There is an overwhelming amount of TV these days, and it’s hard to decide what to watch. But FXX’s “You’re the Worst,” which starts its fourth season on Wednesday, should be a priority
(The first three seasons are available on Hulu if you want to catch up.)
Every season, the writers challenge their characters, the audience, and themselves, making one of the funniest, realest shows on television.
Business Insider recently spoke to Stephen Falk, the showrunner and creator of “You’re the Worst,” about the new season, how he balances humor with serious topics like depression and PTSD, and how he makes his show stand out so well in the large TV landscape.
Note: this interview has been edited for clarity.
Carrie Wittmer:In the season four premiere you have Jimmy (Chris Geere) disappearing to this weird, unexpected place that’s a complete departure from the show’s setting in L.A. But it felt true to his character and to the voice of the show. How did you come up with that in the writers’ room?
Stephen Falk: I don’t think we knewexactlylast season when we wrote the finale when he ran out on her [Gretchen] exactly where he was going to go. We just knew he was going to go somewhere. So when we came back, because we as the writing staff and just as a show, as the voice of the show I guess, we follow through on things that we introduce at certain points. They’re introduced for a reason. Nothing annoys me more as a viewer and a voracious viewer of television when a showkind ofdoes something and then just drops it, because you can tell they just got disinterested in it. They just do what they think might be interesting for that episode and then will worry about it later and then they don’t follow through. We want to make the audience feels like they’re in good storytelling hands. So, we knew he [Jimmy] was going to go and run away. It just felt like a very Jimmy thing to not face this impulsive terrible act, and we thought, “What better place for Jimmy – who is already a curmudgeon – to hole up with other 70 year olds?”
Wittmer:Gretchen’s (Aya Cash) depression, and Edgar’s (Desmin Borges) PTSD are both big storylines in the show. And Jimmy finds out his father died in season three. What research goes into understanding these sensitive topics? Are there any writers that have had these experiences, or do you reach out to experts?
Falk:We have done all three. We’ve done a lot of personal research, we have a lot of personal experience in these subjects, and we have talked to official experts. And I think all of them are useful in very different ways. Just talking to people, whether in an official capacity or not, like someone who works in mental health who deals with depression, or just talking to regular people who’ve been through it. I run a storytelling show, and someone told a story about depression. I said, “Hey, can I talk to you about it?” And just hearing some of his personal experiences can be incredibly enlightening, and can actually feed the work really well, because at the end of the day we’re not trying to write the definitive portrayal of anything. We’re trying to write specific, honest, and accurate for these characters.
Wittmer:You’re definitely doing a good job with that – being specific to these characters.
Falk: Yeah. We end up with a lot of print outs all over the table, a lot of books spread out, talking about our own stuff. And then we just get people on the phone, or we have people come in and talk to us. And then all of that really gets pureed down into something that we can filter through the specific lens and voice of the character. The specific storytelling needs that we have, it’s all well and good that we talked to someone who suffered from depression and couldn’t get out of bed for three months, but we can’t show that. It’s learning everything you can, and writing the truth of the character as you created them, through what you’ve learned.
Wittmer:The issues you cover are so personal and serious, but the show is still so funny. Do you ever struggle with getting the humor in, or does that come naturally?
Falk:I think it comes naturally. Whether it’s a challenge or a deficiency, I don’t know. I don’t really have the ability to write things that are too straight, that are too serious. And there’s probably no surprise that I have a hard time in life not finding humor in things, and inappropriately sometimes . . . often. It’s both an internal calibration for the tone you want for the specific show you’re doing, and just my inherent inability to be too serious. And my true belief that there is comedy in everything. That comedy always exists, even alongside the most tragic of things. I’ve said, and other people have too, there’s laughter in every hospital room, and there’s tears backstage at every comedy club.
Wittmer: True. I’ve definitely seen tears at comedy clubs.
Falk:It’s all just the grand belief that’s how humans relate to each other and get through life. So I’ve definitely worried about the show still being funny, and our network has worried. But once we set off to do the depression storyline in season two, we pretty much learned how to do it, to where FX kind of trusts us to get it right and knows the tone of the show.
Wittmer:All of the characters are very flawed, but so lovable. Is that something you’ve worked to do, or is that something that just happened?
