Culture

The ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ Showrunner Takes Us Inside The Show Subverting The Stereotype

CREDIT: Eddy Chen/The CW

A case for procrastination: Aline Brosh McKenna, screenwriter (The Devil Wears Prada, 27 Dresses, Morning Glory, to name a few) was messing around on the internet while “real” work beckoned when she stumbled on Rachel Bloom’s YouTube videos.

Bloom, a multi-hyphenate in her twenties — writer-comedian-actress-musical-theater-lover — had claimed some internet fame with her Hugo Award-nominated, NSFW ode to Ray Bradbury. McKenna saw another project of Bloom’s, “Historically Accurate Disney Princess Song” (princes quickly die from plague, Jews hide in the forest in fear for their lives, and a lot of people get their hands chopped off for thievery) and, struck by how “funny and sharp” the writing was, asked a friend at CBS to give Bloom a call.

The rest, as of just over two weeks ago, is Golden Globe-award-winning history: Bloom and McKenna teamed up to create Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a musical comedy about Rebecca Bunch (Bloom), her all-consuming, makes-her-burst-into-song love for Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), and what happens when she decides to up and ditch her New York life and move to Josh’s hometown, West Covina, California.

As many a character informs Rebecca, it’s only two hours from the beach! (Four in traffic. There’s always traffic.) Rebecca takes a major pay cut for a gig at a strip mall law firm in what the outside observer might unkindly call an unremarkable suburb. It is so, so obvious Rebecca has no reason to be there but Josh, though she insists to everyone — including, especially, herself — that she uprooted her East Coast existence because she just “needed a change.”

Rebecca is somehow absurd and grounded simultaneously, so even though what she’s doing is objectively bonkers, you understand how she manages to win over her colleague and surrogate mom, Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin), the master class in vocal fry that is her younger neighbor, Heather (Vella Lovell), her insecure, well-meaning boss, Darryl (Pete Gardner) and Josh’s sardonic best buddy Greg (Santino Fontana, and I’ll save you the trip to IMDB; you recognize his voice from Frozen). Perhaps unsurprisingly, Josh’s emotionally-uptight but physically-flexible-because-she’s-so-good-at-yoga girlfriend, Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz), is unimpressed.

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Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is fascinating to watch for the degree of difficulty alone: Every hour-long episode includes two original songs, which are delightful and bubbly on the surface but cutting and strange underneath. Songs dressed up as Fred Astaire-style duets are about settling for someone you don’t even want; there is also an ode to the honeymoon stage of female friendship about being so enamored with a girl crush that, as Rebecca puts it, “I wanna kill you and wear your skin as a dress but then also have you see me in the dress, and be like, ‘OMG, you look so cute in my skin!'”

I spoke with McKenna about the story behind the series, diversity in casting, and why everyone is so hooked on the idea of being “crazy” when you’re in love.

Let’s go back to the creation of the series. What’s the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend origin story?

The origin story of the show was that, I was procrastinating and looking around online and I saw Rachel’s “Historically Accurate Disney Princess Song,” and the first thing I was attracted to was the writing. Because she’s not in that one, it didn’t occur to me that the writer was also the singer. The writing was so funny and sharp. My best friend works at CBS in the comedy department, and I called and said, “This girl is so funny, I just want to meet with her. I’ll see if there’s anything I can do with her and help her in some way.”

In the meeting, we were talking about how to do a musical TV show. I had had this idea for a long time, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” about dealing with that stereotype and about how we are all sort of that person. And with Rachel, it struck me, that kind of person is so similar to the person she portrays in the videos. She immediately responded to that idea. As we started to work on the idea and talk about it, we decided to write it together.

At first, we were going to write it for a broadcast network, but there was no way for us to ensure that Rachel would be in it. They probably would have wanted to use a bigger star. And I said, “I don’t want to do this unless Rachel is the star of the show.” By necessity, and because it was dirty, we had to do cable. We only pitched cable outlets. So we did this dog-and-pony show together. We went and pitched it to everybody. Some of the people that we pitched to, for reasons I still don’t understand, had not bothered to watch Rachel’s videos when we got there. I had sent over my three or four favorites, and that was maybe an expenditure of six-to-eight minutes for people, but a lot of people hadn’t seen them.

