Embarrassing mums, amateur theatre, closetted gay teens – The Family Law has it all! Matthew Galea asks writer Benjamin Law, where to next?
DNA: Congrats on season two! Was it always your plan to have a second season? Benjamin Law: You have to be kind of smugly arrogant and just assume that season two is going to happen because when you’re developing season one there are plotlines where you think, “Oh, that’s a total season two thing.” So, you develop season one with season two hovering as a delicious prospect.
Is there a certain pressure to follow up season one’s success?
I guess so. The first season is still the most-watched comedy ever on SBS On Demand. They debuted the episode on Facebook before it went to air, which was an SBS first and it got over a million eyeballs on it. But for us in the writer’s room, we can’t get too worried about that. We just need to write the best show possible.
For readers who haven’t watched the show, how would you describe The Family Law?
It’s a black comedy about divorce and the family at the center of it happen to be Chinese-Australian. A lot has been made of the fact that it’s a ChineseAustralian show. We haven’t really had that kind of representation on screen before, even though 1 in 10 Australians has Asian background. But storywise it was always a show about divorce because my parents split up at an early age, and beyond that one of the subplots going on is that Ben is obviously gay. The audience are several steps ahead of the family and Benjamin about this.
If you asked fans, they’d probably pinpoint different aspects of the show that resonate with them, whether it’s divorce or being gay…
Yeah! And I think they should because, for instance, the fact that Ben’s gay isn’t a central plot yet. We’re pretty explicit about it in terms of who Ben is perving on with his telescope! That’s clear, but we’re not yet making it the main plot because in Ben’s life being gay isn’t yet the main plot. He’s got these foggy feelings in the back of his mind that he knows he’ll have to grapple with at some stage. How did your family react to their life story being turned into a show for all to see?
When I showed them scripts everyone was really on board because they found it funny and
That Ben’s gay isn’t a central plot, yet. But we’re pretty explicit about who he’s perving on with his telescope!
ridiculous and heartfelt and sad. It would be different if I was writing an exposé on the family but I’ve written both the show and the book as kind of a love letter to my family.
On the show, your mother talks a lot about her vagina. Is she like that in real life?
Oh, my god. Anyone who knows my mum and has watched the show is like, “Wow, that’s a really tame representation of your mother.” In real life she’s an R-rated version of the M-rated character you see on the show!
Since The Family Law’s content is based on true events, is it hard to watch?
There’s that saying; tragedy plus time equals comedy, right? Enough time has passed since I was 14 that this stuff doesn’t really affect me anymore. But in episode one of the series there’s a scene where Jenny, the mum, kicks out Danny, the dad, and she turns around and realises all her kids have been watching. When I saw the rough cut of that it really got emotional for me.
What do you hope viewers get from watching the show?
A sense of companionship. A lot of people who feel like outsiders haven’t seen themselves on screen. I think young queer people and Asian-Australians and people who have inappropriate, cringe-worthy mothers, people with divorced parents… those people aren’t represented on screen enough. When I look back at my childhood, I wish I’d had a show like this to watch.
If you could have anyone join the cast who would you choose and why?
Adam Liaw [celebrity chef]. He’s also on SBS and he’s met the cast at functions and we’re always like, “You love us, we love you, we should just write a dirty character for you.” And Poh [Ling Yeow, celebrity chef] as well. Oh, and Penny Wong! In a dream sequence!
What’s the most memorable thing a fan has ever said to you?
After I wrote my first book The Family Law, there were a few people who came out to me online because, I think, there’s safety in writing to someone you don’t know. There’s a chapter in the book about my coming-out and how my parents hilariously responded to it.
My mum said, “There’s nothing wrong with coming out, it just means that something went wrong in the womb.” My mum was very supportive and I came out to my dad by the time I had a boyfriend who he already knew, just not as my boyfriend. When you come from a non-Anglo family, attitudes towards being gay are more conservative and it gave [readers of the book] courage. That wasn’t what I was thinking of when I wrote it but it’s been a gorgeous side affect of getting my story out there.
So, what is your coming-out story?
I didn’t grow up in a city and knew I was going to go to university and get to leave everything behind. That’s an appealing prospect if you grow up gay in the suburbs. I came out at 17 to my mum and then, years later, to my more conservative dad. I’m so grateful because by that stage they had seen something of the world and they knew that a heterosexual married life isn’t necessarily for everyone – because they lived through that. That helped them think, “If our son’s gay, at least he’s happy and healthy and why should there be anything wrong with that?”
Hopefully we get to see Ben’s coming out story in the show eventually.
I hope so, too!
Tell us about your boyfriend…
His name’s Scott Spark. I know it sounds like a porn name but it’s his real name. He’s a recording artist. We’ve known each other since we were teenagers. We’ve been together for nearly half our lives but it doesn’t feel that long because it’s easy to be with someone that long when they’re the best person you’ll ever meet. I know that sounds really fucking sappy.
Wait, is this the same guy you were saying that your dad knew?
Yeah! Because he worked at my dad’s restaurant for a while when I was working there, too. We hooked up after a shift.
His character could potentially make his way into the show?
Funny you should say that… Not this series. It’s something we’ve discussed. It depends how long we can keep the show going.
Is it true that some of Scott’s songs are inspired by you?
He writes our history in a similar way that I write my family’s history. It’s like a beautiful time capsule; like someone painting your portrait.
THE FAMILY LAW (TOP LEFT AND RIGHT) DIVORCE, MUM’S VAGINA AND SCHOOL CONCERTS. (INSET) THE REAL BEN LAW: “THE SHOW IS A LOVE LETTER TO MY FAMILY.”