“The show looks like an ABC sitcom. It sounds like an ABC sitcom. But it has this one little difference, you know?”
Noah Galvin is talking about The Real O’Neals, ABC’s newest sitcom. The 21-year-old actor, well known for his work on the New York stage, plays Kenny O’Neal, a devout Catholic teenager who, in the very first episode, creates a familial firestorm by coming out. Loosely (very loosely) based on the experiences of gay columnist Dan Savage, Kenny embarks on a sea of firsts: First day of school as an out student, first crush, first date, with everything related in a funny, laugh-out-loud manner.
“I’d had my first date, and my first rejection. I just needed a classy exit line,” Kenny says in the voice-over that propels the sitcom’s narrative.
“I’ve got to pee so bad, I can taste it,” he blurts, before bolting.
“The fact that we’re telling this story specifically through a comedic lens is very important,” says Galvin, himself an out gay man. “We’re telling a story about a topic that might be difficult to talk about. Telling it through a comedic lens gives families the opportunity to laugh about it. It opens the door for conversation. And it makes those conversations a little bit easier when it’s a comedy and everybody is laughing. It’s not a drama. It’s not heavy. It doesn’t scare kids out of having these conversations with their parents, because the family can laugh at it and enjoy it.”
David Windsor, the show’s executive producer and creator, agrees. Yet he attributes much of the success to the sitcom’s cast, which includes Martha Plimpton as Kenny’s rigidly Catholic mother and Jay R. Ferguson as his somewhat more relaxed, congenial father.
“You can only go so far when you write something,” says the 43-year-old Windsor, himself was raised by two gay dads. “Luckily we put this in the hands of actors that took it so much further. It’s always your dream as a writer to have an actor make something better than you ever imagined, and every time Noah was in front of the camera, it was magic. He brought his own experience to it. For him to show up and just be so natural and real and funny all at the same time was just such a gift. We wouldn’t be anywhere we are today without him and the rest of the cast.”
We spoke with Galvin and Windsor about the new show, its impact on the cultural landscape, and why they’re both hopeful for a second season.
METRO WEEKLY: You’re well-known for your stage work in New York. What made you want to switch to television?
NOAH GALVIN: As an actor, you have no control over that. It’s something that I didn’t decide on. I would have taken whatever I could get. Around the time I was 16, I stepped away from musical theater and started doing a lot of straight plays. I also switched agencies and started auditioning for film and TV. Every pilot season I would be flown to L.A. to test for a show. For three years in a row. It took me a while to find a comfortability in front of the camera.
MW: What’s the story behind you getting the part?
GALVIN: I flew to LA to test for two shows — one Fox pilot and one ABC pilot, this being the ABC pilot. I went to the Fox test first. It was a live test, so you stand in front of a room full of people. You have one shot to nail it and that’s it. I felt sort of iffy about it. Then I rushed over to ABC for my test for this show, which was then called “The Untitled Dan Savage Project.” It was an on camera test, so I went into a room with some of the producers and our in-house director and executive producer, Todd Holland, and the L.A. casting director. I did it once for them and they laughed a lot and Todd was like, “All right, I know you have what it takes. Let’s work.” We did this audition tape maybe twelve times until we had it perfect. And then, once they felt we had the perfect test, they said “Thank you so much,” and showed it to the studio. Once the studio approved it, they showed it to the network. Once the network approved it, they gave me the part.
MW: That’s a hell of a process to get a part.
GALVIN: It is absolutely grueling and terrible.
MW: Did you want this part more than the Fox show?
GALVIN: It’s funny that you ask that. I didn’t, initially. The night before the audition, I read through the Fox script and at the time I wanted that more, solely because I would be playing this weird kid who is on the autism spectrum. It was a real character I was playing — somebody truly outside of myself. At the time, that felt more interesting to me. When I read through the Dan Savage stuff, I didn’t really have to do much — I just pretty much played a younger version of myself, so it wasn’t much of a stretch. It didn’t excite me at the time.
