Jonathan Van Ness on the End of 'Gay of Thrones': "I'm Not Ready to Say Goodbye"
As 'Game of Thrones' comes to an end, so will the Funny or Die recap show that has run since 2013.
Jonathan Van Ness clutches a comb and a pair of scissors as a groomer carefully readjusts the crown perched jauntily on the side of his head. Seated in a chair in front of him, Tiffany Haddish practices her lines for an upcoming scene.
It's a Monday morning in May and the duo are shut inside an office-turned-set at Funny or Die's West Hollywood headquarters, putting the finishing touches on the latest episode of comedy web series Gay of Thrones, which recaps HBO's Game of Thrones each week. Moments later, Haddish nails the take. "Everyone on fire, OK," she says before reciting a list of names meant to represent the townspeople who burned to a crisp on the previous night's episode. "You got Donna, Lynn, Laurie, Shelly, Aaliyah, Rose, Brian, Darren and Ulysses. Everybody holding down the fort."
Van Ness starts shimmying behind her and accidentally whacks the camera. "Oh shit, sorry," he says with a look of guilt. "You killed that. I hope I didn't fuck it up." When the episode appears online the next day, Haddish's perfect take makes the cut. So does Van Ness' blooper in the background.
Six years after it began, Gay of Thrones is preparing to say goodbye as Game of Thrones, the show it has been sending up since its third season, comes to an end. And while the creative team behind Gay of Thrones admits that they've worked out a lot of the kinks since their early days, it's unplanned moments like the one between Van Ness and Haddish that are part of the series' charm. After all, the show was inspired by real-life conversations between hairstylist Van Ness and client Erin Gibson when she would visit his L.A. salon.
"When Jonathan was talking about Game of Thrones while he was doing my fringe, I was like, 'This is funny, this is fresh, this is a point of view that no one's going to have on this show,'" says Gibson, who in 2013 pitched the show to Funny or Die, where she was working as a writer and director. Jokes Van Ness, "Well, actually, it turns out I was watching Spartacus but I thought I was watching Game of Thrones."
Gay of Thrones debuted during the HBO drama's third season with Van Ness starring as a chatty stylist who recaps the most recent episode of the HBO drama while cutting hair. The show quickly gained a following. "It was an organic collision of something the Internet cared about, the world cared about and Jonathan cared about," says Funny or Die CEO Mike Farah. "Erin could channel that energy and put it into a show that is both super funny and also a pretty informative recap."
As the cultural significance of Game of Thrones has grown over the years, so too has Van Ness' profile. In 2018, he shot to fame as one of the five stars of Netflix's Queer Eye. While it's hard to quantify exactly how much of an impact that has had on the show, Gibson says viewership has grown since last season, which streamed in 2017 while Van Ness was shooting Queer Eye's first season. On YouTube, several recent episodes have notched more than 700,000 views. The series recently topped 17 million total views.
Van Ness credits Gay of Thrones for helping him forge a new career path in entertainment. "I like to say [Gibson] is like the Usher to my Justin Bieber," he says. "I have always loved to do hair and be in the salon. Being behind the chair is the place that I felt really fulfilled and really, truly happy. That was my goal, to never need to borrow money from my parents for rent and be a self-sufficient adult person."
During early seasons of Gay of Thrones, Van Ness, Gibson and the rest of the production team would write and shoot episodes on Sunday nights immediately after Game of Thrones concluded. Shoots would regularly run until past midnight because Van Ness often actually cut or styled his guests' hair. Now, the writers gather Sundays to watch the episode together over bowls of Tender Greens salads and then shoot the episodes Monday morning, a schedule shift that has helped them land more high-profile guest stars including Anna Faris, Gabrielle Union and Kumail Nanjiani. Van Ness, who moved to New York between the seventh and eighth seasons of Game of Thrones, flies to L.A. each week to film the show. The goal is to get the episodes up online by midnight Tuesdays.
The show has evolved as the digital video business has shifted. At first, episodes were released on the Funny or Die website. They are now distributed across social platforms, including YouTube, Facebook and Snapchat. "Because of binge-watching at places like Netflix, we're able to make our episodes longer," says Gibson. "Five minutes used to be the death knell for us. Now, last week's episode was like seven-and-a-half minutes. We would have never done that two years ago."
With Game of Thrones set to drop its final episode Sunday, May 19, the team behind Gay of Thrones have begun to contemplate life after the show. "I'm not ready to say goodbye," admits Van Ness. "Those Sunday and Monday nights are very exhausting but they're so fun," adds co-exec producer and writer Matt Mazany. "It's like summer camp. It's exciting, it's high energy. Then Tuesday comes and it's like, 'Oh, I miss my Gay of Thrones family.'"
There have been discussions about getting the group back together to produce specials that will look back on the first two seasons of Game of Thrones or check in on prequel series currently in development. "Everyone's got things that they're going on to," says Van Ness. "It is fun to know that Gay of Thrones won't be the last time that you see me. But I feel like we have to do something else someday."