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Credit executive producer Amy Poehler with naming Hulu’s new comedy Difficult People, starring creator/writer Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner. “She was the one who was like, ‘This is a series about your friendship and the two of you. We’re going to make sure that people connect to that idea of two cranky people who hate everything in the world except for each other,’” Klausner says.
That does pretty much sum it up.
The series, which premieres a third episode on Hulu this week, is Klausner’s personal Louie-meets-Curb Your Enthusiasm: She plays a TV recapper who, like her best friend and fellow comedian Billy, is trying to make it in show business. Gabourey Sidibe co-stars as Denise, the co-owner of the café where Billy waits tables, and Andrea Martin plays Marilyn, Julie’s therapist mother. In this week’s episode, “Pledge Week,” Billy hits it off with a new man, only to find out he’s a “participator,” while Julie’s home-life crumbles as her boyfriend, Arthur (James Urbaniak), cracks under the pressure of the PBS pledge drive. Guest stars include Andy Cohen, Martin Short, and Kate McKinnon (as a sober magician whose act is recovery-themed).
We sat down with Klausner in the hair and makeup trailer while the show was still in production to talk about Season 1 and her approach to comedy.
You drew inspiration for plots from the monologues of your podcast How Was Your Week?. Are there storylines that people will think have to be heightened, but no, that’s pretty much what happened in real life?
The one from the pilot [Julie tweets a questionable joke involving Blue Ivy and R. Kelly] came from a tweet that was, actually, in retrospect, completely tasteless, so I’m glad I took it down. It was about Eric Clapton’s son and “Tears in Heaven,” and something about “the acoustic version is so bad, I would have thrown myself out the window.” It was terrible. I tweeted it, and somebody on Twitter was like, “That’s horrible. I’m a father…” and I deleted it. At the time, I had a boyfriend who is a lot like Arthur in the show, and he was like, “You didn’t take it down because you realized you were wrong, you took it down because people are mad at you, and you don’t like it when people are mad at you.” And I was like, “Exactly, I’m a good person.” He’s like, “No, no, not at all, actually.” That was a funny situation that we changed a little bit, but it’s still essentially there.
There are so many things on the show that actually happened. Sometimes, I point it out to Billy, but then I get bored, or I feel like he’s getting bored.
Is there anything in the show that you would like people to know didn’t happen?
Yeah, my mother is not the way Andrea Martin plays Marilyn. Because Andrea Martin has such comedic range, it would be a shame to give her things that only my mother did. She’s a therapist, like my mother. Unlike my mother, there’s a drama therapy group that she was holding for divorced women, and these two women are the only ones that didn’t drop out, and she decided to make a play with them. Then she decided that she would be doing the play a disservice if she weren’t in it.
That episode is really a tribute to Andrea Martin’s SCTV sketch “I’m Taking My Own Head and Screwing It on Right, and No Guy’s Going to Tell Me That It Ain’t,” which is this dinner-theater piece that her character Libby Wolfson created about being a woman and what that’s like and how men are just trying to get in your way.
We were able to do that on a real stage with Andrea and two other amazing actresses, and that was a real trip. But that never happened: My mother’s never gotten dressed up in a leotard to make sure that she gets the attention she deserves.
What are notes from Hulu like on scripts?
They’ve been really good about letting me be me and letting us be us. When they do have notes, they’re not necessarily about the line, or pushing the line, or, “You can’t do that.”
They have creative notes that are really smart. They keep bringing us back to the theme of, “These are people who aren’t successful because they get in their own way, and they blame everything on the world.” But the truth is, the world is also partially accountable because the world kind of is garbage. As far as holding us back and saying, “Maybe this is not so tasteful,” or “Maybe we’re going to get sued by this celebrity,” or “Maybe we shouldn’t have this one character’s mother be a Scientologist” — they haven’t said any of that, which is amazing.
My philosophy as a writer — and it took me a long time to get there — is, I think people self-censor a lot. They put things down that they think other people would buy or would want. They think about the audience more than what they want to say, until they realize they don’t know what they want to say. And that’s happened to me so often.
With this, I really just tried to tell myself, “Let them tell me to scale back and don’t do that in advance of something,” and they haven’t. We did have this one story where we find a manager who used to be in Puppetry of the Penis. At one point in my original outline, he sort of balloon-animals his penis into a swastika, but we did not use that, not because of anything Hulu said — the story had changed. But it was nice to have that luxury of not having to worry about whether we shouldn’t hit “send.”
I think part of that is Hulu’s still new to making original TV, which is such a gift. That’s such an amazing opportunity because you don’t have to pay for the crimes of others.
Are there things you and Billy have vowed will never be used for fodder on the show?
I think that’s kind of just an understanding that we don’t even have to say. It’s like on Billy on the Street, too, we would just never make fun of people who are easy targets.
I mean, Billy did his own thing with the Kardashians on the show, which I thought was different than “Oh, they’re terrible.” I never wrote a Kardashian joke in my life… I have a lot of issues with people ragging on the Real Housewives, just because I think they’re women of a certain age and I think we need more of those on television. There’s a glamour to them that I really quite appreciate, and a sort of more advanced form of social maneuvering that I think they’re really interesting at demonstrating. I won’t s–t on reality TV being dumb or fake or people watching it being a waste of time or anything like that. It’s just not my point of view.