Showtime was the most interested, and when we got there, they had all seen her videos before. All through this process, I have really gravitated to people who are the biggest Rachel fans, on all fronts, in terms of hiring writers and directors and picking the network: The people who are the biggest Rachel fans tend to get the show the most. Showtime were the biggest Rachel fans, so we went to them. Showtime suggested Marc Webb ((500) Days of Summer) and we were like, “If you get Marc Webb to direct this pilot, I will pee in my pants.”

But Showtime ultimately passed on the show. What happened?

We had very high hopes for the pilot. It came out very close to what Rachel and I had been imagining. We were a bit surprised that they weren’t interested in it, so we had to take it around to various places. And again, we did not go to broadcast networks, for the same two reasons: Rachel wasn’t a known entity, and the show was kind of dirty.

While this was happening, and it took about four months, I had discovered Jane the Virgin, and had binge watched every episode of that, so it occurred to me that The CW just might be a place that would be interested. Rachel and I talked about how we could make it palatable to network TV. So CBS sent it to them, and they went for it, which was shocking. I’ve been doing this a long time, and rejected pilots are usually done.

Talk to me about the word “crazy” and the whole concept of being crazy, as a woman and in the world of the show. Because in some ways the show is a send-up of that whole idea of calling a woman crazy just because she has emotions you don’t like or understand, but in other ways, what Rebecca is doing is absolutely crazy — plus she is dealing with real mental illness.

I think there’s two things: The “crazy ex-girlfriend” thing, as a general phenomenon, is that behavior when you want something and you’re not getting a lot of reinforcement that that thing wants you back, but you pursue it with a single-minded focus, despite any lack of positive reinforcement. I think that applies to a lot of things, not just being a crazy ex-girlfriend. And that’s one of the places where the idea came from: I’ve been the crazy ex-girlfriend about jobs, apartments, friends. That energy of being a very dogged pursuer of something that has not indicated it wants you back, I think is a very relatable thing.

In Rebecca’s case, she has mental health issues, definitely, but she’s also in love with something. When you’re in love, you manifest a lot of behavior which is, to the outside world, crazy. All love tropes in pop songs and rom-coms are geared around the fact that when we’re in love, we act crazy. It’s something we kind of encourage. Type in “love” and “crazy” in iTunes and you get thousands of songs. And we wanted to get an inside and upside-down look at that obsession that love inspires, especially because of someone who is highly imaginative and not very grounded disposition, she’s highly prone to exaggeration and obsession.

You’ve written romantic comedies before. Can you talk about how Crazy Ex-Girlfriend plays with those tropes and that structure?

Totally. It’s really funny because I think the culture definitely has consumed and spat out that genre. Those tropes are so well established that they became highly spoof-able. They kind of contained their own parody and seemed very ripe to be sent up. It is kind of an inside-out version of the movies that I had been writing — although a lot of the things I’d written weren’t classic girl-boy romantic comedies — but kind of the tone of these very single-minded romantic comedy heroines seem like, it did not take very much to topple them into somebody who takes those tropes so seriously that she can barely escape them, no matter how intelligent or minded she is.

It reminds me of that line from High Fidelity, when John Cusack’s character asks, “What came first — the music or the misery? Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” We absorb messaging about how love should make us feel — through pop music and rom-coms and whatnot — and then it’s almost like we act out the behavior because we’ve learned it, not because it’s innate. Rebecca wants to be in love and she has seen a ton of romantic comedies, so she has this idea that this is what being in love entails: Crazy actions, grand gestures, the works.

Exactly, and she lives her life according to popular music and musical theater. That’s her emotional and intellectual soundtrack, and so she’s really absorbed all those tropes: She wants to be crazy in love and she wants the fantasy and the fairy tale, and she’s been told by the culture that she has to be Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sheryl Sandberg and Beyoncé and Jasmine. It’s sort of the madness of all the things that women are expected to do and be and achieve, and finding that kind of transcendent love is one of those things.