Then I went into that Fox test and it was so quick and dirty. The people were perfectly nice enough, but I didn’t feel a real connection with them. I rushed over to ABC kind of downtrodden and a little bit beat up. And I got to ABC and was looking around at all these 15-year-old Aryan-looking boys waiting to audition. When I went into the test, I immediately got the idea that these people were good. They were good humans who wanted to make good work. And I wanted to do good work. I left that room re-invigorated with a completely new outlook on the day and on my preference between the two projects.
MW: The show is not your cut and dry, straight-forward sitcom because it allows itself flights of fancy into Kenny’s mind. Breakfast conversations with Jesus or Jimmy Kimmel. An elaborate fantasy musical number on his first date. It allows for for a more non-traditional narrative scheme. What’s your take on that approach?
GALVIN: I think it’s a cool thing. The story is truly being told through Kenny’s eyes, so you get to know his internal life and the things that excite him. You get to see his fears and his fantasies played out and that’s exciting.
MW: I’m a little surprised at how casually the family is taking the fact that he is gay. By the third episode, the mother may not be a hundred percent fine with it, but she seems far more accepting. There’s no massive angst, there’s no hand-wringing, there’s no drama. It’s a very matter-of-fact approach to dealing with a gay character.
GALVIN: Initially, at the end of our pilot, the tag was me sitting on a bed with Hannah Marks, who plays Mimi, my girlfriend, coming out to her. She’s crying, and then she says, “Why is your family here though?” And the camera pans and my entire family is there in rainbow sweaters.
But throughout the process of filming the pilot our creators realized that that couldn’t be how it ended, or else there was nowhere to go from there. We needed to keep the conflict alive. We needed to keep the antagonistic relationship between Eileen and Kenny alive for longer so there was a place for Eileen to grow in terms of acceptance.
MW: The siblings accept it without so much as blinking.
GALVIN: It’s a generational thing. This generation really doesn’t give a shit to be honest, and I think it’s a beautiful thing that it’s totally normal.
MW: There are a lot of first moments for Kenny so far.
GALVIN: Yeah. That’s the beautiful thing about our show. It’s a coming-of-age story. It’s about him growing up and going through adolescence. And asking people out on dates and asking people to the prom and first kisses and these conversations he has with his brother. I love, I love, I love Kenny and [his older brother] Jimmy’s relationship. Sexuality is talked about, of course, but it’s a complete non-issue. Jimmy just wants to give his brother dating advice, as any older brother would like to give to the younger brother.
The only way that we could really get away with this, to be honest, is to tell this story in a fairly normal way. It looks like an ABC sitcom. It sounds like an ABC sitcom. It just happens to have this twist. It doesn’t other Kenny, it doesn’t other the gay boy, which TV so often does. It others the rest of the family and other people who have an issue with it, like the vice-principal who doesn’t know how to talk about it. That’s where the hilarity comes from.
MW: How many episodes have you shot?
GALVIN: We’re done. We filmed 13 episodes. We finished in November.
MW: Have they said whether or not they’re going to renew it?
GALVIN: They have not yet. We’re still hoping for a season two. Everybody’s gotta watch!
MW: Is that a bit of a pins and needles thing for you?
GALVIN: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I’m dying. But you sort of take it day by day. The response to the show has been good so far. I’m hoping we get a season two, and if we don’t, it’s given me the exposure that I needed in order to keep working. If nothing else, it’s given me an awesome Instagram following. [Laughs.]
MW: Are you ready in your career for this level of fame?
GALVIN: [Laughs.] Fame! I don’t like that word. This level of fame. I don’t know. What does that mean? Am I ready for this level of fame? Yeah. Yeah, why not?
MW: It means you’re going to be recognized wherever you go. Nationally, you’re an unknown. But your performance is a “wow” moment for audiences.
GALVIN: It’s a very cool thing. I’m being given the most amazing opportunity, and as a gay man I couldn’t be happier to be playing the character I’m playing.
