A self-described “amateur student of the industry,” Stephen Falk has worked as a writer and producer on Weeds and Orange Is The New Black. The FX comedy You’re The Worst marks his first effort as showrunner. The series follows Jimmy (Chris Geere) and Gretchen (Aya Cash)—two immature narcissists who blindly stumble into a relationship with one another—and their adventures in L.A. with friends Edgar (Desmin Borges) and Lindsay (Kether Donohue). You’re The Worst’s debut season establishes characters who are disgusted by the world around them, then forces those characters to engage with the objects of their hatred in meaningful ways. In the wake of the first-season finale, The A.V. Club spoke to creator Stephen Falk about genre tropes, making a low-budget comedy not look cheap, and the lingering influence of John Hughes.
The A.V. Club: The season ends on a moment of hopeful uncertainty: Did you have Jimmy and Gretchen moving in together in mind from the beginning?
Stephen Falk: I think so. Coming from Weeds and Orange Is The New Black, the Jenji Kohan camp are very strong believers in story and not holding story back, not treading water for episodes and episodes, which can be a dangerous thing at times. It’s fun to take some time to do some nuance and fuck around for an episode, but I’ve always been a firm believer in telling stories and having things happen.
I’ve always wanted the series to chart the course of a normal relationship—although with two people who aren’t really normal—so I think I’m interested in hitting the big signposts of what it means to be in an adult relationship. We certainly are finding and have found different ways to do that—ways that are very Jimmy and Gretchen, in other words. The real reason they move in together is… maybe not the normal way. [Laughs.] She burns down her apartment with her vibrator. I think we’ll always approach things sideways, or even more than sideways, but that has been my desire, and I talked with [FX Networks CEO] Jon Landgraf early on about it, and he was totally on board with telling a very traditional romantic comedy through very, very skewed lenses.
AVC: At one point in the finale, Gretchen remarks that, “Maybe buying in is the punk rock choice.” How much did you want the series to be about accepting the inevitability of adulthood while also being about this relationship?
SF: I definitely wanted to show these two people who act like they’re cooler than other people. But rather than do something like Californication—where you can tell the creator believes his creation is cooler than everyone—I always wanted to show the foolish nature of that kind of attitude. There’s an immaturity in refusing to follow the norms of human society. I think that’s what hopefully makes Jimmy and Gretchen funny—is that we’re not sitting there going, “Look how awesome it is that they’re eating Chinese food and disrupting an entire movie theatre.” I think there’s a sense of, “Wow, they’re kind of dicks to do that, and you probably shouldn’t do that!” It’s definitely a show that doesn’t think these guys are making the cool choice. I’m an adult and I firmly believe in following the rules of society. So yes, definitely adulthood is twinned with the inevitability of a relationship. Now, I’m not sure they’re ever going to really change that much, but I think there’s a lot of fun to be had with these two people exhibiting bad behavior in a society that doesn’t really reward that.
AVC: Jimmy and Gretchen often engage in destructive and self-destructive behavior, and while much of it is funny, you never play it purely as humor, and it often masks darker aspects of their personalities. How important was it to ground their actions in recognizable human behavior and not make them cartoons?
SF: That’s my constant mantra. “Would someone actually do that?” When you look at some of the behavior, the answer may be, “No,” but what the actual question is—“Do they follow the internal logic of their character by doing X?” I’m stubborn in that I want to have my cake and eat it too, and I want to paint the show with the widest palette I can, and then I want to be able to employ every type of humor that I want to—whether it’s visual, or slapstick, or verbal, or also just tonally go really dark and get serious. I don’t want to paint myself into a box. But my number one mantra that I’m always knocking in to the writer’s heads is, “Does that pass the believable human behavior test?” I think—with the parenthetical that we’re a comedy—95 percent of the time our answer has been, “Yes.” It’s a very weird tightrope to walk—always trying to stay grounded in comedy—and FX has been really good with reining me in. There are times that I want to go a little bigger—or I tend to, because I have a very deep love of very silly humor. Maybe a traditional network would be like, “We need more jokes per page!” But FX has been like, “Maybe that is going a little too far,” and sometimes they’ve been right.