How much did you think about diversity when you were casting the show? I can’t remember the last time I watched a TV show or a movie where the Asian guy was the hot, unattainable love interest and the white guy was his sardonic, nerdy sidekick.

When we first started talking about the show, we always knew Josh was going to be something of a bro. A dude and a bro. And we wanted to do something a little different from that. And Rachel is from Southern California, where dudes and bros are every race. Southern California can bro-out everybody. It seemed kind of fun and surprising to have Josh just not be a white guy. So we specifically gave him an Asian name and described him as Asian in the script, but we didn’t specify his exact derivation, and we saw all kinds of Asian actors. We knew whatever background our actor was, we would embrace that particular nationality.

Once we had Vinny [Vincent Rodriguez III], we went very deep into the Filipino thing. One of our writers is also Filipino, so we had a lot to draw on there. We try to do that with everybody: Rebecca being a Westchester Jew, Paula being from Buffalo, and Darryl thinking he’s Native American even though he’s from Orange County. The town of West Covina, we went there very early on, and it’s a minority-white place, like these California suburbs mostly are. So for us, the diversity is reflection of: We’re writing a particular place, that’s what that particular place is like.

There are two original songs in every episode. Can you talk through the thinking behind one from this week’s episode: “Women Gotta Stick Together“? Valencia is ostensibly singing about sisterhood and supporting women but really just trash-talking everyone around her.

They all come out of discussions about the story. We don’t write songs and build things around them; it goes the other way. We’re trying to do a show that would work well without songs. The songs come at heightened moments. We wanted to give Valencia her own villain song, where you understand how the villain sees the world. And she sees women as threats. And in her defense, I think that’s the kind of woman that has been seen as a rival by other women, and maybe has not had the most productive, nurturing relationships with them. She counters her competitive instincts by being passive-aggressive.

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I think all women can relate to the thing of being insulted while you’re being complimented. Valencia says things which sound nice, but Rebecca knows there’s aggression underneath it. We talked about that idea for a long time, and how we would get across her particular point of view on Rebecca. With the villain song, you always want the villain to have a legitimate point of view, and the legit point of view that she has is: She thinks Rebecca is there to steal her boyfriend. Which she is! Whether Rebecca wants to admit that or not. Valencia doesn’t deal with it in the friendliest way, but she’s not wrong.

Explain to me the rules of the universe, here. Are these musical rules, where people burst into song but no one ever acknowledges that it happens and everyone acts like it’s normal? Does only Rebecca ever really hear the songs? Is this all in her head, Mr. Robot-style?

When people burst into song, for Rebecca, they really seem to her like that’s what’s happening. So if Josh is saying something nice to her, what she hears is “A Boy Band Made Up of Four Joshes.” Her brain constructs a song around these emotional interactions she’s having with people. And after, I think, episode six, people around her have been infected by her particular brand of madness, and they also start to express themselves in these fantasy ways, even though Rebecca is not there. Although you could also make the argument that those are songs Rebecca would have imagined for them. So she’s not, strictly speaking, “imagining” the song, but it is the song that she would imagine Valencia singing.

You participated in this really interesting panel with a bunch of other female showrunners from The CW. Do you have any thoughts about the landscape for women in television right now? Is it more or less challenging than you expected?

What I see, what I’ve observed, is there are a lot of people that I know who are in television and doing great — I know Jennie Urman and Jill Soloway and Jenji Kohan and Jenni Konner and Lena Dunham. So my perception is, it’s a great space for women and that women are out there being really successful. I think having been a screenwriter, there are fewer female screenwriters.

It seems like television is miles ahead of film, when it comes to women in positions of creative power. Do you get that sense as well? If so, why do you think that is?

