Abby McEnany On 'Work In Progress,' Her Showtime Black Comedy Abby McEnany plays a version of herself — a mid-40s, queer, gender non-conforming woman — in a new Showtime comedy series. It's the first TV project for the Chicago improv stalwart.
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In 'Work In Progress,' A Darkly Funny Coming-Of-Middle-Age

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In 'Work In Progress,' A Darkly Funny Coming-Of-Middle-Age

In 'Work In Progress,' A Darkly Funny Coming-Of-Middle-Age

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In the new Showtime comedy series "Work In Progress," Abby McEnany joins in a long tradition of comedians playing a version of themselves on TV. The character Abby is depressed, anxious and self-conscious. Here she is talking to a co-worker. She's late to work after going to a funeral.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WORK IN PROGRESS")

ABBY MCENANY: (As Abby) It was my therapist.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Oh. Well, then...

MCENANY: (As Abby) It was a big deal to me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Of course, of course. It's just not like it was your child or something.

MCENANY: (As Abby) Well, I don't have a child.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yeah, I know. Thank God, right?

MCENANY: (As Abby) Thank God I don't have a child?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) A child that died.

MCENANY: (As Abby) Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Abby McEnany has spent decades in Chicago's improv comedy scene. She says she dealt with a long string of rejections and failed auditions. Then she wrote a pilot, which kind of out of nowhere got picked up and greenlit for a full series. She had basically no previous TV experience, and she still can't quite believe it.

MCENANY: I mean, it is really bonks. Like, I - yeah. I...

SHAPIRO: Bonks - is that short for bonkers?

MCENANY: Yeah, it is.

SHAPIRO: OK.

MCENANY: You know, I don't know. You know, it's a hip 51-year-old butch woman thing to say, Ari.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) OK.

MCENANY: I don't know.

SHAPIRO: Got it. I'm with you.

MCENANY: You haven't heard that yet?

SHAPIRO: I'm here with you.

MCENANY: When I say that, I'm the dorkiest of the dorks. But yeah, I mean - and also, I'm very, like - you see it in the episodes. I'm a very anxious person. And so, like, we got the note from Showtime, like, hey. They're going to - they want to do something with you. I'm like, I'll believe it when I see it. And then they're like, you're straight to series. I'm like, we don't have a signed contract yet. And then once they sent out the trailer - that was probably, like, four weeks ago - I'm like, well, that looks like a TV show. And now (laughter) legit...

SHAPIRO: Are you, like, still doubting...

MCENANY: Still doubting.

SHAPIRO: ...Even though you filmed the whole thing?

MCENANY: Still doubting.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about the content of the show.

MCENANY: Yes.

SHAPIRO: There is an entire episode about the difficulties that you have faced using public restrooms.

MCENANY: Yes.

SHAPIRO: Let's listen to this tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WORK IN PROGRESS")

MCENANY: (As Abby) That woman over there just gave me that whole are-you-in-the-right-bathroom look.

KARIN ANGLIN: (As Alison) That still happens?

MCENANY: (As Abby) Yeah, Ali. It still happens.

ANGLIN: (As Alison) Well, I didn't think that it would happen here.

MCENANY: (As Abby) What are you talking about? It happens everywhere. It's happened to me in gay bars.

ANGLIN: (As Alison) What? Come on.

MCENANY: (As Abby) I'm serious. Every single time I go into a public bathroom, I feel unsafe. I even do my hi; how are you voice, you know, so she can know that I'm...

ANGLIN: (As Alison) Julia Child?

MCENANY: (As Abby) ...A lady. I'm a lady.

ANGLIN: (As Alison) Oh, OK.

SHAPIRO: So I assume this translates to your own life...

MCENANY: Yes.

SHAPIRO: ...Going into women's restrooms and being told - or people just thinking you're not supposed to be there.

MCENANY: Yes.

SHAPIRO: Have you developed coping mechanisms...

MCENANY: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...Or, like, fallback lines that you use?

MCENANY: Yes, I sure do. One is - I often walk in, and I go, hi.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MCENANY: I mean, I think people are like, why is this person talking to me in the bathroom? And I'm just - it is a safety thing, you know? Like, I really - I do hate conflict. And I get yelled at and, like, looked at, and it's very stressful. It's a - I get nervous using a bathroom, and I'm 51. And that takes a lot of energy, but I do have these mechanisms. One is - I'm like, hi. Hi. Hi. And then if I'm, like, in the stall and there's nobody else and somebody comes in, I, like, kind of clear my throat femininely. I go...

SHAPIRO: What does that sound like?

MCENANY: I mean, I don't - I honestly don't - I try to be - like, instead of going (clearing throat), I go (clearing throat). I mean, it's so silly. But what was funny is that I was in Boston with my sister, and we were at a movie theater. I was like, OK. I'm going to go to the bathroom before we go home. And I heard somebody come in, and I'm going (clearing throat). She's like, Abby, it's me (laughter) because she knew I did that. But, like, I mean, it is, like, this constant - I'm, like, kind of boxing out under the - oh, this sounds like a real butch reference. But, like, in basketball, I'm boxing out under the net, you know? It's, like, always...

