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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"Drop Dead Diva" Creator: "A Real Roller Coaster Ride" Is On the Horizon

In this week's “Stay Tuned” column, I sing the praises of Lifetime’s “Drop Dead Diva”…

Last week, I was fortunate enough to talk to the show’s creator/executive producer, Josh Berman about Sunday’s episode, “The Prom,” which was inspired by the real-life situation of a teenager being banned from her prom for being gay.

No matter which side of the issue you’re on, the episode will make you angry, sad and touched all in the same hour as Jane (Brooke Elliott) fights a stubborn school administrator (Michael Gross), who doesn’t always play fair. Plus, in the other legal story, Grayson (Jackson Hurst) tries to recover from being left at the altar by representing a man who was duped by his mail order bride.

The hour is chock full of guest stars including Clay Aiken, who becomes a surprising part of the mail order storyline.

I talked to Berman about the episode, all of the show’s great guest stars and what’s ahead for this season…

Tell me a little about the inspiration for this episode.

I guess it goes all the way back to Constance McMillen, who was the lesbian teenager in Mississippi who was denied access to her prom because of being gay. And I was really touched by hearing her story. I attended the GLAAD Awards back in 2010 and Wanda Sykes honored Constance for fighting for her right to go to the dance. And I was so moved by it that I decided to write an episode loosely inspired by Constance, who actually appears in the episode. She’s a bailiff in the court, in Wanda Sykes’ courtroom. She doesn’t have any lines. She was in the background and she flew in for it and she had a great time with Wanda on the set.

Also, what’s interesting is that speech and Constance’s action predates the whole “It Gets Better” campaign and all the news about teen gay suicide, so in a way I feel like we started writing this program before it became such an important issue for our country and now it’s coming out just at the right time.

I’m guessing that anyone has fun when Wanda Sykes is around.

Wanda Sykes is kind of one of those actors as a writer it’s always been a fantasy of mine to write for, so yeah. She’s exactly the person you would hope she would be. She’s just loving and funny and kind and generous and it was a joy to work with her.

You have so many great guest stars in this episode. And you have so many great guest stars for the whole season. What is it about your show that these people want to play with you guys?

You know, it’s such a great question because before creating “Drop Dead Diva,” I worked on “CSI” for its first six years when we were the biggest hit in the country. And it’s actually easier to get guest stars on “Drop Dead Diva” than it was for “CSI.” And the reason for that is because “Drop Dead Diva” is such a feel-good show. And actors are actually coming to us to want to be a part of it. And it’s been incredible. I’ve had wonderful actors contact me on Twitter to say that I’d love to be in your show can you write me a part. It’s just that doesn’t happen in Hollywood. We’re a cable show and we shoot in Georgia, but actors are willing to go out of their way to be a part of the “Drop Dead Diva” family. This season, in particular, we have been so lucky. In the episode you reference, in addition to Wanda Sykes we also have Clay Aiken, Lance Bass, Amanda Bearse and Michael Gross are all in the episode. So it’s crazy. And in the episode after that we have Tony Goldwyn, and then later in the season we’ve got Kathy Griffin and Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Johnathon Schaech, Bruce Davison, the list goes on and on. We feel really lucky. Even Quinton Aaron, who was the star of the movie, “The Blind Side,” is in an episode. Yeah, so very, very lucky.

Even though he’s not playing a very nice character, any time you get Michael Gross on a television screen is not a bad thing.

No, he’s wonderful. And it’s such a different kind of character for him.

One of the things I like about this season is that you have these guest stars who are playing against types. You had LeAnn Rimes in the season premiere and Clay Aiken in this episode playing characters they’ve never had the chance to play before.

Absolutely and we talk to the actors beforehand and we really want to write them a role they can just sink their teeth into and have fun with. Clay Aiken, I just got on the phone with him and I said I really want you in this episode, here’s a character I’m considering, and we kind of crafted his character together. Through the process we actually have become friends. He’s actually flying to LA for the Outfest panel for the episode on Sunday. It’s amazing. You have a show like this that’s very empowering to women, empowering to humanity, it gets people excited. And that’s a unique experience for me.

I would be a terrible journalist if I didn’t ask you to give me some kind of tease as to what we can expect for the rest of the season.

Oh sure. I love the question. I think that the second half of the season is a real roller coaster ride for our characters. I think that we push our characters to ask questions that they wouldn’t have asked the first two-and-a-half seasons. I think for people who are just coming to the show, they can enjoy it as much as our loyal viewers who know these characters so well and who can now expect some real exciting surprises. I actually think we also have some of our funniest and most emotional episodes coming up. We have an episode with Patti Stanger, who is “The Millionaire Matchmaker.” I don’t know if you’ve seen that show on Bravo?

