“When did comedies become half-hour dramas?”
These words, uttered by Billy Eichner via the acid pen of Julie Klausner in the newly launched second season of her Hulu sitcom Difficult People, come from a place of love. Klausner loves TV like a mother loves her child – which is to say she always wants it to do and be better. A lifelong acolyte of the medium, she’s spent most of her life hovering around its fringes – consuming it by the binge-ful, recapping shows online, eventually landing staff writing gigs here and there. And so when she finally snagged an opportunity to graduate from obsessive to creator, her aspirations went something like wisdom from a couch-potato Gandhi: the time had come to be the half-hour sitcom she wished to see in the world.
Klausner stopped by the Rolling Stone offices for a frank discussion about writing herself into a show, the current state of televised comedy and her distaste for superhero movies and Pokemon Go.
Could you talk about the process of getting the show made? At what point did the idea of creating a show around your life start to formulate?
I wanted to do the show that I’d make if I had been given a year to live. It’s so hard to do or sell anything in the world of TV and film, so you might as well really go for it, because you probably won’t sell it anyway. So when I set out to write Difficult People as a pilot, I thought that if someone came to me and asked what show I wanted to make, I’d have a script ready. It drew from personal experiences I’ve had, stuff from my podcast. I really like the idea of taking experiences I’ve had and acting differently in them, like, the way I wish I would have acted. Or the way someone with less self-awareness would have acted.
Is there an element of wish-fulfillment to the Julie Kessler character?
Very much so. I think it’s cathartic, but also, she’s dumber than I am and a lot more hotheaded. She’s quick to anger, even when things are her fault and not the world’s fault and so that’s fun to play. It’s fun to play characters who are stupid, arrogant, less self-aware.
You don’t want to be too precious. You can’t have a show where all the characters are complimenting you and telling you how great you are, unless, like, you later show that they’re all low-IQ or you’re in the Twilight Zone or something. I think it’s a combination of making fun of yourself and making fun of other people, and the annoying things they do.
The truth is, sometimes negativity is what you need to set things straight. If you’re gonna be negative, just have the decency not to be boring.
There’s this conventional network wisdom about having a “likable lead” for a show; I take it that’s not something you put much stock in.
I think the likable/unlikable philosophy is bullshit, because any character that’s funny is likable. People want to hang out with a character that’s fun to watch, and that could be Hannibal Lecter. David Brent [Ricky Gervais’ boob of a boss on the U.K. Office] isn’t likable, he’s just pompous, self-absorbed and ignorant. That doesn’t mean he’s unlikable, because he’s a fun character to watch. It just means you wouldn’t want your daughter to marry him.
Both the Julie and Billy characters are curmudgeonly types, but isn’t that kind of universal?
I think everyone who’s felt like an underdog will relate to us. I think anyone who’s ever felt like everyone is nuts except for themselves and their best friend will relate. There’s something kinda romantic about that, and plus, I think it’s refreshing to watch people be negative. There’s too much pressure on people to be positive; you hear stories about people who break up with friends because ‘oh, they’re too negative.’ But the truth is, sometimes negativity is what you need to set things straight. If you’re gonna be negative, just have the decency not to be boring.
When you were first shopping the show around, I understand there was a deal with the USA network that didn’t work out.
When I had written the pilot script and later went to [executive producer] Amy [Poehler] to develop it as a series, we went around with Billy and pitched it. USA liked it, so they gave us money for a pilot presentation, to shoot the episode and show it to them. By the time we finished shooting, USA’s scripted comedy department had been dissolved, and they decided they didn’t want to do scripted comedy any more. But the nice thing is by then, we had something to show. We brought it around, Hulu liked what we shot, and it landed there.
There’s a real, lucid awareness of the current state of TV on your show. Billy has that great line about comedies becoming dramas. In a general sense, where do you think Difficult People fits in to the current state of comedy?
