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Gabe Liedman on bringing animated full-frontal to ‘Q-Force’

Gabe Liedman

Let the record show: Gabe Liedman does not hold back.

The handsome, fuzzy comedian got his start in stand-up before landing jobs in the writing room for such popular shows as Inside Amy Schumer, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Broad City and Pen15. His mix of wit, observation, and queer commentary attracted the interest of actor/producer Sean Hayes, and ultimately landed him the biggest deal of his career: creating the adult animated comedy Q-Force for Netflix. The show debuts on the streamer September 2.

Q-Force borrows from the classic spy/secret agent genre to tell the story of Steve Maryweather (voiced by Hayes), a once-promising secret agent at the American Intelligence Agency that had his career wrecked by coming out of the closet. Flash forward 10 years later, and “Agent Mary,” as he is known in the Agency, has formed his own band of all-queer spies. They include Deb (Wanda Sykes), a proud butch lesbian and engineering genius; Stat (Patti Harrison), a morose hacker, and Twink (Matt Rogers), a genderfluid master of disguise. When the Q-Force stumbles onto an elaborate plot involving hacking, foreign powers and reality television, the imperious director V (Laurie Metcalf) assigns the team to crack the case, with one caveat: they also must welcome the uber-straight Agent Buck (David Harbour) to the team. Things get even more complicated when Agent Mary crosses paths with the handsome and single Benji (Liedman) living next door. Niecy Nash, Gary Cole, and Stephanie Beatriz also star.

We caught up with Liedman to talk about the inception of the show, its adults-only brand of humor and dousing a familiar genre with a deluge of queerness. Q-Force arrives on Netflix September 2.

So how long ago did you conceive of the show? It feels like something you’ve been thinking about a very long time.

It is. It came about organically in a conversation with Sean and Todd Milner. They were interested in something in the world of a “gay James Bond.” They didn’t really know what to do with that. Sean was a fan of my stand-up and called me in for a meeting. It was an absolute dream come true; I couldn’t believe my luck. They kind of gave me that pitch—a “gay James Bond,” and I went off and thought about it. I came back to them with Q-Force: a sort of underdog ensemble version of gay James Bond that’s not just about a gay guy, it’s about a whole team. And [Agent Mary] isn’t James Bond. He is in his mind, but in the real world, he has a hill to climb. That was the seed of it.

Q-Force; WANDA SYKES as DEB, SEAN HAYES as MARY, MATT ROGERS as TWINK, PATTI HARRISON as STAT and DAVID HARBOUR as BUCK in Episode 6 of Q-Force. CREDIT: Courtesy of NETFLIX. NETFLIX ©2021

You obviously borrow from classic Bond and Charlie’s Angels—both in terms of plot and in terms of camp.

Definitely.

But there’s also a bit of 80s soap opera–Dynasty—specifically the Moldavia storyline.

[Laughter]

You’re dead on. We have—strangely—a lot of fans of Days of Our Lives in the writer’s room. So we love that kind of storytelling: someone is possessed by the devil, or there’s a lost twin, stuff like that. We wanted to have the freedom to go crazy with our storytelling because it is animated. You’re already watching a fantasy.

Sure.

So I watched a lot of James Bond. I’m a huge fan of the Bourne movies—those were an inspiration. But when we go a little nuts, we jump around pop culture. Our team, we all love referential stuff and camp.

Q-Force – (L to R) SEAN HAYES stars as MARY and WANDA SYKES as DEB in Episode 6 of Q-Force. CREDIT: Courtesy of NETFLIX /NETFLIX ©2021

Awesome. In terms of the visual style, what was the vibe you were going for? A mid-century modern aesthetic? The designs remind me a bit of the artist Shag. I don’t know if you know his work…

I’m not. I’m going to look it up.

You’ll love it. Shag’s work is all very mid-century modern in design: lots of mod, pure colors. Sleek lines. Was that the visual aesthetic you were going for?

