The Surprising Queer Joy of D.E.B.S.

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Looking for some quality comedy entertainment to check out? Who better to turn to for under-the-radar comedy recommendations than comedians? In our recurring series “Underrated,” we chat with writers and performers from the comedy world about an unsung comedy moment of their choosing that they think deserves more praise.

Rom-coms are back, baby! Snuck in between the glut of superhero films is a new generation of hot people falling in love to a Motown soundtrack, and leading the charge this year have been queer love stories like Fire Island and the upcoming Bros. But D.E.B.S. did it first. The 2004 lesbian-spy romantic comedy stars Sara Foster and Jordana Brewster as Amy Bradshaw and Lucy Diamond, respectively, who are enemies on opposite sides of a very cartoonish war between good (the U.S. government) and evil (diamond thieves, Russian assassins, people who want to blow up Australia). Amy falls for Lucy while trying to capture her and discovers that she’s not the heterosexual teen superspy the government wants her to be.

D.E.B.S. bombed when it was released. Not even queer saint Holland Taylor could save it. But it eventually grew the cult following it deserved. Jenny Hagel, veteran writer for Late Night With Seth Meyers and head writer for The Amber Ruffin Show, is one such fan. As half of the “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell” team, she is one of the leading purveyors of lesbian jokes on network TV. Hagel admires the jokes in D.E.B.S., but she also responds to the unexpectedly tender love story. “You get a really great meet-cute, and you get a really strong sense that both the protagonists have a thing that they need that is bound in the other person,” she says. “It’s a really lovely execution of that genre.” Hagel shared her love of silliness, the origins of The Amber Ruffin Show’s “How Did We Get Here” segment, and why Carol shouldn’t be the happiest movie in the lesbian canon.

Why did you want to talk about D.E.B.S.?
I think it’s great. It’s fun and funny, and per your column’s name, underrated. I love any movie where there’s a really cool intersection between the very silly and the very emotionally sincere, and this movie does a very good job with that.

It seems like when it came out, people kind of missed the emotional sincerity. I read one review that basically critiqued it for being a boner-killer or, what was the phrase, “libido-killing.”
Well, my first response would be that I don’t know that the movie is for boners. I don’t know if that’s the intended demographic.

You don’t say.
The other thing is that all this emotional sincerity is happening on a parallel track of this cartoony superhero-supervillain vibe, and it’s very cool to have the two in the same world.

There’s a scene, right after the two have met, where the supervillain goes to the protagonist’s house to try to talk to her. They have this really lovely conversation, where the protagonist who isn’t really out yet is trying to figure out why she’s so drawn to this woman. It’s a very sincere conversation, and very resonant to when you’re first figuring out that you’re gay. To get into the woman’s house, the villain uses these suction cups to climb the wall, like Batman did in the original Batman show. The coexistence of those two things is so lovely. You get to have a really fun, silly time, but it’s underscored with real human feelings. At the same time, you get to explore real human feelings without it tipping over into maudlin.

The movie is really insightful. When Amy says, “I’m here because when I’m with you, I feel more like myself than when I’m with me,” I was like, That should be the litmus test for a healthy relationship.
Right? It’s a really beautiful line. And right after that, the SWAT team raids the lair. It’s literally called the Evil Lair.

How hard is it to find a queer comedy and not a queer tragedy?
It’s the hardest thing. It’s impossible. If you have one you think I should see, please tell me about it. There are only a few, and it feels like there are truly none where the problem isn’t the queer person being queer. It’s hard to find a movie about two women falling in love where someone doesn’t die at the end or something sad doesn’t happen. Carol is a feel-good movie because they end up together at the end, even though Carol loses custody of her daughter. That tells you how starved we are for non-tragic content: I got to the end of Carol and was like, “What a happy ending!”

You were right earlier, though, when you said this movie was more in the realm of cartoons and supervillains. Jimmi Simpson’s character is Shaggy from Scooby-Doo.
Oh, yeah, when they rob the bank, there’s dollar signs on the bags of money. It’s really fun in that way. Like Lucy’s idea, when she gets mad, is that she’s gonna blow up Australia.

As a performer, how do you straddle the line — like this movie does — between something cartoonish or sketchy and something more grounded and emotional?
I’m always searching for that exact thing. I’m trying to find the right balance between Here is a sincere sentiment and Here is a joke that’s going to lighten the mood a little bit and Here are three jokes that are gonna loosen you up so that you feel ready to hear the sincere thing that’s coming. If you’re trying to do comedy that has any other level to it, so much of the execution is figuring out how to balance those things. How do we build up to a joke so that, when it’s finally delivered, there’s a release that’s really satisfying? Or how do we create a moment that can bear a little bit of sincerity? Or, if we’ve taken a moment to say something really serious, how serious can we get before we have to lighten it with a joke? I think that may be part of what I really respond to in this movie.

