Portland filmmaker Alicia J. Rose has been drawing raves for her web series “The Benefits of Gusbandry,” and after watching the first five episodes it’s clear why. This topical but raunchy comedy follows the (mis)adventures of straight Jackie (Brooke Totman), who’s just turned forty, and her burgeoning best-friendship with gay River (Kurt Conryod).
Rose based the series on her own relationships with various ‘gusbands.’ People have compared the show to a certain 1990’s NBC sitcom, but, as Rose says, “unlike ‘Will & Grace,’ this show isn’t about people trying to find romantic partners. It’s about people who’ve found each other.” It also has a lot more pot smoking. And, frankly, it’s funnier.
Five episodes, including one two-parter, have already been released online. This Thursday, April 28, at the Northwest Film Center, they’ll all be screened, followed by the world premiere of the season finale. Members of the cast and crew will host a pre-show pizza party in the Portland Art Museum lobby at 7 pm, with the screening to follow at 8 pm.
Oregon ArtsWatch spoke separately to Rose and co-writer Courtenay Hameister, a former head writer, host and producer of the radio show “Live Wire” who recently reprised her role as the narrator of “Road House: The Play!,” and whose first book, “Reluctant,” is due out next year.
We then edited those dialogues together to make it seem like it was one single conversation, oral history style. Classy, eh?
OAW: How did the two of you connect and what’s your collaboration process like?
AJR: I had the idea [for the show] about a year ago. I immediately sat down and spat out a dozen or so episode ideas. That made me realize that I could do it, so I thought about myself as a filmmaker. What are my weaknesses? What are my strengths? I can have great story ideas, but I’m not the most slam-dunk dialogue writer. I knew Courtney from “Live Wire”—I had actually worked there doing the music booking and music hosting for a hot minute, until I freaked out on stage. So I met Courtney and we became friends, even though we were enemies at first.
CH: If she did freak out on stage, then she hid it from me. The funny thing is that we did have a hard time at the start. Alicia’s a freight train, she has a ton of self-confidence. I was the host at the time and she had all these ideas and spoke about them as if they were going to happen. It was an issue of presentation, and it was clear from the beginning that we didn’t jibe. Years later, we got re-acquianted through mutual friends. We respected each other’s work. She liked my short film, “Stella’s Flight,” and appreciated my writing, I thought she was an incredibly talented photographer. I loved the Cake video she did.
AJR: We made the teaser trailer and then we just jumped into writing scripts. I would do the episode breakdowns as a basic road map. And then she would do the heavy lifting, sitting there at the computer, we’d just jam on it and figure things out. She’s so talented and funny and we have great chemistry as friends. We both bring different things to the characters. She represents the more conservative but really curious side of Jackie, and I represent the wilder, fuck-it side of Jackie. And the stoner side, because Courtney does not smoke weed.
CH: When Alicia came up with the idea for “The Benefits of Gusbandry,” she had a lot of self-awareness that she’s directed comedy but hadn’t written comedic dialogue, so she was looking for someone with similar views who she felt could write in her voice and help her find her comedic voice.
She had all of these things that had happened to her that she wanted to put in the show. I helped her understand that even if it happened, it doesn’t matter unless it moves the story forward. So I was a check in that way.
AJR: Courtney’s the funniest person I know, and she’s got an incredible heart. And like me, she’s a bad-ass Capricorn, so she helped me get through it really fast. We wrote the first six scripts before we even started filming the first episode. We shot the first three episodes in August and released the first one just a few weeks later, then we kept rewriting. So the last three episodes really evolved. It was a great way to self-correct mid-stream as we made the show real.
OAW: The show is inspired by your own life in a broad sense, but just how autobiographical is Jackie as a character?
AJR: It’s a mix. The storylines are certainly drawn from my life and my adventures with my various gusbands, but then you add Courtney’s take and the performance of Brooke Totman and Jackie has just evolved into her own person.
