The ABC comedy series Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23, from show creator/executive producer/writer Nahnatchka Khan and executive producer/writer David Hemingson, tells the story of a wide-eyed Midwestern girl named June (Dreama Walker), who moves to New York City to pursue her dream, but quickly ends up without a fiancé or job. Now, her morals are constantly put to the test by her wild party-girl roommate Chloe (Krysten Ritter) and Chloe’s best friend, the actor James Van Der Beek (appropriately and hilariously played by James Van Der Beek himself), as he two girls form an unlikely friendship that leads them both to unexpected places and outrageous experiences.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, co-showrunners and longtime friends Khan and Hemingson talked about how this show came about and how they ended up working together on it, the process of selling the series and finally getting the pilot made about two years later, finding the perfect actress to play the bitch and making sure that she stays the bitch, that they had no back-up plan if James Van Der Beek had turned down the role, how much improvisation they do on set, and what viewers can expect from the journey of the characters this season. Check out what they had to say after the jump:
Collider: How did this show come about? Was there one idea that it started with?
NAHNATCHKA KHAN: Not necessarily. It was a combination of a couple things for me. It was my first time in development, and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. Women behaving badly has always been funny, to me personally, so I knew I wanted to do something like that. And then, Breakfast at Tiffany’s has always been one of my favorite movies nad I was wondering what Holly Golightly might look like today, if she currently existed in the real world. And then, I was like, “Maybe it would be funny to get a perspective on that character from just giving her a normal roommate, who is just trying to pay bills and watch Castle while this other woman is floating in on a cloud of champagne. I thought that could be a funny dynamic, between those two girls.
Is it difficult to sell an idea like this, so that people get where you plan on going with it?
KHAN: It is, a little bit. When we went out to pitch it, the thing that I pitched was the cold open, taking them through the birthday cake scene. Maybe a couple people were like, “Oh, my god, that’s great!” Everybody else was like, “What are you talking about?!”
DAVID HEMINGSON: I remember sitting across from the executives who were looking at us slack-jawed and stunned.
KHAN: They were like, “This is a network comedy? What are you talking about? You’re crazy!”
HEMINGSON: They had that look of, “You’re aware this is a network, right?,” on their faces.
KHAN: Like in the old Jetsons cartoon, where they had that eject button, I feel like they would have ejected us out of their office. So, we pitched it and sold it to Fox two years ago. I wrote the script and everybody really loved it. Everybody was like, “Oh, this is great! This is going!” And then, the pilot didn’t get made, for some reason, which was really disappointing. I just put it on my shelf and, every so often, would just walk by it and be like, “Oh, that would have been fun.”
So, how long did it take to finally get the pilot made?
HEMINGSON: We first thought that that was that and we all moved on to different stuff. And then, a minor thermodynamic miracle occurred.
KHAN: Yeah, Paul Lee took over ABC and he was interested in bold, different and daring, and strong female voices. 20th had just gotten the rights back from Fox, and the whole development team over there was really behind it, and Paul Lee loved it and said, “Let’s make this.” So, out of nowhere, a year and a half later, I was writing another pilot. And then, they called me and were like, “We’re making your pilot!,” and I was like, “What?! How is that possible?” It’s on my computer screen. I haven’t printed it. And they were like, “No, we’re making The Bitch.” It was just out of nowhere, and I was thrilled. And, Krysten [Ritter] being available was everything.
HEMINGSON: All the stuff aligned. I was in post on another show, and they said, “Hey, the show is going!” I was like, “The one I’m mixing now?” And they were like, “No, The Bitch.” Natch and I were both like, “But, that was two years ago!” It was shocking, the way it came back to life. And, it came back to life immediately. Paul Lee read it one weekend, and on that next Monday, he was like, “You’re doing it!” We were just ecstatic about it.
Is it the ideal situation that you guys get to be co-showrunners on this?
KHAN: Yeah. I had never run a show before. I’d been on the staff of other people’s shows. I thought I had worked hard before, in my life, but there is nothing that can prepare you for the intensity of going into production on a single-camera show. It’s insane. It really is like an assembly line. You’re like, “Where the next script? Production needs it to start breaking it down.” To have Dave there, it was idea. I don’t know how it gets done, on that level, by one person.
HEMINGSON: Natch is phenomenal at it. She’s born to do it. This is my fourth TV show. I’m just there working with her to keep the beast fed. That’s the hard part. It’s Natch’s voice. It’s an awesome experience, but it’s such a monumental job. It’s just huge. If one of us is on the set, the other is in the writer’s room. We’re just constantly running back and forth and trying to keep things going.
