How I accidentally wrote a book on Schitt’s Creek instead of Angels in America

Last week I wrote about what Schitt’s Creek meant to me, and why I needed to write about it. (You can read that here )

My ‘Inklings’ book with 404 Ink aligns perfectly with my academic and fangirl brain because that’s where this whole thing started. Specifically, while trying to finish my ‘academic’ book on Angels in America. I used watching the final season of Schitt’s Creek as bribery.

Long story short there’s now a Dan Levy quote in my book on Angels in America. I’m weirdly proud of that.

And here, for the maybe three people who share my nerdy interests, is a deep dive into the weird connections my brain made while doing both, that I quite frankly can’t fit anywhere else.

First, a little aside. In 2005, in a video store in Montreal, my flatmate suggested renting Angels in America (forever calling that no-brand video store Rose Video now). That was a particularly dark time otherwise, and that series/play ended up changing my life because I got a bit too nerdy about it. 2015, a decade later, a little Canadian show started…I’ve got nothing deeper other than video stores and Canada there….

So what weirdness did my brain come up with looking at both side by side? how do even I link seminal, Brechtian Epic AIDS play and quirky Canadian comedy? good question… a huge part of what I (try) to do is look at the big picture. ‘Know your history’ I’m fond of saying to students. My biggest fight with my Literature Purist PhD supervisors, aside from War Horse (long story) was that I wanted context.

This is because we are a minority telling stories, we are not the dominant cultural narrative. So, we become interlinked, consciously or otherwise. In our writing, and our reading of these stories. Therefore, even if in the subject matter they seem worlds apart, the existence of work like Angels in America has allowed work like Schitt’s Creek to exist. In the same way, we have any rights as LGBTQ+ people, we needed people before us to kick down that door so that we can ask for more. And that’s how I see the through-line of theatre and TV. Most often theatre did a lot of that door kicking for Queer representation so TV and film could follow. Know your history.

Of course, Angels didn’t kick down that first door. Angels owe a debt too, to those who went before openly- the Mart Crawleys with The Boys in the Band the Martin Shermans with Bent giving us contemporary and historical stories about Queer people. It took those who hid their Queerness like Tennessee Williams for the stage or Christopher Isherwood (more on him later) on the page. And those who didn’t in their lifetimes and stayed closeted like EM Forster, or those who were outed, and couldn’t finish what they started, like Oscar Wilde, but so many others too.  So many whose names and stories we never heard.

To use another ‘know your history’ example, it is the ‘I belong to a culture’ speech from The Normal Heart. And, if ever there was a man kicking down doors, it was Kramer- when he says, ‘I belong to a culture.’ Ned’s speech begins ‘I belong to a culture that includes Proust, Henry James, Tchaikovsky, Cole Porter, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle….’ He goes on and adds ‘These are not invisible men’. The point being of course they were…in terms of their true identity, in terms of the stories we tell. He includes EM Forster- a man who stopped publishing his work when he started writing gay stories, he includes Auden, Byron, Tennessee Williams, all of whom hid their sexuality in plain sight. He says, ‘all through history we’ve been here.’ And that’s what I talk about when I talk about that ‘through line’ in Queer history.

All my work is that speech really- connecting those dots. At least that’s what I’d hope it to be, plan it to be. (points for that reference). Actually, that’s all I want to do- with my critical writing, my creative writing, connect those dots, continue that conversation.

My obvious Queer-connecting dots with Schitt’s Creek were, of course, an academic of musicals, the Cabaret connection. I damn near lost my mind when they shifted Patrick from Cliff to the Emcee, for reasons that need (and have) their own essay. But as my poor students of the last year or so know, the through-line-history of Cabaret to Schitt’s Creek, from pre-war Queer short story to genre-defining Queer comedy…it is very very much my particular brand of nerding. Know your history. Or ‘Go know’ to quote Kushner.

And I can’t tell you how damn excited thinking about talking about the Cabaret connection made me, in a ‘need to share all this somehow’ way that I hadn’t had for a long time.

