The Hilarious HIV+ Musical Series Returns for a Second Season
The award-winning HIV-positive musical comedy Web series, “Merce,” is beloved for its MGM classic film ethos mixed with potty-mouth flair. It returns for its second hilarious season this month, and all of the series’ favorites are back, including the outrageous Southern Mama (played by Tyne Firmin), the fabulous fairy boys and, of course, the loveable Merce.
The hijinks are raised to unprecedented heights in the new season, yet the series manages to dive into PrEP, slut shaming, gay marriage and other hot-button topics impacting today’s HIV community. Most mahhvelously, this season “Merce” finds love!
We spoke with the series star and creator, Charles Sanchez.
Where did you come up with the idea for “Merce”?
For a long time in my life, I hid my gayness. Or, I tried to! I had a lot of shame around it. I thought I was an abomination. I’ve gotten over it. The character of Merce came from a desire to be unapologetically gay. I wanted him to be authentic and 100% fabulous. Merce is me with my camp factor turned up to 11. That flamboyance is also opposite of what you think of when you think of someone with HIV.
He’s like Pee-Wee Herman meets “Angels in America.”
Oh my God, yes! With maybe a little Paul Lynde wryness. One writer described season one as having the charm of an early John Waters film, so maybe Pee-Wee peppered with Paul and “Angels in America” with singing, if directed by John Waters.
What inspired the other zany characters in the show?
I lived in Arkansas for some years. It’s where I was diagnosed with HIV. Some of the fabulous, strong, funny women who befriended me all find their way into the character of Mama. The character of Todd was inspired by my nephew, who I knew was gay from when he was pretty young. Then there’s Remington. He is the ideal boyfriend, a big teddy bear with a giant heart.
Why has TV ignored the HIV epidemic?
I’m not sure. It might be that they don’t know how to handle the topic. It’s relatively easy to write a dramatic story about someone dying from AIDS. It’s automatically an operatic storyline. To create a character and storyline about someone who’s living with a chronic condition and doing OK isn’t as dramatic a storyline and is more challenging to write.
Even TV’s “Will & Grace” never touched on HIV! How is that possible?
“Will & Grace” is an important show that has done a lot as far as visibility of gays, albeit white, privileged gays. But the fact that Will and Jack are men of a certain age and never talk about their lived experience during the AIDS crisis, never have any occasion to show up for an HIV event, never talk about the advances of treatments, U equals U and PrEP is a real shame. They have a tremendous opportunity to teach millions of people, and I wish they’d use it.
What was some of the feedback you received from season one?
People said that it was refreshing and hilarious. I love it when people say it’s hilarious. Also, there have been people living with HIV who’ve really appreciated seeing a character who isn’t a tragic figure. I think my favorite thing is when people have said that they got so caught up in the humor and style of the show, that they forgot Merce had HIV. Exactly.
In addition to its fun characters, “Merce” is beloved for its showtunes!
We’re so lucky to have two amazing composers, Rob Hartmann and Adam J. Rineer, writing songs for the show. When Rob first sent me the song, “Just F***ed Feeling,” I thought it was supremely funny, but I was a little nervous knowing I’d have to perform it. But our mantra at “Merce” is “more is more,” so I went for it. When I played it for a friend, she said it was very relatable! I love that. Rob also wrote “Bless Your Heart,” a truly funny song that I think even non-Southern Mamas will relate to. Adam wrote “Click Delete” and the simply gorgeous, heartfelt ballad, “Your Cure.”
“Your Cure” sounds like a number from Falsettos.
What a lovely thing to say! I think Adam really hit this one out of the park. It was really important for me to talk about an HIV cure, because the concept isn’t talked about very much anymore. I also thought it was important to show Merce and Remington in a genuine love scene. I think this scene in the show is an intimate moment that a lot of lovers can relate to.
Merce finds love this season, and it’s with an HIV-negative man.
There are many couples in serodiscordant relationships, and it’s important to show that and tell that story. It’s another way to teach that people living with HIV on successful treatment can’t pass the virus. More importantly, it teaches that many people living with HIV are loved and in relationships.
What do you hope viewers take away from Merce (the character) and “Merce” (the series)?
My big hope is that people think both the show and the character are funny. Making people laugh is our major goal, and we pushed every boundary we could think of to make this happen. After that, I hope that people have a shift in their mindset of someone living with HIV, have a fresh image of what a person living with HIV looks like. HIV has such a frightening stigma attached to it, and we’re trying to shatter that. I’d like for people to see a person living with HIV as being a person first, complex, with family, friends, a sex life, troubles, fears. And that HIV is not an automatic death sentence; a person living with HIV can live a full, fabulous life.