Sometimes Bridget Everett, the actress, comedian and self-proclaimed “cabaret wildebeest,” wonders what would have happened if she had never left Kansas. She has a pretty good idea.
“I’d probably live in Kansas City, or Lawrence,” she said. “I would probably work in a restaurant and have two D.U.I.s and sit on the couch a lot in my underwear.”
This was on a Monday afternoon in mid-December at John Brown BBQ, a purveyor of Kansas City-style barbecue in Queens, which is to say the closest that a person can get to Kansas within the New York City limits. (Not very close, as it turns out, though Everett said that the sides were delicious.) She was joined by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, the creators of “Somebody Somewhere,” a wistful Kansas-set half-hour comedy that arrives Sunday on HBO.
Everett, 49, stars as Sam, a woman whose biography parallels her own, to a point. After years of bartending in a big city, Sam has returned to her hometown. She has a soul-eating job at an educational testing center and various family obligations — a father (Mike Hagerty) with a struggling farm, a mother (Jane Brody) with addiction issues, and a sister (Mary Catherine Garrison) with a wobbly marriage and an Instagrammable approach to evangelical Christianity. Sam sits on the couch a lot in her underwear.
Then she meets Joel (Jeff Hiller), another testing center employee, who remembers her from her high school-choir glory days. He introduces her to a band of outsiders and misfits who meet weekly for what they call “choir practice,” a louche and joyful open mic night in an abandoned mall. And slowly, like some late-season wildflower who rips open her T-shirt after an impassioned version of “Piece of My Heart,” Sam begins to bloom.
For those who have experienced Everett onstage — in plunging, nipple-freeing dresses and with an approach to crowd work that violates most decency clauses — her presence as Sam will come as a surprise. She sings in only some of the episodes. Her wardrobe leans toward flannel. She sits on no one’s face.
“If you’re used to seeing the wildebeest onstage, you’re going to be like, ‘Where is she?’” Everett said of her work on the show. “But I hope that people can settle into the sort of softer side of Bridget.”
“I also think they’re going to be shocked to see me in a bra,” she added. “That’s really going to rattle some people.”
Unhurried in its pacing, gentle in its tone and generally sympathetic to the vagaries of human behavior, “Somebody Somewhere” is not necessarily the show you might expect from pairing Everett with Bos and Thureen, founders of the avant-garde theater collective the Debate Society.
But each has strong roots in the Midwest — Everett in Manhattan, Kan., where the show is set; Bos in Evanston, Ill.; Thureen in East Grand Forks, Minn. Which may explain why the producer Carolyn Strauss, who had first worked with Everett on “Love You More,” a pilot for Amazon, connected them.
“That’s how she found us,” Thureen joked. “She was like, ‘Oh, they’re Midwestern.’”
Strauss, a former top executive at HBO, had helped to arrange Everett’s deal with the network. She wanted a project that traded on more than Everett’s outrageousness, that also acknowledged the shyer, more guarded woman that she is in her offstage life.
“There’s many different sides to her,” said Strauss, an executive producer on the series. “There’s just something about Bridget that really connects to all the parts of people — the good parts, the bad parts, the wounded parts, the healed-over parts.”
With this prompt, Bos and Thureen, writing partners who have worked on “High Maintenance” and “Mozart in the Jungle,” pitched a show that drew on Everett’s real life — Kansas upbringing, unholy pipes, a mother who drinks, a sister who died young — and then imagined how this woman might express herself in a place that didn’t seem to welcome her heart or her gifts.
“They threw in the dead sister, and I was sold,” Everett said.
There are plenty of stories about small-town kids who come to the city with a dollar and a dream, and make good. There are plenty more about big-city transplants finding happiness only when they return home. That first story is more or less Everett’s, though it took decades of restaurant work and a lot of sozzled karaoke nights before she had anything that could be called a career. The second one is arguably Sam’s, though its comedy of chosen family is tinged with heartbreak. The show’s bittersweet message is that it’s never too late to find yourself, whenever and wherever you are.
“We didn’t want to do a snarky show,” Everett said. “We wanted to do a nice show. Like a hug, you know?”
HBO approved a pilot late in 2018. Everett and Jay Duplass, a director and executive producer on the show, took a research trip to Manhattan, Kan., so Duplass could meet her family, walk its not-so-mean streets and soak up what Everett suggested were its passive-aggressive vibes. Bos and Thureen wrote the script, interpolating some of Everett’s real experiences and a few verbatim quotes.
Duplass — a creator of HBO’s “Togetherness” and a star of Amazon’s “Transparent” — shot the pilot in October 2019, mostly in Lockport, Ill., a city just southwest of Chicago. He aimed for a kind of documentary realism, he said. “How we could have done this wrong,” he said, “was to make everybody just jack up their quirkiness and undermine the underlying tragedy that’s also going on with each of these people.”
But isn’t the show supposed to be a comedy? “In our mind, we are making a drama that happens to be funny,” he said.
A seven-episode series was greenlit early in 2020, then paused when the pandemic began. Plans were made to resume shooting in September, but as case numbers rose, the producers pushed production again. The cast and crew arrived in Lockport this spring and shot as quickly as they could, sometimes locking down a scene in only two or three takes.
Most of the cast, Everett included, had never played roles this substantial. Hagerty, who recurred on “Friends,” has perhaps the most credits, but no one is what you would call famous. So the shoot was late-bloomer central. “That made the set really fun,” Bos said. “It was a set for people who really wanted to be there.”
In the past, film and TV shoots had unnerved Everett, often to the point of intestinal discomfort. But here she finally felt at ease. “It’s because I lived with the project for so long,” she said. “And we built it together — I knew I couldn’t get fired. That’s the main thing: Like, what were they going to do? Replace me with Kathy Bates?”
Other actors felt this comfort, too. Hiller has often played small roles on TV, mostly waiters and, as he put it, “mean gay customer service representatives.” No show had ever wanted so much of him.
“It is a show that I hadn’t ever seen before,” he said, speaking by telephone. “You don’t have to be gorgeous and perfect; you can be imperfect and queer and weird and too large. It’s nice.”
During the shoot, he lived with Everett and the cabaret legend Murray Hill in a rented house that Hill, who plays a soil scientist named Fred Rococo, described as “this ridiculous, Russian supper club, drug den of a mansion.” Hiller would sometimes count the number of pride flags in town: one.
“There were times when we would be in the grocery store and get some looks,” Hiller said. “There’s a certain muting one has to do when one goes into slightly less benevolent spaces for the cabaret queers of the world.”
But that was OK, because the cabaret queers had each other. Speaking by telephone, Hill, a drag king superstar, recalled growing up within a conservative New England community and feeling a sense of belonging only once he moved to New York and discovered cabaret. “Chosen family,” he said. “That’s how I’ve survived. That’s how Bridget’s survived. So a lot of those themes are in the show.”
For Everett, success has always felt like an accident, albeit an accident resulting from years of survival jobs, very late nights and hard work. “Somebody Somewhere” suggests that even if this accident hadn’t happened, even if she had never made it in New York, she would have made a life for herself anyway. Which is a kind of consolation. Starring in an HBO show at 49? That’s consolation, too. And she is glad, she said, that it didn’t happen earlier.
“If I had been successful in my 20s, I’d be in prison,” she said. “There’s no question. For some people, it takes a little longer to step into your stride. I feel like it makes it sweeter, in a way. And if it doesn’t work out, then I know I’m going to be OK.”