Catch. Delilah. Tower Bar. SoHo House. And soon The Arts Club. Those West Hollywood restaurants and clubs, located in a city that bills itself as progressive and welcoming to all, are quite posh and exclusive. That’s especially the case with SoHo House and The Arts Club, each of which carefully vets creative and artistic people for expensive memberships.
Creative and artistic while also posh and exclusionary. That contradiction is what inspired Jason Romaine to create “SoHo Haus Rules.” The video series, which launched in 2016 and will begin its third season this Fall, is a witty parody of the SoHo House and its elite membership, much of which comes from creatives associated with the film industry. SoHo Haus Rules describes itself as a “highly exclusive web series.”
Romaine, a young man with an artistic streak, was born in Wheeling, W. Va., and mostly raised in Tucson, Ariz., before moving to Los Angeles and launching a career in film. He now lives in West Hollywood.
“I’ve always been fascinated with SoHo House because it’s for artists,” Romaine said in an interview at Kitchen 24, a restaurant for the hoi polloi on Santa Monica Boulevard, geographically close but culturally far from SoHo House at 9200 Sunset Blvd. “But at the same time it’s also very exclusive, and it’s very classist, and the whole point of being an artist is to be beyond class. So it really bothered me … But I was even more bothered by the fact that I really enjoyed it and wanted to be a member.
“So there was a dichotomy there that I found really fascinating — that you haven’t made it as an artist until you are essentially a member of a country club, and a country club is supposed to be the antithesis of what being an artist is.”
In SoHo Haus Rules, Romaine plays Jackie Hyme, the demanding, egotistic and quite funny membership manager. It’s a name he came up with in a class he took at The Groundlings in 2012 that was taught by Karen Maruyama, a comedian who Romaine describes as “the best Groundlings teacher you could have.”
One day Maruyama’s challenge to her class was to come up with crazy names.
“I wrote ‘Jackie Hymes’,” Romaine said. “I thought, ‘he’s in charge of SoHo House. He thinks he is best friends with Harvey Weinstein, who at the time was at his pinnacle. Harvey Weinstein always has his parties at SoHo House, like his first Oscar party.
“… and out came this character. It was very funny because at the end of the class Karen was like, ‘Jason, I really hate all the other characters you do. There’s no depth to them, but that guy, Jackie, that gross, disgusting, celebrity-worshipping …. ‘
“So in a way Harvey helped me create this thing, because at the time your level of power was how you could connect yourself to Harvey.”
“I sort of just saw this Jackie character as being the worst gay man imaginable. He thinks he’s above the celebrities. It really was a study of ego regardless of gay or straight or whatever.”
With Jackie Hyme in mind, Romaine contemplated creating a series that was a “study of ego and power. Yeah, I sort of just saw the whole thing as a study on ego and how funny it is, in L.A., the way people don’t realize how easy they are to see through, especially if they have power … But sadly I sort of sat on it for three years. I wish I would’ve gotten busy with it, but I went off to grad school for screen writing. Then luckily though, because of that, that helped me find a crew I felt comfortable with.
Romaine saw that camera crew, composed of Emma Kragen and Pietro Torrisi as a great fit.
“You know, it’s odd, and maybe it’s just me, but I feel like it’s hard for gay male creators, and probably females as well, to feel comfortable because, up until a few years ago, the crew was all masculine, and they’re these buff guys, and they probably wouldn’t find the Soho House thing funny.
“So, it was fun to find a female cinematographer, and a gay male camera guy who really helped me with the vision, because when you’re doing comedy, if you have one person on set who doesn’t get your vision, it can really affect things … Emma Kragen and Pietro Torrisi really loved the character, and were in it.”
The first episode of Season 1 opens with Hyme training a new hostess to be “less likeable.” In every episode you see him putting others in what he sees as their place, which is way below where Jackie sees his. (And that’s despite the fact that Hyme is a young man who grew up in Pensacola, Fla., and worked at the Burlington Coat Factory before making his way to L.A.)
In some ways, the timing of the series’ launch (in August 2016), only months before the presidential election, couldn’t have been more perfect.
“It was right before Trump won,” Romaine recalls “So … this character was representing everything that was wrong with America — classism and hidden racism and sexism and even his own, internal probably, homophobia…
“ … and then, Trump happened, and Weinstein happened, and #MeToo happened. The second season … lots of my collaborators were all ‘God, this season’s really dark.’ I’m like, ‘Were you not paying attention to the first season?’ I was sort of making fun of all these things right before they hit because this is the stuff everybody knew was going on in Hollywood.”
Romaine says there are challenges today in producing such a satirical series. “Because of Trump, it’s so hard to get an audience now … It’s really hard to do satire because how do you top him? How do you top reality now? And people are so consumed with watching CNN and all these news programs.”
Romaine did manage to provoke some laughs about Trump in an episode in Season 2, where Hyme insists on staying at a hotel that’s part of the Dorchester Collection rather than a Trump hotel, because the Dorchester hotels have a five-star ranking and the Trump hotel had only a four-star rating. Never mind that the Dorchester Collection (which includes the Beverly Hills Hotel) is owned by a company controlled by the Sultan of Brunei, who has imposed Sharia laws calling for the killing of gay people.
“Jackie is proudly doing homophobic things that go against the gay agenda without even realizing it, because his class protects him,” Romaine said. “I think we have seen this with Kanye, and we saw it with OJ, where they act like they maybe aren’t black anymore. For Jackie, his class makes him feel like he’s not really gay and from Pensacola anymore.”
Romaine is not quite a one-man production team. But almost. “I mean I make the whole thing for about two grand a season,” he said. “We film it in two days — it’s multi-camera. I edit it myself, direct it myself… It’s a crazy amount of work but it’s so much fun. I love the editing.”
The series features a variety of actors. One who is constantly by Hymes’ side is Carol Jones, the assistant manager, who is played by Amy Vorpahl. It is Jones who absorbs most of Hymes’ hilarious venom. Perhaps the best-known actor in the series is James Franco, who goes through his own SoHo Haus application process, which ends in a hilarious way this story won’t spoil.
And while the series focuses on SoHo House, it also calls out some of the visual glamour of the rest of West Hollywood.
“I consider the project like a love letter to West Hollywood,” Romaine said, citing the opening scenes to each episode, which offer views of the city’s public art installations among other things, all of which the Hyme character is oblivious to.
So what’s next? During Season 1 Romaine’s agent and manager pitched SoHo Haus Rules to various film and TV companies, but, “nobody wanted to touch it, there was no interest,” Romaine said. “I find on the drama side, gay content has way more of chance than on the comedy side … Comedy is still a straight boys game. It seems like lesbians have some success but we have yet to have a gay male stand up comedian
who is high in his game. “
Romaine, however, like Jackie Hyme, isn’t the sort of guy who gives up. He knows that, like the real SoHo House, the more people learn about SoHo Haus Rules the more likely they’ll want to join it. The entire series can be seen on www.sohohausrules.com and Hyme can be followed on Twitter @jackiehyme.