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Awkward’s Showrunners on High School Experiences & Working with Tori Spelling

Awkward’s Showrunners on High School Experiences & Working with Tori Spelling


Catching up with Chris Alberghini & Mike Chessler about the new season, working against TV tropes, and geeking out over Farah Fawcett

Photos: MTV

It's never easy taking over a series well into its run. Where some producers have failed (see: Community season 4), others have succeeded. In this case, Chris Alberghini and Mike Chessler, the pair who took over -- "inherited" as they cheerfully put it -- for creator Lauren Iungerich at the start of the fourth season of Awkward. The show has since bounced back from a third season creative slump and ushered Jenna Hamilton and her friends into senior year.

While a fifth season has yet to be announced, the two chose to end the current season with spring break, allowing them to extend the run of the series before the inevitable college days that have brought down so many other shows (see: Dawson's Creek and/or Glee).

Ahead of the Awkward's return for the second half of the season 4 (premiering Sept. 23 at 10/9c on MTV), the dynamic writing and producing duo opened up to Out about their own high school experiences, writing gay characters in the modern age of TV, and whether or not Donna (a.k.a. Tori Spelling) will graduate. OK, they don't really talk about Donna, but they do open up about working with the Beverly Hills, 90210 actress on the short-lived VH1 series, So NoTORIous.

Out: Do you two feel like you have found your own voice within the existing DNA of the series?

Mike Chessler: I think we really tried to honor what was there in the existing show and what we had seen in the show before we came on. It was something we always felt like we had a real affinity for, so it hasn't felt like layering our own voice on top of the show. It felt more like [we were] organically building from what was there and broadening that in terms of what the world is, what felt like a natural, organic extension.

Because the series is about teens in high school -- something that's been covered a number of times on TV -- was there any TV trope that you expressly wanted to avoid?

Chris Alberghini: I don't think we've ever consciously thought, Oh boy, we can't do a story about, blank. I think the only reason we would steer clear of something is if we felt we couldn't put an original spin on it through the eyes of our characters. Nothing, well, I shouldn't say nothing, is off limits. There's always something off limits, but I can't think of what that is right now.

Mike: We are definitely hyper aware of all the cliches or tropes that we've seen a lot, and our general experience when we talk about these stories is, we find that the characters have such a unique point of view that if we do this story, we feel like it has a very specific Awkward spin on it. If it does feel generic, then I would say we'll either step back and say: "Is there a different way to approach this?" or, "Let's not do it."

I'ms asking about things you two are avoiding, but one thing I do love is how pop culture-heavy the show is. But no series has really made reference to letting Donna graduate. And I was curious -- because you guys have worked on the CW's 90210 spin-off and with Tori Spelling -- if there was ever idea to have fun with those kind of references?

Chris: I think we'll be steering clear of Donna Martin graduating. We were not there for the original Donna Martin graduate, and then we did a series with Tori that was a lot of fun and there was a little nod to that particular scene in one of the flashbacks. Yeah, you know what? Assuming that there's a season 5, I would assume there would be a graduation episode and we've got to figure out a way to do it that we haven't seen 50 times.

Mike: I would never say never, but Beverly Hills, 90210 and 90210 -- the sort of reboot that we worked on -- tonally, they are so different than Awkward that it just seems like another universe.

Chris: It totally does seem like another world.

Mike: It doesn't seem like a crossover or even a reference to those shows, which are from a different time. I think the pop culture references used tend to be pretty current. It just doesn't seem like it would make a lot of sense, but who knows?

At the beginning of season 4, the show introduced two new gay characters, Theo and Cole. Will fans get to see more of them in the remainder of this season?

Chris: Yeah, they are in quite a bit of [the second half of season 4] and they're characters that we have a blast writing and really enjoy the actors as well so they will be back.

Do you refer back to any of your own high school experiences when writing the show or these two characters?

Chris: A lot of things in [the first half of the season] certainly came from experiences that I may have had both within my family and in school -- some of the daddy stuff in particular. I spent a couple of nights in county for unpaid traffic tickets, so a lot of that's in an episode -- right down to some of the words that were said, which were very much based on something that happened. In terms of the guys -- in terms of Theo and Cole -- they're much more based on a lot of young gay men that we've gotten to know in the past few years. It's interesting: They very rarely reference being gay. It's so not what their personality revolves around -- their sexuality.