Admittedly I was losing my mind in summer 2020 (and every month beyond truth be told) while writing the book. But in writing about Angels that ‘through line’ lingered and with my ‘distraction’ and ‘bribery’ Queer show, I started connecting the dots between the two in my slightly pandemic-addled brain. I looked at Joe’s closeted existence in New York far from home, and saw his sad, desperate coming out over the phone to his Mom…and I saw the happy parallel in Schitt’s Creek with Patrick. I looked at ‘Mother Pitt’ who said, ‘You’re old enough to know your father didn’t love you without being ridiculous about it’ to her son’s coming out and represented a particular kind of coming out experience in stories and related it to becoming Moira saying, ‘it isn’t a phase’ and accept their children unconditionally. And thought that we now tell stories where the ‘Joes’ are now ‘Patricks’. Or I looked at Louis, neurotic, full of ideas, who says the wrong thing so often, who feels like a failure, and who makes terrible choices but isn’t a terrible person but who loses the love of his life in doing so. And I thought the Louis’ of our stories could one day becomes the ‘Davids’.

These are just the slightly unhinged parallels that exist in my mind, from two things I happen to have filled up my mind with, that I happen to love as my Queer stories. But the bigger point is, when Angels was written those were the characters whose stories needed to be told. And in knowing that, we look at the new, and see how far we’ve come. That isn’t a revolutionary idea of course, but it’s important to acknowledge that debt of history, of stories.

Just like when Waugh wrote Brideshead Revisited or Forster wrote Maurice or of course, Isherwood wrote Goodbye to Berlin those were the Queer characters at that moment whose voices were needed. And there’s a through-line to what we have today, to Schitt’s Creek, not a direct one (though there is of course in those examples) but in the cumulative canon of storytelling, and those people kicking down the doors ahead of it.

In Brideshead we have the wine metaphor, and the ambiguity of a character’s sexuality, his infatuation with Sebastian which maybe (or not) leads to something more. In Maurice, we have one of the first (and if I may) most lovely of ‘happy endings’ for a Queer love story. And in Goodbye to Berlin, we have …Sally Bowles, the Emcee and my favourite, ever-evolving through-line of Queer stories…from short story to play, to musical, to film to musical in a little TV show.

The point (‘the point dear the point’ quote Angels) is that these are my personal Queer through lines. So, I saw Patrick in Joe Pitt, I saw Moira in Mother Pitt and I saw Louis in David because these are the stories I used to construct my histories. Finding my stories.

Because in being a Queer person consuming media, I’m forever constructing my own histories. When my history isn’t the dominant one, I have to pull together the bits and pieces I can find until I can construct a story. These roads all lead to one place for me, for others they sound like nonsense. But that’s ok when we’re all writing our own history.

And so, what I incorporated into my book on Angels was the fact, that in that play, Kushner shows gay men just being…gay men. Unapologetically living their lives, and of course in context, cut short by AIDS, by homophobia and a Government set on denying basic human rights. But (so this bit of my book argues) Kushner was doing his bit for kicking down doors- or more accurately throwing Angels through the ceiling-the power of Angels which shows five gay men, on stage, and doesn’t apologise for their sexuality or expression of it, is still a rarity today. While representation might have increased- on TV perhaps more so than even in theatre and certainly in films- such as Black Mirror or Greys Anatomy continues to bring LGBTQ+ characters into a more ‘mainstream ‘non-queer show’ and in my moment of being stuck and ultimately in the book I made the comparison with Schitt’s Creek and what Dan Levy has said about the ongoing resistance to telling gay stories;

‘I know that in writer’s rooms across North America there are still conversations about how much is too much when it comes to intimacy between, in my case, two men. That’s an insane conversation to be having. Like, ‘How many times can we show them kissing on-air?’ (The Advocate, 2019)

That quote became the unlocking of what I wanted to say about the importance of the play I was writing about, and why that show had become so important to me in the process of writing it. That Angels was part of a through-line that led to this show I loved now-. Levy said, he hopes audiences learn acceptance ‘by osmosis’ in that respect, in contrast to what he calls the ‘extreme tragedy’ of many Queer narratives, even today,

And based on that, the personal through-line, the history we curate for ourselves, it took me several months to also have the revelation as to why during the most painful time of writing my book on the ‘definitive AIDS play of the 20th century’ that I went off at the deep end on Schitt’s Creek?

Happy Endings.

