Ryan O’Connell’s comedy Special became the most nominated short form program of the year earning four nominations including two for O’Connell himself for producing and directing. Creator-writer-star O’Connell has quickly become one of the freshest voices in comedy and throughout the show’s first season he has tackled a number of themes rarely depicted on television.
Awards Daily TV spoke with Ryan O’Connell about the show’s four Emmy nominations as well as his experience as a gay disabled man in Hollywood and his struggle to depict the intersections of his identity, awkward sex and all.
What was it like Emmy morning seeing your show nominated for three awards and then in a weird turn of events seeing yourself nominated a couple of days later?
Yeah, it was a journey. I was on vacation in Provincetown so I was in my own gay vacation bubble of frozé and living, laughing, and loving so I completely forgot the nominations were coming out. I remember the night before someone asked me if I was nervous about tomorrow and being confused. So I was overjoyed when we got the nominations. I’m just so glad that Punam and Jessica were recognized because they’re so fucking talented and they knocked it out of the park. The eventual nomination for me was like the cherry on the Emmy ice cream Sunday. I could have never have visualized this endpoint because it was such a struggle to get my show made and there was so much rejection and it felt like at times we were making it through by the skin of our teeth. So it’s all surreal, I can’t explain it. We’re the little show that could.
A lot of your initial success came from your writing on your own experience as a gay, disabled millennial first online and then through your first book I Am Special. So I found it shocking that when you were first pitching Special networks were apprehensive to green-light a show about disability. What was the process of pitching a show about your disability like?
I think the culture needed to catch up with what story we were trying to tell. When we first tried to sell Special in 2015 we went to six different places and they all passed and I was obviously devastated. I really believed in the pitch and in the show and had gotten some high-level gay-list people involved and assumed it was a slam dunk. The reality was that in 2015 being gay and disabled was sort of this bizarre concept that no one could wrap their head around. This was the age of Inside Amy Schumer when people were finally realizing that women were multifaceted and funny and that seemed revolutionary. So they definitely weren’t ready for my show and we had to wait.
Everything that has worked out in my career and what hasn’t worked out has come down to the right or wrong town. So even though it was frustrating and took so long I think we are hitting the zeitgeist at the perfect moment and people are finally realizing they want more diverse stories. They want something beyond Walter White. Network heads are also realizing these stories are profitable to tell and they aren’t too niche and they don’t lose money. Even though the journey to getting the show made was paved with trolls, looking back, I wouldn’t have it any other way. It was a learning experience for me to realize that just because I’m woke enough to understand this story the culture needed time to catch up.
On a personal level I immediately fell in love with Special because it mirrored my own personal experience as a gay disabled writer in Los Angeles. Some of the elements of the show that I related to the most were the smaller specific details like Ryan having difficulty getting in and out of a trendy restaurant bench. Were you ever worried that some of those moments would go over the heads of less observant general audiences?
OMG, Yasss Queen! How do we not know each other? We don’t grow on trees!
I don’t know how to say this without sounding psychotic, or like rude or whatever but I don’t care. You know that story Tina Fey told in Bossy Pants about how she and Amy Poehler were joking about a skit and Jimmy Fallon whines about not liking it and Amy went “We don’t care if you like it.” I think that straight white men are so used to having every story catered to them that they can’t wrap their heads around stories that just aren’t for them. I’ve learned through my writing that through specificity you get universal. The more specific you are the more universal your story is.
Take network TV for example – they try to make the show for everybody and so they keep diluting it until the show becomes gipity gopity goop and no one can relate to it because there is nothing to latch onto. I really think that people shouldn’t be afraid of specific voices because the more specific you are the more relatable it is. It’s not that complicated but people are afraid of it. I was never thinking about whether or not the audience could relate. I wrote something that was true and very personal. I’ve been writing professionally since 2010 and I’ve learned that the more personal you are and the more vulnerable you are the more people will respond to it.
Throughout Special Ryan battles ableism in many forms but maybe the most surprising theme was his constant battle with his own internalized ableism. What made you want to explore that throughout the first season?
I made internalized ableism part of the show because I felt like it had never been discussed before. I think that any member of any marginalized group experiences some form of internalized hatred whether that be homophobia, racism, misogyny, or ableism. When you are born into a society that does not accept you for who you are it can be common to take that response and turn it inward and turn it into self-loathing. I thought people hadn’t really talked about it before and I find it really interesting because it’s something that happened to me in high school. This really hot gay deaf kid in my class asked me out on a date and I was disgusted meanwhile I’m limping and drooling all over the place. It’s fascinating to me because I really only started to find out about internalized ableism like three years ago so it’s still a relatively new concept but it summed up so much of my life. Anything that resembled the parts of myself that I didn’t like I would reject and run from. A lot of people can relate to that.
