From Books to ‘SNL’ to Pixar to a Sitcom with Simon Rich

simonrichThere are a few observations critics almost always make about Simon Rich: how young he is, how much younger he looks, and how much he’s accomplished regardless. The next move usually is to list his accolades: when Rich graduated from Harvard (having served as president of the Harvard Lampoon) he already had a two-book deal from Random House as well as an offer to be the then-youngest writer on Saturday Night Live. After four years working at SNL, Rich spent the next two at Pixar. During this period, he published a total six books — the most recent a short story collection, Spoiled Brats, that features an alternate history narrative in which Herschel Rich is preserved in a pickle vat long enough to meet his great-great-grandson “Simon Rich.” Herschel is a little miffed to learn that his legacy has resulted in no medical doctors, but only a (to be fair to Herschel) misleading termed “script doctor.” More and more, you see Rich explore the trajectories that lead him to where he currently is — a 30 year-old writer with a resume so astonishing that he’s frequently been accused of nepotism (his father is notable theater critic Frank Rich). But one glance at his work and it should be clear to even the worst cynics: Rich’s talent and, moreover, sheer work ethic is undeniable.

These days, Rich is focused on his new comedy series, Man Seeking Woman (loosely based on Rich’s 2013 collection The Last Girlfriend On Earth), which premiered last week on FXX. Among its creative team are individuals such as Lorne Michaels, Jonathan Krisel (Portlandia), Ben Berman (Jon Benjamin has A Van), Tim Kirkby (Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle), and writers Sofia Alvarex, Dan Mirk, Ian Maxtone-Graham, and Robert Padnick. In many ways, serial television comedy seems almost a perfect medium for Rich’s approach to narrative, where loosely related premises are collected under the arc of a shared theme. In this case the theme is — what else — love in your 20s.

I spoke to Rich over the phone last week, during which he was visiting Los Angeles where he was promoting Man Seeking Woman while also — what else — hard at work.

Hiiiii Simon!

How’re you doing?

I’m good, how are you? It all sounds really busy.

Oh yeah, it’s been a fun week. We’re really excited.

So you’re at TCA right now?

We will be — we do all that stuff over the weekend.

What are you doing right now?

We are editing together episode seven today.

Cool! So just starting with the title of the show, Man Seeking Woman. It’s a pretty generic title! And as you’ve mentioned previously, kind of a universal premise. But the whole thing about love is that each time it happens to you it feels hugely specific and personal, and almost like it’s never happened to anyone before. How did you think about making a really old story fresh again?

Oh, that’s sort of always been my goal as a writer — to tell old stories in a new way. It’s always been my favorite device. For example, in The Last Girlfriend on Earth, I told a story about a young man trying to lose his virginity, which is about as generic and clichéd a story as you could ever tell. There’s like ten movies made with that premise every summer. But I wanted to see if I could figure out a way to make that story fresh, and so I told it from the perspective of a condom and its wallet. And before that, in my last novel What In God’s Name, I wanted to tell a story about a guy working up the courage to kiss a girl, which is again an unbelievably old story. So I created a world in which the fate of mankind hung in the balance, and the kiss was going to determine whether an apocalypse occurs.

And a lot of the time I feel like the way you do it is by placing what seem like mundane scenarios in really extreme contexts. Already in the first three episodes of your show, we see a lot of extreme scenarios.

That’s always been my hope on this show and in all my writing. I’ve tried to capture highs and lows of everyday experiences, and so I rely on a lot of supernatural imagery and genre tropes to kind of express how ecstatic and hellish day-to-day life can feel.

Speaking of genres, in television especially there seems to have been a recent trend in deconstructing the Hollywood romantic comedy. But the funny thing about your show, I feel, is that although it has all the elements of a potential rom-com, it’s not actually using rom-com genre tropes as much as it’s using horror or sci-fi tropes.

Yeah, totally! In the writer’s room, I would say we’re less influenced by traditional romantic comedies than we are by genres like horror and science fiction. I think our biggest influences are shows like The Twilight Zone and the works of Stephen King and Ray Bradbury. But obviously on a basic story level, it’s a pretty straight ahead romantic comedy. There’s an episode about trying to text a girl, there’s an episode about trying to break up with a girl, there’s one about two friends being in love with the same girl. Y’know, it’s all the same stories we’ve seen in every dating show from Seinfeld on, but hopefully we’ve come at it from new angles.