One of the most outrageous interviews I’ve ever done.

She plays Margaret Cho’s high school nemesis. And the two of them go at each other in such a hilarious…I think it’s nice too. There aren’t that many hour-long shows that can make you laugh as hard as “Diva” or make you cry as hard as “Diva.” You know what I mean? Within the same scene we take people from the highs to the lows and I feel like life is a lot like that. You don’t really know when you wake up in the morning what your high point and low point are going to be. And like that, “Drop Dead Diva” is kind of a slice of life in the sense you never know what’s going to happen next.

When the show first started out, was it a hard concept to explain to people?

Yes absolutely and the funny thing for me was when…the critics have been really wonderful to our show. It was funny because when the show first hit the marketplace and first started airing, a lot of the critics would start by saying, “Despite the crazy premise, the show actually has heart, humor and depth.” And it was always to get past the notion of the logline. And I think that’s important, and it’s important for me to recognize that yes, something can be crazy and silly, but it allows for great storytelling, this particular premise. For me, the way I sold it, the way I came up with the idea—I don’t know if you know this, I don’t share it too often—but the genesis of “Drop Dead Diva” is my grandmother who’s since passed away. She was this overweight, little Jewish Holocaust survivor who carried herself like she was a supermodel. And she helped raise me and in my mind I always wanted to create a character who looked so different on the outside than they felt on the inside. And in fact my grandmother’s name was Deb, which is what the model’s name is on “Drop Dead Diva” and that was all the notion of how do I bring my grandmother onto a television show and how do I get America to love this character as much as I love my grandmother.

And it helps when you have an amazing actress like Brooke Elliott to bring her to life.

Oh yeah, I am so lucky with Brooke it’s crazy. She’s amazing.

She needs to sing more, Josh.

Oh, we’ve got a couple singing episodes coming up. In episode seven, Deb’s mother is Sharon Lawrence and her mother is Faith Prince. And Sharon Lawrence called me up and said it would be my fantasy if you would write an episode where I get to sing with both Brooke Elliott and Faith Prince. So we wrote an episode where they get to sing a trio at the end of the episode. It’s really wonderful. We used the song “Lean On Me” and the real line is “Lean on me, brother” and the publishers actually allowed us to change the line to “Lean on me, mother,” which given the storyline was wonderful, because it’s so rare that a publisher for those A-list songs lets you change anything.

You guys have so much fun.

We have so much fun. We just have so much fun on the show.

Richard Boggs, who is a hairstylist with the show, is from the Huntington area [Ashland], so we have kind of a special connection to “Drop Dead Diva.” So I was wondering if you could say something nice about him for the local folks.

Oh, it’s not hard to say lots of nice things about Richard. He is the first person to come up to me on the set to say hello every time, every morning. He’s always cheerful. He always goes beyond the call of duty and makes our actresses feel like divas, even if they don’t feel like divas themselves. Or makes our actresses feel like divas on their down days, I should say.

You mentioned the critics trying to get past the premise, I admit, I was probably one of those.

I understand. And it wasn’t promoted very well in the beginning. People really had to find the show and fall in love with these characters. The nice thing was that the critics, despite saying that, once they watched the pilot, we got almost universally positive reviews. So that was really wonderful, it was really gratifying.

This season it’s like you asked, “Who are all of Angela’s favorite people?” and shoved them all into your show.

You and I must have the same favorite people then.

You can’t go wrong with Clay Aiken and Kathy Griffin. I mean, hello?

And we have Brandy for the final three episodes. And she’s just amazing. And she hasn’t done TV in years. She came in, she loves the show. She’s seen every episode. And she said, I just love the show. I want to be part of that cast. It’s so great. We are very lucky.

Do you ever just pinch yourself and say is this really happening?

Yes, I really do. I just feel so, so lucky and so grateful and I really want Lifetime to pick it up for more seasons. I hate the waiting game for that.

I have to believe that everything from the network is positive for you guys.

It’s always positive but until you get that call saying you’ve been picked up, no show knows. So it’s always a stressful…It’s like pick us up already!

I’ll work on that, Josh.

Thank you. [Laughs] You’re going to save our show.

Wow, if only I had that kind of power.

The reason we are still on I believe is that Lifetime has not had a lot of their shows historically make it past a year. And I really believe it’s because the bloggers and the critics and everybody got people to watch the show. So I’m very indebted to people in your job.

“Drop Dead Diva” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Lifetime…

Photo Credits: Bob Mahoney/Lifetime, Lifetime, & Bob Mahoney/Lifetime