Obviously, Billy and I have our celebrities that we love: We love Wendy Williams. We were both close to Joan [Rivers], and she was kind of like our patron saint. We would never pick on anyone that we love, unless it was gently. We’re going to gently rib Andy Cohen [in the episode released Aug. 12], but he can take it.
I will say that at no point do we ever have a character shut me down by saying, “You just write about stuff, you don’t make stuff,“ because that, I think, is bulls–t. I have such a problem with people that are like, “You’re just jealous.” It’s like, “Really? You really think what I do is not as reputable as your staff job on f–king About a Boy? Like, f–k off. I’m making something, I’m doing something. Really? Tell that to Pauline Kael, you tw-t.”
I’m a recapper, but it’s because I love TV, and I want to break into TV, and I think I get in my own way when I’m like, “Why doesn’t anybody hire me to write TV?” Because the bigger reason is I haven’t written a spec, and I haven’t done the work. It’s just a different way of thinking about the Internet that I think TV hasn’t really shown yet. That’s how I feel about the Internet: Smart people who do good things do good things whether it’s here or there, you know?
What else would you like to see more of on TV?
Everything I want to see more of on TV I’m kind of doing: I want to see more basset hounds on TV. I have two basset hounds on the show. I want to see more women of color. I’m always excited to see people over 25, and people who are really, really, really funny and weird and have an interesting approach to a scene, even if they’re not in a comedy clique. I would like to see more of that — people that are just speaking truth to the stuff that doesn’t usually get picked on or called out.
What’s something you think is underrated on TV that you would like to champion?
…I love all things true crime-related.
Did that make its way into the show? Do Julie and Billy try to investigate a crime?
Oh, man, that would be great. I think there might be one David Berkowitz reference. It’s funny: My friend, who’s a writer on the show, Emily Altman, and I both love true crime. We both were texting through The Staircase and stuff, and we recommend books to each other. She broke up with her boyfriend, and she’d been having a hard time with it, so she was like, “I guess I just found one thing I didn’t like about him: He was always really judgmental when it came to true crime. He always thought, ‘Why do you want to watch that?’”
I was like, “What kind of stuff did he like that you didn’t?” She was like, “David Bowie.” And I was like, “All right.” And a couple of minutes later, she goes, “Wes Anderson,” and I was like, “That’s what I was fishing for! ‘Oh, sorry, you’re not interested in this series about the world’s funniest bisexual because it’s not like Adrien Brody walking down a staircase in profile to f–king harpsichord.’” She was like, “OK, that’s helpful.”
What shaped your sense of humor growing up?
A lot of SNL. A lot of TV, in general. My parents never gave me a television limit, so I watched a lot of television, and I love television. My blind spots are pretty gaping because I’ve never seen an episode of Friends, which I take great pride in, because at that time, I was watching Larry Sanders. I just kind of had the same sort of diet as anybody else from my generation, whether it was watching Marx Brothers movies with my dad and my brother, and then my brother turned me onto Steve Martin’s comedy albums, Monty Python, and then Kids in the Hall, all the good stuff.
I have to say my SCTV exposure is embarrassingly incomplete, but everything I see, I am just kind of stunned. Anything in the ‘70s, it was so ahead of its time. “Written and performed by” was really important to people in the ‘70s. Andrea Martin is such an idol of mine. I’m watching her do this stuff that we give her to do so well, it makes my heart do things I didn’t know it could do.
How do you and Billy work it if one of you has an idea that the other one doesn’t find funny?
Well, I’m used to writing for him for Billy on the Street. He certainly doesn’t spare my feelings, or lollygag, or Hugh Grant stutter around anything he doesn’t like. Billy will never say anything on camera that he doesn’t want to say. If he doesn’t want to do a line or a joke that I wrote, he’ll tell me, and I’ll write him another one, or the two of us will come up with something together. He just goes, “No one knows who that is,” and I’ll either explain why he’s wrong, or come up with something else that I love.
At one point, you and Billy had both wanted to be correspondents for The Daily Show. Is that something you’re still pursuing?
I don’t think it’s going to happen. I mean, it’s like when your relatives ask you at another Rosh Hashanah, “Are you going to be on Saturday Night Live?,” and you’re like, “I’m 36, and I have my own show, and that’s good.” But I think that ship has sailed.
Looking back, I think it took me a little while to be like, “All right, this isn’t going to happen until I sit down and open up Final Draft, and write something for myself that I love, and hopefully people will love, and that will be the thing that gets me to do what I want to do.” It was all part of the journey.
Are you already thinking about a potential Season 2 of Difficult People?
I would be over the moon, because there are so many things I want to do. We did have an [idea for an] episode where I auditioned for The Daily Show and I’m on a diet, and then I find out that it went to Josh Gad, and I was like, “Oh, great. I’ve been not eating bread for two months, and they give it to Josh Gad. Perfect. That makes sense.”
I don’t think I’m superstitious; I think I try to get my expectations managed so that I’m not crushingly disappointed all the time. I won’t start a Microsoft Word document with Season 2 ideas. I’ll start a little note on my phone about it so it’s not as official, so I won’t be crushed if it doesn’t happen. But I will be crushed if it doesn’t happen.
Episodes of Difficult People are now streaming on Hulu; a new episode premieres each Wednesday.