MW: Now let’s talk about that. So often, we talk to straight actors who are playing gay characters. Nothing wrong with that. That’s what an actor does. But you are a gay actor playing a leading gay role. That’s unusual.
GALVIN: With a show like this it was very, very, very important to Todd Holland, our director, and to some of the producers, that an out gay man play this character because, like you said, so often straight people play gay people on TV and so often it becomes a stereotype. And that’s fine for some shows. But for this, telling a story through the eyes of a young gay man coming out of the closet to his family, it was important that somebody really understand the gay experience. You can’t replicate the gay experience of coming out to your family, going to school and having to come out to all your friends — it’s something that straight people will never understand. And it’s fine in some shows for straight people to play gay, absolutely. There are wonderful actors in this world who can absolutely do it. But it was important that somebody who really understand play this part.
MW: Are you worried that this will typecast you?
GALVIN: Absolutely, yeah. That’s definitely a fear. And I’m being very wary with the jobs I take next. I’m being very selective in the things I audition for. But you know, I think I’m a good actor, and I’ve played straight before. I can do it again. I’m trying to navigate a balance between being an advocate, doing advocacy work and not being like a spokesperson for anything. It’s a fine line.
MW: Does that mean if the Human Rights Campaign calls and says “We want you to speak at our National Dinner,” you would or would not do it?
GALVIN: I don’t know. It would be something to think about.
MW: How does your own coming out story correlate to Kenny’s?
GALVIN: It’s drastically different, that’s for sure. When I was 13, I did this play downtown at the Public. It was called Esther Demsack. I was playing a young gay boy who was comfortable with the fact that he was gay. At one point my mother asked me, “Do you see any similarities between you and the character you’re playing?” And of course, I knew exactly what she was talking about because I knew I was gay at that point, but wasn’t ready to share it with anybody. I was freaking out when she asked me this, of course, so I was like, “Nope, not at all.”
And after that, like once a month for the next year, she would ask, “Do you think you’re gay?” very gently. Finally, when I was 14, she asked and I said, “Yes.” And she rejoiced and was very happy that I was willing to share. A couple of weeks later, my entire family knew.
MW: Did your father take it with the same level of joy as your mother?
GALVIN: No. My dad grew up very, very strict Irish Catholic. Went to a Catholic elementary school, high school, college. He’s a very liberal man, but he still has this belief system in his core. I never really came out to him. My mom told him that I had come out and he took me out to dinner one night and asked if it was a phase. I didn’t really know how to respond, and the rest of the meal was spent in silence. That was when I was like fourteen. Since then we’ve had conversations about it, and to be honest, it’s not a problem.
MW: The show deals with the Catholic side of things, obviously. You were raised half Catholic, half Jewish. Do you see a difference in the way Catholicism deals with homosexuality as opposed to Judaism?
GALVIN: Completely. I was just talking about this last night with my siblings. On a basic level, aside from the way they view sexuality, going to church when I was younger, meant putting on a collared shirt, slicking my hair and sitting in a church pew reciting things. It was never fun for me. It was never joyous. And Hebrew school for me was families coming together and singing songs and lighting candles and making foods and crafts and reading the Torah and all of these things. That was more appealing when I was little. And I think that mirrors the way they both deal with a lot of things, you know? Not just sexuality.
Take how the church deals with sin in general — the fact that homosexuality is called a sin. I’ve never been in Temple and heard a Rabbi even mention sexuality. And if they do it’s in a way that lets you know that we’re all equal, that we’re all on the same journey despite all of these small differences. And these differences that the church likes to point out.
MW: Well, there are Orthodox Jews who are anti-gay and sometimes shockingly violent towards homosexuals.
GALVIN: I was very, very Reform. Very, very Reform Judaism.
MW: Sex on the show has actually been addressed in a heterosexual manner, but not quite in a homosexual manner. Sure, there was a date, but unlike the girlfriend, who produced a box of condoms….