KHAN: Cable shows do 13 episodes. I get that. I can wrap my head around 13 episodes. You make them all, you post them all, and then you get to air them. The network cycle is way more intense. There’s more episodes.
HEMINGSON: Modern Family does 24 episodes a year. Jeff Morton, who is our producing partner, is also the producer on that. If ABC could get 28 episodes out of them, they would, but there’s only so much a staff can physically accomplish. In Britain, the model is six of 10 episodes. The fact that you’re doing 22 is huge.
How did you guys end up working together on this?
KHAN: Dave and I met year ago, right out of college, for me. We were both working at Disney TV animation. It was my first job, and one of his first, after his lawyer career. We’ve known each other for awhile, and then we worked together on American Dad. We were both on staff there, before Dave left to go do his own show. And then, when this came about, Dave was also at 20th. I had never done this before, so they were looking to pair me with somebody with experience to help me through it. They mentioned Dave’s name, and obviously it was a no-brainer. I was thrilled that he was around and available. It’s really fun to get to work with your friend.
HEMINGSON: I feel similarly blessed. We’ve been friends for 16 years. I was actually in the midst of doing another show, down in Texas, at the time, and I was flying back and forth, every three days. The bright spot of my life, in an otherwise bad creative experience, in that particular instance, was talking to Natch and working through this idea, and then watching her drafts come out and talking through those drafts, and just realizing that this brilliant person, who I’ve known for so long, has this magical thing inside of her. It was just such a fun process, developing the script together and her writing it, that when it didn’t go initially, we were both like, “You’re kidding, right?!,” because it just all felt right. For me, it’s a tremendous pleasure working with her because we’ve been tight for a long time. We were just so surprised when it came back to life that we both felt vindicated.
How important was it to find the perfect actress to play the bitch?
HEMINGSON: Part of the process that’s been fantastic is getting Krysten [Ritter] involved in it too, which is huge. For us, all the way through, it was, “Who’s going to play this part?” So, finding Krysten and attaching her to the show was just an incredible experience.
Are there challenges in always making sure that Chloe always keeps that edge?
KHAN: There are definitely are. People want her to stay the same, but then they also want to see the growth and the change and the warmth. We’ve positioned her as the anti-change change. Her change is staying the same, and people seem to be on board with that. She’ll have little tiny steps. You can see moments. She does have her own moral code. She’s not just a sociopath. You understand why she does what she does, once she explains it to you. It’s weird, fucked-up logic, obviously, but you’re like, “Oh, okay, all right, I see what she’s going for.” So, using that template, people understand that this is who this girl is. For me, I have friends where years could go by, but every time I check in with them, they’re exactly the same. There’s something comforting about that. That’s your North Star, in a way. I feel that way about Chloe. I definitely don’t want to see the bitch stop being a bitch. There’s way too much fun to be had.
HEMINGSON: I love it when she’s got the small, microscopic moments of movement where she has a little realization, but pretty much is still the same. She gets some slight insight, usually via June, that things don’t always have to operate like that, and maybe there’s a different way of thinking or feeling about something, but fundamentally, she’s always the same. I think we both find that really fun, and strangely real. People don’t change, by and large.
How much of the contrast between Chloe and June was there from the beginning, and how much came from casting your two leads?
KHAN: I think they’re so great. For me, it’s a blast to write Chloe, and I could write that character forever. The challenge was making June equally present, and not have her be a doormat.
HEMINGSON: You don’t want June to be one-dimensional. Her credibility is important to us, and I think it comes through.
KHAN: I think that the contest part of it always had to be there because, if June was weak, Chloe wouldn’t respect her, and for Chloe, respect is everything. If she doesn’t respect you, forget it. So, that was interesting and that’s something that’s always been there. June is strong in a different way than Chloe. She’s strong, in a more surprising way. Chloe does things that shock people and you’re like, “Oh, my god!” But then, June also steps up in a way that feels surprising and unexpected.
HEMINGSON: With the pilot, everybody went back to that moment when June sold the furniture. People really liked that because that’s June’s strength, in action. Chloe and June are always yin and yang. You can’t have one without the other. Once Chloe respected June, she introduced her to James [Van Der Beek].
At what point did James Van Der Beek come into this, and did you have a back-up plan, in case he said, “No”?
KHAN: We really had no back-up plan, if he said, “No.” Thankfully, his agents didn’t know that, at the time, because they would have said, “We want a castle in Scotland.”
HEMINGSON: We were white-knuckling that one, the entire way through.
