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The Men Behind Queer as Folk

Cowen and LipmanBy Michael Rowe
An exclusive, posted March 31, 2003

QAF executive producers and creators Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman speak frankly about what’s PC, what’s masculine, and who responds best to the show.

An exclusive posted March 31, 2003.
A shorter version of this conversation appeared in The Advocate, April 15, 2003

The Advocate: If there has been one overriding theme to the show, what has it been, in your view?

Ron Cowen: As we said at the beginning of this venture, it really is the story of boys becoming men. You don’t turn into a man overnight. It’s a process that occurs over several years, and that is the trajectory of the show.

Daniel Lipman: I will say that just because someone is in a relationship doesn’t mean it’s going to last long. Sometimes a two-month relationship is a long-term relationship. Also, I don’t believe that with boys becoming men, being in a relationship is necessarily an evolution. You can become a man and be single. The relationships on the show will always change because that’s the nature of the characters.

Are you finding it satisfying, artistically, to take it in this direction?
Cowen: A lot of series establish their characters, and their characters don’t change much over the years, but I think for Dan and me it keeps it more interesting and keeps us more involved if we develop our characters and have them evolve.

Daniel Lipman: ühe characters tell us where to go. For instance, having a relationship may seem right for one character and not right for another. One character might fall in love; the other one never will. The minute we try to force something on a character, it doesn’t seem real.

Have the characters seemed as real to you since the beginning as they do now? Or have you found that, living with them for three seasons, they’re going off in directions that are surprising you?
Lipman: Some characters. We were very blessed that the main characters spoke to us when we sat down and wrote them. Also, we’ve been very lucky with this cast. I remember, I was on the set of the second day of shooting the pilot, and it was a real world. These characters were absolutely real. Physically, the actors becoming the manifestation of the characters was very real.

Cowen: It’s a hard question to answer. In the same way that you live with family members, when you live with characters, over time you always discover new things about them and new things about yourself. It’s always evolving.

Queer as Folkwis showcasing the first HIV-negative–HIV-positive relationship on a television series. Do you feel any sense of responsibility for how that is portrayed?
Cowen: I feel a conflict, because I feel two responsibilities. One responsibility is to the characters and the story we’re telling, and one responsibility to the community. Having said that, I cannot creatively be led by the community. I feel my primary responsibility is to the story we’re telling, and hopefully the community can find some truth in the story we’re telling.

Lipman: I think that’s well put. This relationship is something you’ve never seen on television—the problems that negative and positive men have when they get into a relationship. As to “responsibility,” I have to agree with Ron. When we say we’re “politically incorrect,” we don’t mean that we’re out to offend anyone; we’re out to tell the truth. Sometimes the truth is not pretty—sometimes people behave in flawed ways. But it’s human, and we have to go with “human” over political correctness. Brian [Gale Harold] has a very specific view of what it is to be queer. It may not be everyone’s view, that gay people don’t have to live a sanitized life, but it’s his. And all the characters have their views. You put them together and you make a rich, textured community of characters.

Cowen: Sometimes we have to block out all the voices around us and just listen to the characters.

Lipman: People can be very possessive of the show in that they want it to reflect their lives.

Cowen: As do we all. It’s been an interesting learning experience for Dan and me, but I’m starting to feel more and more that there is less and less of “a community,” in the sense that all gay people are not the same, like all straight people aren’t. There are gay people who want to assimilate and move into the straight world, and there are others who want to stay within the gay community. Those people all have different attitudes and expectations of the show, and it’s hard to satisfy everyone.

Maybe impossible?
Cowen: It is impossible, which is why, after a point, we need to stop listening to the criticism and listen only to the characters. When we were doing the positive-negative story, we knew that certain characters would not be happy with Michael’s decision to stay with Ben. And they expressed their concerns—even Michael’s mother. It was a very hard thing to write, because although Debbie may express her liberal points of view very loudly...when it’s her own son who is putting himself in a situation that is dangerous to his health, she suddenly began to sound very conservative.

Lipman: It wasn’t just that she was concerned about his health; she had a brother she nursed through it. She knew firsthand the devastation. She didn’t want to wish that on her son. I felt it was coming from a protective and loving place rather than a conservative place. I felt she was coming from the place any mother would have, and yet there were so many in the gay community who were absolutely furious at that choice. By the end of the season, though, it was Debbie who was sitting by Ben’s bedside, bringing him chicken soup. She went on a long emotional journey of acceptance. If we hurt and offended people who were positive, that was never our intention. We just wanted to be true to Debbie’s character.

