The idea seems so obvious: a parody show based on The Real Housewives, Bravo’s crazy-even-by-reality-TV-standards series about women of means who count throwing prosthetic legs, downing gallons of Pinot Grigio, and incessantly trash talking each other as just another day in the life. And yet it took the comedy team of Danielle Schneider and Dannah Phirman to bring it to life via The Hotwives of Orlando, a Hulu original series that has become the streaming service’s first big hit, at least if buzz is any metric. Since debuting in July, the show has been showered with Twitter love and adoring reviews.
Like Burning Love, the popular web spoof of The Bachelor (not coincidentally, both Burning Love and Hotwives are executive produced by Jonathan Stern), Hotwives assembles some of the funniest comedians working today–including Angela Kinsey (The Office), Casey Wilson (Happy Endings), and Kristen Schaal (30 Rock)–and puts them in deliciously insane situations, such as a charity gala to provide needy dogs with high heels. The writing is pitch perfect and full of subtle hilarity bombs such as when the badly bleached blonde Tawny (Wilson) declares of her fundraiser: “Anyone who is anyone in Central Florida will be there.” Schneider, a Florida native, mines her home state for more such gags, including the line: “This is Orlando. You go big or you go back to Kissimmee.”
“Only you can talk shit about your family. That’s kind of how I feel about Florida,” Schneider tells me.
Hotwives is Schneider and Phirman’s first foray into writing and performing for the web (Schneider plays one of the lead Hotwives, Shauna Meducci, a send-up of The Real Housewives of New Jersey’s Theresa Giudice; and Phirman is a ubiquitous FOH, or Friend of the Hotwives). The pair met at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade in New York and then moved to Los Angeles where they’ve written for film and TV, including Disney’s Beverly Hills Chihuahuah 2. Currently, they’re writers on Marry Me, NBC’s new fall comedy starring Wilson and Ken Marino as newly-marrieds.
They recently talked to Co.Create about the surprising gift of having to shoot the series in a week, creative freedom on the web, and how Hollywood is becoming a more welcoming place for a broader range of female comedians.
Besides having a shoe-string budget (welcome to the web), Hotwives was also lean schedule-wise–the series shot in seven days. Yes, the whole season, or seven, 22-minute episodes. For obvious reasons, this was a challenge, compounded by the fact that Schneider had a two-month-old baby and was pumping milk in between takes and getting very little sleep at night.
But the time crunch ended up being a good thing. It created more room for improvisation, and a more collaborative relationship between the writers and the cast, who had to work very, very quickly. “We had so little time to shoot it that we made sure we got what was on the page, and then we did another take–if we did another take–we’d kind of play with it,” says Phirman. “The women (in the cast) are all such great improvisers.
“Also, our director, Alex Fernie, had quite a task shooting that many episodes. But he comes from an improv background, too. So he really created an environment for us to do what was on the page but then take that and find moments to improvise.”
Adds Schneider: “He would throw out lines, then we would throw out lines, and they’d play with that. So it was really kind of a group effort that way.”
As for where Schneider and Phirman find inspiration for their work, Schneider says that much of it comes from soaking up everything around her.
“I’m an information junkie, and I don’t mean that in snobby way,” she says. “I’m not talking about world information. I just like to know what’s going on, especially pop culturally. It interests me.
“I’m on Twitter, I’m on HuffPo, just any website–you go down a rabbit hole. You start out on HuffPo, then you get a link to this, you get a link to that. Or an article, or a blog. One thing leads to another. I also read magazines, books, just any source of new information. And articles. I’d like to say the New Yorker, but I’d be lying.
“I’ll also watch certain shows and I’ll get inspired. Like, that’s what we want to do. Something in that tone, or that vein. That’s the thing I’m really liking. I recently saw HBO’s Getting On and I was like, that’s awesome. I love that tone. It’s a great show.”
Although Schneider admits to being a Real Housewives obsessive (before kids, she says she “had no life and at night would be like, ‘What are the Housewives up to today?’”), Phirman was only familiar with the Beverly Hills series when they first embarked on the project, and some of the cast members were equally uneducated. But rather than insist that the actors immerse themselves in the characters they would be spoofing, Schneider and Phirman instead let them concoct their own personalities.
“We created those characters and then we gave them to the funniest humans we know,” says Phirman. “They made them even better and more specific. Some of the girls didn’t know the characters they were parodying, but they just took it and ran and created new characters.
“Angela Kinsey had never watched any Housewives. We sent her a clip of some of the ones that inspired Crystal (a devout Christian weather girl), but she really made it her own. And of course, Tymberlee (Hill) who plays Phe Phe (a skewering of The Real Housewives of Atlanta’s NeNe Leakes and Phaedra Parks) really took it and became a new person. We always say, ‘You’re becoming Phe Phe!’”
“I like to pretend that there’s not a difference when it comes to gender in Hollywood,” says Phirman. “But there is one and it’s been harder for us.” She’s referring to the double standard that exists in Hollywood when it comes to the business of funny: male comedians can look like, say, Jack Black. But the industry prefers its humorous women to look like Cameron Diaz.
“But it is getting easier,” she says. “We’re seeing friends of ours and people we admire–shows like Broad City–we’re seeing the landscape change, and it is exciting for us. A lot of the women in Hotwives have said that they did the show, A) because they loved the script, but B) because of the opportunity to work with six other women who are all the stars of the show and they all get to be the crazy, funny one. That doesn’t happen a lot.”
“It’s changing, but for a while it was a bunch of crazy, funny guys and the one hot girl who went, ‘You guys are crazy!’ Or, as I always say, there’s the wife thing: ‘Stop having so much fun!’
“As funny girls who want to be on screen, I think it’s been kind of hard to find those roles. Which is why our dream is to write for ourselves, because we know we can do that. But there are definitely more funny ladies who are on TV now. And I mean funny in that way that is quirky or funny in their own way–not having to look hot all the time. And more shows are coming, like the one we’re writing on right now, Marry Me. I would say more than half the writers are female, which is so exciting. And rare.”