CH: Some of the best lines were either Brooke or Kurt ad-libbing. The line about “a loofa in a leotard” in the first episode was all Brooke. Brooke has a very impressive comedic pedigree. She brings her own awesome stuff. Kurt is charming and strange. Or perhaps strangely charming.
OAW: Let’s talk about Brooke and how she got involved in the show.
AJR: Once we had it written, we realized that we wanted a real forty-year-old woman. She’s gotta be real, and she’s gotta be vulnerable, and she’s gotta be funny. It’s a tall order.
So here’s how Portland works. To repay Jason Rouse for appearing in the Cake music video “Mustache Man” that I directed, I agreed to photograph The Big Combo sketch comedy show that he co-wrote. And I was blown away by Brooke in it. She’s ridiculously, amazingly talented. I mentioned it to Courtney, or she mentioned it to me, but we agreed Brooke Totman is the one.
We approached her and she agreed even before we were scripting, so we were able to write with her in mind, which was a huge luxury.
OAW: And was that also the case with Kurt?
AJR: Just like we wanted an actual 40-year-old woman to play Jackie, I wanted a gay man to play River. You can’t really tell casting agents that, but that’s what I wanted. As kismetic as it was to cast Brooke, it was equally challenging to cast River. We went through at least twenty or twenty-five people. We were looking for somebody who was really funny but also had chemistry with Brooke.
Our producer, Lara Cuddy, had worked on a film called “Birds of Neptune.” She suggested Kurt, who was a little younger than we had in mind, but we brought him in and he charmed the pants off of us. Our pants were in Gresham. It was psychotic. Then we put him with Brooke and they were immediately in bed together eating ice cream.
OAW: So does their off-screen relationship mirror their characters’ relationship?
AJR: He is her gusband now. I totally yenta’d them.
OAW: They both have improv and sketch comedy in their backgrounds, right?
AJR: He’s mostly done drama but he did work with Second City and the Groundlings in Chicago, so he’s got comedy chops. And Brooke was in the Groundlings in L.A. with Melissa McCarthy, before she [Brooke] was on MadTV. She took a fifteen-year hiatus, but I’ll tell you, if she hadn’t, she’d be in the same movies Melissa McCarthy is in today. She’s that good.
OAW: What can you reveal about the sixth episode, the season finale that’s screening on Thursday night? Is it ready?
AJR: We’re doing color correction now, so as usual it’s down to the wire. But the final cut is done, so I can relax on that account. It tackles legal weed fully, including cameos from some of the most prominent weed activists in Oregon. Part of the episode takes place in a dispensary. Part of it takes place at Paxton Gate.
OAW: Is it exciting to share the entire season in front of an appreciative crowd watching a big screen instead of seeing it on their laptops?
AJR: We did a tiny screening at Q Center in February for about 120 people and it was phenomenal in terms of hearing people laugh at all the right spots. I wasn’t really prepared for it! This one’s going to be even more fun, because it’s the whole season!
CH: I always see that experience as hugely instructive as a writer. When Marc Acito and Cynthia Whitcomb wrote “Holidazed” at ART, Marc would sit in the audience and mark up his script to note the different levels of laughter. He did that for many shows, because audiences are basically focus groups.
OAW: So have you been pondering when Season Two might get underway and what it will entail?
AJR: Oh, I’m pondering. It’s beyond pondering. There is a plan, my friend. I’m working with some amazing folks I won’t name yet, and we’re going to try to pitch this show and turn it into a real boy, just like Pinocchio. I’ve already outlined three seasons’ worth of episodes. I want Brooke and Kurt to be in it, and I want to make it in Portland, but I want it to be a 22-minute, 10-episode show. But whether we end up in a larger format, or whether we come back with another round of webisodes, it’s going to happen. I have terrible things that people need to experience.
The complete first season of “The Benefits of Gusbandry” screens at 8 pm Thursday, April 28, at the Northwest Film Center.