry, a Godot-ish Gus Van Sant desert ramble. While Matt-Ben divergence might seem threatening to the relevance of this spoof, it’s actually made its personality theories all the more intriguing.

With David Warren’s direction tightening the comic timing, Withers’s portrait of Damon as fussy careerist hits hard from go. Oxford-clad Matt sternly teaches sweatsuited Ben his art (“Put your eyes on my eyes! Your eyes—my eyes!”) But Kaling’s Ben is a golden-flow stitch. A flashback to a school talent show reveals Matt strumming Simon and Garfunkel as Ben throws gang signs, freestyles, and pronounces the whole thing “gay and retarded.” Matt and Ben’s lampoons, however harsh, are affectionate, and one imagines this script falling into Kaling and Withers’s laps just as Hunting coyly availed itself to its Matt and Ben’s pre-Greenlight auteurs. And the creative struggles, excepting maybe that knuckle sandwich, have an energy that only comes from experience.

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES Theater

Deviants and Damons

Squirming in the heat of a sweltering theater, awaiting another lukewarm show, a colleague asks, “Have you seen the box office totals for the first day of the Fringe?” With resignation and a little disdain, he reveals that the New York International Fringe Festival has amassed over $100,000 in advance ticket sales—a fairly staggering amount for the low-rent event, nearly three times greater than last year’s number. He shook his head and said, “The Fringe is dead.”

With the Fringe-begot Urinetown!‘s three Tony awards, numerous off-Broadway transfers, and the newfound moneymaking, it’s tempting to accuse the Fringe of having sloughed off its skin of indie cred, of having all the edge of a pâté knife. Gone are the days of artistic ambition and groundbreaking theatrics. Now it functions as industry showcase and launching pad—or so the story goes.

But having attended five of the Fringe’s six festivals and covered three, I’m confident that each year never boasted more than a handful of risky, “fringey” works. Judging from the 20 or so plays witnessed this year, while a few entries do display some distressingly canned professionalism or reactionary ideology, most are as scrappy and spontaneous and, well, shitty as in Fringes past. With its grand scale—nearly 200 shows performed over 17 days in 20 venues—the festival guarantees a muddle of daring and complacency. It also guarantees small companies a chance to find an audience, and not just any audience, but one comprised primarily of 18-to-35-year-olds—a great rarity in New York theater circles—with decades of theater-going ahead of them.

This edition boasts the typical array of one-person shows and small-cast musicals, revamped classics and playwriting debuts, unfunny comedy and irreverent drama. Surprisingly, if not unhappily, September 11 makes itself little felt (though the afterglow of civic pride may have something to do with the high ticket sales). In fact, few general themes emerge, save some plays detailing corporate avarice and the plight of wage laborers (people in the theater will always have day jobs), as well as the usual complement of violence- or sex-based pieces.

Titillation has its uses, and a show managing to combine both sex and violence beat out the competition. In the autobiographical Spanked!, real-life boyfriends Ian MacKinnon and Aaron Hartzler trace how the terrors of childhood paddlings metamorphosed into a pleasurable adult activity. The young men have ingested too many self-help books (a pall of pop psychology clings to the production, most notably in references to “the light of my gay soul”), but they are candid and likable performers, well-served by director Jacob Titus, though he might have insisted on some editing—the emphasis is definitely on bikini rather than brief. And for the more sheltered spectator (self very much included) the spanking demonstration is indeed—as Hartzler wryly notes—worth the cost of admission. That demonstration is brave—as is the wearing of leopard-print “man panties” while crooning “Love Hurts”—but braver still are the moments in which the men admit failure in reconciling themselves with their pasts or their own discomfort with the material.

Discomfort with the material is the comic seed for Resa Fantastiskt Mystisk, an ostensible masterwork by underappreciated Strindberg contemporary and goose herder Lars Mattsun. As the director Todd Merrill explains in his anxious curtain speech, the play is a masterful parable of artistic creation and he’s tremendously concerned that the audience “get” it. To facilitate, he’s distributed wireless headsets so that he can provide guidance and clarification. A dead-on parody of DVD commentary tracks, Merrill recites lines along with actors, grows snippy when a scene goes awry, and offers insipid nuggets such as “Here Philip retreats within himself.” The play ought to have retreated from its 90-minute run time, as one joke, however amusing, is still one joke.