Yeah, the visual style definitely started with the 60s mid-century designs, and with anime. That was a big touchstone for our artists. But I was going for both the design and the music to keep us grounded in the genre of action/adventure. The scripts are so comedy, comedy, comedy. I wanted to make sure that the show still felt like an adventure. So we went really serious and epic with the music. We went very sexy and designy with the visuals.

I like that.

It was very important to me. In a lot of animated comedies, it’s very sunny looking or it’s ugly on purpose to remind viewers it’s a comedy. I just wanted to create sexy characters. Bond is sexy. Bourne is sexy. So even though we’re working with queer underdogs, I wanted everyone to be very hot in their way. I wanted everyone to have sex appeal.

Q-Force – (L to R) SEAN HAYES as MARY, PATTI HARRISON as STAT, WANDA SYKES as DEB, MATT ROGERS as TWINK and LAURIE METCALF as V in Episode 1 of Q-Force. CREDIT: Courtesy of NETFLIX. NETFLIX ©2021

I’d also be remiss to note that Mary’s boyfriend, Benji, played by you, happens to look a lot like you. Fortune Feimster’s character looks a lot like her. Ira Madison III’s character looks a lot like him. Was there a conscious choice to have the characters look like their real-life counterparts?

It was very conscious. When we dream up someone like Agent Mary, he could look very cookie-cutter. I wanted to make sure that there was a human quality to it. So our artists on every character started with the actor’s face and body.

Interesting.

Then, they embellished or went from there. You see that very clearly in the character of Agent Buck, played by David Harbour. He, on paper, could look like a porn star. He’s supposed to be the Randy Blue type.

[Laughter]

But he doesn’t. We started with David Harbour, and said “Let’s use his hairline, his brow and his belly.” That’s kind of the man who is the macho man in real life. He’s not ripped the way Agent Mary would be. It doesn’t matter—he’s going to get all the credit no matter what he does, so he doesn’t do pull-ups the way Mary does. So it was a way of lending realism.

That then begs the question—I don’t suppose David Harbour or any of the other actors posed naked for character design? There is a lot of nudity in this show—full frontal.

[Laughter]

There is.

Q-Force – (L to R) PATTI HARRISON as STAT, WANDA SYKES as DEB, SEAN HAYES as MARY and DAVID HARBOUR as BUCK in Episode 4 of Q-Force. CREDIT: Courtesy of NETFLIX / NETFLIX ©2021

You guys just tease it in the beginning, then you go for it. I couldn’t believe it.

Yeah. No, he did not pose nude. We stuck to his face and clothes for the design. But I wanted to see how much nudity we could get away with. It’s a mature show for adults. There is sex in it. I didn’t know what Netflix was going to say when they first saw the designs for everyone’s penises. They were cool about it. We were all on the same page: this isn’t a kid’s show, it’s for a queer audience. That’s not to say queer people are a monolith, but the spirit of the show was to be free and wild. You see a lot of full-frontal female nudity in live-action, but you don’t see as much male nudity.

Right.

So I just thought why not? And it led to some very funny art meetings. It turns out pubic hair is hard to animate.

Who’d have thought? There’s a tendency in animated comedies to go light on plot and heavy on jokes. You do both here—there are a lot of jokes, but there’s also a lot of plotting. How do you find the right rhythm of jokes so that there aren’t too many to distract from the plot, but that the show is funny enough?

That’s very true—and it’s different every single time. Something like Inside Amy Schumer—that’s a sketch show. You’re only in a world for four minutes, so you cram it in. Brooklyn 99 is more a straightforward sitcom—I’m very proud of that show. And it’s crammed with jokes to the point where sometimes you’re like is this a normal conversation? I also worked on things like 10:15 where it is a comedy, it’s funny, but if you look at the page, it’s not full of jokes. The humor lays elsewhere. The characters cry and feel sh*t. Big Mouth, another show I worked on, is a joke a minute. It really depends on the project.

