‘American Housewife’ Creator Sarah Dunn on Living Life as the ‘Second-Fattest Housewife in Westport’

Sonia Saraiya
Variety

ABC’s “American Housewife” follows the adventures of Katie Otto (Katy Mixon), a mom of three fed up with Connecticut life even as she’s trying to fit into the world of yoga-pants-wearing, green-juice-drinking, mansion-owning suburbanites. As creator and executive producer Sarah Dunn tells Variety, Katie’s life is her own. In fact, her family is still on the East Coast while Dunn works on “American Housewife” in Los Angeles, living the life that she then puts on-screen. The sitcom just got a full season pickup. Dunn spoke to Variety about Katie’s feelings about fat and feminism, in advance of tonight’s Thanksgiving episode.

Do you feel like you based Katie off of yourself?

Yeah, yeah, definitely. I know — it’s a little scary — but true. And the husband character in the show is really based on my husband. Because he teaches and you know, does all that stuff. It is very strange to be sitting behind monitors watching a family act out while my family is on the other coast.

And Katie feels very different from the other women in her town. There’s a combative element there.

The truth is, I have great friends, and I love the women in my town. They’re all so excited about the show — it’s been really wonderful. When I moved to the town, I had little kids, and I gained some weight, and I really wasn’t interested in going on a diet or anything. The moms just looked great. All of my friends, they all look wonderful. It started to make me a little angry, how good everyone looked. I kind of channeled that into this character.

In the pilot, when she says, “I don’t see why a mother of three needs to have” — I think I said “an ass like a 19-year old” — I really, firmly, think that’s true. I think that our culture is doing something to women — let’s say women in their late 30s and 40s and probably even 50s, — where they really are expected to keep this insane level of fitness and youth. I find that just a real waste of women’s lives. I really do think that. I’m not saying that people need to be overweight or whatever, but that kind of thing of just being so, so focused. Exercising twice a day, drinking green juice all the time. To me, I find that, a waste of feminine potential. Certainly, Katie Otto shares that opinion.

The speech that she gives at the end of the pilot — that did seem very feminist to me, at its core.

Yeah, I think it is feminist at its core. You know what it’s like. It’s not just Westport, it’s really all around the country. You live in this town. I really find it upsetting. I do. I don’t really go on diets because when I go on a diet, my brain stops working. I mean, really, that’s all I think about, what I can eat, what I can’t eat. I sort of decided that’s not what I want to do with my time on this planet. It’s not it.

The weight issue in the show has popped up a few times, but really, Katie is a larger-than-life character and it has nothing to do with her size. First of all, she’s beautiful and gorgeous. It’s just part of the character, and she has an attitude about it. The show certainly isn’t about it in general, I would say.

One thing I am happy about is when we changed the title, which — I loved my original title.

“The Second Fattest Housewife in Westport”?

You know what, after we shot the pilot, it felt like the show had a broader appeal. That title sort of limited us. But what I do like is we can go back there when we want to and talk about it. I like to talk about it.

How do you strike that balance between being aware of this and talking about it, but then also trying not to bring down your own characters?

Katie’s attitude about her size and her size is my attitude and my size. I have this experience — I was at the pool at this place I was staying at in L.A., and I was in my Lands’ End bathing suit, it has a skirt on it. I was just in the pool with my kids, and this little eight-year-old girl swam over. She had goggles, and she kept like popping down and looking at my legs, and then popping back up and staring at me. She did that four times, and then she finally said to me — she popped up and she said, “Why are you wearing a dress?” [Laughs.] Then I started to explain to her sometimes, you know, when you’re a lady my age you might want to cover up a little more. I was sort of educating her on age. I think she thought I was a little crazy. Trying to explain to an eight year old why you’re wearing a skirt in the pool in Los Angeles is difficult.

That innocence with the way that children view these things is interesting, too. It comes out in your episode with Anna-Kat — with her drawing Katie like an increasingly large sphere and not seeing anything wrong with it.

