In the new Showtime comedy series Work in Progress, Abby McEnany joins a long tradition of comedians playing a version of themselves on TV.
She's playing a "45-year-old self-identified fat, queer dyke" who is depressed, anxious and self-conscious.
McEnany has spent decades in Chicago's improv comedy scene. She says she dealt with a long string of rejections and failed auditions. Then her pilot got picked up and greenlit for a full series.
She still can't quite believe it.
"We got the note from Showtime, like, 'Hey, they want to do something with you!'" McEnany says in an interview. "I'm like, 'Meh, I'll believe it when I see it.' And then they're like, 'You're straight to series.' I'm like, "We don't have a signed contract yet." And then once they sent out the trailer — that was probably four weeks ago – I'm like, 'Well, that looks like a TV show.' ... Still doubting."
On coping with feeling unsafe in public women's bathrooms (because other women don't think she belongs there)
One is: I often walk in and I go [cheery, higher-pitched voice] "Hi!" I think people are like: Why is this person talking to me in the bathroom? And I'm just — it is a safety thing, you know. I do hate conflict, and I get yelled at, and looked at, and it's very stressful. I get nervous using a bathroom. I'm 51, and that takes a lot of energy, when you're like: I just want to go get a coffee and then am I going to be OK and not get screamed at; I've been screamed at before. But I do have these mechanisms. One is, I'm like, "Hi! Hi! Hi!"
And then, if I'm in the stall, and there's nobody else, and somebody comes in, I kind of clear my throat femininely [demonstrates] ... What was funny is that: I was in Boston with my sister, and we were at a movie theater. I was like, "OK, I'm going to run into the bathroom before we go home." And I heard somebody come in, and I'm going [polite clearing-throat]. She's like, "Abby, it's me!" because she knew I did that. But it is this constant, I'm kind of boxing out under the — ooh, this sounds like a real butch reference — but in basketball, I'm boxing out under the net, you know? ... It's constantly putting defenses out for myself to avoid conflict. ...
I found it kind of cool that we got to show my real experience [in the show]. And then, also I have to say: Wow, compared to trans folks, I have it really easy, you know? I just think things are hard, and I think there's a lot of society that has no idea. And we just wanted to show that there's a struggle for safe space. And other times I get really angry about it, and other times I just want to cry about it.
On depicting uncomfortable conversations about gender and identity — like when her character misidentifies a transgender man as a woman
McEnany: If people are learning, or saying things, and there's no hatred or judgment behind it, and there's no vitriol, and you're setting up a conversation or a relationship where people can share how they feel about things: There's beauty in that.
And I think that actually was based on my real-life relationship with my ex-boyfriend, Alex. And I was doing a gig in D.C. in 2009 for a month, and I met, I thought, the hottest baby dyke on the face of the planet — who was waiting on our table. ... So I emailed Alex, and I was like, "So, I assume you're a dyke. Can you tell me if there are any dyke bars out here?" And he wrote me back, he goes, "Haha, well actually I'm a trans man." And I was like, "OK, do you know of any lesbian bars?"
And then we ended up going out. And it was just sort of like, "Oh, OK." It didn't change my attraction to him. And I have to say, they now use they/them pronouns ... We wanted to show the real thing. It's just like, "Huh, trans man."
Shapiro: And in the show, a friend says, "Wait, does the fact that you're dating a trans man mean you're not lesbian anymore?" Which, you know, doesn't seem like that far out a question, but I think people might be afraid to ask it, because it seems rude or offensive.
McEnany: Well, the thing is — in the show, it kind of turns into this joke. But I have to say, a friendly acquaintance asked me that back in 2009 when I told them I was dating this young trans man, and it was sort of accusatory: "So I guess you're not a lesbian anymore." And in my mind, I was like, "Do you have a whiteboard at home with all the lesbians? Are you gonna take me off?" Like, who cares! So that made me laugh. So we definitely softened it in the show, but I was just sort of like: all right, I don't know.
On her first experience working in TV
I have to say: Every day was a steep learning curve. But our crew — I have to say, our crew was so amazing. I was so well taken-care-of. And I'd be like, "You guys, it's my first time!" And any time they would say something, I'd be like, "Is that an industry term?" And they'd be like, "No, I'm asking to get a sandwich." I was like, "OK, OK." ... Everybody was just so great.
On being interviewed by NPR
Seriously, this is giving me so much cred with my father. You have no idea.
Dave Blanchard and Jolie Myers produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.