Icing: ‘Cost of Living’ is the Comedy-Drama You Need to Shack Up With
Probably our favorite portmanteau is the “comedy-drama.” Lucky for us we recently immersed ourselves in a webseries that perfectly defines the genre. Cost of Living follows two struggling SF gals, Marisa (Kate Elston) and Jules (Meghann Hayes), as they wind their way through the life challenges of surviving in cutthroat city. I would describe the series as the love child of the hits Broad City and You’re The Worst, but with a touch of Bay Area flair. Cost of Living manages to capture the joy and angst of the millennial experience with supreme ease. It rips through hot button issues like debt, pregnancy scares, and apartment hunting just like butter. The first season is all wrapped up so what better time to have a little chat with creator/producer Dave Binegar. Enjoy!
COMEDY CAKE: What spawned the creation of the Cost Of Living series?
Cost of Living Over many glasses of bourbon, Dave and Shannon Bowen discussed their bumpy roads through adulthood and decided to write a series about failing adulthood and the friends that get you through it.
From the beginning, we knew we wanted to have a close female friendship at the core of the show and wanted to delve deep into the complexity of that friendship. We also wanted to have characters navigating the ever-increasing rent of San Francisco without a financial safety net. Through the Hammy + Timothy characters, we wanted to have a stark contrast to the financial failure Jules and Marisa are experiencing by having this couple living in a swanky North Beach apartment (with a view of the Transamerica building!) on only one income. The tech industry has brought a jarring socio-economic divide to San Francisco and we wanted to highlight that through Hamothy.
Our co-creator, Shannon, definitely had a Jules-esque period of being SUPER in debt. She also saw many of her friends trapped by mounds and mounds of student loans and credit card debt unable to move forward with life, especially in an expensive, urban area. However, in mainstream TV and movies, most adults are living in fancy apartments while working as freelance writers or small business owners. We wanted to write something more realistic about what so many adults in their 20’s and 30’s were dealing with.
We’re inspired by the mix of drama and comedy in shows with relatable, heartfelt comedy; stories that make you feel something genuine while also making you laugh. Throughout the project we’ve been inspired by TV shows like Orange is the New Black, Enlightened, and now Transparent.
Overall, our process for creating the show was looking at the voids in storytelling on TV and on the web, build themes based on those voids, and then layer the story through our own personal experiences. The icing on this beautiful web series cake was having a cast of experienced improv actors who brought a natural style of comedic delivery to the script.
CAKE: Is it easy to make the transition from improv comedy to web series writing?
CoL: Shannon, who wrote the series, originally wrote feature film scripts, so it was weirdly liberating to go from writing 90 pages to 5-10 pages. Dave, who co-created and produced the series, has a background in improv comedy and brought that lens to casting the series and helping to shape the tone of the show.
Since most of our cast were improv actors, Shannon encouraged a lot of improvisation on set. When we filmed the last eight episodes, Shannon hosted a rehearsal where she let the actors improv anything and everything based in the world of the episode and then she wrote the best lines that came out of that improv into the script.
CAKE: Do you prefer writing as a team over individually? What is your writing process like?
CoL: Shannon and Dave co-created the show together and then Shannon wrote the scripts, which were then developed and fine-tuned by Dave. Since we have been friends for over 15 years, we basically share a brain at this point and were pretty much on the same page about each edit! We were also pretty good about not being too precious about a lot of it. We had to bento eat with each other. If something isn’t working emotionally, or isn’t funny when read by an actor, we weren’t afraid to refine or rewrite to get a scene or line of dialogue right.
CAKE: Were all the “Cost Of Living” episodes written in one fell swoop or over a long period of time?
CoL: Originally we wrote Bathroom Not Included as a comedy short, but then felt it was a pilot to a web series, so then Shannon wrote Lady Date. We loved the direction that story was heading, so we filmed both episodes over one weekend in October 2013. We then released those episodes in March 2014, did a month-long Kickstarter to raise $11,500, and filmed eight more episodes in June 2014. From November – June, we wrote multiple drafts of each episode and had to make some major changes due to permit issues. For example, Oregon Trail was originally supposed to be Marisa + Jules stuck in traffic — but then at the last minute, we changed it to them waiting for a tow truck in parking lot.
CAKE: What comedic TV/cable series are currently on your DVR schedule?
You’re the Worst
Please Like Me
CAKE: What are some must see sketch teams you admire on the West Coast?
CoL: Some of our actors also write for Killing My Lobster in San Francisco, and have been part of some great work there. In general, we tend to see more improv than sketch. Dave lives in LA, and tries to check out UCB whenever possible, especially the Facebook show, the occasional ASSSSCAT show, and has never had a bad time at UCB LA’s Cage Match.
CAKE: The first “Cost of Living” episode brought back so many apartment searching memories. What was the smallest apartment you ever lived in? Describe your craziest roommate experience?
CoL: If you have watched Bathroom Not Included, then you have seen some of Shannon’s craziest roommates: turd on the floor next to the toilet, take out Chinese food in shower, etc. This stuff really happened. Shannon also lived with a girl who got so angry about having to buy toilet paper that she ripped apart a box of macaroni and cheese with her teeth (surely, to be featured in a future episode!).
As for the smallest apartment, the amount of people we’ve both known who have rented out a closet or a shoddily enclosed porch or even someone’s couch is just ridiculous. People can’t even afford a real room here anymore.
CAKE: What is the “ideal” lady date in your opinion?
