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“There’s These Two Knights, And I’m From Queens!" Making "Vicious"

Gary Janetti, whose TV series Vicious debuts on PBS June 29, talks about the daunting process of writing for Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi.

“I liked the idea of a couple that’s been together for so long that their lives are so intertwined, you don’t know where one person stops and the other begins.”

Gary Janetti is talking about his new sitcom, Vicious, which debuts on PBS this Sunday at 10:30 p.m. ET. The show, which was originally broadcast on the British network ITV (where it has been picked up already for a second season), co-stars Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi as two elderly gay men who have been together for decades. Janetti, a four-time Emmy nominee who hails from Queens, was an executive producer and showrunner on Will & Grace, and currently writes for Family Guy, on top of his duties across the pond on Vicious. (He also has found time to be a sometime reality TV star, together with his celebrity stylist partner Brad Goreski).

Gary Janetti

Fast Company caught up with Janetti to learn more about his Anglophilia, L.A.-to-Britain culture shock, and the perils and pleasures of writing for legendary thespians.

FAST COMPANY: You're from Queens, NY. So how’d you get this very British gig?

GARY JANETTI: I’ve always been a bit of an Anglophile. I grew up watching British comedies. I loved Monty Python and Fawlty Towers and Are You Being Served? which showed on PBS. I always thought it would be interesting to do something there, or take a format from there and bring it over here. I had a meeting with a producer in London, and he mentioned a project that Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi were interested in doing where they play an older gay couple that’s been together for a long time, and perhaps I could do an American version of it. I was like, “Oh my gosh, that’s an amazing idea. But Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi together for 50 years: I don’t know what the equivalent of that would be in the States...” It felt like something specifically British to me. It turned out that the idea never got developed by the original writer who proposed it, Mark Ravenhill, so I said, “Instead of doing it in the States, why don’t I go to the U.K.?” I pitched the show to Ian and Derek, and we sold it to ITV, where it airs in the U.K. On Sunday it airs on PBS here, so as Oprah would say, it’s a “full-circle moment.”

So you were an American flying across the pond to write a British show. How did you overcome any anxiety that came with that?

When you’re starting any new job, you have to learn very quickly. In this case it was my show, I was the boss--but at the same time, I was in a completely new place, where they have a different way of doing things. I wanted to be respectful of how they do things there, while at the same time being very clear about the way I wanted things done. I think we both had to learn: they had to learn how I like to work, and I had to learn how writing works over there. You can’t come in like a bull in a china shop: “This is how we do it in L.A., so it has to be that way here!” I had to be adaptable and create a kind of new, hybrid way of doing things.

What’s an example of that?

In L.A., I would have a staff of writers on set, we’d see things as they’re going through run-throughs, and we’d decide how to best fix the problems we’re having that day. But over there, it was just me. So I tried to replicate it by doing all that, but with myself. I did run-throughs, rewrites, and I kind of gave the same feeling of how we would do it here. I gave myself the comfort of saying, “I’m gonna act as if there're six of me.”

Vicious is similar to Downton Abbey, in that they both made their way from ITV to PBS. But while Downton feels like cable drama. Vicious is a classic, multi-camera-in-front-of-a-live-audience sitcom. Did you worry at all about what American expectations of what an ITV/PBS show should “feel” like?

When I was doing it for ITV, which is a major network over there, there was no awareness of where it would go here yet. But that wouldn’t have informed it in any way. PBS hasn’t had a comedy on in many years, and this is not unlike the comedies that they used to show in the '70s and '80s, which were multi-camera comedies. Viewers might have to make an adjustment: “Oh, it’s this, when I thought it would be that.” But in fact it’s not dissimilar to what these shows were always like.

Both your main actors have “Sirs” in front of their names. Was that daunting?

It really was. But you get past that very quickly, and it becomes very much about the work. I think we all have a very common goal together to create the best show we can create. We spent a lot of time working on the characters, on who these men were, on every episode as it unfolded. So it was very collaborative. They are extraordinarily focused on doing the best show. It’s as if you’re doing a Chekhov play every week, the amount of hard work and dedication that goes into an episode. So when you’re just doing that, you forget very quickly: “There’s these two knights, and I’m from Queens--how weird!”

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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