When the creator of the NBC sitcom Abby’s asked actress Natalie Morales if she would be open to playing the lead character as bisexual, she replied, “Oh my God, yes!”
“We wanted to make it a normal thing and just one of the many, many things about her,” the actress says about the ex-Marine bar owner character she played on the short-lived show. She points to another NBC sitcom, Will & Grace, as an iconic example of a show that not only changed perceptions but actually affected policy surrounding gay rights.
“Art moves culture forward because we normalize things,” she adds during a new bonus episode of The Last Laugh podcast. “If you had never met a gay person and then you watched Will & Grace, then they weren’t so foreign to you.”
Morales, who is currently lending her voice to the comically dystopian scripted podcast Ellie and the Wave, hoped that would be the case with Abby’s as well. But then NBC canceled the show this past May after just 10 episodes had aired. “So much for diversity!” she says with a mordant laugh.
“I was really disappointed,” she continues. “It sucked. It sucked really hard. I think we did a really great thing. And I’m really proud of what we did.”
Abby’s, which counted Parks and Recreation and The Good Place creator Mike Schur as an executive producer, did not receive a strong embrace from either critics or audiences. Writing for Rolling Stone, Alan Sepinwall described it as a “casually woke” version of Cheers that was lacking in “belly laughs.” According to TVLine, it was NBC’s lowest-rated sitcom of the season with numbers that dropped week-to-week.
Morales feels like the network neglected to give the show proper promotion or the time it needed to grow.
“If I’m being honest, it’s bullshit to tout all of these firsts and all this inclusion and all this diversity and then not market the show whatsoever,” she says. She was told it was the first show in the history of NBC that got zero outdoor marketing. “So that tells you something,” she adds. “Not that I’m not thankful for the people that put it on the air. I just feel like, if you’re going to say that you’re about diversity, then actually walk the walk.”
The issue of representation on screen is personal for Morales. Two years ago, she penned an essay for her former Parks and Rec co-star Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls website in which she came out as queer.
After reluctantly outlining early crushes on and relationships with girls, Morales wrote, “I don’t like labeling myself, or anyone else, but if it’s easier for you to understand me, what I’m saying is that I’m queer. What queer means to me is just simply that I’m not straight. That’s all. It’s not scary, even though that word used to be really, really scary to me.”
“I’m really, really happy that I did it,” she says about the decision to come out publicly. “I was out with my friends. Everybody except for some family members knew.” Describing herself as a “private person,” she says, “The worst thing I could imagine is some stranger having some familiarity with my life. That makes me feel so weird. That would make me want to crawl out of my skin.”
Initially, Morales felt like she could be a supporter of LGBTQ+ rights from afar. She told herself, “I don’t have to say that I’m a part of this community to support it.” But then, she says, “I realized that I did. I did have to say that I was a part of it.”
This was around the time she was starting to promote her role as a lesbian tennis player in the film Battle of the Sexes. “That movie is about Billie Jean King, and her coming to terms with her sexuality is such a big part of that movie,” says Morales. “And I felt like kind of a hypocrite if I was about to do all of this press and not say that.”
She thought about when she was a kid, watching shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena: Warrior Princess. “If any of those people had been like, ‘Hey, I’m queer. I’m not straight. And I’m normal and my life is happy and healthy and people still love me and you’re going to be fine.’ If anybody had said that, my teen years would have been dramatically easier,” Morales says. “Not only because of exterior pain inflicted upon me, but interior stuff, how much I beat myself up for what I thought was weird or bad or sinful or not normal.”
She thought to herself, “If there’s some kid who likes what I did, or some adult who still hasn’t come out, or an adult who’s a parent to a kid, if there’s one person who will feel a little bit more normal and a little bit more understood by this, it’s a thousand times worth doing it.”
After the essay was published, Morales says she heard from a lot of people who decided to come out after reading it. “When you live in a big city like L.A. or New York, you feel like kids in school are gay and it’s not a big deal, but that’s not the case in most places in America or most places in the world. And it’s especially not the case for Latino kids and Latino families who are mostly religious.”
“You forget how important it is to do that and to also put that representation on TV.” That’s why playing “the first bisexual lead of any network comedy show ever,” in her words, was so enticing.
The whole experience has made Morales want to start producing her own work. “I’m in this weird crossroads moment,” she says. “I can either focus on other people’s creations and act in them or direct them. But I’ve been amassing this huge pile of stuff that I’ve written that I’m really excited about making.”