Here’s another joke: What if the script for Good Will Hunting fell—quite literally and mysteriously—into the laps of pre-fame Matt Damon and Ben Affleck? In Matt and Ben, as conceived and performed by Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers, the phenomenon occasions a rift and retrenchment in the now legendary friendship. Kaling and Withers might have better mimicked the hunks’ speech patterns and gestural vocabulary, but they attempt their roles with gusto and requisite cockiness—as Affleck notes, “We’re white, we’re handsome, we’re American, we were in School Ties.” Unlike many of Damon and Affleck’s subsequent projects, Matt and Ben has an affectionate eccentricity—particularly dream sequences involving Gwyneth Paltrow and J.D. Salinger—that excuses much of the imprecision and plotlessness.

As in every festival, there are certain projects nothing could excuse (OK, maybe vast amounts of money slid through the ticket window to me). Death in the City has the clever premise of improvising a show based on information from the day’s obituaries. But the performance reviewed, a tribute to the life of Vietnamese dissident Tran Do, found the actors incapable of establishing chronology or character, nor could they decide whether or not Tran was the surname—effectively, a Tran don’t. In Assorted States and Clean Living, Blindspot demonstrates a similar level of improvisatory incompetence, though they fare slightly better in the sketch-comedy portion of their show, especially a bit featuring renegade stewardesses. A Night of Shitty Theatre more or less lives up to its name (it was an afternoon, technically), although the intentionally awful scenes scripted by Joe Wack might have been hilarious had they not been performed with such insufferable knowing. Altogether unknowing was the dance-theater piece Stalking Christopher Walken, which made the logical snafu, “Hey, Christopher Walken is weird, so if we put in a lot of other weird stuff, like St. Marks aliens and descending bananas, well, that should work.” Makes you want to tell them to put a stalk in it.

Another—more successful—form of hero worship arrives in the form of Beat, writer-director Kelly Groves’s mash note to Allen Ginsberg. This piece of documentary theater—centered around the Howl obscenity trial—offers clever editing, energetic performances, and polished staging, but takes its subjects far too reverently. How can you hold a mirror up to nature when you’ve made it all steamy? Like several Beat anthologies, the play also pretends women were absent, a fault Gregg Tomé’s one-man show Babylon, Long Island shares. Recalling suburban teendom, Tomé performs a coterie of 1970s stoners and slackers with some aplomb, but the repetitiveness of the monologues and the oddly moralistic ending don’t make Babylon captivate.

More captivating, as far as one-person shows are concerned, is Tonya Canada’s aptly-named It’s All About Me. Recounting a term as a Portland Rose Princess, employment at a menacing law office, and a disappointing date with Robert De Niro, the insouciant Canada wears her egotism as well as her miniskirt. Patrick Tull doesn’t wear miniskirts (as he’s a burly 61-year-old this is no hardship), but still commands attention in The Hero of the Slocum, a record of a 1904 inland waterway disaster. Though somewhat static, it does provide an engaging narrative and proves that corporate greed isn’t a contemporary invention. Downsized explores a similar topic—here the greed is made manifest in the 500 pizzas a beleaguered boss orders as he forces two underlings to pass the night with him.

The two young men who pass the night in Christopher Shinn’s onanistic The Sleepers are just jerking around in comparison to the two white-garbed women of the one-act they’re paired with, David Greenspan’s extraordinary Five Frozen Embryos. Greenspan confirms his talent for the deceptively simple and artlessly devastating as the women graciously quibble over syntax and language as they reconstruct a court decision barring a woman from impregnating herself with embryos fertilized by her ex-husband.

In the “boy band pop musical” All American Boy, a Svengali named Sven Gali attempts to bring an embryonic boy band to term despite myriad scandals and gay romances. Though the ultra-asinine lyrics (“Love you like you love me when you love me like you like me”) do provoke an occasional titter, the book wants rewriting and many of the roles recasting with performers who can actually dance and sing (Kellie Overbey providing a welcome exception). All the performers of the revue The Joys of Sex have the requisite chops, but neither they nor Jeremy Dobrish’s brisk direction can rescue the piece from its bourgeois smarm. It pretends to celebrate kinkiness and candor before insisting that only the married, heterosexual, baby-making paradigm really gets you off. In Sophie Rand’s uneven and earnest Deviant, however, it’s insect squishing, doll humping, amputees, aliens, and the vegetable drawer that provide the turn-ons.

As any catalog of extreme sexual practices suggests, there is satisfaction to be found in unexpected places. And even if few shows in this year’s Fringe proved entirely gratifying, many were not without attractive aspects: a breath of innovation, a breeze of genuine comedy, the feel of the air conditioner before the crowds have made it ineffectual, the discovery that the deli around the corner carries the energy cookie you’re infatuated with. If the Fringe is dead, long live the Fringe.