His character, Michael, arrives with his husband, Kit, for cancer treatment, dismayed to find there are no beds available. Kit’s aggressive colorectal cancer makes sitting in chairs painful, and he’s going to be there for hours.
Michael, who was promised a bed for his husband, asks them to make an exception.
Turned down again, he flies into a rage. Michael starts shouting at the nurse about where she might procure a bed.
During the filming of the movie, director Michael Showalter asked for names of furniture stores to toss into Parsons’ rant.
No one had any idea what he was talking about — except for Showalter.
Turns out, it was a Jersey thing. Showalter (”The Big Sick,” “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”), 52, grew up in Princeton. Ausiello, 50, grew up in Roselle Park.
“He laughed so hard when I said the words, ‘Huffman Koos,’ because it was such a blast from the past,” Ausiello says.
Ultimately, the detail didn’t make it into the movie, in theaters Dec. 9 from Focus Features, because the store reference doesn’t track outside the area (Huffman Koos are limited to the New York-New Jersey region). But Ausiello was thoroughly amused.
“The New Jersey thing that we connected over most was Huffman f—ing Koos,” he says.
It was a moment of levity in a story of grief — Ausiello’s own story, based on his 2017 book, “Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Other Four-Letter Words.” The memoir is an account of the writer’s last year with husband Kit Cowan and the 13 years they spent together before he was diagnosed with cancer.
Ausiello, founder and editor in chief of TVLine, a website that covers TV shows, had known Parsons for years before the film.
Though he can’t recall their first exchange, it was likely somewhere in the thrum of the awards show scene, when he was interviewing the actor.
“It probably was on an Emmy red carpet,” Ausiello tells NJ Advance Media from his home in Los Angeles, where he’s nursing a second, mild case of COVID-19. “I was probably interviewing him early into ‘Big Bang Theory’’s run.”
It may have been his job to interview the man behind Sheldon Cooper, one of the most beloved characters on an enormously popular network sitcom, but it was also the start of a valued friendship, says Ausiello, who worked for Entertainment Weekly before starting TVLine.
“From that moment, we had this instant rapport, this really fun back-and-forth interplay that was consistent with every one of our run-ins after that, every one of our interviews after that,” Ausiello says. “Interviewing Jim wasn’t work — I was entertained by him, and I think he was entertained by me. We played off of each other really well.”
Parsons granted Ausiello more in-depth interviews and the actor came to the TVLine launch party when the writer started his new venture in 2011. So when Ausiello was promoting his book, he asked him to moderate a Barnes & Noble Q&A.
Parsons, 49, and his husband, Todd Spiewak — who are partners in their production company, That’s Wonderful Productions — wanted to option the book for film. Sure, the title referenced the world of TV, but Ausiello had never pictured his story as a movie. They told Ausiello they were interested at the bookstore event.
The team brought the story from the pages of his bestselling book to the screen in about five years.
Ausiello was moved to started writing “Spoiler Alert” in the first place because of another friend connection.
Rakesh Satyal, a novelist and editor from Simon & Schuster, had seen Ausiello’s Facebook posts about Kit and his cancer treatment, which he shared among friends. Following Cowan’s death in 2015, Satyal asked Ausiello if he would ever consider writing a book about the experience. “Spoiler Alert” would become his first.
Ausiello writes about life with Cowan before and after he was diagnosed with neuroendocrine cancer. The TV writer met the photographer from Pennsylvania in 2001.
Both the book and movie show how Kit’s health crisis affected their relationship. Ausiello and Cowan got married at the end of his life, growing closer after a time apart as his cancer continued to spread.
Screenwriters David Marshall Grant (”Brothers & Sisters”) and Dan Savage adapted the story for film. Like Ausiello’s writing, the script is suffused with laughs, even as it shares the devastating prognosis Kit and Michael face together.
Today, Ausiello dedicates Instagram posts to Cowan that feature his selfies and photography, showing various milestones they shared, like Christmas in their first apartment. On Dec. 23, he would’ve turned 50.
While writing the book was painful in the immediate wake of Cowan’s death, watching Showalter, Parsons and Aldridge tell his story for the cameras was a little easier, Ausiello says.
“There were days on the set that were hard, but because I was so moved by the performances and I was so moved by the story, it was sort of unfolding before my eyes,” he says. “But it wasn’t that I was having any kind of PTSD or flashbacks.”
Watching Parsons work on set in New York, Ausiello saw the actor ground his performance in real joy and trauma, but create someone wholly new at the same time.
“I was really impressed by the vulnerability that he brought to the role with some of the scenes that really required him to just be completely emotionally there,” he says. “Also, there’s a sweetness to his version of Michael that tickled me, and that I felt was a nice touch. Not to say that I’m not sweet, but I was just sort of touched and moved by the sweetness of the character, or this interpretation of the character that he brought to it.”
Parsons’ Michael is shown getting close to his in-laws before they became his in-laws — and what a pair.