Yeah, I like that it’s also vignette-y. There’s been a few shows like The Mindy Project, From A to Z, and Manhattan Love Story that are all largely focused on one relationship, but you’re putting your main character through a series of trials.

We wanted to make sure we’d accurately and honestly portray the experience of dating in your twenties, and it can often be unpredictable. For example, not to give anything away, the notion that the ex-girlfriend would be a series regular is a pretty honest commentary on how dating in your twenties can often work. And I like that we’ve created a world where the women Josh dates can come in and out of his orbit in unpredictable ways.

On a show like Seinfeld, usually when things go poorly in a relationship, you never see that actor again, until you get to Puddy. I always thought the Puddy storyline was unbelievable on Seinfeld — it felt so honest, how he goes in and out of Elaine’s life. I thought that was such an amazing relationship and I loved watching that progress.

I think that’s one way where the television format really works well for the subject matter you’re tackling — because it’s so serial, just like how dating is serial. You sort of never know when something from a prior episode can come back and haunt the present.

Television is cool because when you’re reading a novel, you can feel with your hands how many pages are left. Unless it’s a truly experimental novel, you have a pretty good sense of when things will resolve. And with a film, it’s a law that everything has to resolve, otherwise your movie will not get made. But with a television show, you don’t necessarily know going into each episode whether it’s going to be a redemptive ending or a harsh ending; you don’t know what if anything is going to be resolved; you don’t know whether or not the characters will learn anything. I find television to be an intrinsically less predictable medium than films or novels.

Yeah, completely, and y’know if you get cancelled at any point…you don’t even get a choice in how it ends.

That’s right, and you don’t know, as a viewer, how many episodes there will ultimately be. So you don’t have that sense of, oh well it’s 10pm, I’m still in the movie theater — they’ll probably get together soon.

Yes, exactly. It’s especially interesting thinking about your trajectory because you started off writing sort of short things that had clear punchlines and endings. And now you’re adapting to this expanding format. You’re talked previously about how you always want to keep the viewer always engaged and interested, but how do you do that here. You don’t just want to keep the viewer watching one episode, but you want to keep the viewer coming back.

I think ultimately audiences are drawn to shows that have compelling characters, and the premises — if they work — only work insofar as how three-dimensional your hero and supporting cast are. I think hopefully as the season progresses, we’ll be able to get some chunk of the population to care about or relate to these fictional characters. That’s our goal.

Jay Baruchel’s character is extremely sympathetic!

I think he’s so good. I don’t think the show would work at all without him. He’s just unbelievably naturalistic regardless of how insane our premises are. He always keeps things emotionally grounded and has an unbelievable ability to play things truthfully no matter how insane they become.

You throw sex aliens at him and you can see him working through that interaction on a pretty real level.

Yeah, he played it straight, and that’s true of the whole cast. Maya [Erskine] is so good opposite Bill [Hader] as Hitler. Like you really buy that relationship and that she really cares about him. It’s really a testament to her skill — she’s just an unbelievable straight man in that episode. I think everyone is very good things straight, which is of course the only way of making absurd comedy work.

It’s such a tender moment at the party with Hitler when they’re like getting drinks for each other. You can’t totally see how Josh would be jealous at that moment.

It’s not a flash in the pan; it’s a really genuine relationship. A new relationship, but clearly a relationship with a lot of warmth and tenderness.

Another thing about it being sort of different from the usual rom-com is that it’s being portrayed from the man’s point of view, and a lot of these women seem actually a lot more grounded. They’re much more typically sane and less weighted with neuroses than the guy, which is a nice take!

Well, Britt [Lower]’s character, Liz, obviously is, of all the leads the most successful and smartest. She’s also by far the most confident. But by the end of the season, y’know, it being a sitcom, the characters do change as the show progresses, and I think that people will be surprised especially by what we do with Britt’s character. That’s the character to keep your eye on. Her role in the show changes the most, without giving too much away.

That’s really great too that she’s the character that’s developing the most as a character.

