It's been 10 years since we last saw Amanda Bearse in front of the camera as the Bundys' insufferably straitlaced neighbor Marcy on the Fox sitcom Married With Children, but the out actor and director has been plenty busy since then. She has been behind the scenes for years, directing television shows including Dharma & Greg, Reba and, most recently, The Big Gay Sketch Show, which is currently airing on Logo, AfterEllen.com's parent company.
"Not everything [on The Big Gay Sketch Show] is g-g-gay, gay, gay, but it has this sensibility, I think, that reaches our community," said Bearse, who both directs and co-executive produces the series, which is executive produced by Rosie O'Donnell.
Bearse came out long before most of Hollywood's most famous lesbians — including O'Donnell — in a 1993 interview with The Advocate that landed her on their cover at the height of her Married With Children fame. "It was the time for me to do this," Bearse said. "I'd been living openly as a gay person for many, many years, so it was just almost organic."
Her daughter had just been born, she explained, "and the tabloids were going after pictures of her and her birth mother, things really not appropriate — private, sacred moments. So I just wanted to put a firm stop to that and tell my own story."
It seems unlikely, though not impossible, that Bearse will ever appear in front of the camera on The Big Gay Sketch Show. "Serving eight people in a 22-minute format, that's a lot of talent to see in one episode," she said. "They don't need me. But if they ask me to pop in to be the butt of a joke, OK. It's been known to happen before."
The BGSS cast members collaborated with the show's writers on some of the material. Several contributed characters from their own acts and improv work, such as Kate McKinnon's little English boy who longs to have a vagina, Michael Serrato's homage to his PFLAG mom and Nicole Paone's roaring impression of Elaine Stritch.
But Bearse credited head writer Scott King for some of the show's best material, referring to him as "the brilliant, brilliant writer I worked with for years at Mad TV." Bearse served as a director for Mad TV and also appeared in one episode.
Prior to Bearse's directing career and her six years on Married With Children, Bearse spent two years as Amanda Cousins on the soap All My Children. "I only do shows with 'children' in the name," she joked, adding that she should have lobbied to have her latest endeavor renamed The Big Gay Sketch Show Children.
O'Donnell, Dan MacDonald and Joe Del Hierro came up with the original concept for BGSS, but Bearse was brought in early in its development and was given a producer title for the first time in her career. She later went to New York for the final casting callbacks, and then the pilot was taped.
The pilot episode wasn't originally intended to be aired. "It was actually done in an off-Broadway theater," Bearse explained. "I ended up rolling a couple of cameras on it much like you do The View — you know, sort of a little bit of that surreptitious, multi-platform kind of camera work. But it wasn't really meant for broadcast television."
But the show's producers quickly realized what they had. "We knew, watching this blend of talent, watching the writing come alive, and seeing it in the proscenium of the theater, that we had a show," Bearse said.
The studio audience's response at all of the show's tapings was phenomenal, Bearse said, and she doesn't wholly endorse the show's prominent laugh track: "I could've done with less of that. I don't think it needed to be what you call 'sweetened,' kicked up, any more than was there." But she noted that she doesn't get a final cut. "I get to cast my vote there, but do they have to listen? No," Bearse said. "But such is the nature of the beast, and I understand that."
In addition to the performances and the writing, Bearse seems particularly proud of the show's innovative virtual sets. As she described them: "They sort of look like shoji walls, and way in the distance is a perspective of [a] New York street with a marquis that says 'The Big Gay Sketch Show.' And these walls could be lit and saturated with different color light, depending on what mood we wanted to set. Then we rolled in these platforms that had rear-screen projections — blank screens that we could digitally throw projections onto."
Bearse noted that in scenes that take place in rooms that are familiar to the audience — such as the sketches parodying The Honeymooners or The Facts of Life — the back wall is a projection, and the side walls are left to the imagination. "It doesn't take away from the humanity, and it doesn't look like cheesy set. Because you can't really afford to build a gorgeous set week in and week out," she said.
Bearse credited set designer Mark Solan and lighting director Alan Blacher with coming up with the idea of using rear projection — and with pulling it all off. Similar work is done during awards shows, Bearse explained, but she doesn't think it's ever been seen in a scripted television show before.
Bringing something new to the sketch show formula was a challenge the show faced, according to Bearse. "Mad TV is not broken. It's a great series, and I worked on it for years and it works in the sketch format just fine," she said. "SNL, of course, is an institution. It's legendary. Again, it's not broken. But we were able to bring something to screen that we've never seen; it's never been done so specifically with our community in mind."
Bearse currently lives in Atlanta with her 14-year-old daughter. Last summer they moved to the city from its rural outskirts, where they'd been living since 2000. "We decided to come on down to the city, and I'm so glad we did," Bearse said. "It's just been a great year."
Before Atlanta, Bearse called Los Angeles home for about 18 years, and before that, she spent five years in Manhattan, moving there when she was 21 in 1979. She studied for two years under Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse, an acting conservatory. She started her on-camera career shortly after graduating, when she landed the role on All My Children.
Bearse's family has been in Atlanta for many generations, so she spent a lot of time there as a kid even though she grew up in central Florida. The Atlanta relatives always referred to her as the Yankee in the family. "I spent most of my growing up and educational years in Winter Park, but I've spent a lot of gay years here in Atlanta," she said, laughing.
Bearse is currently partnered, but prefers to keep the details private. "I have a wonderful sweetheart," she said. "I'm seeing a lovely woman who shall remain nameless at this time. She's not in the industry. She's a very private person, and that's a sacred, private part of my life. That's not to say you're not going to see her walking around with me someday. That might happen. It's been great, and that's also been a bonus to moving to the city."
That may be all Bearse is willing to share about her private life, but she's nothing short of enthusiastic about sharing her latest work with the masses. And she hopes the diverse viewers of BGSS will all find something in the show that speaks to them.
"We really wanted to represent our community," she said. "We're all kinds of people, all walks of life. When you watch an episode, you may not respond to every piece, but hopefully you'll respond to something."