By Tammy Scileppi
“With comedy, it’s a combination of knowing the comedic beat was good — it made you laugh, it made people on the crew laugh.”
—Chris Pratt (film and TV actor/comedian)
You could say it’s that winning combo — downright funny acting, a rocking script, and great comedic beat — that has made so many people laugh and chuckle while watching creator Ken Arpino’s fast-paced original gay web series, “The Queens Project,” which went viral after Season One launched on YouTube in 2016.
Now, packed with more of his boys’ snarky playful banter and shameless naughtiness, Season Two looks to be even funnier, and viewers will likely get hooked again as they follow the nonstop shenanigans, escapades and ongoing trials and tribulations of gay Queens-based roommates Gabe (B.J. Gruber) and Ash (Ken Arpino). The star-struck celebrity wannabes moved to the big city to become Broadway stars, “but reality — and lack of talent” set them on a journey to become “the truest, nerdiest versions” of themselves, says Arpino, proudly pointing out that Season One has more than 1.6 million views on YouTube, “which is both exciting and encouraging for all of us working on ‘The Queens Project.’ “
“Fans of the show have told us they really see themselves and their friends in the characters as they watch. It’s nice to know that viewers relate to the boys,” whose circle of buddies includes Nick (Trey Gerrald) and Andre (Andre Jordan).
In fact, Arpino says, he based everyone off his own real-life friends, and Season Two takes the show to a new level.
“We were able to enhance the production quality with better equipment, additional team members, and the season has a linear story line,” he explains. An Indiegogo campaign garnered $5,000, which went toward production, rentals, and post-production.
Describing “The Queens Project” as “the little series that could,” Arpino says the show hit a major road bump early on when its main location, Gabe and Ash’s apartment, sustained significant damage in a fire.
“The space was completely lost, so it altered the rest of production for the whole season,” he said. “Unfortunately, the change in the production schedule made us lose actors and other booked locations, so we had to get clever. It was stressful getting to the end, but getting such a positive response to Season Two has made it worth it!”
Regarding future plans, he notes, “I always have new projects in the works, but I am excited to say that we are working on Season Three of ‘The Queens Project’!”
Turns out his web series is actually a test piece for a larger project, also set in Queens.
“The two episodes of Season One were just fun test episodes for me,” Arpino said. “However, viewers really responded, so I wrote four more episodes. We have so much fun working on the show, it was super easy to write six more episodes for Season Two. This time, though, there is a story that threads through the season. If there are any producers or investors reading — we would love to make ‘The Queens Project’ a full-time gig.”
Arpino said he wanted to test different personalities in his characters to see how people responded to them.
“It has been so fun to hear that viewers are seeing themselves in the different boys and hearing how they would have reacted the same way if put in the same situation.”
Here’s an example: In Season 2, Episode 2, Nick tells Ash he’s getting married and leaving Astoria. He says, “I’m moving to Brooklyn.” Surprised and disappointed, Ash replies: “You don’t even have a beard.”
So, who is Ashley, “Ash,” Cooper? He’s an ex-aspiring Broadway star who is intelligent and well intentioned but lacks self-confidence.
“A former fat kid, Ash is accustomed to being the sidekick, so he struggles to see/trust when he gets attention himself,” Arpino explained.
“BJ’s character, Gabriel ‘Gabe’ Wallach, has been told he was beautiful his entire life, so moving to NYC to pursue modeling just seemed like the natural thing to do,” Arpino said. “His secret sensitive side has pushed him into a whole new type of closet—fear of nerd shaming.”
And who is Ken Arpino? Well, it seems he’s a lot of things wrapped up into one cool and talented young guy: actor, sketch writer, singer, funnyman, and foodie, who says, “I want to be Chris Pratt when I grow up!”
Off-Broadway, the Boston area native starred in “My Big Gay Italian Wedding,” and has appeared on tour with “Mamma Mia!,” “Legally Blonde: the Musical!” and “Hairspray.” He’s done regional shows as well, and even improv comedy.
The oldest of five kids, Ken was born into a large Roman Catholic family; “An Italian father (fresh off the boat) and an Irish mother from Brooklyn, NY,” who always reminds him: “You should visit home more often. It’s so close.”
As one can imagine, the making of ‘The Queens Project’ has been a highly collaborative process.
“It is amazing to see how many people it takes to get a project off its feet. I have been so lucky to work with the coolest team ever,” Arpino said, adding that scheduling has been the hardest part.
“I love my team, but so does everyone else, so finding dates that are free for all of us is very difficult, but totally worth it,” he said.
Season One took about three months to produce. Season Two took almost a year.
Arpino said he loves Astoria, so he wanted to set his show in Queens.
“When I am in New York, I spend my time here. I love it here! I can go get stressed out in Manhattan with work (and tourists) and it feels great to come home to Queens after a workday,” Arpino said. “And I am lucky that a lot of my friends live close or conveniently off the N-W-R.”
For Season Two, the team shot the first episode at The Bonnie, a popular gastropub on 23rd Avenue.
“They were so helpful and made the whole process painless. Plus, their bar is beautiful,” he noted.
The other scenes were shot in various Queens apartments.
While none of the cast members are originally from the borough, 95 percent of everyone who works on the show lives in Astoria, according to Arpino. Andre and BJ live there, while Trey lives in Manhattan. Even Dustin Williams, the producing artistic director of Wolfbane Productions in Appomattox, Va., who directed Season Two, lives in Astoria in the off-season.
“Asking him to join the ‘Queens Project’ team was a no-brainer,” Arpino said. “He is a very solid storyteller and super fun on set. We both work for Wolfbane and have a great working relationship.” Arpino became Wolfbane’s executive director last year.
Cobbling together a successful gay comedy series is all about “timing, commitment, teamwork, and keeping things realistic,” Arpino said. “In my experience, people respond to comedy when they relate. … As far as making a scripted series is concerned, it takes a village.”
The “Queens Project” cast is stuffed with comedic performers whose credits range from prime-time TV to Broadway and beyond: Gruber (“Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man,” the “Daddy Hunt” web series), Gerrald (“Orange is the New Black”), Tim Murray (“50 Shades! The Musical”), Jordan (“Shrek”), Chris Dwan (“Finding Neverland”), Ian Paget (“Mamma Mia!”), Kevin Zak (“Clinton: The Musical!”).