I’m very proud to be a hard comedy. I’m proud that we have as many jokes as we do, in addition to comic situations and one-liners. It’s important to us that our show be really funny, and not gently funny. I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to work with Hulu when they were starting and barely had any original shows. It was an incredible opportunity, because they were figuring out who they were at the same time that I was figuring out what the show would be. It was a matter of saying, ‘Well, why don’t we try this?’ because all they could do was say no. I wanted to see how much I could get away with, and the truth is that they let me get away with pretty much everything we wanted to do.
But as far as the state of comedy right now, television is in such an amazing place because there are so many great things on TV right now. Movies, I think, are in a very different place.
How do you mean?
I don’t like superhero movies. And I feel like that there are three movies that are getting made in a year, and two of them are the same movie. It’s almost like the way that broadcast television used to be, where all their shows had to appeal to everyone. And because of foreign rights, too, you buy a property and develop it with the intention of it being seen in China. Action is easy to translate, comedy’s not necessarily that way. Film takes fewer chances, and television can take so many more chances because there are just so many channels. That brings in a huge diversity – there are crappy shows, yeah, but there are more good shows than there used to be.
In your college days, you interned on the cult comedy series Strangers with Candy. What did you take away from that experience?
I realized that this was the best. I watched Amy [Sedaris] and Stephen [Colbert] and Paul [Dinello] and I thought, ‘These guys have it figured out. They have the best jobs in the world. They get to write and then be in this insane, original, weird show they’ve created.’ What could be better?
Amy Sedaris appears in the new season, one in a long line of stars passing through for an episode. Who’d be on your dream list of guest actors, if you could get absolutely anyone?
[Without a moment’s hesitation] John Lithgow. Michael Caine. Dianne Wiest. Judi Dench.
Wow, you were all ready with that answer.
Hell yeah! Bring ’em in!
How did you and Billy first come into each other’s orbits?
I met Billy years ago, when I was a fan of the man-on-the-street internet videos he was making, even before he took Billy on the Street to Fuse. He’d show these videos at [Off-Broadway theater] Ars Nova, and I sent him a fan email. He was familiar with my stuff, so the two of us got together and tried to figure out what we could do – maybe a show? That fell by the wayside, as things do, and then Billy got the show on Fuse. He called me and asked me to write for him, and we really got to know each other over the course of that process.
Difficult People makes a lot of jokes at the expense of celebrities. I’m curious, do you ever get calls from anyone’s representation, like, “We heard you talkin’ shit”?
Not yet! I think it must be like an honor, to some extent, to get made fun of on the show. I haven’t heard from people that are pissed off. I think silence is probably a lot more powerful than bitching about it, but what do I know? I’ve never had anyone make fun of me on a TV show to the point where it hurt my feelings. Fortunately!
Mostly, the response to the show has been overwhelmingly positive. The people who love it, love it. It’s not for everybody. I’m still impressed that it’s for anybody.
The pop-culture references on the show are so specific; maybe you’ve filled a niche for like-minded TV and movie junkies?
The more specific you are, the more authentic you are. Your specific experience is the only thing that no one else can write to. The more authentically you represent yourself, the more likely you are to hit chords with people. Whether or not people get the references, they see things that are universal about our relationship and our character, and those who do get the references are thrilled that there’s a kindred spirit out there who cares way too much about Debra Messing, too.
Your show attracts a lot of comparisons to Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. How is it distinct from similar programs?
It was very important for our TV show to be set in a different New York City than Broad City‘s New York, Louie‘s New York. It’s tonal. It’s important for our characters to live in a hellish, ugly, loud New York that gibes with their worldview. Because whether or not Billy and Julie are right, we want to show the world through their eyes. Everyone is kind of a jerk around them, and even when opportunities present themselves, if Billy and Julie don’t get in their own way, someone else will.
But there’s this affection for New York evident on the show, too.