You just have to think about the movies that are getting made now versus the television that’s getting made. The subject matter and types of stories you see on TV are the things women are traditionally more interested in — not to stereotype; you have people like Melissa Rosenberg doing Jessica Jones — but something like Transparent might have been a movie in the ‘70s. It’s not going to be a movie now. It’s not a big property. One thing people are overlooking is the stories that movies are telling are just not traditionally the kind of stories that women are as interested in. Not to say there aren’t exceptions; Guardians of the Galaxy was written by a woman. But a lot of the things that are big hit television shows might have been movies 25, 30 years ago.

A lot of television is made in Los Angeles, and very few movies are shot in L.A. If you’re a parent, and you’re a mom — I had been about to direct a movie that would’ve taken me to Budapest and Croatia for six months. Now I’m here, I’m working really hard, but I’m going home at night and I don’t miss my sons’ seventh and tenth grade. There are a lot of women working comfortably in L.A., and directing movies almost always means you have to pack up and go far away. That’s the economics of it right now.

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You started out in television for a bit and then transitioned into screenwriting, correct?

I did. Early in my career, I wrote a bunch of pilots. I had a writing partner. And I started out writing movies and then I was so lonely. It’s such a lonely job. So we wrote eight or nine pilots and shot two or three of them, and then my feature career took off.

Screenwriting is a very good job if you have small children, because you set your own hours. When I was writing Devil Wears Prada, my younger son was really, really little. He’d go to bed at 7:30 and I’d write from 7:30 to 1:00 a.m. You can do it on your own time. TV writing, you can’t do that. So I wasn’t intending to be in television, and then I met Rachel and one thing led to another. And as I got more invested in the show and started to really love the process. I just have really loved shepherding the whole show and being involved with and in charge of all the different phases of the process. You never get an opportunity to do that as a screenwriter.

So for every episode, you all are writing and producing about 30 minutes of comedy, plus two music videos. How does that work? What’s the structure of putting an episode together?

We break the episodes, either Rachel and I or with the writers room, and then we write them. Once we have a draft, we take it to the room and go through it. I rewrite it there; Rachel is on set most of the time. When we break the stories, the songs are part of the break. We always know what the songs are when we go in to write the episode.

So while we’re writing the episodes, Rachel and Adam Schlessinger are writing the songs. We have another songwriter on staff, but Jack Dolgen, our third, is the only person who is full-time in the writers room and a songwriter. The bulk of the songs are by Adam and Rachel. Rachel is on set a lot with her computer, singing into her phone.

Once we have a draft, Rachel and I get together on the weekends and go through the draft again, because, as our line producer says, they all have to be suffused with Rachel’s special sensibility. Rachel and I write very much by improvising out loud. As I’m finishing up editing, she is finishing up the song, and she’s still tweaking as we go — or we’re getting demos and songs from Adam, plugging those into the script. So two things are going on at parallel tracks all the time: The outline, writing, development of the script, and the outline, writing, and development of the songs. They go hand in hand.

About how long is that process, then, for any individual episode?

We started in June, we’re wrapping in February. That’s 18 scripts and 38 songs, plus short musical snippets. We also didn’t know if we could do it, to be honest, but we came in with a lot of song ideas. We had two scripts when we started. I will say often we look at each other and go, what?

You didn’t intend to wind up on the The CW, but now that you’re there, your show is part of this interesting pack of exciting, critically-acclaimed new series airing on networks that aren’t the usual suspects in the prestige-TV scene: You air back-to-back with Jane the Virgin, and there’s UnREAL on Lifetime, Mr. Robot on USA, Younger on TV Land. What do you make of that shift?

A good show is a good show. My kids don’t care what channel it’s on; they don’t even know what those things mean. If you know it’s a good show, they’ll find it wherever they need to find it. I don’t think those distinctions are very meaningful anymore. The work speaks for itself.

So you don’t think those names, like HBO, have a second-order significance for audience members anymore?

Old school HBO, I think, set the gold standard. I’m talking 15 years ago with The Wire and The Sopranos. They set the bar for what television could be. They are two of the best, sprawling video-novels. And they really set the tone for what was possible. Now, we could name all these shows on different networks, on AMC and Hulu and Netflix and Amazon and everywhere. There’s such a proliferation of interesting, genre-busting stories.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.