CoL: Lady Date is based off of real lady dates with Shannon’s BFFs. All you need is bourbon, frozen pizza, Whitney Houston, and truth talk. Guilty pleasure TV may or may not be involved as well.
CAKE: What are your thoughts on relationship/friendship series like “GIRLS”, “Broad City” and “You’re The Worst”?
CoL: Shannon wrote an Indiewire piece about her frustration with “GIRLS” and how that showed seemed like it would show the deep complexity of female friendship, but instead felt shallow.
In that same piece, she praised “Broad City” for it’s funny, honest portrayal of lady friends. We both agree that their web series episode “The Commute” is one of the most brilliant representations of how two totally different people can form the most amazing friendship. It also features sublime editing, and should be a textbook example about how to tell establish character in a short.
“You’re the Worst” is one of the freshest takes on modern relationships! Even though the main couple are “terrible” people, they felt more relatable than half of the couples on TV (cough: Manhattan Love Story). We love the sharp comedy style of that show.
CAKE: What were you looking for when casting the roles of Jules & Marisa?
CoL: We were looking for female actors who could do both comedy and drama. We wanted to have laugh-out-loud moments as well as moments of sincere vulnerability. We are so lucky to have found Kate and Meg who could switch from one tone to the next with genuine authenticity. As mentioned earlier, we also really wanted actors who were comfortable with improv, because we know a skilled improv actor could both handle the comedic moments, but also really own the character.
CAKE: There was a cake in your ‘Lady Bits’ episode. Where did you purchase it? Where is my piece? If you had to choose, cake or pie, and why?
CoL: Haha, originally that was supposed to be a piece of cake in a box with the words “For your uterus,” but our production designer got excited about it and got a whole cake! It was brilliant! Poor Meg had to each so much of that cake at 8am.
Chocolate cake cures more cramps than pie. Scientifically proven.
Dave chooses pie, because it mostly feels somehow healthier. He also doesn’t have a uterus, but doesn’t dispute said cramp science.
CAKE: How many days out of the year is it actually warm in San Francisco? What inspired the ‘Indian Summer’ episode?
CoL: Indian summer is a real phenomenon in SF! We get months and months of rain, wind, and fog, and then for one day we get blazing hot sun and the entire city flocks to Dolores Park or friends’ backyards to eat and drink all day in the glorious sun. Depending on your neighborhood, it’s warm and sunny like 10-15 days a year. Unless your in the Outer Sunset, then you’re just fucking cold all year round.
CAKE: Did you base the characters in “Cost Of Living” on real life friends or acquaintances?
CoL: Each character is an amalgam of different people we know. Everyone has met a million Cecilys while living in the Bay Area, everyone has an annoying Hammy in their life, and everyone should know a Timothy. All characters stemmed from people we knew in real life and then exaggerated to fit the story.
CAKE: Let’s discuss Marisa’s awkward & oddball roommates. Do those characters spawn from the ever-present SF “hippie” culture? Which roommate character do you hold most dear?
CoL: We love Cecily so much and had to bring her back for more episodes! Honestly, we could do a spin off series about her and her crazy life. Trash also has a special place in our hearts.
The crazy roommates are all shades of real people we’ve met in SF, whether through the Burning Man and it’s adjacent communities, or the occasional sex party.
CAKE: My favorite episode is the ‘$TD’ one. The writing is amazing! This episode was the perfect conversation about money problems with the added bonus of the bean thievery. Do beans really give you a healthy glow? Why do you think most folks get so insane about exposing finance issues?
CoL: Thank you, we love that episode too! Debt herpes is a real concept that Shannon came up with while talking with a friend about how her ex-husband hid how much debt he had. We live in this strange culture that encourages us to rack up debt, but then be ashamed to talk about it. Most people we know are drowning in student loans or credit card debt, and can’t move forward in their lives.
That’s why we love Jules’ end monologue about how she’s not only ruining her life but Dylan’s too because once you move in and share bills with a partner, you are taking on all consequences of their pre-co-habitating life (good & bad). We wanted to show an interesting conflict in relationships that we hadn’t seen before.
Yes, beans make your skin glow. Marisa ate a lot of them in “Lady Date” — she was glowing….gassy!
CAKE: How do you go about choosing a backdrop for an episode?
CoL: We wanted to show as many great SF locations as we could afford. Luckily, we have friends who work at Thee Parkside and Astronaut Cafe who let us shoot in their amazing settings.
SF is one of the most gorgeous cities in the world, so you really can’t go wrong, but it does require some planning. During pre-production, locations became problematic as we didn’t have much money for location permits, which can be prohibitively expensive in SF, so two of the episodes prominently featuring exteriors (Indian Summer and Oregon Trail) were re-written in pre-production to be shot on private property, where permitting is not an issue.
CAKE: Yowser, what cliffhanger at the end Season One! No spoilers! What do you have in the works for Season Two? Will the gals continue their life struggles on the IT drenched streets of SF?
CoL: We wanted to end on an emotional cliffhanger because we wanted to show: Hey, this is what adulthood is — It’s really fucking hard to make a decision! Who am I? What do I want to do with my life? What IS my favorite color?
It’s really hard to know who you are and what is best for you. That’s why we have a family of friends who help guide us, pick us up after we fail, and hand us a drink to laugh about it and move forward.
We would love to continue the saga of Marisa + Jules and do a Season 2, but would need to secure funding from a production company or financier so we do not have to fund the entire season through crowdfunding. We hope that someone would like to invest in our story to allow us to continue to live with these characters a little longer. Yes, the story ends on a cliffhanger, and yes, we have big plans for Season 2. We just need the funds to tell that story right.