'One Big Happy' Creator Was Told NBC's Lesbian Comedy Would "Never Make It on the Air"

Showrunner Liz Feldman talks with THR about bringing her semi-autobiographical comedy to the network.
Eric McCandless

In a broadcast television season that has found success with diversity (ABC's Fresh Off the Boat, Black-ish, Fox's Empire), NBC brings another new family to the small screen with multicamera comedy One Big Happy.

The comedy stars Happy Endings' Elisha Cuthbert as a lesbian who who has made a deal with her best friend (2 Broke Girls' Nick Zano) to have a baby together, and happens to get pregnant just as he meets and marries the love of his life (Kelly Brook). The comedy is loosely based on the experience of its showrunner, comedian and 2 Broke Girls alum Liz Feldman, and marks NBC's latest attempt to put the spotlight on LGBT families.  

Feldman talks with The Hollywood Reporter about shopping One Big Happy to multiple networks and the struggles that ensued, as well as lessons from series executive producer Ellen DeGeneres and whether the series will get overtly political.

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How do you get a lesbian comedy greenlit? What was the pitch like?

It's so much more than "how do you get a lesbian on television or a lesbian lead character?" The show hopefully got on the air because the script was good, and the idea was compelling and it felt authentic because it is based on my life. One version of the pitch is: "It's time for a lesbian lead character on a television show, and this is the show it's going to be — it's a show about a lesbian and she does this and this and that." But the version I did was, "I have this idea because this happened to me" — and it did happen to me. The idea of the show is based on my relationship with my best friend, a straight guy. We were two peas in a pod and had a plan to have a family together when he met the love of his life. What that did to me really surprised me; I was jealous and I felt really weird that I was jealous, and then I felt crazy about it. So I wrote a pilot about it. Sometimes I think the truth has a way of resonating more than any big agenda you could have.

Are there new rules to getting a show with a lesbian lead on TV?

NBC was interested in doing a multicamera show that felt fresh and different. I think as far as rules go, it should be a well-written show that is funny and have original characters that you feel like you've never seen before. Maybe as a virtue of that, the fact that she is a lesbian feels fresh. That helped get it on the air.

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Do you think it's harder to get a show whose lead character is gay on the air?

To be honest, it's hard to get a show on the air. It takes some sort of miraculous chain of events. So, sure, I think adding the fact that there's a potentially controversial character makes it more difficult, but that's why I am so happy to be on NBC because they are willing to take this risk. They have always been pretty supportive and groundbreaking in that way — from the moment I pitched them the show in the room they instantly wanted to do this. I pitched this to every major network and they were the only ones who wanted to do that. I heard things like, "This is a great idea"; "We would love to work with you in some capacity"; "This show will never make it on the air."

Why do you think some networks said that?

I think they were being honest with me because a lot of networks knew they weren't going to put a show on the air with a lesbian having a out of wedlock baby with her straight friend. 

Do you have a message for those guys?

My only agenda is to make people laugh.

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Do you think the television landscape is becoming more accepting given the success of series with diversity at its center like ABC's Blackish, Fresh Off the Boat and, to some extent, Fox's Empire?

This is why I really like working in television because outside of being a politician (which seems like a nightmare) and being a public advocate, how else do you create or try to manifest any change? I feel like television does it first, which is amazing. I feel like there's a natural evolution on TV for the LGBT movement. We skipped over the L, we went to the G and we skipped over the B and are getting to the T. I think Americans are an amazing audience because they are generally receptive to new ideas. People are thirsty for fresh voices and stories they don't hear all the time. I think audiences want to feel represented. We have a very diverse nation, and you want to watch TV and feel like some part of you is being represented. It's amazing what is happening with the transgender community with Transparent, for example, and I am really thrilled to be a part of that for the lesbian community. 

Will the series get political at all when it comes to LGBT equality, marriage rights, adoption, etc.?

Oh you'll see. It's really not my agenda to be political. But, if I am being authentic with the characters and the subject of a wedding comes up, there are going to be jokes from Lizzy's perspective about that, and some of those jokes will come out in episode six.

How did Ellen influence One Big Happy? What did you take from her coming out episode?

I don't think you'll see too much homage to her in the show. It's hard to pay homage to something that happened 20 years ago, but we will pay homage to her in the pilot when Lizzy says she should have known she was gay when she named her cat Ellen. That's probably about where the homages end. But as a writer and comedian, I can't overstate Ellen's influence on me. When she was authentic [and personally came out] it changed my life. It was just a silly little half-hour comedy show, but it changed my life and made me feel differently about myself. That is always something I carried with me, which I hope One Big Happy will be able to do for other people.

What about the notes process? What were some of the notes in any of the stages?

Maybe because I am a lesbian writing a show with a lesbian lead character they didn't feel like they could say, "Well, that's not really how lesbians are, so maybe you should think about it." They were really very supportive.

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What about wardrobe? There's lots of flannel and leather jackets. How was that plotted out?

I'm the showrunner and have a hand in everything. The costume designer, Trayce Field — who I worked with on CBS' 2 Broke Girls — came to me when we hired her and said, "If it's OK, I want to dress Lizzy like you and your wife [singer Rachael Cantu]." The first song on her new album [Little Brutes] is our theme song.

How did that happen? Did she write it with that your show in mind?

Dara Nai interviewed me for AfterEllen.com and asked, "Is your wife going to write the theme song?" Rachael was standing right in front of me, so I said, "Is my wife going to write me a theme song?" She was like "No!" That was the first time I thought about it and for the next few months, I kept asking her if she had any songs that could work as a theme song. In 48 hours she came up with this song with her writing partner Harlan Silverman called "Make Our Own Way" about two friends trying to do life together.

One Big Happy airs Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. on NBC. Will you watch?

Email: Lesley.Goldberg@THR.com
Twitter: @Snoodit