SHAPIRO: Yeah, I don't know what that means.

MCENANY: Oh, classic. Yes. Oh, I'm nailing it. Anyways, I'll go back. So it's, like, constantly putting defenses up for myself...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

MCENANY: ...To avoid conflict.

SHAPIRO: So was making this episode, like, cathartic or retraumatizing? I mean, what did it feel like to play all this out in front of cameras?

MCENANY: Well, I found it kind of cool that we got to show my real experience. And then also, I have to say, wow. I mean, compared to trans folks, I have it really easy, you know? I just think things are hard, and I think there's a lot of society that has no idea. And we just wanted to show that there's a struggle for safe space, you know?

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

MCENANY: There's a - and at other times, I get really angry about it. And other times, I just want to cry about it.

SHAPIRO: I think right now a lot of people are sort of trying to navigate questions about gender without offending someone or...

MCENANY: Yes.

SHAPIRO: ...Appearing ignorant.

MCENANY: Yes.

SHAPIRO: And so I really like that in the first episode, your character sort of steps in it as...

MCENANY: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...She's about to set up a date with someone she met at a restaurant. Let's listen to this phone call.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WORK IN PROGRESS")

THEO GERMAINE: (As Chris) Can I buy you a drink sometime?

MCENANY: (As Abby) Really? Yeah. Actually, I'd love it. I haven't been out for a drink with an attractive woman in a really long time, so...

GERMAINE: (As Chris) Actually, I'm a trans man.

MCENANY: (As Abby) Well, I haven't been out with an attractive trans man in ever, so...

That actually was based on a real - my real-life relationship with my ex-boyfriend, Alex. And I have to say, they now use they/them pronouns.

SHAPIRO: But, at the time, used male pronouns.

MCENANY: Yes. Yes. So we wanted to show the real thing. Like, it's just like, huh - trans man.

SHAPIRO: And in the show, a friend says, wait. Does the fact that you're dating a trans man mean you're not lesbian anymore?

MCENANY: Right.

SHAPIRO: Which doesn't seem like that far out a question, but I think people might be afraid to ask it because it seems...

MCENANY: Right.

SHAPIRO: ...Rude or offensive.

MCENANY: Right. I think in the show, you know, it kind of turns into this joke. But I have to say, a friendly acquaintance asked me that back in 2009 when I told them I was dating this young trans man, and it was sort of accusatory. So I guess you're not a lesbian anymore. And in my mind, I was like, do you have a whiteboard at home with all the lesbians? Are you going to move - are you going to take me off? Like, who cares? Like, so...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

MCENANY: That made me laugh. So, like, we definitely softened it in the show, but I was just sort of like, well, all right. I don't know.

SHAPIRO: Just to go back to the experience of doing this for the first time...

MCENANY: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell me any specific story of something that happened on set that you were like, oh, this is a steep learning curve? Like, I've never done this before.

MCENANY: I have to say, every day was a steep learning curve. But, I mean, our crew - I have to say, our crew was so amazing. I was so well taken care of. And I'd be like, you guys, it's my first time. And any time they would say something, I'd be like, is that an industry term? And they'd be like, no. I'm asking to get a sandwich. I was like, OK. You know...

SHAPIRO: Is a sandwich a tool?

MCENANY: Yeah. Hey; what's happening? Yeah, but - and everybody was just so, so great.

SHAPIRO: I can just imagine the - whether it's, like, having a car service come pick you up or having an assistant on set to get whatever you need, like, it must have been a real culture shock.

MCENANY: I got to tell you, we were flown out to LA to do press. I got an email like, your driver will be waiting at LAX at the baggage claim with your name on a placard. I was like, what? I mean - and Gary Levine, who's the president of Showtime - I was telling him that. He's like, did you take a picture? I'm like, Gary, I would have fallen off of the escalator (laughter). Like, I wanted to. You know, Ari, I wanted to take a picture. I was like, there's some guy down there? I mean, this is all...

SHAPIRO: Something tells me it's not going to be the last one.

MCENANY: Well, I...

SHAPIRO: Somebody will be waiting at an airport with a whiteboard with your name on it in the future.

MCENANY: With a whiteboard - and they're taking me from the lesbian one to the queer dyke sign (laughter). That's a callback. Anyways, yeah. I mean, it's just - it really - it is a dream. Yeah, I'm just really lucky.

SHAPIRO: Well, Abby McEnany, congratulations on the show. I've loved watching the first few episodes and can't wait to see the rest.

MCENANY: Ari, thank you so much. This is really amazing. I really appreciate the time.

SHAPIRO: She is the producer, writer and star of "Work In Progress" on Showtime.

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