What do you feel the role of news comedy, political comedy, is right now? Some people feel like they want to be able to change the national conversation with their comedy, while other people see themselves as more morale-boosting.
I have to approach it as Writing jokes is a thing I enjoy doing, and it is a way I process my feelings. I’m not a big fan of going into writing with the idea of changing the world or changing the conversation. You kind of can’t do those things on purpose. The most you can do is be honest and see what happens after that.

I was relieved this movie was as kind as it was. The characters that are obstacles to the romance — Meagan Good’s character, Holland Taylor’s character, the friend who calls her a gay slut — all come to understand that it would be bad to stand in the way of love.

I was really, really glad about how they handled Max because I was prepared for an “angry Black woman” stereotype. But her frustration is absolutely reasonable, and she winds up being very tender.
Yeah, because when is it from? 2004? Right in that danger zone of “could be fine, could have aged terribly.”

I was talking before about wanting a movie that’s not about someone coming out. And I have a lot of affection for this movie, so I’m not dumping on this movie in any way, but that was right around the time that people needed to see a lot of movies about coming out. It was around the time that people were starting to talk in a much more open and unfettered way about their coming-out experiences. It’s a nice little time capsule of that period.

Like how it’s eventually revealed that the reason she’s a spy is because she’s so adept at closeting herself. It’s her superpower.
I love it. I love when a movie just says the thing. Sometimes we think that’s too on the nose or too elementary, but I like that it says what it means. And that’s really a moment for that: You’re really good at lying. Do you want to do more of that? Or do you wanna go to art school in Barcelona?

What different muscles do you flex as a head writer of The Amber Ruffin Shows versus being on staff for Late Night?
As a staff writer, my job is to say the thing I’m trying to say. I have an idea — whether it’s comedic or satirical or sincere, whatever it is — I’m trying to figure out the best way to say it. Over at Amber’s show, where I’m head writer, I think of my job as helping other people say the things that they want to say. I get to pull back and have a more bird’s-eye view and go, This person brought this to me. What are they trying to say, and how can I help them say this better? Not trying to put my own jokes in or my own point of view, but trying to understand their point of view and figuring out the best way to help them say that. I like getting to use those two muscles, which to me feel very different.

How do you differentiate the voices of the two hosts in your head?
I think I’ve just been around them so much that at this point I have a gut sense of things they would or would not say, topics that they’re interested in. I’m not always right. I do my best. But it is different, typing the same thing for myself versus Seth versus Amber, it does get phrased differently.

Can you think of an example?
When I write for Amber, there’s definitely a lot more exclamation points.

And more opportunities for music.
Right. I’m probably writing the word sings in parentheses a lot.

How did the show come to be so musical?
Really organically. Amber just loves to sing. She writes a lot of songs. She’d already written a lot of songs over at Late Night. Amber does a lot of writing for her own show, so she just started writing songs for it — and also dug through a pile of songs she’d written for Seth that had gotten cut. I think it’s just a part of how she processes the news.

Feel free to correct me if I’m off base, but it seems like Amber’s show is able to look at a longer perspective on a news story, whereas Late Night is more immediate.

Is that just a product of one being weekly and the other nightly? Or where did that come from?
Maybe, but I think it’s also just a choice we made. It’s interesting to all of us on staff. The segment that we do, “How Did We Get Here,” developed organically from Amber and me both following Michael Harriot. He would do these long threads about little-known parts of Black history. One day, Amber said, “Huh. What if we did that on our show?” I think we are in an era of a collective realization that we were taught a very specific, tailored version of history in school, and now there’s a collective hunger for the real story or parts of the story that were left out. So I think it’s less about what one show can or cannot sustain. All of Amber’s show is shaped by her genuine interests and the interests of the writing staff.

Going back to sketch characters getting into sincere issues, how did Marjorie Taylor Greene become part of the show?
A writer named Ian Morgan brought in a ridiculous sketch after that video of her surfaced of her yelling at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez through her office mail slot. It tickled us because it’s such a nonsense approach. And the Lee press-on nails were really just the icing on the cake.

People don’t think enough about nail acting.
Thank you for finally saying it. And that sketch originated back before we had a studio audience, so we were really just trying to choose things — not in a selfish way, but in a sincere way — by going, This is fun for us, so hopefully it’ll be fun for someone else. 

How has having an audience changed writing for the show or performing the show?
The nice thing is that we have focused a lot less on things that require us to stop, so we have less things like special effects or pretaped elements. And part of that is because we don’t want to lose the really fun element of having a live audience. When the lights go down and the music starts and the announcer says Amber’s name and she comes out — that’s all really exciting. It’s not manufactured. I get excited and see Amber every minute of every day of every week.

I heard somebody say one time that theater is what happens in the air between the stage and the audience. I think about that sometimes when we tape. The experience is what we want, not necessarily just the finished product you watch on Peacock. The experience in the room together is what makes it special.

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The Surprising Queer Joy of D.E.B.S.