‘EastSiders’ John Halbach on the show’s unexpected success and reaching an international queer community
If it’s true what they say about Minnesota being one of the “stickiest” of U.S. states, one of those states that hold tightly onto its residents from cradle to grave, John Halbach is a flagrant exception. How many other second-tier Minneapolis suburbanites do you know who followed a path that took them from working part-time at MOA’s Tucci Benucch as a teen to putting in bicoastal time at both of America’s media capitals, New York and Los Angeles?
Okay, probably a few, but how many of them also played a major role in a groundbreaking and lauded LGBTQ+ web series?
Halbach, alongside the show’s multihyphenate writer-director-creator Kit Williamson (“Mad Men”), has shepherded the evolution of “EastSiders” from the scrappy but mordant YouTube series it began as back in 2012 to the sprawling, critically acclaimed Netflix acquisition it became. One which, in its fourth and final season, earned no fewer than 8 Daytime Emmy Award nominations, placing it at the top of the list among digital series.
Halbach, who grew up in Burnsville (and incidentally picks 5-8 Club in the battle of the Juicy Lucys), is Williamson’s husband off-screen. But his “EastSiders” character, Ian, spends most of the show’s run as the genial straight man to a series of volatile girlfriends, a fount of normcore statis at the center of an ever-expanding Altmanesque ensemble of eccentrics.
That all changes with season four. (Obligatory spoiler alert.) In the aftermath of yet another breakup, Ian reignites his own heretofore hibernating bisexuality, with a side helping of polyamory. While it’s a development Williamson says became “a lot of people’s favorite storyline in the final season,” it was also born of serendipity.
“We always kind of joke every season how there’s a big question mark about how to keep Ian on the show, because who I’ve played opposite of have gotten other jobs like Constance Wu (Kathy) or gotten pregnant like Brianna Brown (Hillary),” Halbach says. “So Kit was left in a bit of a pickle being like, ‘How do we keep this character on the show?’ And I think he ultimately came up with a really great story about me exploring bisexuality with a really amazing lineup of actors.”
Unlike the standard TV trope of using bisexuality as a punchline or acquiescing to the prevalent stereotype that bisexual men are merely making an obligatory pitstop on the road to Gaytown, Ian’s journey is sensitively rendered, exploring the headspace of both Ian and those eager to label him. Halbach says it’s earned plaudits from the show’s fans in the bi community, noting, “I heard from a lot of people that really identified with it and saw themselves in it.”
But as much of a left turn as the plot twist may have seemed to some, it’s of a piece with Williamson’s overall vision of a thriving, and yes sometimes floundering, community of sexually diverse young adults just making it up as they go along and hoping for the best. And the bigger the show’s footprint became, the more deeply Williamson felt his mission to push the envelope.
“I certainly didn’t anticipate all of this happening—from coming to Netflix, getting nominated for 16 Emmys, to being subtitled in more than two dozen languages worldwide. That’s been a real gift to be able to reach people in countries where being gay is illegal or dangerous, to be able to kind of be a beacon for a kind of life that is possible but may not feel possible for people where they’re growing up, because that was my story. I didn’t know any gay people growing up, so the first gay people that I met were characters on television,” Williamson says. “I’m very proud of the fact that it’s had a positive impact on people’s lives. Just the act of making something unapologetically queer is still a political act. It is still a form of activism.”
And when it comes to activism, the couple walks the talk. Halbach’s duties as director of video and social media at Queerty (including a second series of “That’s Our Sally,” a show he created for Trixie Mattel and PrEP) and Williamson’s own projects in development (a new series called “Unconventional,” about a pair of queer siblings, and a screenplay based on L.C. Rosen’s young adult novel “Camp”) have been keeping them both busy, even in the time of coronavirus. But they’ve had plenty of time to process what Pride means in our precise moment in history, and you’d be forgiven for thinking their observations were coming from the mouths of “EastSiders’” own loquacious urban dwellers.
“I do think that we’re not going back to the purely celebratory Pride. I feel like we need to remember the purpose of Pride, and this year has been a good reminder of the fact that Pride started out as a protest,” Williamson says. “And not just LGBT equality, but equality for all people. I think we’re getting back to our activist roots with Pride this year.”
“I’ll miss the Paul Abdul concerts,” Halbach admits.
“We can do both! Get you a Pride that can do both,” Williamson retorts.