GALVIN: I think I know what you’re asking. So this guy at a talk back for the show brought up the idea of how in Will and Grace neither Will nor Jack have like love interests or didn’t kiss a guy until very, very late in the series. And how on Modern Family, the two gay dads, they almost feel — they’re wonderful, wonderful actors — but you know, they like peck and you watch these other straight couples be lovey/dovey all over each other. The gay couple almost don’t feel like a couple. They feel like buds. And without giving too much away, you will see Kenny have his first kiss. I think that is a really special thing that we got to do.
David Windsor, one of our showrunners and creators, has two gay dads, and he came up to me after the first take of the kiss and was almost in tears. He was just like, “That was so powerful. I never saw myself getting the opportunity to make this and to shoot a scene like that.” And it’s so special that we get to do that. And you know, who knows if it’s a good kiss or a bad kiss. But Kenny is on this journey of adolescence — as is any teenager, gay or straight.
MW: Do you remember the first time you kissed a guy?
GALVIN: Yes. I was in 8th grade, and it happened in the bathroom at school. [Laughs.] I remember it being very messy. Lots of teeth, lots of banging, lots of banging teeth. It was very awkward.
MW: And the emotions that it brought up at the time?
GALVIN: It just sort of validated everything. I had kissed girls before but this was the first time that everything sort of fell into place and felt right, even though he was not the right guy. The idea was there.
MW: Do you currently have a boyfriend?
GALVIN: No, no, I don’t. My life is in an intense transitional period right now. It’s hard for me to be in a relationship.
MW: Because of all the work?
GALVIN: The work, yeah. I’m back and forth between New York and L.A. I’m not in one place where I can just easily date somebody. But I am single and looking!
The Real O’Neals airs Tuesdays at 8:30/7:30c on ABC. Past episodes are also available on Hulu.com.
METRO WEEKLY: So many sitcom ideas are pitched to Hollywood each year. How did you settle on this one?
DAVID WINDSOR: I have a writing partner, Casey Johnson. We were working on Galavant. We’d written a pilot about five years ago that was based on my life growing up with two gay dads who lived across the street from my mom and my stepdad. And we shot that, but I think it was a year or two before its time — Modern Family hadn’t quite broken the mold as much and made everyone as comfortable with just a normal family that happens to be gay. But we always sort of gravitated toward this idea of having a gay component to a show. So ABC came to us with this idea and we initially sparked immediately to the idea of a coming-of-age story for a teenage gay kid. It just seemed so interesting. We really wanted to make it as real and authentic as possible. It seemed really appealing to us.
MW: You got your inspiration from Dan Savage?
WINDSOR: Yeah, the studio had tried to develop his story a couple of years ago and it didn’t make it past the pilot script stage. They still really liked the idea of his life, which we very loosely based the show on. He was one of the middle children in a very Catholic conservative Chicago family and when he came out — I think he was about the same age, 15 or 16 — it really sort of rocked the family and, as we do in the show, prompted them to reveal all of their deepest secrets. We met with Dan in the early stages, sort of picked his brain about that personal stuff from his life that we thought could work, and integrated it into the show that we then went on to create.
MW: Does he have any real involvement in it?
WINDSOR: He came into the writer’s room for a day and shared some stories with us, but he’s so busy up in Seattle where he lives with his column and podcasts. He does his thing up there and we do the show down here. It’s pretty separate at this point. We love having his name be a part of it. He’s done a lot of great stuff.
MW: So the core idea is Savage, but the rest comes from your experiences?
WINDSOR: We all have something. There’s something in all of our families that’s interesting and messed up and we’d love to exploit for comedy. So when we were putting together our writer’s room, it was probably five gay people, some Catholic people, and just a lot of really messed up people, just so that we could draw from their lives. And it’s all going into the show.
MW: Sitcoms have been evolving pretty much for the past several decades, often in very interesting ways. Sometimes they venture into very extreme, surreal forms, sometimes they stay with a standardized form. This one seems to straddle the two. Did that happen organically or was that your plan from the outset?