They all go through some pretty drastic changes as the season progresses — that’s what’s so fun about the show. When you get ten episodes, that’s 220 minutes. That’s a ton of real estate and it’s thrilling to be able to take characters on long journeys. It’s just a luxury you don’t have when you’re writing sketch comedy.

Are you working on a novel right now? Or are you working on a long narrative right now?

I’m working on a bunch of different things, but yeah, I would say that out of all the things I’m working on, this show is for me the most exciting because the coolest thing for me is that I get to write with awesome writers everyday.

Say more about your writer’s room!

Oh, it’s such a good staff. So we have Sofia Alvarez, who’s a NYC playwright, who is unbelievably talented. We have Dan Mirk from The Onion, who’s brilliant. Ian Maxtone-Graham from The Simpsons, and Robert Padnick from The Office. And that’s the room. Our writer’s assistant is Katie Kirnick, who’s also a big part of the process. Writing with them everyday is the most thrilling in the world for me, and I co-wrote episodes with each of them. With the pilot you’re all on your own, but when you get picked up to series, you get to hire a staff and once I got to start working with those people — that’s when the job became unbelievably fun.

It’s so collaborative, and I guess everyone has different insights and anecdotes into what they’re writing about. A lot of the relationship stuff seems pretty true to life.

It’s an extremely autobiographical show, but the stories come from all of our life experiences. Most days in the room, especially in the early stages, started with people telling stories about their own personal experiences and that’s how we were able to craft premises and episodes — by opening up about the highs and lows that we’d all gone through.

Speaking of another form of collaboration, you live with and are engaged to another writer, Kathleen Hale. How has it been, threading your work and life schedules together?

Kathleen has been reading all of my best material since I was in college. She’s an extremely talented, hilarious writer and she’s improved all of my scripts and novels and stories. And I’m really inspired by her. Her novels are fantastic — only one of them is out, but I’ve luckily gotten to read both and they’re incredibly funny and beautifully written. I think she’s one of the funniest writers out there. It’s inspiring and exciting to live in the same house with somebody that talented.

It’s an amazing thing that you get to share and read each other’s work.

She’s believed in this show from the get-go, and it’s a ton a work. It takes a long time to make a show and I’m just really grateful that she stuck with me all the years it took to get this thing onto TV.

I know everyone asks you about Pixar — you’re not allowed to talk about it — but there are moments in the show that feel sort of Pixar-y, just in the sense of animation tropes or visual shorthands. For example, objects come to life. Has anything you’ve learned at Pixar been portable to your show?

I learned a ton at Pixar. They’re some of the best storytellers on the planet and a lot of my work is directly influenced by their films. Like the story “Unprotected” that I was talking about is basically me trying to rip off Toy Story. It’s a simple coming-of-age story, but told through the prism of a bunch of anthropomorphic objects that belong to the protagonist. I feel like I learned a lot about visual storytelling. When I first started writing for SNL, I had only written for magazines like The New Yorker and I’d written a book, but I’d never really written for actors before. So my early sketches were very visually boring: they were mostly people talking in rooms. I sort of gradually picked up [visual storytelling] over the four years at SNL but by the time I got to Pixar, I really needed to catch up.

Luckily, I also have brilliant directors at Man Seeking Woman who really take the lead on the visual and stylistic levels. I’ve got Jonathan Krisel and later in the season we have Ben Berman and Tim Kirkby directing episodes. They’re very much responsible for the visual aesthetic of the show and I’m super grateful to get to collaborate with them.

You can sort of create different forms of humor just by cutting from one thing to another. It’s an implied humor that you actually wouldn’t be able to do with words.

The best sequences in Pixar have no words. When I’m working in a visual medium, whenever possible, I try to have as little dialogue as possible.

So I’d assume that you’d rely heavily on sound effects or music?

The biggest weapon you have is performance, and then beyond that you have direction, so you can literally dictate what the eye is drawn to, which is an amazingly storytelling tool. Then you have music, which is unbelievably powerful or manipulative, depending on how you look at it. And then you have sound effects and special effects, which are extremely useful narrative tools. All these different weapons are as powerful as — if not more powerful than — dialogue. When I’m working in TV or film, I always try to ask myself what the best way to tell a story is, and often the best way is to have very few words written down.

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