The stars of HBO’s ‘Somebody Somewhere’ reveal how they mine dramedy gold

Jeff Hiller and Bridget Everett ramp up the excitement for a portrait.
Jeff Hiller and Bridget Everett play fast friends Joel and Sam in “Somebody, Somewhere.”
(OK McCausland / For The Times)

It could’ve been so trite. A woman returns to her provincial hometown and her dysfunctional family and feels like she doesn’t belong, until new love helps her find her voice. But in masterful hands — from the creators to the cast — HBO’s “Somebody Somewhere” becomes something entirely different.

That starts with Bridget Everett, a comedian not previously known for her dramatic chops, and creators Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen (“High Maintenance”), who wrote the role of Sam based loosely on Everett.

The comedy-drama’s setting is Manhattan, Kan., Everett’s hometown. Sam had come back to care for her sick sister Holly, who died six months before the show begins. We find Sam sitting in grief and disconnection, at a miserable job with miserable lighting, when she encounters Joel (Jeff Hiller), a tall drink of wry kindness. As Joel invites her into his world, and a little underground performance space known as Choir Practice, he lures her back to herself — with decidedly zero romantic intentions.

A man and woman stand at a door holding a puppy
“Somebody Somewhere.”

During development, Everett knew she didn’t want to give Sam a traditional path, where “woman meets man, falls in love, changes and grows. That’s not my life experience,” she says, speaking via Zoom along with Hiller from their respective New York City apartments. “We all agreed that it would be nice to have the friend that you kind of fall in love with, who helps you see something in yourself.”

Hiller points out another element of Sam and Joel’s friendship that’s rarely seen on television: It starts after 40. “It’s not some silly meet-cute, it’s like, ‘I work at this crappy job, and then this one person in the lunchroom is a little spark of joy,’ and you hold onto it so desperately because it’s so meaningful and so beautiful.”

Everett, also an executive producer on the series, is perhaps best known to New York fans for her ribald cabaret acts. In “Somebody,” as funny as she is, she also mines more tender territory.

“I honestly didn’t know what I was doing the entire time,” she says. “I just thought, ‘I’ll get in the scene and talk to the other person and hope for the best.’ The thing that was so special about doing this show was that we were all kind of in similar places in our careers, and none of us are big stars, so I just felt like I was talking to friends.”

Her cabaret experience came in handy as well.

“Cabaret is not cool, but you do learn how to tell a story,” she says. “The best luck I have when I perform is when I tell something that’s true to me. So as we developed the first season, we kept trying to make it very personal, because it felt like that’s the most organic and best way for me to deliver an honest portrayal.” She also gets to show off her pipes, and they are mighty. The series is a stealth musical, with songs sprinkled naturally throughout daily life, as well as at Choir Practice.

A woman pushes a man on a chair with wheels
A visit to the HBO offices.
(OK McCausland / For The Times)
A woman pushes a man in a chair with wheels
(OK McCausland / For The Times)

Everett’s sister Brinton died in 2008. “This show in a way felt like a love letter to her and to the people that I’ve found in New York that are my community of friends,” she said. That includes the inimitable Murray Hill, who plays agricultural expert and Choir Practice emcee Fred Rococo. The cast also features the great Mike Hagerty, who died May 5 after the filming of Season 1, as their beleaguered farmer father, as well as Mary Catherine Garrison as Sam’s truculent other sister Tricia.

For Hiller, the role of Joel is a departure from the unfriendly customer service representatives that he played for years. “I’m usually the person who’s telling the main character, ‘No, you don’t have a reservation,” he says. This time, he gets to smile. Hiller taps into his own upbringing in Texas and jokes that his theology/theater double major has finally come in handy.

“When I read this character, I was like, Oh, the queer person who’s still a member of a faith community, who didn’t leave their hometown — I completely know that person, I’m friends with that person from college, I love that person, I respect that person, and I’ve never seen that person on TV,” he says. “I could play that person.”

In Hiller’s hands, that person is fully fleshed out.

“That says so much about Bridget,” Hiller says, “that she would be generous enough to let me and Murray and Mary Catherine and Mike and everybody shine also. I’ve been on some sets. It’s a little rare.” (Everett cracks that she just wanted extra time in her trailer.)

A man and woman walking on the NYC Highline.
Paying no mind to the bluster, Hiller and Everett strut on the NYC Highline.
(OK McCausland / For The Times)

The two knew each other from the New York performance scene, and she had the idea they should live together during the shoot, along with Hill, which bonded them all further.

“It was a big ‘90s McMansion in the suburbs,” she says. “An underfurnished ‘Real Housewives’ house,” Hiller adds, and Everett concurs.

“It was great, because I felt like this is such a big moment for all of us, and we should be sharing it together,” he says.

To Hiller, the invitation was emblematic of Everett’s nature. “Bridget has a way of welcoming people — obviously I’m a super-beneficiary of that career-wise — but she makes one feel accepted, and I feel very grateful for that.”