Falk:I mean, I think it just kind of happened. If you look at the pilot, I wrote the characters how they are. They’re narcissistic dicks. And they’re the kind of people I liked watching on British sitcoms, or as a fifth player in an ensemble, but not really the central figure. And obviously there’s a lot of landmines when you do something like that. You really have to cast it right or no matter how much you try to lure them back, they’re just going to be unlikable because the actor isn’t inherently likable. So I had to make sure I cast people that were inherently likable. And then more than that, just be careful not to write the character’s behavior in ways that it is apparent that I as a creator think it’s awesome and cool. That’s been stepped on before, where writers are just like, “Yeah my character is a f—ing badass and they don’t give a shit!”
Wittmer:Yes . . . that’s been the hot new thing for a while now. Would you hang out with Jimmy or Gretchen?
Falk:I would find almost everything that Jimmy and Gretchen do in real life something that would disqualify someone as being my friend. I would not stand for anyone I know or anyone I hang out with to eat a loud Chinese meal and talk loudly in a movie theater. I would say, “Okay, well I’m never spending any time with you,” and walk away and go see something else. And that’s the most minor thing that they do. I think it’s a balancing act. If you’re writing from the truth of the character, and you’re writing their bad behavior for a specific purpose I think you can get away with it.
Wittmer:Do you ever feel pressure to make “You’re the Worst” stand out amongst the vast amounts of television out there?
Falk: Just the sheer enormity of the number of shows and shows that have similar tones that have come along after ours, or just certain LA couple shows, they bum me out. They do make for a more crowded marketplace, but also just seem to make our show a little less unique, just by existing. I wish we were literally the only game in town, but we’re not. It’s a double-edged sword though. We can seem like just one of the other shows, or we can stand out. It also bums me out when I see things and I’m like “God d–n it, that’s so f—ing good.” I do that as much as when I think “God damn that f—ing sucks, and it’s getting all this attention.” That’s maddening too. TV can be rough.
Wittmer:Diversity in television is important and your show’s been doing it well and naturally. You had these elderly characters in the season premiere, and Samira Wiley was Gretchen’s therapist in season three. Do you consider diversity when writing for the show?
Falk:Yeah, we sort of do. If I have any main political flag in the show it was along gender lines and trying to have an even split in my writers’ room. I wanted to write really strong female characters who have agency, and have appetites and are not ashamed of them. You could point to a more diverse show and then say, “Okay but why are there no disabled characters?” And then you could find a show with disabled characters and say, “Well why are there no transgender characters?” That can be an endless hole you could fall into, and you can’t please everyone and fight all fights. I’m a lefty from Berkeley. It’s important to me to cast as colorblind as possible. And it frustrates me often that I can’t do it more. I watch theater, and I love when you see a cast where a mother and son are of different races, just cause who gives a f–k? It’s all a suspension of disbelief because we’re sitting in the f—in’ theater anyway, and we know they’re not real people. Or even “Louie.” Casting white kids as his daughters and a black mother, not worrying about the obvious genetic dissonance there. I think that’s f—ing great and I have those aims, and I hope to be able to do it as much in the future as possible.
Wittmer:I wanted to ask about the bits that Edgar had hanging on the wall. He had “1920s Seinfeld,” and “Guido baby” among others. You also have Jimmy’s heckles, and the chore list on the fridge in season three that ultimately led to Gretchen finding out about Jimmy’s dad. How many of those jokes do you write?
Falk:Oh god, we have endless bits. As a show in general, I am always aware of the TiVo pausers out there and I’m probably one of the more annoying showrunners to my production design department because they’re always like, “No one’s gonna f—ing see that” and I’m like, “yeah well someone might.”
Wittmer:I see it. I might be the only one, but I see them.
Falk:I celebrate that, and we’re always writing for that. I’m always giving notes. We like to populate lists and stuff with jokes. You know, if there’s going to be a list and we have a lot. We have a lot of Jimmy’s lists of heckles and if we’re going to do that, we’re going to work on them in the writers’ room. I’m also the one who is going to the prop department going, “Well why is Gretchen’s phone at 95%? Gretchen’s phone is never at 95%.” Her phone is always running out, because she’s not a together person who ever thinks ahead. I find it daunting and incredible. It makes me happy to know that you’re looking at these things.