With this, I wanted to have some room to breathe. I also wanted to tell the adventure parts of the story—there’s a lot more plot in these episodes than Big Mouth or 10:15. So we had to leave room for mystery. I also wanted to get more emotional at times. One thing that appealed to me about the show is we are dealing with a handful of people with secret lives and double identities. Occasionally I wanted the stakes to feel crazy. That’s a great hope for the show—that we found the right balance.

Q-Force – (L to R) WANDA SYKES as DEB, SEAN HAYES as MARY, PATTI HARRISON as STAT in Episode 10 of Q-Force. CREDIT: Courtesy of NETFLIX / NETFLIX ©2021

I think you did. It’s impressive to me that you tell a full-season arc, a serialized story through these 10 episodes, but it’s also a joke a minute. And this lets us fall in love with the characters more.

That was my hope. It’s an action show, but it’s also a workplace comedy. That was another thing we were trying to do. We worked with Mike Schur who co-created The Office and Parks and Rec. He’s a master of that world. So having him in the mix opened my eyes to [seeing this as] a workplace comedy that just happens to be set on a fighter jet, or whatever. And this cast is unbelievable, so it would be a bummer if they were just saying jokes and didn’t get to flex.

Completely. Tell me more about your personal comedy style You’ve worked with some very heavy-hitting comics in your career—Abbi Jacobson, Amy Schumer, Andy Samberg, Anna Konkle, Maya Erskine. How does working with such talent enhance your own? What do you learn about writing comedy?

I mean, it’s hard not to be intimidated. That’s the honest truth—it’s hard not to shrink. But you are collaborators for a reason. So even though I’m working with stars, they are working with me as well. So it’s sort of an exercise in confidence. Once you can get past being star-struck by Laurie Metcalf, you realize she’s a person who showed up to work. She doesn’t want to write a show. She wants to act on a show. So it becomes a dialogue by necessity. Not every actor is open to everything, but you realize quickly that you’re two people collaborating, it’s just that one of you is famous. And a lot of times, you have to fake the confidence to have a conversation. But it comes quickly.

You know, many times when I talk to comedians, there is this axiom that comedy comes from really dark places. It comes from self-torture. Someone like Pete Davidson for example talks about bipolar disorder and mental illness, but it’s brilliant, astonishingly funny when he talks about it. Tig Notaro—same thing. Doing a stand-up set about cancer, and it’s hysterical.

Oh yeah.

Q-Force – (L to R) SEAN HAYES as MARY and GABE LIEDMAN as BENJI in Episode 5 of Q-Force. CREDIT: Courtesy of NETFLIX / NETFLIX ©2021

So how do you find humor in your own dark moments? How can the rest of us learn?

That’s a great question. When I’m writing stand-up or developing a show, I’m usually taking up something in myself that is painful. So a lot of my early stand-up was about my sexuality because I was like, is the audience going to hear it in my voice? Will they ignore it? So I charged through it. And it’s therapeutic. It makes me examine things. Right now, my stand-up is about my body. I’m fat, and that’s something I used to hate about myself. But we’re in a new place in society, and so the jokes are about my trying to catch up with that and find love for myself about something I always hated. I’m always surprised in the writing process about what humor I can juice out of it. It’s just how I survive. In writing, I do feel better.

That’s wonderful.

And really, I’m always talking about myself. I think there are other comics out there—someone I admire, Andy Jeselnik—we have totally different writing styles. He’ll make jokes about stuff outside of himself, whereas I always talk about myself. So it’s not a universal thing. Everyone has their own journey.

Fascinating. So do we have plans for Season 2?

I have a million ideas, but we’re not picked up yet. Netflix has a process to see how something performs. So the big test will be when this comes out to see if it finds an audience. But if we get to make more, I have a million ideas an amazing writing staff ready to go. There are things I want to do more of, and things I want to do better. So I’m hoping.

Q-Force arrives on Netflix September 2.