Two-time Oscar winner Sally Field, who had previously worked with Showalter on the film “Hello, My Name is Doris” (2015), sparkles as Kit’s mother, Marilyn Cowan. Bill Irwin (”Legion”), Field’s co-star from Edward Albee’s “The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?” on Broadway — who also had a part in Hulu’s Elizabeth Holmes series “The Dropout,” directed by Showalter — plays Kit’s father, Bob Cowan.
They start the film completely in the dark about Michael and Kit’s relationship, unaware their son is gay.
“Spoiler Alert” takes on Ausiello’s history with grief through his own parents.
When Ausiello was a child, his mother died of cancer and his father later died of heart disease. The film (which reverses the order of their deaths) is sprinkled with flashbacks to his boyhood (Brody Caines plays a young Michael), when his mother (played by Tara Summers) was alive. The interludes take the form of vintage TV episodes — family-style sitcom bits.
Ausiello has been developing a TV show along those lines based on his 1980s Jersey childhood. As of 2019, the dramedy, written by Ausiello and produced by J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions, was called “Drama Queen” and eyed for HBO Max, but the streamer passed on the show. Now Ausiello says the project could potentially become a film.
“We’re still trying to find out if there is a home for it,” he says.
The soap opera fan and “former fat kid,” as Michael calls himself in “Spoiler Alert,” would grow up to become an editor at Soaps In Depth magazine before writing for TV Guide. He’s made cameos of his own along the way, in shows like “Gilmore Girls” and “Scrubs.”
In addition to Ausiello’s childhood home, the movie has scenes set in Jersey City and Ocean City (none were actually filmed in New Jersey).
Huffman Koos isn’t his only retail throwback. Woodbridge Center Mall and Menlo Park Mall loomed large in his childhood, as did Gift Expressions, a former store in Union.
That’s where he’d buy his Smurfs.
Ausiello’s passion for the little blue creatures from the ’80s Saturday morning cartoon never waned. In fact, the Smurfs shown in “Spoiler Alert” are from his personal collection. Michael even keeps Kit away from his apartment because he’s scared of how he’ll react to the Smurfy decor. (It’s pretty awkward when he finally walks in. What the movie doesn’t show: Kit once helped Michael guide a giant Smurf balloon through the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.)
A few years ago, Ausiello turned his Los Angeles garage into a Smurf “store.”
“Not a real store, but just a fake store, but with all the bells and whistles of a retail experience,” he says. “I called it the Blue Store, and I shared photos on social media and it was sort of what I had been dreaming about creating most of my adult life.”
For now, the contents of the Blue Store are in storage in New York, Ausiello says, “waiting for their next adventure.”
He divides his time between Los Angeles and New York, but the sights and smells of Jersey beckon him to return.
“I miss the quintessential diner experience that does not exist in New York City,” Ausiello says. “It does not exist in LA. There are versions of it, but nothing like a good New Jersey diner with a 60-page menu that is sticky and has existed for like 100 years. And bonus if there’s a little jukebox at the table.
“I have such fond memories of New Jersey diners. In fact, whenever I’m visiting and I’m arranging a lunch or a breakfast with someone, I will always pick one of my favorite New Jersey diners to go back to.”
Growing up in Roselle Park, he’d go to the Midas Touch, a diner on Westfield Avenue that later became Sunrise Diner. He also frequented the Rustic Mill Diner & Pancake House in Cranford with his grandparents. Living in Bloomfield after graduating from the University of Southern California in 1995, he was a regular at the “wonderful, super cheesy” Nevada Diner on Broad Street.
There’s comfort food and then there’s comfort TV.
During the pandemic, Ausiello’s viewing habits included a rewatch of “Felicity” season two (Felicity’s famously doomed haircut gets a shoutout in “Spoiler Alert”), though that was for work (he wrote how the season never got its due). He found solace in “The Golden Girls,” a favorite series of someone he was dating at the time. Making “Jeopardy!” a daily appointment gave him a sense of familiarity from his childhood, too.
Otherwise, the TV guru tends to seek comfort in true crime, like Netflix’s “Unsolved Mysteries” and other docuseries.
“As bad as I think I have it or as bad as the world seems to be, it’s like, here’s a reminder that some people have it much worse,” Ausiello says.
“Spoiler Alert” hits theaters in a year of increased visibility for LGBTQ stories, especially studio rom-coms written by LGBTQ talent and starring LGBTQ casts. (Aldridge, 37, publicly came out as gay in 2020.)
Summer 2022 brought the Hulu movie “Fire Island” with Joel Kim Booster and “Saturday Night Live” standout Bowen Yang, and fall brought Billy Eichner’s “Bros” from Universal Pictures (now on Peacock; Yang is also among the cast).
Ausiello sees the shift in representation as a start.
“I’m very heartened and excited to be sort of part of this wave of LGBTQ storytelling on the big screen,” he says. “I come from a school of, I always want more … As nice as it is to see all of these stories being told and all these high-profile stories, I feel like there’s so much more out there.
“There’s so many other unique LGBTQ+ perspectives and points of view that we haven’t seen yet.”
“Spoiler Alert,” which runs 1 hour and 52 minutes, is rated PG-13 for sexual content, drug use and thematic elements. The movie is in theaters Friday, Dec. 9.
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