AVC: You’re The Worst is a romantic comedy, but from a bit of a cynical perspective. You’re obviously an avid fan of the genre, but did you feel it was lacking that specific point of view?
SF: It wasn’t necessarily that I thought that that would be a good angle to start a new wave of romantic comedies. Genres tend to go through 20-year cyclical periods, and I felt that we had reached the end of the doldrums. I think hopefully we’ve seen the last Katherine Heigl romantic comedy movie because I think everyone figured out there’s no magic left there, and you can’t just try to remake When Harry Met Sally. It’s not working anymore. But it’s a genre that’s near and dear to my heart, and I just thought that there’s a freedom in British sitcoms for characters to not always be “broadcast likable,” and thus I thought it would be a nice way to take a show like Mad About You and update it in terms of how young society behaves now and also to bring in some characters that are actually kind of shitheads at times. It’s a tall order to make people fall in love with people who are kind of dicks, but I thought it would be worth trying, and I think it has been.
AVC: You mentioned in another interview that you structured the season into three acts, and you hired three different directors—Alex Hardcastle, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, and Matt Shakman—for each of the season’s acts. In your estimation, what did each director bring to the table to define the visual aesthetic of the act they were assigned?
SF: Jordan comes from the indie world. When I hired him to do the pilot, my goal was this: I knew I was not going to have a giant budget, but in my mind, the worst thing that could have happened is that I had a really cheap looking, broadcast, single-cam comedy that would be kind of shitty and over-lit like most single-cam broadcast shows are. So I was foolish enough or smart enough to think, “Well, people make indie films for the same amount of money as this pilot is going to cost, and they can make them look good—what is the missing factor? Why can’t that happen on ABC, let’s say?”
So I scoured the Sundance directors and that’s where I came up with Jordan. He had done Kings Of Summer, which I thought was visually gorgeous, and he also had a strong comedy background. He had his own show—Mash Up on VH1—and he had done a short film with Lizzy Caplan and T.J. Miller—Successful Alcoholics—so I knew he had a lot of comedy cred as well. He really set the look of the show in the pilot, along with his [director of photography] Ross Riege, who’s now doing Selfie, so maybe that one will look a lot better than the other ABC single-cams. [Laughs.] Once we set the look of the show—and Ross the DP was going to be there the entire time to maintain that look—I thought, “This first act is going to be these characters figuring out what the rules of dating each other are.” It’s like two dogs sniffing each other’s butt, trying to figure out “How do we fit together?”—like Tetris pieces.
Alex [Hardcastle] had a really good background in television, as well as doing some weirder stuff like A Young Doctor’s Notebook with Jon Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe. He was English, and again, I had in mind to try to do a Brit-com with this. He’s a super cool guy, and he could get the trains running on time, which is what you need in television—“Okay, we’re shooting four-and-a-third days per episode. We have to really cook.” He was perfect for the first act.
Jordan then came back for episodes five, six, and seven, which is the second act, the one where they’re a little more comfortable in their relationship. I wanted to bring in the ensemble more, like when you have the “Sunday Funday” episode, and get back to some sexy stuff like in six and seven, and he’s just so good with visuals. I knew he could make “Sunday Funday,” which I think consisted of 17 locations and I knew he could make it look fucking great and also keep it moving—and he did.
Then I worked with Matt on Weeds. Matt is both a very proficient TV director, but he’s also a big theater director, and I knew eight, nine, and 10 were going to be a little more emotional. It’s when our characters realize, “Oh my God, we’ve gone too fast.” Without even realizing it, they’ve gone kind of really far in their relationship. I knew that Matt could really work with the actors to get them to those emotional, vulnerable heights in eight, nine, and 10. Plus, in 10, he could deal with the clusterfuck nature of that episode, which was not quite a bottle episode, but at least 20 minutes in one location.
