Every corporate hierarchy consists of the boss, his/her assistants (or lackeys, depending on your point of view), and the employees. Of course, they all have different perspectives on the ups and downs of the 9-to-5 life, and as the new six episode workplace comedy series SECS & EXECS illustrates, those perspectives can be incredibly amusing.
Co-created and co-written by the veteran writing/producing team of James Berg and Stan Zimmerman (THE GOLDEN GIRLS, ROSEANNE, GILMORE GIRLS, THE BRADY BUNCH MOVIE, A VERY BRADY SEQUEL, and the Lifetime sitcom RITA ROCKS), SECS & EXECS premiered March 13th on the popular LGBTQ-centered streaming platform TelloFilms (see link below), the home of their last major web series project, SKIRTCHASERS.
SECS & EXECS revolves around the staff of a fledgling women’s apparel company, Kathetics, led by its eponymous CEO, Kath Fairchild (played by the legendary Sandra Bernhard). While Kath is the unquestioned leader of the firm, she is just one part of an even larger network of people – department heads, designers, secretaries and other personnel – who try to make Kathletics a success.
All of those perspectives are represented in SECS & EXECS , a comedy where every moment of a typical day on the job is humorously presented through the contrasting viewpoints of its individual characters (a la Akira Kurosawa’s iconic film RASHOMON). In addition to Bernhard, SECS & EXECS’ impressive cast also features Natalie Dreyfuss (RITA ROCKS) as Kath’s gorgeous daughter/budding reality TV star Autumn. Autumn’s dynamic presence, as well as that of her camera crew, is as constant as that of Kathletics’ employees.
The execs in SECS & EXECS consist of the decidedly no-nonsense Leslie Mulligan-Ross (Olivia d’Abo, THE WONDER YEARS) and her equally straightforward colleague Paige Wilcox (Travina Springer). The newest member of that group is Bob Chupak (Parvesh Cheena), whose experience in retail management belies the fact that he often tries way too hard to be personable to his fellow higher-ups.
In addition, SECS & EXECS co-stars Mindy Sterling as Shirla, a longtime secretarial assistant/de facto matriarch to her younger co-workers Heidi (Daniela Bobadilla, FX’s ANGER MANAGEMENT) and Marlon (Miguel Pinzon). Their daily 9 to 5 shifts are made all the more eventful thanks to the never ending chaos created by Val (Bayne Gibby, who appeared on such sitcoms as HBO’s ENLIGHTENED and THE COMEBACK, among other roles).
When it comes to life on the corporate food chain, Zimmerman is uniquely qualified to discuss that topic. Before he launched his screenwriting career, Zimmerman worked for someone who would later become one of network television’s most dominant and influential leaders. “I was an assistant and a P.A. for Les Moonves, who runs CBS now,” recalls Zimmerman. “He was an accountant at a theater management company, and I worked there when I was an acting student at NYU.”
As a filmmaker, Zimmerman is also familiar with the responsibilities and advantages that come with being in charge. His experiences of serving on opposite sides of the business world inform much of the comedy and characters found in SECS & EXECS.
“Having been a boss and an assistant, I kind of related to both points of view,” he adds. “I thought it was a very interesting relationship, something we haven’t seen, and something that is so intense because you’re literally working with these people every day, and what you know and don’t know about them.”
Throughout SECS & EXECS’ first six episodes, Zimmerman (who also directed the entire series) humorously examines the often fascinating dynamic between employer and employee. “A lot of times, as an assistant, you would know all the very personal details of your boss, and they don’t know that about you,” he adds. “You think it’s an intimate relationship, but it really has its boundaries, so I wanted to explore that in all of the different permutation.”
Zimmerman and Berg’s own experiences in the workplace also influence the behavior of SECS & EXECS’ hilarious characters. “We have lines in the script where each one thinks that they run the company,” Zimmerman explains. “We were talking about actually having the cleaning people come in at the end and saying, ‘we run the company!’ It really shows that everyone is vital to a company, and we need everyone. That’s part of the spokes of the wheel.”
From the young, idealistic upstart, to the grizzled veteran who’s seen literally everything, to the high maintenance executive who commands attention and sympathy, SECS & EXECS’ characters are sure to be just as relatable to its viewers as it is to the two men who created them. While much of those personalities are reflected in the show’s protagonists, they’re also reminiscent of the same people we encounter at work every day. In fact, SECS & EXECS’ resident drama queen Val was modeled off one of Zimmerman and Berg’s former assistants.
“Every day, she would come in with a different excuse or calamity that happened to her, why she was late, why her car was broken down,” Zimmerman remembers. “One time, she came in and she said, “I need to take a long lunch because my son is missing and I need to put up posters on the wall.’ At first, I’d say ‘take all the time you need,’ but then she left. ‘Did she really have a son that’s missing? Does she have a son?’ We’ve (Zimmerman and Berg) always wanted to know that.”
SECS & EXECS is the second project that Zimmerman and Berg have produced for telloFilms, following the success of their previous series SKIRTCHASERS. After struggling to gain traction for their ideas with the networks, the creators of both shows would embrace the creative freedom provided to them through web series.
Thanks to the encouragement and leadership of telloFilms CEO Christin Baker, Zimmerman and Berg would finally get their concepts on the screen; shows that would reach audiences whose perspectives and experiences have been either stereotyped, diminished or portrayed sparingly on traditional primetime TV.
