Colette Burson is one-half of the husband-and-wife writing team behind the latest HBO hit series to come to Channel 4, Hung. Hung is the story of Ray Drecker, a high school basketball coach who is struggling to make ends meet. His wife has left him, his team can't stop losing, and he has barely two coins to rub together. So, with the help of an unlikely ally, he decides to make money using his one remaining asset of value: His large penis. Ray becomes a gigolo.
Here, Burson reveals a little more about the creative process that goes into the comedy drama, explains the pros and cons of working with your spouse, and reveals that the show appeals to a wider demographic than you might think...
Q. How on earth do you come up with an idea like that? Where did the inspiration come from?
Dmitry and I are playwrights. We always try to write characters that interest us. We wanted to write a male character who would be multi-faceted and masculine without resorting to violence. We felt like violence was such a familiar trope, we're so tired of that as the fallback way for making a man interesting. And the other impulse is that Dmitry is from Russia, he moved from Russia to Baton Rouge when he was 13, and when I was 13 I moved to the mountains of Virginia. So we were both outsiders and observers of the American high school social strata, and so it's fascinating to us - what was it like to be at the pinnacle of that - Americans are so obsessed with their high schools and their high school stars. But that can end up being the high point of some peoples' lives, and they never quite recapture that glory, and that’s definitely the case with Ray.
Q. He's the high school sports star whose life didn’t live up to the dream?
Yeah. There's sort of an assumption that the high school athlete might not be the one who's going to go off and become a lawyer or a doctor, but there is a good middle class American life waiting for him. But that hasn't been coming through as much lately. He's the $1.25 coffee guy in the $3 latte world. He's sort of been promised a certain kind of life, but it's just not coming through for him. Everything's going to shit around him.
Q. You're dealing with a world of a gigolo and his pimp, albeit hardly typical ones in either case. What did you do in the way of research? Did you meet with people from that line of work?
Not at all, actually. We felt that what was unique about what we were creating was that we were taking two average, middle class people who hatch this idea on their own. So we just put ourselves in the minds of the characters, and hatched it the way they would hatch it. What a real pimp or a real prostitute does is of no interest to us, we're only interested in what this particular prostitute and this particular pimp does. So actually it wouldn't have helped to know more about that industry, because our characters don't know anything about it themselves.
Does it help writing with Dmitry, because you can each bring your own gender's psyche to the writing?
Yeah. We each bring our gender's perspective, and we really duke it out. We can argue all night long over stuff, and go round and round. When we disagree, it's because he's coming at it from a male perspective, and I'm coming at it from a female perspective. I think that both those things are really present in the show.
In practical terms, what's it like working as a husband-and-wife writing team. Can you leave your office at the end of the working day and leave the work behind, or do you end up discussing it all night long?
Unfortunately, we discuss it all night long. I really wish we didn't. We've been together for 17 years, and we'd always been the peaceful couple - peaceful writers - and rarely, if ever disagreed. And now doing this show together, we disagree quite a lot. But I think we can't make the show the best it can be unless we're in a state of conflict over it. I know something great comes out of that conflict, and yet it's tiring.
Is it true that you filmed the pilot days after you gave birth? We worked on it while I was pregnant, and we started shooting it ten days after I gave birth. So I gave birth, and then seven days later I went on a 40-hour train ride to Detroit. It was such a nightmare, I can't believe I got talked into it. Dmitry kept saying "It'll be so memorable." So would a train ride to hell. Memorable! He just thought it would be very romantic. I took the plane back afterwards! Last year the baby was in our office the entire time. So we'd be meeting with directors or production staff, and there's the baby and the crib. We just roll along in this freaky, circus-like, very creative caravan of human beings.
Has the show appealed more to one gender than the other in America?
I thought our show would be a huge hit with women, because I felt that we were showing the female perspective on sexuality in a way that no other television show is doing, and giving a voice to the female psyche. But, interestingly, I think because of the title, women have been slow to discover us. So the majority of our audience in the USA, by a healthy margin, is male. I can't believe it. When people come up to us, I hear two things. Men come up and go "I love your show because I feel like Ray is a guy just like me." And I also hear how emotional Americans feel about Detroit, which I never knew. Some people tell me they cry during our credit sequence. But I think there are a whole load of women who, when they do discover the show, will find that it really speaks to them. Do you know which section of the population is really a huge fan of the show? I hear this over and over again. Someone will say to me "My seventy-year-old mother and all of her friends watch the show religiously every week." So 60-80-year-old women seem to be obsessed with Hung.
That seems somewhat surprising, to say the least.
I know! I have a theory on that, though. That age group was young in the 60s, there were lots of ideas about liberation, but the men actually were not - they never really tried that hard. So my personal theory is they love the theory that Ray has to try.
I think it's because, in his own weird way, like in Westerns, Ray has his own moral code. He's sort of a straight-arrow. He has a real morality. I think they relate to him.
This would've been a very different show if it had been about a female prostitute, wouldn't it? Why is there such a distinction between the two?
You can argue why, but to make a gross generalisation, women are more in touch with their emotions, and in sexual transactions, women have more complex needs sometimes. When a man and a woman have sex - this is a stereotype, but I think there's truth to it - it's far easier for the man to walk away. For women it's not just a sexual act. There's all these little signals, how he makes her feel, what she's thinking, how communicative he was or wasn't, and so on. So suddenly you take this very complex creature, when it comes to sexuality, and instead of being the receptacle, she's the purchaser. I think that's what Ray has to deal with. He's not just providing his penis. These women have complex demands of him. We often describe him as a voyager in a strange land. He's been drawn into the world of women, and is completely unprepared for the journey.
So do you think guys can learn a lot about women from watching this show?
I think that men will recognise a lot of the situations Ray finds himself in. I've had men say to me "I know a woman just like that. She drives me crazy!" I don't think they'll watch it to learn. I think it's more about enjoying - or commiserating with - the insane situation he's in, because some of them have been in the situation themselves. They've just dealt with it a little differently.