Emmy Award-winning creator, director, and producer Ryan Murphy has never shied away from a gay-centric story line, whether it be in the terrifying context of "American Horror Story" or the fun, vibrant musical juggernaut "Glee." But Murphy has never tackled the subject with as much poignant charm and outrageous humor as the initially controversial freshman series "The New Normal," which 18 episodes in, has hit its stride after a rocky critical and ratings start.
The series's message, "A family is a family and love is love," is a point driven home in each moral-based episode as recently engaged couple Bryan Collins and David Murray (Grammy-winning Andrew Rannells and Justin Bartha) await the birth of their son by surrogate Goldie Clemmons (Georgia King). Goldie is now a chosen member of their family, as is her wise-beyond-her-years daughter Shania Clemmons (Bebe Wood).
Murphy, Rannells, Bartha, King, and Wood gathered at PaleyFest 2013, along with two other cast members: "Real Housewife" NeNe Leakes, who plays Bryan's protégé Rocky; and Jayson Blair, who plays Goldie's simpleminded ex-husband and Shania's dad Clay Clemmons. Ali Adler, co-creator and executive producer, and Dante Di Loreto, executive producer, also joined the panel, which was moderated by John Stamos, who has had a recent story arc as Jane Forrest's love interest. (Emmy Award-winning Ellen Barkin, who plays Goldie's bigoted and opinionated mom Forrest was unable to attend due to a prior commitment.)
Here are the most awesome revelations shared by the panel and some of the wackiest moments of the night.
1. The stars aligned for Ryan Murphy's real life and the show
It's no surprise that "The New Normal" is based on creator Murphy's life (he and his husband, David Miller, welcomed a baby boy, Logan, through a surrogate on Christmas Eve), but what is surprising is how the stars aligned for the new father and his new series. The day "The New Normal" was picked up was the day Murphy and Miller found out they had a baby on the way.
2. Bebe Wood's Little Edie Beale impression was not learned for "The New Normal"
Who can forget Bebe Wood amazingly spot-on impression of Little Edie Beale from "Grey Gardens" in the episode "Sofa's Choice." What's even more amazing is that Wood didn't learn that impression for the show! Adler heard Wood doing the impersonation and ran her over to Murphy, who made her do it for hours. "She's such a great mimic," Murphy said of Wood, "and she does, in fact, love Maggie Smith." Wood impersonated the "Downton Abbey" star in a later episode.
See Wood's impression of Little Edie:
Wood's Maggie Smith impressions:
The only impression she had to learn was Cher, and Rannells gave her great advice: "Don't watch Cher. Watch drag queens doing Cher." Good thing Wood's favorite show is "RuPaul's Drag Race."
3. But Bebe Wood can't do Georgia King's Scottish accent
Of all the amazing impressions that Bebe is capable of, she can't do her onscreen mom's real Scottish accent. Why? Because it's too fancy!
4. Ryan Murphy believes television can change the world
Murphy talked extensively about the power of television, but one particularly poignant anecdote is from a dinner at director-producer Rob Reiner's house, where he had a conversation with two lawyers (one conservative, one liberal) who are working to overturn Proposition 8. The lawyers were asked how has public opinion moved so far and fast in the four years since the proposition passed. Without missing a beat, both lawyers said TV. Murphy called out "Glee," "The New Normal," and "Modern Family" as examples.
5. Ryan Murphy loves Catholicism
This season has had a story arc involving an open-minded priest, Father Michael (played by John Benjamin Hickey), whom Bryan visits regularly. This theme was particularly important to Murphy, who was an altar boy and a devout Catholic.
As he got older and realized he was gay -- and he learned the religion's stance on the issue -- he became very distant from it. "I missed it. And I still miss it," Murphy said. But he's optimistic that the church he loved as a child will be eventually inviting for everyone.
Stamos suggested Murphy would be the perfect candidate for the new pope, and Murphy joked, yes, "for the clothes alone!"
6. But he hates the word 'camp'
Some people might call Murphy's creative style "camp," but don't! He hates that word applied to his work. In his mind, camp is unintentional (he used the example of "Showgirls," because it was intended as a serious film), and his work is extremely intentional. "If it was camp, it wouldn't have a sense of irony and focus -- which it does," he said.
7. Ryan Murphy and Ali Adler sought out NeNe Leakes
Murphy, a die-hard pop-culture aficionado, loves Leakes. When he and Adler were seeking out someone for the Coach Roz role on "Glee" (she'll be making her return soon), he couldn't get Leakes out of his mind. When he saw her much-publicized argument with Star Jones, he knew she could go up against Jane Lynch's Sue Sylvester.
Murphy and Adler wrote her a page-long monologue, and Leakes delivered it flawlessly. When they were writing "The New Normal," they knew it was a different part but had full confidence in her acting chops. The rest is history.
8. John Stamos's die-hard fan jumps onstage
A starstruck audience member named Arianna could barely contain herself. She loves John Stamos! He called her up to the stage for a hug and slide across the stage to embrace her before inviting her up to hug the members on the panel. The whole event was taped on her iPhone, so be on the lookout for that.
More good Stamos news: If "The New Normal" gets greenlit for a Season 2, he will be back as Brice.
9. Andrew Rannells and Bebe Wood are kindred spirits in real life, too
The chemistry and camaraderie between Bryan and Shania is irresistible. These characters are definitely kindred spirits, and so are the actors who play them. For example, Rannells got Bebes (as he calls her) the most unexpectedly perfect gift for her 11th birthday. He had actress Christine Ebersole ("Amadeus," "Richie Rich") call her and leave a message. Wood was so elated that she played the message repeatedly for King.
10. Adler said the show could just as easily be called 'Now'
While many think that "The New Normal" refers only to the relationship between the lead couple, it doesn't. "'The New Normal' isn't just about gay couple," Adler said. It's about all the characters, the different kinds of families, and the world today. She said it's about what's happening in the world now: "It's all new; it's all now."
Also keep an eye out for an upcoming episode that tackles the subject of the Boy Scouts and LGBT acceptance. It's a particularly important issue to Adler, who has a son with her former partner, actress Sara Gilbert.
11. Yoko Ono said yes to 'The New Normal' using a John Lennon song
Ryan Murphy dished that the season is building toward Bryan and David's baby and marriage. And an act that both Murphy and Adler are giddy about doesn't have any words. Adler called it a "special, important episode."
They wanted sentimental music to use for those scenes, and Murphy was hopeful they could use John Lennon's song "Beautiful Boy." They reached out to Ono, and she said yes! Adler also hinted that the marriage and baby don't happen the way fans might expect.
"The New Normal" airs on Tuesdays at 9:30 PM on NBC.