“Moulin Rouge” or “The Mighty Ducks”? That was one of the toughest decisions being made Sunday night at the Funny or Die offices in Los Angeles, where the cast and crew behind the “Game of Thrones” recap series “Gay of Thrones” had gathered, as they had for the past four weeks this summer, to watch the HBO blockbuster drama and (lovingly) tear it apart.
By 5 p.m. the following day, the latest installment was online — an awe-inspiring turnaround, given the Emmy-nominated series’s dense implementation of clips, visual jokes and actor-driven improv, cut down to a tight runtime that rarely exceeds five minutes.
Curious about what it takes to make this possible in less than 24 hours, IndieWire asked to get a peek behind the scenes of the show’s production this year. And that evening, while one might have anticipated that the mood would be tense in the minutes leading up to showtime, there was a relative calm as last week’s episode played quietly in the background.
“Gay of Thrones,” which has been offering up its unique brand of commentary on the show since the third season of the HBO drama, has the simplest of origin stories: Writer/director Erin Gibson was getting her roots done by star Jonathan Van Ness, and they started talking about “Game of Thrones.” His irreverent recap of the most recent episode inspired her to pitch Funny or Die the concept of him explaining what happened every week.
“I was at Funny or Die then,” Gibson said to IndieWire, “and I went in and said, ‘We have to do this recap show with my stylist, because he’s talking about this in a way no one else will be talking about this.'”
The show’s ultimate format didn’t stray too far from its original inspiration. Each “Gay of Thrones” episode features a “client” — typically a well-known comedian, though the show has been able to bring in a wide array of talent over the years, including one or two actual “Thrones” cast members — getting his or her hair “done” while riffing with Van Ness about that week’s installment.
It’s all in service of skewering, without malice, the HBO fantasy drama, a show that is lucky enough to sport an obsessively dedicated fanbase as well as pop culture’s genuine fascination every Sunday night.
Prior to the actual viewing, Gibson told IndieWire that it would be a relatively quiet affair, as the seven writers in the room would be largely focused on taking notes on laptops, and she was true to her word; the most discussion that occurred was over minor character or plot clarifications, the kind of double-checking questions that any “Game of Thrones” fan might ask.
The guests always attend the screenings, even if they’re not fans of the show; Episode 5’s guest star Bryan Safi (who co-hosts the podcast and TV Land series “Throwing Shade” with Gibson), has only seen the “Thrones” episodes that he was commenting on for “Gay of Thrones,” making this his fourth-ever “Thrones” experience.
“We can’t do it if [the guest] is not here for the viewing,” Gibson said, “because even if they don’t know the show, it’s funny to hear their take on what’s going on.”
After the episode ended and a quick bathroom break, the writers gathered in a nearby conference room to script out the episode, crafting the one-liners and story beats that would form a base for the filming later that night. Van Ness and Safi came in for the beginning of the writing, offering personal zest to potential bits.
After five seasons, “Gay of Thrones” is perhaps most memorable for its character nicknames, such as “Blonde Cher” (Cersei Lannister), “Dog the Bounty Hunter” (The Hound), “Baby Barack Obama” (Grey Worm), “Christina Aguilera” (Daenerys) and well beyond.
The only major character without any sort of nickname is Jon Snow, and these nicknames aren’t permanent; in fact, during the writing of Episode 5 IndieWire witnessed the renaming of Tormund Giantsbane as “Surly Spice,” simply because that was what struck a chord with Van Ness that evening. But these nicknames are used far more often in the writer’s room than the characters’ actual names, all part of the process of translating “Game of Thrones” into “Gay of Thrones'” unique voice.
Sitting in the writers’ room, what stood out was the fact that while it was a collaborative experience, there was a clearly unified voice at the center of it, one that had a distinctly “Jonathan” flair. The most out-of-character discussions revolved around specific references under consideration, including perhaps the toughest decision of the night: how to describe the final scene of the episode.
It was about 8:30 p.m., and the writers were nearing the finish line, knowing that they needed to start shooting soon. It came down to one of two ideas: invoking the Flying Vee made famous by the film “The Mighty Ducks,” or referencing some sort of musical supergroup, which was eventually narrowed down to the “Lady Marmalade” collaboration between Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya, and Pink for the “Moulin Rouge” soundtrack. “Moulin Rouge” eventually won out, as the writers monitored Twitter and noted how many others were making the “Mighty Ducks” joke.
Once a draft of the script — written into a shared Google doc, largely guided by Gibson— was deemed worthy of printing, the team immediately segued into the shooting of the episode, beginning with an informal read between Van Ness and Safi in the make-up room, then shifting to the set constructed in a portion of Funny or Die’s studio.
(The set is redesigned every season. This year, some details you might miss, if you’re not looking hard, include an impressive portrait of Tyrion Lannister and a hand-painted mural featuring Van Ness, shirtless and hair flowing, flying astride a dragon.)
It’s a loose production style, with Gibson literally calling out lines to the actors for each beat — meaning that no one has to get off book, and that Van Ness is free to enjoy moments of improv with his guest, building up a natural energy that accentuates his real enthusiasm and personality.
“Having people say words and then regurgitate them to you, it’s not an easy thing,” Gibson said. “We used to just be more loose and talk about the scenes more, but it was really really difficult in editing. So we have a good base and then we can add things and edit it if we want to.”
As shooting goes on, the editing has already begun, with lead editor Joe Humpay assembling the episode in an adjacent room. He and a second editor, Kia Reghabi, are what makes it possible for the episodes to now go live less than 24 hours after “Game of Thrones” starts airing.
Production this year has gotten tougher due to the fact that Van Ness has been working in Atlanta this summer on an unspecified project, and he’s thus been flying into Los Angeles every weekend to shoot “Gay of Thrones” episodes.
Him getting that job was yet another unforeseen circumstance of how “Gay of Thrones” is dependent on the production schedule of “Game of Thrones,” to which “Gay of Thrones” is always beholden.
“I’ll tell you what, selfishly, I had a problem with [this year]. We were nominated for an Emmy last year, we didn’t win, and I really wanted to get back on the horse and win this year. But we missed the deadline because ‘Game of Thrones,’ aired so late,” Gibson said. “We were nominated and now we’re all thirsty for it.”
The way in which “Gay of Thrones” is ultimately beholden to HBO, though, comes down directly to the show. “The energy of ‘Gay of Thrones’ dips when the energy of ‘Game of Thrones’ dips,” executive producer Kate Lilly said, as both she and Gibson called out Episode 3 of this season, “The Queen’s Justice,” for being relatively slow.
“Then we have to figure out what to put in there when it’s just people talking all the time and no dragons lighting people on fire,” Gibson said. “We need more dragons lighting people on fire.”
Towards the very end of Sunday night, as the crew struck the set, IndieWire asked: If Gibson weren’t making “Gay of Thrones,” would she still be watching “Game of Thrones”?
“No,” she said, quickly and firmly. “But that’s because I drop off nearly every single TV show. I stop after Season 2.”
Lilly, walking by at that moment, reacted with shock. “I’m such a fan of ‘Game of Thrones,’ which made me such a big fan of ‘Gay of Thrones,'” she said. “But man, I watch this show and I watch it again, later this week.”
And Gibson admits that she definitely does want to know what happens next. “Truly to the credit of the writers, I’m now OCD. I need to know if people are going to have sex, I need to know who’s going to win,” she said. “It’s really fully sadistic.”
“Gay of Thrones” can be watched on Funny or Die.