WINDSOR: Pretty much from the outset. The last two shows that Casey and I had written on were Galavant and Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23, which were not your standard network sitcoms. And we really enjoyed doing those. I thought they did really interesting, innovative things. Galavant, certainly. There’s never been a musical comedy sitcom on television before and in Apartment 23, none of the rules applied. Casey and I are very grounded writers that really liked to make sure everything feels real. Those two shows got us out of that comfort zone. We thought they really incorporated all that fantastical stuff really well.
So we thought, how do you tell a story when your main character is trying to come out? You can’t have a conversation with anyone about the thing that he’s internally struggling with. That was kind of the genesis. Well, what if he talks to Jesus? What if he talks to Jimmy Kimmel? What if there’s a hot cologne model in his mirror that he could have conversations with that are in his mind? So it sort of sprung out of that. We’re pretty cognizant not to overdo it, because that would really have set a different tone, but hopefully we do it sparingly enough that it’s interesting.
MW: Sitcoms can either simply go for the gags or also incorporate social commentary. ABC seems to gravitate toward sitcoms with at least some margin of social bent — your show, Black-ish, Modern Family, Fresh Off the Boat, even to some extent The Middle. Do you think it’s important for entertainment to move social dialogue forward in our society?
WINDSOR: Anytime you can do that, why wouldn’t you take the opportunity? We knew from the onset that we really had a chance to have a conversation. I think our show is very balanced for conservative Catholics, for young gay kids, and for everyone in-between. We didn’t want to cram a message down anyone’s throat. We really just wanted to be able to start a dialogue, and if there was a kid at home somewhere in the Midwest who was gay and having a hard time coming out to his family, we were like, maybe this show, they can watch it together and then they can have a conversation about it. If something good comes out of that, then that’s great.
We definitely felt the responsibility of what we were doing. There haven’t been a lot — if any — lead gay kids on broadcast network television and so, that was never lost of us. And we didn’t want to shy away from that. But at the same time, we didn’t want to scare anybody away, we wanted it to be a dialogue for people to have. Even though ratings may be falling, there’s still no better platform [than network television] to get to millions and millions of people to hear something you want to say. It blows my mind every week when Wednesday morning comes and I look at the ratings and 6 million people or 5 million people have watched something I’ve written. There’s no other way I could do that. I have this chance to say something and I don’t want to blow it. At the same time, funny is funny and that’s why people come home and watch comedies. Because they’ve had a hard day at work and they just kind of want to tune that out. So we really try to do both.
MW: It’s interesting that by the third episode, Martha Plimpton’s character, Eileen, has softened toward Kenny’s homosexuality. She’s not thrilled with him being gay, but she clearly warms up to the idea of accepting him for who he is. Why didn’t you mine the comic tension between them for a bit longer?
WINDSOR: You’re not wrong in feeling that. And we wanted to avoid exactly what you’re saying, but ABC is airing them a little bit out of order from the way we shot them. So, in later episodes, we’ll sort of get back into it. From day one, we were like, this is not a woman who’s going to wake up the next morning after her son has come out of the closet and suddenly be hunky dory with everything. We really wanted to take our time with that and have her sort of tiptoe in. But at the end of the day, for her, despite her beliefs, the love for her son wins out. And the struggle between those two things for us is what we really found to be most interesting. She loves this boy but she doesn’t agree with what he’s telling her, and that’s a really interesting conflict for us.
MW: They’re running them out of order from the way you shot them. Why? Doesn’t that screw up the story arcs?
WINDSOR: That stuff is all up to the network, it’s out of our hands. I think sometimes they just feel like perhaps there are more poignant episodes they want to do earlier. Or a stronger episode. I love them all. I think they’re all great. It’s always a conversation we have, as you finish this stuff, but story-wise nothing changes that much.
MW: I mentioned this to Noah as well, but I was happy to see that, from the start, Kenny’s siblings were cool with him being gay, and his brother is hilariously protective.