Every New Yorker feels that way. We have a love-hate affair with the city, but no matter how much you complain about it, you know you could never leave it. A big part of being a New Yorker is complaining about it, and feeling like it’s your right, even though you live here. It’s hard to live here, and so if you manage to pull it off, you’ve earned the right to complain.
You’re successful now, but have you found that playing someone who’s still in that struggling phase of their career keeps you grounded?
Oh, I’ll never be happy in the way where people get to a place and say [contented sigh], “I’m there, finally.” Like my character on the show, no matter how much I achieve – though I’m incredibly grateful, I don’t know if it’ll ever get me to a place where I’m a different person as far as how happy I am. I’ve always felt like an outsider, and I’ve always identified with people who are struggling, on the outside looking in. That’s what keeps you funny. Positive people, generally, are not the funniest.
What’s that link all about? It’s almost a cliché now, the comedian secretly tortured by inner pain.
I don’t think we’re secretly suffering. At this point, we might almost be too loud about it! But comedians are sensitive, they’re able to observe the world as it is. It gives you a special lens on the world. It’s about assuming the negativity so other people don’t have to. Talking about something that makes you miserable, makes it funny. There’s an alchemy to that.
There’s a rich precedent for the buddy-comedy dynamic between Billy and Julie. What do you see as Difficult People‘s forebears?
Absolutely Fabulous, Mary and Rhoda. There’s a great tradition of friendship on TV, and honestly, I find most of it more convincing that romantic relationships. Even between friends, there’s a certain sort of romance to, ‘I like you and I hate everyone else in the world.’ That resonates with an authentic intimacy that I, as a straight woman, have with my gay male friends. That is a pretty sacred relationship, if I may. I find that if you’re able to write to that, and not show characters fighting or going behind each other’s backs, their relationship will be consistent and solid and people find comfort in that.
The one functional relationship in the show is between your character and her boyfriend Arthur, played by James Urbaniak, and she treats him like furniture in the apartment. Is that indicative of the show’s stance on romance, or yours, for that matter?
To some extent, I think we know people like Arthur, where you wonder, ‘Why is he with this woman if she’s gonna be unappreciative?’ But she’s not boring, and I think he digs that, maybe finds it kind of sexy. She keeps his life interesting, and he sees the bigger picture that she’s not as bad a person as she shows people she is. And in a political agenda sort of way, I wanted there to be a supportive, put-upon spousal figure for a lead female character who’s a pain in the ass, instead of vice versa, which we’ve seen tons of times. Dudes are assholes and stupid, and the wives are reasonable and sweet and loving, standing to the side rolling their eyes.
After spending time recapping other people’s TV shows, you’re living it. What’s the block to get over when transitioning from pop-culture obsessive to creator?
There’s not a giant boundary between the two, really. So much of criticism is original. People will say, ‘Oh, you can either write about stuff or make stuff,’ but people who write about stuff are making stuff. There’s not a big difference between a critic and a creator. I think it’s a little snotty to separate the two.
But the big difference between my character and me in real life is that she doesn’t understand that it’s only once you sit down and do the work and stop trying to schmooze your way into things, that you can stop blaming the world around you. I learned that the hard way, but she still has yet to figure that out. If you’re writing a recap of a show, someone’s not gonna hire you to write on their TV show just because they like your recap. They’ll ask if you’ve got a TV script, and if you don’t, they won’t hire you. It’s things like that – simple. But at the time, I was like, ‘That’s unfair!’ because I was lazy, or arrogant, or all of the above. But once you actually do things, you complain a lot less. Or at least, your complaints will be louder and more appreciated.
What’re your thoughts on the new frontiers of pop culture – YouTube, Vine, that scene?
I like Vic Berger on Vine. I think he’s a completely brilliant genius, he makes art out of his editing abilities and it blows me away. But hey, any place you can make stuff, especially if you can make it the way you want to, that’s great. I will never understand Snapchat, though. And someone tried to explain this Pok´emon thing to me yesterday and I almost blew my brains out. No. No. I cannot. Absolutely not. No.