Soap fans like myself mark April 1, 2009 as one of the saddest days in soap history. Our beloved show GUIDING LIGHT was canceled after 72 years, and the future of soaps looked dim. Fortunately, creative forces like Michael O' Leary have taken to the internet to tell new and different continuing stories that are amazing and pleasing fans across the world. I recently talked with O' Leary to discuss the birth of STEAMBOAT and it's future. What would lead him to create a show that would mock himself and his weight? Read below to find out.
We Love Soaps: I love what you have been doing with GUIDING LIGHT on the So Long Springfield tour, allowing the fans to have closure.
Michael O' Leary: You hit the nail on the head. Closure is such a metaphor for everything. It allows us to say goodbye to our fans, which we had not had a chance to do.
We Love Soaps: But I have learned how often times positive things can come out of events that we perceive as sad or negative. We can get often find new beginnings out of endings. Which is where STEAMBOAT comes in. Share with us how STEAMBOAT came about.
Michael O' Leary: I had been thinking about this for three or four years. I actually wrote a movie version of this and I had done a [staged] reading of it. GUIDING LIGHT had a troop of actors that got together and started doing readings of plays. I thought this was an opportunity to have the cast read this project, which essentially an OFFICE version of Soapdish. I had it in movie form. One of the actors that was there was Michael Park. I thought Michael was off-the-charts funny. But come April, when I sent the script off to anyone, which ironically was when the show got canceled, Michael Park was on my radar. Once Michael Park said yes it opened up my writing. I realized I could satire this in the way I really wanted to. He is just hysterical. His chemistry with us was unexpected, and very exciting as a writer. I wanted to do a satire of a daytime soap, and aside from Soapdish that had not been done before.
We Love Soaps: I’m enjoying this a lot more than Soapdish. For me, Soapdish poked fun at soaps, STEAMBOAT is poking fun with soaps, it feels more respectful.
Michael O' Leary: There’s no mocking, it’s just poking fun at each other. It is completely self-effacing. I said to the actors, “Look, I make fun of myself more than anybody. You’ve got to have sense of humor about this because we’re really making fun of each other.”
We Love Soaps: There’s a lot of making fun of you, perhaps more than others. What was your motivation for having that in there?
Michael O' Leary: A lot of what you see is what came together in the last couple of weeks. When Michael Park said yes, everything came together. And what came together was: two middle aged guys on a soap opera who are struggling and trying to find a way to make a living and hang on to their job. STEAMBOAT is a metaphor for life and this new economic model which asks, “How do we stay relevant and keep a roof over our head? How do we keep our jobs?” It’s this heightened sense of desperation, presented in a satirical way. My character is really the straight person in all this. Michael Park is playing Dirk, who never loses a minute of sleep, who thinks he’s going to have this job the rest of his life. He thinks he’s ten years younger than he really is. He’s living in a fantasy land. But by virtue of living in fantasy land, he never worries about anything. His world is falling apart, but he doesn’t see it. My character worries about everything, he is a realist.
We Love Soaps: Your character can see the writing on the wall.
Michael O' Leary: He sees the writing on the wall and I’m working with this bipolar violent leading lady [Beth Chamberlain] who has a tendency to beat up her leading man. We have our first love scene, and I think somehow, someway, if I can just do this love scene, and have it click, then the audience will love me and the producers will love me. It’s about all these lies we tell ourselves and none of it is true. It’s that intuitive feeling that, “If I can just do this then my boss will love me and everything will be okay.” I call that “hope,” and you wake up in the morning saying, “I just hope everything is going to be better.”
I think this is why STEAMBOAT resonates with people. They like my character because he seems like a guy who is trying to do everything he can. He comes up short but they still like him. Part of the goal here is just to put that out to, to be vulnerable, and say we all have these things we feel insecure about. Even though my gut is not that big, it was my holiday gut. It has since gone away. I really wanted to let it all hang out. Oddly enough the response from the women has been overwhelming. I always think it’s tougher to be a woman than a man because there is this model of what women look like. Even for guys though, there is a model of what guys look like, and I’m not that guy. So I’m going to present what middle aged men think and have insecurities about: this is what we look like sitting on the couch on a Sunday watching the football game. I think we have moved up to #9 on YouTube most subscribed comedy channel.
We Love Soaps: I think it’s quite brave of you to put out your fears about your weight. It adds to the humanity of what’s happening in the show.
Michael O' Leary: There is a lot of freedom in showing your vulnerabilities. There is a lot of freedom in saying you’re not perfect. I think our culture is so vanity oriented, and I would put myself in that category. I remember that as a 25-year-old actor on GUIDING LIGHT. That’s your bread and butter, that’s how you make your living. But at a certain point it doesn’t serve you. The question in our culture is, what is relevant now? What makes you viable? Is it hard work? Or something else? These are questions we are all asking each other. I’m hoping to bring all that in the format of this show.
We Love Soaps: You were talking about the search to feel viable in an industry based on appearance. How do you find that viability inside yourself?
Michael O' Leary: For me, it is if someone laughs. I have always thought there is a clown stuck inside of me. When I started on GUIDING LIGHT years ago, Pam Long recognized that and let me exercise it. It’s not entirely suited for soap operas and daytime, but I wish it was more a part of daytime. There is a deep mine of talent from the soap community. But for reasons I do not entirely understand, the people who run shows are not entire comfortable with a couple with comedic sensibility. People want to laugh, and if you add that to the entertainment pie, then people watch knowing they’re going to get romance, melodrama, and laughter. I have always wanted to do something like this. I have to say, “Thank God for Scott Bryce,” because he made this happen for me.
We Love Soaps: How so?
Michael O' Leary: He’s somebody who had the facility, the studio, the relationships with cameramen and sound people. He was able to make the shoot date possible. We needed someone who could direct it, produce it, and get it done, and he got it done. This is why I have to look at Twitter and Facebook and look at what Crystal Chappell has done with VENICE and say, “Wow, she understands the power of Twitter and Facebook.’” That’s how that whole show got done. You need a combination of word-of-mouth, but you also need someone who can say, “I believe in this, let’s get this done.” Scott did it.
We Love Soaps: I know you have been getting on Twitter now and using that to promote the show.
Michael O' Leary: I’ve been trying to get up to speed on that. Every other night I go on, I tweet with the fans. I love that it’s so interactive, you get a sense of what the fans really like and don’t like. They’re really into this who Lactene girl thing. They are repeating the phrase, “It’s not just silky, it’s milky.” You are having repeat this silly phrase as part of a fictional product. I’m thinking that we may be onto the something, some way to make this show viable. You go the an advertiser and say, “Hey, the audience is into this whole product placement thing, isn’t that important to you guys?”
We Love Soaps: Is that the next step for STEAMBOAT, to get corporate sponsorship?
Michael O' Leary: We’re not discounting anything. The wonderful thing about YouTube is that we have some people who have looked at it who are in a position of pitching us. We have some strong leads now, leads meaning people from the network who liked it and are going to talk to somebody. Our hope with YouTube is that we roll out these shows and that someone in a position to keep this going will give us the ad dollars we need to produce more shows.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Press here for Part Two where O'Leary discusses STEAMBOAT's future, and finding success in the new world of web programming. Plus, what does the title mean? Who is Kim Zimmer really portraying in the show? Come back to find out! Until then, watch the entire series here.
Damon L. Jacobs is a Marriage Family Therapist practicing in New York City, and the author of "Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve". He is re-imagining a world without "shoulds" at www.shouldless.com.