It was also really important for Ryan to behave badly and to not be perfect or virtuous. He makes mistakes. He’s an asshole to the deaf guy but it really comes down to being born into this society that doesn’t accept him.
Another episode that received a lot of buzz online was the one where Ryan chooses to lose his virginity to a sex worker and critics praised the scene for not glamorizing sex and fully embracing the awkwardness of it. Was that a deliberate choice?
I’ve been frustrated with the lack of representation in terms of gay sex. I don’t understand why it hasn’t been normalized. I think that even though we’ve come a long way in terms of accepting gay people and our stories there is still some skittishness around certain acts like depicting anal sex, which to me is really frustrating. I mean, how many fucking heterosexual sex scenes like sex scenes have I had to sit through? Like oh god, I am done seeing straight people fuck. We’ve seen straight people fuck in so many different ways whether it be bad sex, good sex, awkward sex, or vengeful sex. I’ve seen every flavor of heterosexual sex imaginable but for gay people it’s slim pickings. I remember watching Call Me By Your Name and being frustrated when the camera panned to the moon. How can you make a movie about gay desire and not be brave enough to show them consummate their relationship? Showing gay intimacy is really important because it’s a big part of our lives. I wanted to create a sex scene that was accurate and real. It’s the sex I’ve been having for 15 years. I felt like that wasn’t being reflected back at me and I didn’t understand why and here I was finally able to change that.
In a lot of ways Special is similar to a lot of other auteur style comedies right now like Pamela Adlon’s Better Things and Ramy Youssef’s Ramy. It’s a sub-genre that has led to some of the most creative fresh voices in comedy today but audiences sometimes also confuse the character and the creator. What is the biggest difference between you and the Ryan portrayed in Special?
I was never as awkward as Ryan was in the show. I really wasn’t. The Ryan in the show is definitely an exaggerated version of me. He lived at home until he was 28, he doesn’t have any friends, he’s a virgin, but I developed at a normal rate. I moved out to go to college. I lost my virginity when I was 17. I always had a ton of friends. So he is actually wildly different than me. As the show goes on he becomes a little bit more like me because he’s more confident but there are a lot of things he did and said that I would never do.
Overall I knew he would need to be an extreme version of myself because I needed to take him on a journey of growth and discovery. A lot of the insecurities that I felt are the ones that Ryan the character feels but that’s internal. Feeling inadequate, feeling uncomfortable with our disability, feeling unsure around boys – I have been there x10,000 but he’s a little more clueless than I ever was. Growing up gay and disabled I quickly realized how to behave in terms of people accepting me so I became gregarious and outgoing and always had a ton of friends so that part of him I could never really relate to.
I read that originally you didn’t to play Ryan and first looked for other actors to portray him. Why were you initially apprehensive about the role and what convinced you to change your mind?
It took a long time for me to realize that I wanted to act. In fact, I didn’t really realize it until I was actually doing the show. I think that I never gave myself permission to want that. But looking back, I’ve always been a performer. I was in all the school plays and really, really love performing. Then over time I told myself I was a writer now. I wasn’t sure what parts I could even play. Hollywood didn’t know what to do with me so what’s the point?
Looking back I should have gone in saying I wanted to play Ryan. But in the moment it almost felt too greedy or something. I already felt like I was asking too much by wanting to make a show about myself. I went on a real journey but now I can safely say that I love acting. It was a true delight playing this part and I don’t want to feel bad about that anymore. I almost feel like it’s another closet to come out of and want to shout from the rooftop “I love acting!”
Have you begun pursuing an acting career beyond your own show?
Not really. I’ve been sent some auditions and scripts and whatnot but the scripts are so bad. Is that OK to say? They are terrible. It’s things like gay piano teacher. It is not my journey to sit in a waiting room and audition for the role of gay guy eating a salad. If the right part came along I would be so happy to do it. I’m not someone that takes on things for the sake of doing it. I would need the role to make sense for me and it would have to be with someone whose work I respect and admire.
Fingers crossed that Special gets picked up for a second season. Do you have anything in mind for how you would want the show to evolve?
Well the first thing is that I would want it to become a half hour and be able to explore Kim. That’s a big deal for me. I feel like she kind of got shortchanged because there was no room in the structure for her to have a real emotional arc.
I would also explore a lot more sex. Gay sex. Disabled sex. It’s just going to be bigger, longer, gayer, and gimpier.
The first season of ‘Special’ is currently available to stream on Netflix and is nominated for four Primetime Emmys including Outstanding Short Form Series and acting nominations for Ryan O’Connell, Jessica Hecht, and Punam Patel.