Yeah. After my kids saw the episode, they now are drawing me like that. They do it as a joke. They think it’s funny. I’m like, Will you stop it?

The show sort of ricochets through my life with my kids, because I have taken a lot of just straight lines of dialogue out of their mouths and put them in the show. Every time I go home, I just come back with stories. They have a lot of material.

It’s funny. I don’t think my kids think of me as fat. And whatever, I don’t want my kids to think of me as fat. I don’t particularly think of myself as fat. Whatever. It’s been interesting, also, teaching them that fat is not a nice word. That we have had to have that conversation because they are little.

The other thing is, in my house, we do laugh about everything. That’s one of our things. Even my son is autistic —generally, it’s rare for an autistic child to have a great sense of humor — but my son does, and it’s really funny. It’s actually really nice to create something he can watch and love and laugh at. He watches these episodes over and over again and then repeats huge runs of dialog. He knows the show better than I do.

Tell me a little bit about the term “housewife” and what it means to you.

You know, I spent my life trying to avoid exactly what I am doing now. I was very happily writing novels in my barn and writing a pilot every year or two and having a very nice life — because I didn’t want this. I didn’t want to be running a TV show while I had little kids. Now I have exactly what I did not want.

I will say, it’s really hard to do. That was not my imagination. It’s not easy to have this job and to have two little kids, that’s just the truth. I am going to have to figure out how to make it work as the seasons go along, if there are more seasons.

For me the word “housewife,” because of like, the Real Housewives — I don’t think housewife really means what it used to mean. To me, it’s been a little bit overused to the point that it’s not as loaded as it might be. I feel like in a perfect world we would say “American Mom with Kids,” or something like that. “Mom with Small Children.” “Mother Raising Children.” Even women who have full time jobs, or part-time jobs, or whatever — they are dealing with lot of nonsense. There’s a lot of nonsense that goes along with raising kids right now.

For example, just signing you kids up to do something can be crazy. My son’s school has this thing where you have to put a quarter in his lunchbox every day for him to buy milk. You can’t put a dollar, you can’t give him a hundred dollars at the beginning of the year and say give my kid milk. Every day, there has to be a quarter in there. And let me tell you, it drives me crazy. To me, that’s just like, make mom work. That’s such a bullshit thing.

But the point is, it has become so many things like that. There are so many forms, so many rules, so many extras, so much volunteering, and so many scarecrows you’ve got to build. Half of what a mom does right now is figuring out what to buy at what store. It’s such a waste of everybody’s energy. It’s crazy. And women seem to be bearing the brunt of it, I think. Even for working moms. You know what? It can drive you crazy. It really can. I don’t know what the answer is on that one, but certainly the character of Katie, on the show, is incensed about stuff like that.

There are wonderful moments to it but there’s a lot of hassle. I am really bad at being a mom. I think it’s hard for me to be a mom. I do my best. I am not the poster child for being a mother, I will say that. I wish I was.

I read someplace that men, this is … I don’t even … basically that men like tasks that they can complete and that are done. They were using this as an example as why men don’t like to do laundry and why men don’t like to do the dishes, because it’s never complete. It’s never complete. The truth is women don’t particularly like doing things that are never complete either, but we pretty much have to. Who likes to do something, a task that never ends, like laundry? When you just have a pile of, like a Mount Rushmore of laundry on top of your washing machine, and little kids, you are just like — oh my gosh. It really doesn’t end.

Katy — she’ll be in the kitchen on set, cooking or something, and smiling to herself, and I’ll have to go up to her and shake her by the shoulders. “Katy, no.” This is hard. We try to put some of that stuff on the show. I have thought that we should always put a mop in Katie’s hand. That’s what they used to do in “Roseanne.” That’s how they showed that she was cleaning the house, they would just put a mop in her hand. I’m like, maybe we should just put a mop in Katie’s hand.

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