AVC: Edgar’s struggles this season resemble the struggles many veterans face when they return home, specifically the feeling of abandonment and desertion. Have you gotten any feedback at all from veterans on Edgar or the storyline?
SF: Here and there. I’ve heard some really nice things from veterans. We had a consultant and his takeaway for us was not to over-dramatize the plight of the veteran. There’s a lot of humor to be had, and they’re just dudes who would like to get back to normalcy. Obviously aside from the fact that everything’s broken and they need help, I think the effort is to humanize it a little bit and to bring it down to more of a personal struggle that could maybe be relatable. The VA episode is really about bureaucracy and standing up for yourself. It’s a really tricky storyline to do. I think there are aspects of it that makes me nervous, because it is so serious and so endemic and so problematic and entrenched in this country. It’s a pet concern of mine, so I thought while I could give money and time to it on the serious side, it would be interesting to maybe also put a human face on this scary thing, PTSD.
AVC: The world of the show feels lived in: It’s expansive, but it’s still a specific community that you keep coming back to. How did you get to that point where it wasn’t this claustrophobic story about these two characters?
SF: I think that’s always been my goal. I’ve always loved ensemble shows. From a pure writing standpoint, it’s a lot easier when you have more characters to bounce things off of. One of my other mantras on set and in the writers’ room is always world-building. We’re building a world that feels inhabited and lived in. Also, I pay a lot of attention to structure in television. What I love about shows like Breaking Bad is that they’re so good at making the audience feel like they’re in safe hands. In other words, if you introduce something, it’ll be used, it’s going to have an arc, and it’s going to come to fruition. So I was very careful to make sure that if I’m introducing something, for the most part, there’s an arc to it. Like the shop cat, for instance: It’s just a cat, but I wanted to make sure we serviced it. Or the vibrator plugged in to dangerous-looking Christmas lights: That could have just been a joke in episode four when Jimmy visits the apartment, but it has a B-side, it has a payoff, it has an arc.
Also, I think when you’re telling a romantic comedy, you have these typical stock characters, like the sister/bride, the dorky husband, and the bro husband. What interested me was to then take these stock-ish characters and taking these clichés and say, “Okay, yes, they kind of look like clichés on the surface, but we’re actually going to round them out and show other sides of them.” Rather than just having the bearded bro sidekick, we have Edgar who has some issues but also isn’t just invested in the main character’s love life, because that’s what you see in every romantic comedy, and it’s just not fucking realistic. No one cares that much about other people. We are all the stars of our own story. It’s always been my goal to populate the world but also make sure everything in the world is dimensional, and I think that it helps to tell the audience that you’re in safe hands.
AVC: There are several John Hughes echoes throughout the first season: The discussion about Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in episode two, the cover of “This Woman’s Work”—which factors prominently into She’s Having A Baby—in the finale. Were you at all inspired by John Hughes’ work in any sort of way?
SF: As a writer, he’s probably one of the more fundamental influences. If asked, I would probably name some more highfalutin shit, like Dickens. [Laughs.] Or, you know, I actually did kind of base the show off of a John Osborne play from the ’50s, Look Back In Anger, but yeah, John Hughes, man. He’s the king. The first screenplay I ever wrote was definitely inspired by him—it was a teen romance surrounding the prom. Ferris Bueller has just always been a touchstone for me storytelling wise. I think it’s just brilliant. I wasn’t actually that familiar with She’s Having A Baby, but “This Woman’s Work” was more—that song was put on a breakup mix by a girlfriend of mine in college that she left in my dorm. I thought it was such a fucking sad song that it always kind of haunted me, and I thought it’d be funny to bring it back here. It’s completely kind of out-of-context and not really earned because Lindsay has been cheating on Paul. It’s kind of an encapsulation of what I liked about the show: It works as both heartfelt and also completely ridiculous at the same time, and because Kether takes it so seriously, it really makes it work. So yes, John Hughes is a big influence of mine.