From New York’s nightlife scene to HBO, Bridget Everett has traversed genres to win audiences over to her irreverent, heartfelt brand of comedy.
As the inspiration for and the star of the new series “Somebody Somewhere,” she plays Sam, a fictionalized version of herself still living in her Kansas hometown. Alongside a talented ensemble cast, she gives a convincing portrayal of someone who is saved from floundering by a town that never felt like home and, in the process, challenges notions of belonging — to a particular place or a version of themselves.
“I thought it was really interesting to think about what it might be like for somebody like Bridget Everett who doesn’t go to New York but stays home. If you’re somebody who feels like you’re a little too much or you’re a little too big — and you never fit the hometown mold — what would it be like to go home?” she said of signing on to do the HBO series.
Everett, 49, has long been a fixture of Manhattan’s nightclub scene, making a name for herself by performing alt-cabaret and raunchy original songs at iconic institutions like Joe’s Pub. And in recent years, she’s charmed the rest of the country in small and big screen roles, on comedy series such as Comedy Central’s “Inside Amy Schumer” and HBO’s “Camping,” as well as a dramatic turn in the Sundance hit “Patti Cake$.”
She has been developing “Somebody Somewhere,” along with co-producer Carolyn Strauss, since series creators Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen pitched her the idea in 2018. While the show is fictionalized, she said the themes — including the loss of her sister Briton to cancer — pull from her upbringing.
“Losing your voice, feeling like you’re rudderless through life, giving up on yourself — those are all things that hit close to the bone,” Everett told NBC News.
While it may be hard to imagine the larger-than-life performer ever losing her voice, her candidness — combined with wit, self-deprecation and, of course, talent — is part of what makes her, and the show, so charming. Billed as a “coming-of-middle-age story,” the series is chock-full of existential dread, nostalgia and comic relief, perfectly suited to what has been a disorienting, sometimes laughable time warp of the past two years.
In “Somebody Somewhere,” Sam Miller (Everett) is in a state of limbo after having moved back to her hometown of Manhattan, Kansas, to care for her dying sister and best friend, Holly, who has since succumbed to cancer. No longer a caretaker, she spends most of her time looking despondent, sleeping on the couch in Holly’s empty home and working at a drab local testing center.
Her mother, father and surviving sister — played with a skillful combination of tragedy and comedy by Jane Brody, Mike Hagerty and Mary Catherine Garrison — are too busy avoiding their grief, and a whole host of other problems, to offer Sam solace. That’s pretty much the state of things until Sam is befriended by her co-worker Joel (Jeff Hiller), a former high school classmate and fellow show choir enthusiast. Still enamored with Sam’s singing from their student days, Joel pushes her to take part in a local underground night of entertainment, called Choir Practice. Led by the charismatic M.C., Fred Rococo (played by drag king Murray Hill), the open mic is a romping celebration of queerness and individuality, secretly taking place in a mall church, right in the heart of the buttoned-up hometown.
Choir Practice offers Sam a lifeline and the audience a glimmer of hope on her behalf: Maybe life in Kansas doesn’t have to be that bad, after all.
“In my hometown, there’s no gay bar. There’s not even a gay night at a bar, as far as I know. But there’s a gay community,” Everett said of the inspiration for Choir Practice. She and the show creators conjured up a kind of aspirational home for Manhattan’s queer residents and anyone part of that tribe by nature of being an outsider.
“It’s meant for queer people and people that feel like they don’t fit in. It’s sort of this world of misfits that find each other and give each other a sense of place,” she said. “It was more the representation of what I dreamed it could be and can be, and maybe what it is and I just don’t know it.”
Hiller quipped about finding his own version of Choir Practice — in the “pre-internet, but just barely” days — as a college student in his home state of Texas. A dual theology and theater major, he found a queer community in the living room of his female pastor, who paired service with mimosas and occasionally received an attendee in drag, he said.
Everett and Hiller’s symbiosis, on the topic of Choir Practice and just about anything that has a punchline, is evident in their characters’ onscreen chemistry. If Sam, and Everett’s own story, are the soul of the show, Joel is its heart.
“There was a mandate that no one is a cliché. Everyone is a real person, and as part of that, they allowed me to rift a little here and there. With Bridget, it was just natural. There’s just a reality to the way people riff that you can’t really write on the page,” Hiller said of developing his character with Everett and the show’s writers.
The final product is a nuanced, eye-catching performance that elevates the figure of the gay best friend into the hero of the show. Joel rescues Sam from herself and does so with poise, humor and a healthy dose of tough love.
“You could see how somebody like Jeff, who appears unassuming, sweet, charming and funny, is going to be a problem in the best way for Sam,” Everett said of Hiller’s performance.
Though Hiller’s command of the role would indicate otherwise, the actor hasn’t often been given the opportunity to play an onscreen lead. Instead, he’s often been typecast as the catty server or, according to his IMDb page, “frazzled salesman.”
“I’m never going to play anybody but a queer person. There are limits to my ability,” Hiller said, wryly. “And I have this theory that any role written for a queer person that has heft usually goes to a straight star. And all of the supporting roles for gay, male-presenting people are bitchy customer service representatives. That’s just the state of Hollywood.”
Luckily, Everett is a student of New York’s queer-friendly nightlife — not heteronormative Hollywood. And “Somebody Somewhere” is more interested in challenging stereotypes, about people, small towns and middle age, than accepting the status quo.
“What’s fun about this show is that, when you have somebody like Jeff, or Murray or even me, sometimes Hollywood doesn’t know what to do with people that are different. And so you have to show them what to do with people that seem different," she said.
“Somebody Somewhere” season one premiered on HBO Max on Jan. 16.
This article originally appeared on NBC Out, the LGBTQ vertical of NBC News.