Bridget Everett’s life story is a tale of three Manhattans.
The Manhattan of her childhood was the one in Kansas, a quintessential, conservative small town in the Midwest. But that time of her life was less than bucolic — Everett was the youngest of six in a house where her father, a local politician, was often absent and occasionally violent, while her mother, a teacher, disappeared into alcoholism for years until she began her recovery.
A star swimmer and singer, Everett escaped, first to Arizona State University and then, in 1997 to that bigger Manhattan, where she spent years as a waitress, singing on the side. Eventually she became a star of New York’s downtown cabaret scene, which led, in fits and starts, to opportunities in TV and movies, most notably on “Inside Amy Schumer.”
Now, however, Everett is making a name for herself in a special place: television’s fictionalized version of the Manhattan where she grew up, as the star of the semi-autobiographical HBO series “Somebody Somewhere.” It premieres Sunday at 10:30 p.m.
Everett’s New York stage persona is larger than life, brassy and overtly sexual in a celebratory way, and she had to learn to play the smaller, subtler emotions for the small screen. “This was a big challenge, but I consider myself a storyteller in my live shows, so now it’s just like telling a story to the person in the front row and hoping for the best,” she says. The autobiographical aspects — from her swimming and singing to her depression and her mother’s alcoholism — helped “lay the slab and give me a foundation since I’m not a trained actor, so then we could play around and have some fun.”
“Somebody Somewhere” showrunners Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen say it helps that they also hail from the Midwest, but Bos adds that they also knew Everett’s story from the tales she’d tell in her cabaret show. “We were huge fans and were in awe of her,” Bos says. (Among the show’s executive producers are Mark and Jay Duplass, with Jay Duplass directing numerous episodes.)
When the series opens, Everett’s character, Sam Miller, has barely been muddling through daily existence, battling depression brought on by the death of her sister Holly. Sam, who had returned home to care for Holly before she died, finds a new friend, Joel (Jeff Hiller), who introduces her to his loving community of small-town misfits and who lifts her up with his perpetual hopefulness. It’s through Joel that Sam begins singing again, literally and metaphorically finding her voice.
“Her sister was her best friend and her last tether to living,” Everett says. “When we start, her sister’s dead, she has a job she doesn’t like, and she’s given up. But she meets Joel, who is a joy to be around and who will not give up on her.”
The show is about characters coping with loss, depression, and social anxiety — as well as bigotry and small-mindedness and family dysfunction in ways that just happen to be very funny. “We want to incorporate humor when possible — this is from the HBO comedy department — but it’s more that it happens to be funny because life is funny,” Everett says. “I was not interested in doing a show filled with setups and jokes. Instead of a joke on the page, the show is about how the experience of life is funny.”
The show’s laughs come in all shapes and sizes: There are moments of cringe humor and gross-out humor — when Sam tells her other sister, Tricia (Mary Catherine Garrison), bad news, Tricia starts gagging, which sends Sam on a vomiting spree — and even scenes aiming at sweet smiles, as when Sam apologizes to Joel for being mean to him and ends up having to Zumba with him as part of her apology. (And then there are the sometimes angry, sometimes poignant scenes with her mother in rehab that forgo laughter completely.)
“I have sweet friendships and I have friends who I can be nasty and disgusting with, and with my family the humor’s often cutting and below the belt,” Everett says. “They’re all part of my life and part of the show.”
Hiller adds that the emphasis is always on “real-life humor,” not quips: “Even scenes played for humor should play the way a real person would play a moment for humor with their friends.”
By staying focused on the characters “we could find the humor in the bonkers-ness of reality,” Thureen adds. “And Bridget and Jeff have that thing where they are just people who make each other laugh, so the tone of their scenes is that this is a fun world to be in.”
And fun could be had even when things go awry. “Like most people I’ve had a lot of grief and loss and self-doubt, but that doesn’t mean I don’t laugh,” Everett says. “The laughter is the little buoys in the ocean that keep you going. Most humor comes out of pain. My siblings and I laughed a lot at my father’s funeral.”
That fits Bos’s and Thureen’s sensibility. “We’re obsessed with collisions in life — where you find what’s funny in the sadness so you’re laughing at the worst possible moment in your life,” says Bos.
The cast also had the freedom to go beyond the script. “We tried to allow time and space to discover things and to make it work on the fly,” Bos says. The series incorporated a lot of improvised material, Thureen adds, including a scene when Sam and Joel discuss being trapped in a car during a blizzard and Everett and Hiller invented the “drinking wee-wee song.”
Hiller says that even bits that didn’t make it in were helpful. “It gives you as an actor some input, and some agency about how you see this character,” he says, adding with a laugh, “although sometimes the writers might say ‘That’s not what we’re intending for this character, so don’t do that. Ever again.’”
Everett says the lack of an audience’s laughter was disorienting at first. “I like having an audience because it’s like a conversation and I know how to ride the wave,” she says. “On the set we were working with these incredible crews, who had done shows like ‘Chicago Fire,’ and they’re totally seasoned pros so they never laughed or giggled while we were performing. And I’d look to Jeff and say, ‘That was kind of funny, right?’ And he’d have to tell me, ‘They’re not supposed to laugh.’”
But Everett says that not worrying about an audience’s reaction was also freeing, as she learned during the filming of the season about trying different approaches in different takes. Ultimately, she says, they didn’t focus on an imaginary audience.
“The more truthful we were to our own experiences, the better,” she says. “You can’t worry about how an audience will react. You just have to hope for the best.”