Mike: Well, speaking about Theo and Cole, it's definitely based on some friends of ours but also, for me personally, that kind of character that was drawn to somewhat subversive club culture -- for lack of a better descriptive -- is definitely who I was when I was that age. And what we really like about Theo and Cole is that for these characters, being gay -- or gayness or queer or whatever you want to call it -- is not a problem for them. It's just a part of who they are. And it's a part of their identity and they are very -- when I write them -- I think of they definitely have a gay point of view, but it's not a problem for them. I think that's just something we felt was important and was fun. The characters enjoy being subversive, they enjoy stirring the shit. They have a very strong point of view; they enjoy being best friends. We definitely hope to have them around more, and they do have some fun stuff to do in the upcoming episodes.

It seems like there are a lot of characters on TV this year that are part of this "post-gay" world. Is this a reflection of what's happening in real life or is it, as writers, reaching a point where creatively you have to go further when developing gay characters?

Mike: I think it's both. I think it's a reflection of society, but I think for us, it's just more interesting. I think we're past the Will & Grace phase. We're lucky enough, and I think we've come far enough in society, that we can explore the personalities of these two young men not always through the lens of whether they're gay or not. We had a very clear idea in our head of who these characters were when we started writing -- and a lot of viewers didn't realize they were gay because it wasn't mentioned overtly until the season finale episode when they were on the ski trip and they had a couple of guys get in a hot tub with them that were clearly romantic interests. It's not something we really did consciously. It just happened that way.

Chris: No, we absolutely didn't do it consciously.

Mike: And when there was that outpouring on Twitter when people were like, "Oh my god, Theo and Cole are gay -- what?!" We were delighted by that. We think that's really cool.

Chris: We were delighted and then we were also kind of like, "Wait, did we never say they were gay before then? Wow, should we have gayed them up a little bit more?"

You would think the John Waters reference was enough. But maybe it wasn't so clear to certain audiences.

Mike: Well, that's what's so interesting about it because does that necessarily mean you're gay or, you know, is it a hetero guy that someone might think is gay? It's very interesting and it's something we weren't consciously setting out to do to make a statement. It's just we wrote these characters very visibly in our minds as who they are and -- like you say -- like John Waters is somebody I continue to be a huge fan of and when I was that age, it was such a big deal. It's interesting seeing the response. And, by the way, introducing some people to John Waters, who were apparently unfamiliar with him, including some people in our cast, which is sort of just like...

Chris: Yeah, a lot of people don't know old John Waters.

Mike: They know Hairspray John Waters, which is the point that Theo and Cole actually made in the episode.



Photo: Getty

Switching gears, Alberghini and Chessler open up about working with Tori Spelling on the VH1 sitcom, which originally ran for 10 episodes in 2006. The series, largely a parody of Spelling's own life, co-starred Zachary Quinto and featured appearances from a then-unknown Joe Manganiello. Overall, the experience proved to be a surprise for the pair with Spelling embracing the full potential of every joke and insult lobbed her way.

What was it like working on So NoTORIous?

Chris: That was a -- gosh -- it was so long ago. That was a delight. It was just a fun little romp. We made the pilot for NBC and got very close to being picked up, and then weren't, so me, Mike, Tori were all so bummed, and then VH1 decided they were gonna try to script it, so we had to try to figure out a way to shoot that show on a VH1 budget, but once we did that, it was really a delight. You know, finding Zach Quinto, finding Joe Manganiello, who was in two early episodes that I still chuckle, because not everyone at the network was like, you know. They were like, "I don't know if women are going to be attracted to him," and we were like, "Are you kidding me?" I mean, look at him now! I would say we were right on that one. Um, working with Lonnie Anderson every day was a treat, some of the guest stars that we had: working with Farah Fawcett was like a dream come true for me.

Mike: Chris has still not recovered from working with Farah Fawcett.