WINDSOR: That was intentional on our part. I’m glad you picked up on that. We really wanted it to be that they had no problem with it. I feel like that’s the way a lot of kids of that generation are. I grew up with two gay dads in the ’80s. I didn’t know any other kids with gay parents then. I never really talked about it with my friends. My best friend, his mom was really close friends with my parents, so they all knew obviously, but it was such a different time. I didn’t really have the tools or the words to describe what was happening so Alan was always, you know, my dad’s roommate. I guess there were moments where it was maybe uncomfortable, because I didn’t know how to explain my very unique situation, but now talking to all of my friends in high school, whom I’m very close with, and saying, “Did you know?” “Yeah, of course we knew. We’re not stupid. We’d come over and there’d be your dad and Alan, and you guys were all very loving and it didn’t matter to us at all.” At that age, you’re so in you head about everything, and I happened to have this extra thing that made me even more unique and I think I was so afraid, as all teenagers are, of standing out that I just kind of didn’t deal with it in public.
Now there are lots of kids with gay parents. There are gay kids that have come out. It’s just such a different world now and I think generationally a lot of those kids feel there are bigger problems in the world than people being gay. They realize that it doesn’t matter — if it’s what makes you happy, who cares? But it’s also was what I think makes Martha Plimpton’s character so interesting: she is of a different generation where that did matter.
Gay marriage is legal now, and the Pope is tiptoeing into saying that it’s okay, so it’s all changing. And young people don’t know all of the difficulties that have gone on and struggles that gay people have had to endure for years and years.
MW: Noah mentioned that there would be a first kiss in a future episode. How do you balance introducing gay sex into the show without crossing a line the network might not fully approve of?
WINDSOR: Casey and I have been writing on ABC for a long time. We know what their brand is. We never wanted to go too far but at the same time, we have an episode coming up where Jimmy, his older brother, is like, “I’m gonna do for you what I’d do for any straight guy when it comes to learning about sex. I am going to show you Internet porn.” And they go look at gay porn, but it gets out of control. So we get into it, but we go as far as we can knowing that we’re on ABC.
MW: One thing that does come to mind is the girlfriend producing a box of condoms in the first episode. Obviously, the idea of straight sex has been broached, so it will be interesting to see in subsequent seasons if you get to the point where he’s with a guy and condoms come out and whether or not the network will even allow that.
WINDSOR: I agree. We had it in the pilot. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to do it. It shouldn’t matter what your sexuality is to be telling that story.
I do want to say, to ABC’s credit, they have been so supportive and behind us at every single turn throughout this entire process. We felt like we were pushing things in a way and a lot of times expected to get blowback and I can count on one hand the amount of times that they said, “No, that’s too far” — and it didn’t even have to do with sexuality. They were so encouraging of us to just push the boundaries and keep going further. And we all agreed that that’s the stuff that makes it real. If something doesn’t feel honest and sincere, I’m not as interested in it, so I was glad to see ABC get behind us in that way.
MW: Television networks are often quick to dispense with shows if they’re not pulling in viewers. Yet many great sitcoms had slow starts, but were nurtured by the networks and given the chance to grow — Mary Tyler Moore, Seinfeld, for instance. Do you think ABC will nurture The Real O’Neals and grant you a second season?
WINDSOR: ABC is really behind the show. They like us, they feel the societal impact of it and the importance of it. We’ve always all talked about that together. We premiered on a Wednesday before and after Modern Family, which got a lot of eyeballs to us. We’ve actually held on to a lot of the Fresh Off the Boat numbers this week, which I think everyone is really encouraged about. So I think everyone’s feeling good that people are sticking with the show, which is really, really important.
It’s an important show in the way that Black-ish is a very important show. Black-ish a very funny show that’s getting people to talk about things. Hopefully our show is doing that, too. I’m feeling confident that, as the network considers a second season, that will definitely play a factor in their decision making. At least I hope so.
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