If the title of ABC’s upcoming comedy Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt 23 is any indication, producers Nahnatchka Khan and David Hemingson are prepared to push the boundaries of what’s acceptable on broadcast television.
In a bid to portray what Khan calls “real life,” the network’s ensemble comedy will not shy from showing a twentysomething’s world of drugs, alcohol and one-night stands. Proof: In the show’s very first episode, series bad girl Krysten Ritter is caught messing around with her roommate’s (Dreama Walker) fiancé — on her birthday cake.
The series, originally developed at Fox in 2009, is part of the Modern Family network’s growing push into comedy. When it bows April 11, the Khan-created half-hour will join The Middle, Suburgatory and Family in ABC’s increasingly valuable Wednesday night lineup.
Khan (American Dad!) and Hemingson (Dad!, How I Met Your Mother, Traffic Light) sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss the thing that makes executives at Disney sweat, the backstory on getting James Van Der Beek to play a version of himself and the lesson Seth MacFarlane taught them about being funny.
The Hollywood Reporter: You have Ritter’s Chloe coupling with June’s fiancé on her birthday cake in the pilot. Where is the line?
Nahnatchka Khan: ABC’s sweating a little bit.
David Hemingson: To [ABC Entertainment chief] Paul Lee’s credit, he has been great about really wanting to validate that vision, Nahnatchka’s voice. Modern Family made the world safe for comedy, but Bridesmaids — with women behaving badly — made that acceptable.
What kind of pushback have you received from ABC?
Khan: I am trying to do something boundary pushing and you have to have somebody pushing back on you, otherwise it’s the Wild West. You need that person to be like, “Here is far enough.”
Hemingson: Then we go, “Can we move that line a little more here …”
Khan: Right. I said I’d rather go too far and be pulled back than not go far enough and be boring.
What would you like to do that you haven’t been able to because it’s “too far”?
Khan: In terms of story lines, ABC has been super supportive; nothing has been thrown out or questioned. It’s really more about the specifics, like nudity: What can you show? And occasionally language. There is a lot of drinking and recreational drug use. Look, it’s Disney so you have to be mindful. They are also respectful of the fact that we are that kind of show. These girls exist in the real world. That’s my whole thing. I just want to be authentic: girls drink and they behave badly. That happens.
Hemingson: They’ve reinforced and celebrated the tone of the show. We really haven’t had any story areas vetoed, which is amazing when you get to see what we’ve done: being true to the tone but being oblique enough to get on network TV. Sometimes those boundaries challenge us to sort of write around it and get it on the air and I think we’ve succeeded in doing that. ABC has been shockingly supportive to the point where, after the script had been in Carbonate for two years, Paul Lee said after the table read, “You know what? No, no. Shoot the show.” We were like, “No notes?” I’ve been doing this for 16 years and have never seen anything like it.
Khan: This was my first pilot and so I was like, “Great.” Dave was like, “This never happens. This isn’t normal.” (Laughs)
Within the show, you have Van Der Beek’s character will be competing on Dancing With the Stars. How did that come about?
Khan: We were with the cast at NAB and James said, “Do you know what I think would be really funny? If I try to go on Dancing with the Stars.” I was like, “That’s genius.” I pitched it to Dave, took it back to the writers’ room and we thought it was so funny that we made it a season-long arc for him where he gets on the show and then he’s got to meet his partner and prepare. We’re building to the premiere.
Hemingson: He has these setbacks, then he triumphs a little bit and then there is another setback. We wanted it to be like Odysseus, this guy is going to go on a journey. He’s taking it so seriously.
And the fact that DWTS also happens to be an ABC show…
Hemingson: It’s perfect. He’s got this archrival in Dean Cain that’s like percolating animosity that sort of erupts around them in the way that they’re kind of staring each other down.
Khan: They want the same dance partner. We’re having a lot of fun with it.
Any concern about references to DWTS and Dawson’s Creek being dated if this show lives to have a meaningful afterlife?
Hemingson: It’s a little meta in a good way, I think.
Khan: There are certain things that are going to exist in perpetuity and Dancing With the Stars is going to be one of them. Maybe if it was like the first or second season of that show, but it’s not. I didn’t want to do something that if you saw it five years from now you’d be like, “What is that?” We’re definitely keeping that in mind, but having fun with the fact that he is a celebrity.
We’ve seen a comedy resurgence in recent years. What’s driving it?
Khan: I think it’s all cyclical; comedy never goes away, it sort of like the Honey Badger and it burrows down and sleeps; it goes down and it comes back up.
You two first worked together on American Dad, with Seth MacFarlane. What did you take away from that experience when it comes to pushing the envelope?
Khan: I spent six seasons on American Dad, from the beginning until leaving to do this. Seth, Mike Barker and Matt Weitzman, who co-created American Dad with him, were all about pushing the boundaries. I learned a lot from that: Don’t shortchange the funny, really push it. I didn’t want to do what I kept calling a “smile show.” There are a lot of shows where sometimes you’re going to get that, but you should always try for more.
You can push a lot further in the animated world…
Hemingson: Strangely enough you can because you forgive cartoons since you can shake the Etch-a-Sketch at the end of a cartoon. What Seth did was make funny first and foremost something that was acceptable. Don’t apologize for being funny.
Khan: It’s got to be outrageous and believable at the same time.
Hemingson: That’s our slightly skewed universe, which is like eight degrees off of reality.
Increasingly, you have showrunners are serving both as producer and marketer these days. How much pressure do you feel to be out there promoting the series?
Khan: I’m all about getting the show out there. I want people to know about it and hear about it. There’s a specific tone to the show and I want to make sure that it’s represented in the right way in terms of promotion. But I always think that people are more interested in hearing what the actors have to say. People want to hear from Krysten, James and Dreama.
Hemingson: They’re the pros. Also, I think that tonally it’s a situation where the material has got to speak for itself.
Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt 23 airs Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. on ABC.