I’ve spent a decade of my life writing about AIDS theatre. Reading these plays, living these stories over and over. My head stuck in these years of Queer trauma, discrimination and death. Arguing for these stories to be told. Reading over and over the tragic stories that are grounded in an even more tragic reality that I was also reading. And I just wanted a happy Queer story.

So, on a personal level of my academic work this show meant a lot. It was, while I worked on the book of a play that changed my career, and my life, I was able to have the quiet revelation that, there was a hopeful future. This isn’t the place for it either, but I see Schitt’s Creek in that academic way as part of the post-AIDS era storytelling.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was so excited because for me it was part of an evolution of Queer storytelling, I could trace a though-line to in my other work, and a wonderful, beautiful gear change in that; that happy endings, the Queer men free from having to talk about AIDS to be allowed to be sexual beings, without the show also has to be an information film as well. This is very niche in some ways, a thing probably most viewers never even think of- probably even the writers never did- but it was important to me. Especially with my head in that book. Niche, but again it was something I needed right then.

I was also writing about a pandemic in a pandemic. Not least I was writing about a pandemic in which people were neglected by Governments, allowed to die…and I was living through that as well. Is that why so many Queer people also leaned into Schitt’s Creek too? Consciously or unconsciously, whether AIDS is, like for me, something ingrained in our personal work and activism, or whether it’s a memory or a piece of history. AIDS is part of Queer History, and Queer trauma too. And in living through another pandemic surely most of us on some level remembered that? There is something about being part of a group that has a lost generation, and a generation lost to a pandemic in such recent history that affected how collectively and individually we were responding. And that maybe for that reason too, as Queer people we desperately needed to lose ourselves in a happy story, in positive representation as a counter to that. To be blunt, seeing this kind of poster, and not the AIDS information film ones, is an apt comparison.

Because it takes toll, maybe not for all academics, but for the work I do, I had always put my all into it, emotional investment included, and ten years of that, of those stories- as much as there’s hope in the sadness, will take a toll. I realised I had shut down emotionally. A combination of burning out from my own work (writing a book will do that to you regardless of topic but also writing a book about a pandemic and how we responded, how governments neglected us so we turned to art…in a pandemic where that particular artform was halted?

I’m surprised I was still standing (actually by March 2021 when I write this…I’m not really).

But I lost my fight for ‘my’ work…when Russell T Davies’ It’s a Sin was broadcast, I struggled to connect with it, joking to my friends I was officially ‘dead inside’. I waited a decade for one of my favourite writers to tell me that story and I couldn’t appreciate it. Not in the moment anyway. Too many stories of a pandemic, in a pandemic, too much of me thrown at trying to get the world to listen to them.

I couldn’t bring myself to ‘hustle’ to write stories on Rent’s 25th anniversary. Rent one of my first loves, and I had nothing left…after a decade of writing about Pandemic Queer Stories, another pandemic had broken my ability to do it.

In finishing that book in the midst of this pandemic, I think I lost the ability that had always been both my secret weapon and downfall as an academic- how strongly I felt it.

And so I leaned my nerding and my passion into this set of happy Queer stories. Because not only did I personally need it (more on that in my next blog) but because my academic, nerd brain also needed that, not reset, but evolution.

And so this little book of mine happened. And just like with the show itself, I found joy in writing it. Found energy in talking about telling Queer stories, our culture and history again. I realised I still do want to talk about how we tell those stories. I just needed perhaps a change of gears. And that perhaps its time to hand the other stuff onto someone else.

Time for the stories I tell about stories to change, just like those stories have changed too. I know my history and maybe it’s time to be more about where we are now- taking all that with me. Like that through-line of stories, we all have to adapt and change, find something new to put our energy into in order to do it right. I’ve often joked that in another life I’d be a Doctor of Sitcoms and Romcoms, maybe this little show I love is the start of being able to be a Doctor of Queer Romcoms and Sitcoms instead of Queer pandemics and loss. And wouldn’t that be something?

 You can pre-order my ‘Inklings’ short book on Schitt’s Creek with 404 Ink here

By Emily Garside

Academic, journalist and playwright. My PhD was on theatrical responses to the AIDS epidemic, and I continue to write on Queer theatrical history. Professional nerd of all things theatre.

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