Is it difficult to be a gay writer, trying to listen to tell your own stories, while the community is trying to make you its spokesman?
Cowen: We’ve had a lot of pressure put on us, and I know why the pressure is there. Specifically, it’s because we gay people have seen so little of our lives represented in anything that comes out of Hollywood, and we’re the only show, really.

Lipman: On the other hand, Queer as Folk is not a service organization—it’s a creative venture, as much as an artist’s canvas, a symphony, or a play. It’s not there to answer people’s questions and provide information. It’s not an Army training film. There are two kinds of shows: one that reaches out to the audience and another that forces the audience to come to it. And I think Queer as Folk is the latter type. You have to look at it. Although we live in a very judgmental society, we do a show without judgment.

Cowen: The show is many things—it’s drama, it’s comedy, it’s political. We try to tell as many stories from within the community as we can, but we can’t be guided by the community.

Lipman: It was never intended to represent all gay people. Not only are all gay people different, they’re different at different ages. A 22-year-old gay man is very different from a 60-year-old gay man.

Cowen: Absolutely. And I believe that the response to our show differs generationally. It’s a generalization, but I think that younger gay men in their 20s have a lot more fun with the show than gay men in their 40s who have been through more. We’ve had more losses and dealt with more prejudices, and we’ve had a lot of shame issues.

Lipman: Straight audiences come to it with a lot less baggage.

Cowen: One of the writers on our show came up with an expression that I can’t get out of my head: “We eat our own.” That’s a very distressing concept to me.

Lipman: That can be crippling when you’re creative, and it’s one of the reasons you must block out the world when you create.

Is that one of the reasons the writing is primarily done by you in Los Angeles, rather than in Toronto, on-site?
Cowen: I think that in this case, isolation serves us well.

I would think that the voices, both pro and con, praise and damnation, would be equally deafening after a while.
Lipman: It’s like the actors in the theater we know— they won’t read reviews till after the run is over. You can’t have those reviews haunting you in any way. It just interferes with your work, until you can get to a place where you can take in the praise and the criticism and absorb it. In our case, we’re doing a complex series every day. It’s not like a movie, with two intense scenes out of a hundred. We do this every day.

Bobby and Peter play two opposite extremes of masculinity and femininity, something that the younger generation has less trouble absorbing than the older one traditionally has.
Lipman: That’s the generational thing we were talking about before. If you ask the same question of someone 20, 30, 40, 50, and 60, you’ll get five very different responses.

Cowen: I know guys in their 20s who are very different than we were. They don’t even define their sexuality as rigidly as we do. They may say, “I’m straight, but if I found a guy I was attracted to, I’d sleep with him.” People aren’t defining themselves so strictly, and I think that’s a good thing. Emmett, for instance, is flamboyant, but he is particularly, for me, a character who is so courageous. When he was with George and was “teaching” George how to “be gay,” he had that expression: “Fuck ‘em all.” He was known as “Fuck-’em-all Honeycutt.” His courage transcended his style, speech, and mannerisms, all of which are superficial judgments to begin with. That has nothing to do with being a man, in my mind. I think that being brave and honest, the way Emmett can be, is far more exemplary of his manhood. I respect Emmett and consider him a real man.

And Ben, as played by Robert Gant, is the opposite end of the “butch-fem” spectrum but multidimensional within that framework. What is it about those two characters that has so captured the imagination of the viewers?
Lipman: When we were casting that role, Bobby wrote us a letter. We’d never received a letter like that before. He said that the show was very special and it was very important to him on so many levels, and how he wanted us to know that. We were in Toronto, casting from L.A. We’re very blessed with all our cast and their passion. Bobby’s letter made a big impression, and we told him, “You’d better pack a bag [when you come for the audition].” But I think there is a climate, and maybe Queer as Folk has contributed to it. We do get lots of letters from people who say things like, “I never knew what a gay person was, and I never really liked them, but watching the show has taught me something.” I think if you follow the truth of your characters, the specific is the universal. And I think that’s what people respond to.