“She’s (Baker’s) really the only outlet now for lesbian content online,” Zimmerman says. “She wanted our next project, and we gave her a bunch of ideas, and said we had this script (for SECS & EXECS) and she said, ‘I have to do this one.’ Then, we get this amazing cast of people that want to come together to help make it, and she wanted me to direct all six of them. It was a great (opportunity to work with) very talented people in front of and behind the camera, and it’s also given me an opportunity to finally direct on film, so I’m extremely grateful for it.”
SECS & EXECS’ talented cast, and the memorable characters they play, are truly reflective of diversity in today’s society. “We were lucky enough with our casting,” responds Zimmerman. “Parvesh Cheena’s in it, and he’s of Indian descent. It really is a rainbow coalition. That’s what America looks like, and that’s what offices should look like, and that’s what TV should look like, but that hasn’t always been the case. I feel like it’s changing a lot.”
Zimmerman and Berg’s experience with scripting memorable female characters also inspired them to develop SECS & EXECS. “Most of my career has been writing for women, from THE GOLDEN GIRLS to ROSEANNE. There’s just something about, I feel, with women, that they’re much more in tune with their emotions, and are verbal about it,” Zimmerman says. “As a writer, it’s exciting because you can just use words more. That’s why we chose a women’s wear company, and also you don’t see that depicted on television a lot, that point of view.”
The series’ out characters also reflect TV’s changing view of American life. “Leslie (played by D’Abo) is a woman, a lesbian who’s coming back after maternity leave. We wanted to deal with that kind of character and the conflicts and problems that arise with her,” adds Zimmerman. “(We have) people thinking she left being the tiger lady, kind of the Amanda Priestley of THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA at the company, and she came back and everyone’s treating her like a little mommy, and (we see) how she deals with that. That’s something I’ve never seen before.”
As out filmmakers, Zimmerman and Berg understand the need to accurately portray the LGBTQ experience in SECS & EXECS. Although TV and movies have gradually improved the way it presents gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning characters, negative stereotypes continue to afflict such entertainment. Worse yet, inequality in the film and TV industry remains a problem; one that both of SECS & EXECS’ creators encountered first hand.
“Jim Berg, who I write with, and I came to Hollywood, and we were told you couldn’t be out on a writing staff. If you went to a function with the show, you had to bring a woman,” Zimmerman recalls. Moreover, while our country’s political control has swung rightward, he hopes that those bad old days he and Berg experienced will remain a thing of the past. “For the younger people (in America), they’d never lived in that world, and hopefully we won’t be living in it with Trump. I hope we don’t go backwards to that, by ‘making America great.”
Making an ensemble-based comedy is difficult. Writing such a project is even more so, but Zimmerman and Berg would ultimately find that part of the process to be satisfying.
“In (SECS & EXECS) we had eight (characters), and that’s a lot, so how do you tell the story economically, and really get to know each one of them, and have them all have stories and arcs to their stories? That was a challenge, but we loved it. We had a great time doing it, and we hope we can make many more.”
While Zimmerman and Berg were well accustomed to the production advantages provided to them on network shows like THE GOLDEN GIRLS, ROSEANNE, GILMORE GIRLS and RITA ROCKS, they both had to find creative ways to overcome the struggles of producing a low budget web series. One such challenge arose as their series was about to begin filming its first scene.
“We (Zimmerman and Berg) had lost a location the day before shooting, when we were to shoot three days on this soundstage,” Zimmerman responds. “We had to find a real live office setting, and luckily we did, but I had to throw out my entire shot list. I went to the set the next morning, never having seen the office, and you’ve got to figure it on the spot. So you have to have a very chill attitude and just roll with it.”
Thanks to the experience and talent of SECS & EXECS’ cast, including Zimmerman and Berg’s past collaborators Bernhard, D’Abo, Dreyfuss and Sterling, plus an equally skilled behind the scenes crew of veteran artists and technicians, the series’ production was a complete success. For Zimmerman, the key to that success lay in making SECS & EXECS’ work atmosphere as welcoming and enjoyable for his entire staff.
“I want to create an environment where everyone’s opinion is welcome. Obviously when I’m directing and I wrote and created it, it’s going to be my final decision, but it’s really fun and exciting for me, too, to be challenged by many creative minds,” he says. “Everyone’s coming at it from a different point of view, and if someone has a great idea, I don’t care. I’ve had to tell everyone ‘leave your ego at the door,’ and this is just about really having fun.”
While every workplace may not necessarily be as wacky as the one depicted in SECS & EXECS, viewers will certainly find plenty to identify with and laugh at. Most importantly, the series’ realistic presentation of a diverse America makes SECS & EXECS more than just a mere sitcom. Amid the challenges posed by today’s decidedly toxic political landscape, shows like SECS & EXECS, and the overall works of filmmakers like Zimmerman and Berg, are more important than ever.
“I think, especially for the next four years, we have to be out there telling our stories. It’s very easy to put our head in the sand. I think we have to use our art and tell our stories and get them out there. We can’t be invisible,” says Zimmerman. “It’s going to be an interesting four years, and I think a lot of great art is going to come out of it, whether music, or paintings, or theater, or film and TV, web series. I think he (President Trump)’s making a lot of people use their craft (to) express themselves, and their anger and their sadness, and all the emotions.”
(NOTE: Regarding closed-captioning/subtitling of SECS & EXECS, Zimmerman says that telloFilms will ultimately determine if that feature is added to each episode on its streaming platform.)
WHERE TO WATCH: https://www.tellofilms.com/series/secs-execs