KHAN: When I was just writing the script in my pajamas, two years ago when nobody cared about it, I knew that I wanted Chloe to have a famous best friend because that added to the mystique of the character. It was like, “How’s this girl who’s running this Craigslist grift also friends with somebody famous? Who is this person?” I knew I wanted that, so for me, just in my apartment, I was like, “Okay, it’s Lance Bass. That would be a funny best friend.” But, that was just for me, sitting there. And then, when it became real and we cast Krysten, we were like, “Okay, we need to figure out this character. Now that we’re actually making the pilot, who could it be? It has to be somebody who can conceivably exist in this world, realistically be friends with these girls, and who understands being a TV star.” And, James Van Der Beek was literally the only name that our casting director pitched, where everybody was like, “Oh, my god, that’s perfect!” He’s pretty much known for one thing. He’s done stuff after, but he’s known for Dawson’s Creek. He’s still got that moniker, he’s in the age range where they would know who he is, and he had to have a sense of humor and be in on the joke. We saw the Funny or Die videos he did, where he was spoofing himself, and as soon as I saw those, I was like, “Oh, my god, this guy is perfect!” So, I rewrote the part for him, he came in, we all met with him, I handed him the script, and then he called me an hour and a half later and was like, “I love it! I want to do it!” He’s just so great in the part. He has such a quiet confidence. He’s so brave. He’s not trying to overdo it with the way he’s playing it. I’m thrilled to have him involved.
HEMINGSON: When you put him next to Krysten and Dreama [Walker], his energy is so wonderful. It’s not just that he’s brave, he’s easy. He’s never behind the joke. There’s an ease to him that’s really appealing and really funny.
How much do you talk to him and mine stories from his life, and how much do you just use your imagination?
HEMINGSON: He pitches us stuff, constantly, and we use 90% of it. He’s hysterical and he has great ideas.
KHAN: And, he has such an interesting life. He was this huge teen idol. The stories that he tells, you can’t make that up. I would have no idea what it was like to be in that situation. It’s super-fascinating. And, he’s also really collaborative. He understands that it’s not him, it’s a version of him, so we use a bunch of stuff that he pitches and we also come up with stuff on our own. We wanted to reveal that he has a sex tape, and he was completely on board with that.
HEMINGSON: This is a guy with two kids. He’s Mr. Family Man. But, we were like, “What about a sex tape?,” and he was like, “Great, let’s do it!”
What can you say about what’s to come for the characters this season? Because this is a comedy where not everything is wrapped up at the end of each episode, did you plan out longer story arcs?
KHAN: We do, actually. It’s tricky because it’s not typical for a network comedy to do that, so we had to do a little bit of maneuvering with the powers that be. But, we actually have a season-long arc for James that’s going to be played out over the entire season, that he pitched us and we thought was hilarious, with him going on Dancing with the Stars. He pitched us the idea, and then we took it back to the writer’s room and were like, “This is so funny that it can’t just be one episode.” There’s so much that goes into all of his preparation, and he has a nemesis on the show. And then, June is going to continue to struggle to figure out her footing, after being derailed from what she wanted to do. And, Chloe is going to be anti-change change. The thing that’s going to be fun with Chloe is to continue to peel back the layers of the onion, so that you find out interesting things about her, week after week.
When you have a show like this, that definitely has a different tone than most things on network TV, what are the challenges in working with different directors who come in, to make sure they get the tone of the show?
KHAN: I was lucky because Jeff Morton and Dave have a lot of experience, so they know a ton of great TV directors. We had some great people come in. Michael Spiller directed three episodes. Chris Koch directed three episodes. Wendey Stanzler directed two. It takes awhile for everybody to get up to speed on a new show, especially one that’s so specific in its tone, but these guys came in and got it, almost instantly. I’m incredibly lucky to have them involved. Hopefully, if we get a second season, I want them all to come back. It would be great to have that shorthand with them.
HEMINGSON: One of the great things about working with Jeff Morton – and we’ve done five things together – is that he has this incredible list of directors that he can call upon. Michael Spiller won the Emmy this year for Modern Family. These are wonderful directors, who are so collaborative. We had really good luck with top flight directors, and people who were really willing to dig down. After the pilot, you have to amend and restate the tone of the pilot in all of subsequent episodes in the first season. Our directors really got it and really helped us reinforce the tone.
How much do you stick to the script versus how much improvising you do?
KHAN: For me, that’s really important. We get it a couple times, as written, and then I always want to make sure to have alt jokes on the set. And then, with the actors, whoever has an idea, we’re completely open to it. It’s a comedy. It can’t be etched in stone. Whatever the funniest thing is, wins. That back and forth, and that improv and being able to riff and find things, just makes it funnier, especially when you’re working with such talented people.
Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23 airs on Wednesday nights on ABC.