Chris: Every once in a while, I'll play one of her old phone messages. I can't believe I just admitted that. We did a series with Whoopi Goldberg the year before on So NoTORIous, and we got her to come in and do a guest shot -- those were very fun days.

Mike: To me what was most interesting and fun about it is we got really close with Tori, and we remain close to Tori, and she is such a funny, interesting person and she kind of grew up in a bell jar and she still lives in a very, you know, it's Tori's world and to get to be with her with her on the inside of it and see things through her point of view was fun, crazy, and interesting, and we went through so much with her and we love her dearly.

Chris: And she was unexpectedly a very, very, very good storyteller, as good as most television writers we've ever worked with. So thank you for asking about it.

Mike: No one ever asks about it.

The best part of the series was how willing Tori was to poke fun at her own image.

Chris: I just remember we needed somebody to insult her and she was like, "Well, just come up with a really mean thing that one of them says to me." And I'm looking at Mike and I'm like, "I'm not gonna do that. No, that is so dangerous." And she just lets loose with this string of possible insults that we could hurl at her. Boy, she was a good sport.

Mike: Not to date us and make us feel old, but some more trivia just while we're talking about it -- in episode 2 of that show, where Joe Manganello takes Tori on a date to stand up and she's horrified and then the comic who gets up in the episode is Lisa Lampanelli -- who really blew up after that -- was actually based on when Chris and I took Tori to see Chelsea Handler do stand up back then. We were sitting there at this comedy club and Chelsea started ripping on celebrities and we hadn't told Chelsea that we were there with Tori and we were just waiting.

Chris: I remember digging my fingers into the chair praying for her not to suddenly come up with a mean Tori Spelling story.

Mike: It was a lot of fun and I'm thankful.

As far as that show coming together, was that a result of you two being fans of her previous work?

Chris: We were all at the same agency and I will admit I had never seen 90210 when I first met Tori. And I don't think Mike had either. We were just delighted by her in person. We didn't know what to expect. I certainly had preconceived notions about her but I remember she had a scrapbook and she was showing us all of the mean things that people wrote about her in the tabloids and she would always have some sort of excuse. So if this one photo said that she had cellulite she would then show me her leg and say, "See, there's no cellulite. I was sitting on a wicker chair -- it was 90 degrees and it made bumps on my skin." And I was like, "OK, fine." Then she gets to this one where she has finger dug so far up her nose that you can barely see her hand and the headline says, "Picky, Picky," and I just turn to her and I'm like, "OK, so what's the excuse here?" She just goes, "Oh none, I just totally picked my nose. It's terrible, I can't stop." There's just something about her candor that really attracted both of us and she was so willing to ascend that, and that format was what really appealed to us.

When it comes to teen comedy world, where do you both look to for inspiration or cite among your favorites?

Mike: Yeah, you know, a lot of the classics, and I certainly, when I say this, I don't want --

Chris: By classics, do you mean Shakespeare, Plato, and Socrates?

Mike: [Laughs] No, shut up. I don't want to presume that I've been influenced, in other words, I don't want to seem like I think I can do John Hughes, cause I cant. But those movies were brilliant. Sixteen Candles is one of my favorite movies from that time. I'm constantly amazed at how well Clueless holds up.

Chris:Mean Girls is another good one.

Mike:Mean Girls -- genius.


Mike: Yeah, Heathers is one we talked about. I don't feel like those movies are being released in theaters anymore. I don't know. It's weird. I feel like maybe we're lucky that cause they're not in the theaters maybe people are looking for that kind of comedy at home.

Chris: But again, it all harkens back to they're all just such great character pieces. None of them were high concept, they were just these people that we've all encountered versions of in our life or in our school or whatever and such honest portrayals and humor comes from real life.

Mike: The other thing we do is we spend time talking to kids who are in high school now. We've had some panels with kids. I have a niece who's in high school who I talk to a lot and it is interesting because the more things change, the more they stay the same. Obviously, social media has changed things a lot, but fundamentally, it's still the same, so I think that's what makes it very real and relatable and painful and funny.

Awkward returns Tuesday, Sept. 23 at 10/9c only on MTV. Watch the trailer below:

Check out even more LGBT-themed series returning to TV this fall.

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