Man Seeking Woman Creator: The Simpsons is Behind Every Great TV Comedy

Simon Rich chats about the first season of his strangely autobiographical FXX show

by | March 18, 2015 | Comments


At just 30 years of age, writer Simon Rich has already compiled a pretty impressive resume, one that includes articles for McSweeney’s and the New Yorker, a four-year stint with Saturday Night Live, an undisclosed screenplay for Pixar, and six books. One of those books, a collection of short stories about relationships called The Last Girlfriend on Earth, is the primary inspiration behind Rich’s latest endeavor as creator, showrunner, and writer of the FXX comedy series Man Seeking Woman. Like its source material, the show is a fantastical, surrealist look at contemporary relationship issues, and according to Rich, it’s also the most personal work he’s ever done. In an interview with RT, Rich discussed what it was like to work with complete creative freedom, why the show can afford to be so bizarre, and how The Simpsons have had a lasting impact on the comedy writers of today.

Ryan Fujitani for Rotten Tomatoes: How in the world did you get FX to bite on this show? Exorcisms and Hitler and sex aliens and penis monsters seem like a tough sell.

Simon Rich: That’s a good point. No one is more shocked and amazed than I am that FX actually let us make this show. It’s really been the most creatively fulfilling experience of my life. I’m so grateful to them for letting us take the kinds of risks that we take week in and week out. I don’t know if there’s anybody else in television who would have let us be as creatively free as FX has.

RT: You have this team of writers on this show, but it’s my understanding that there’s a lot of original stuff that’s not pulled directly from your book, The Last Girlfriend on Earth.

Rich: Oh yeah, it’s mostly original. I would say it’s tonally very similar to the book. The book is, like the show, a bunch of supernatural love stories where I try to take typical universal dating experiences and hide them in high stakes absurdist supernatural premises, and the show is the same device. But the actual premises on the show are almost all original. The book only has 30 stories in it, and most of them don’t lend themselves to adaptation because they’re so dependent on prose. There’s a lot of them that are literary style parodies, which obviously aren’t the most conducive for TV adaptation. So we burned through the usable ones pretty quickly, and by the end of the season, it’s basically all original.

RT: With the stories you did adapt, did you feel that anything was lost in translation from page to screen, or, conversely, made better by it?

Rich: I don’t think anything was lost, but there were a lot of stories I wanted to adapt but decided not to, because I realized that something would have been lost. It’s a lot easier to adapt a book of short stories than it is to adapt a novel, because if something’s problematic, you just throw it away. [laughs] So yeah, I only adapted the ones that felt like they would be a slam dunk.

RT: You collaborate a lot with your writers, and they help to offer some fresh perspectives in addition to new ideas. In this first season, was there something in particular you really liked that you didn’t come up with yourself?

Rich: Oh, yeah. There are entire episodes that are out of the minds of the writers, and everyone has come up with brilliant premises. Sofia Alvarez deserves all the credit for [“Teacup”], which I think is one of our strongest of the season, and she did a phenomenal job writing it. And it’s a tough assignment, because it’s essentially like writing a brand new pilot, so she’s the only writer who had to actually create a brand new show this season, and I thought she did a phenomenal job. Our season finale was written by my hero from The Simpsons, Ian Maxtone-Graham, and it’s unbelievably original. I’m so excited for the world to see it. Dan Mirk wrote episode eight, which has probably one of my favorite scenes of the whole season, which is when Josh has to take Mike to the bro shelter to have him put down. He did an amazing job with that one. And then Robert Padnick is responsible for one of my favorite scenes, in episode two, where they’re texting in the war room.

So I would say that, by and large, the best material on the show comes from sources other than me. I’m so thrilled to get to work with all of these brilliant people. You know, the most important job of a showrunner is to hire people who are funnier than you, and I feel like that’s something I definitely accomplished this season. Writing with those people has been a great thrill.

RT: You’ve also written for Saturday Night Live, where you got immediate feedback in that live setting, so you knew when something you’d written was working for the audience. What’s it like trying to figure out what works for a show where you don’t get that same immediate feedback, especially when you’re working with such unusual, imaginative ideas?

Rich: It was definitely a pretty big leap of faith. We had no idea how people would react to our show. I think what’s so thrilling about the process is we realized pretty early there’s no way to game the system. There’s no way to play things safe. We resolved from day one to just make the show we wanted to make, full throttle, from the get-go and let the chips fall where they fell. So everybody went in all-in from day one, and not just the writers, but also the cast and our brilliant directors. Everyone really bought in to the show and committed fully, and we ended up with something that’s definitely very strange, but also something that we wholeheartedly believe in. We’re so grateful that it gets to live on television.

RT: And what’s been the reaction to Man Seeking Woman?

Rich: : It’s been really exciting. People seem to really enjoy the show and relate to it. It’s so thrilling because it’s a very personal show for us, and we really put a lot of ourselves into it. So for people to watch it and say that they think it’s funny, but also, more importantly, that they relate to it, it’s really gratifying. We’re so excited we get to keep going, because it’s the best job I’ve ever had, and I’m thrilled that I get to do it.

RT: There are a lot of metaphors that are depicted literally on the show, and it’s not for the sake of being weird. They’re all grounded in some basic, universal truth. So the show is very much about presenting familiar themes in unexpected ways. How challenging is it to constantly come up with fresh angles on the relationship issues we all know so well?

Rich: Good question. Well, I think you did a really good job describing the show. That’s essentially our entire mission, to take universal dating stories and try to come at them from a new angle. Our motto in the room is sort of, “Old story, new way.” So a lot of the brainstorming starts with all of us sitting in a room and confessing our most embarrassing dating experiences. That’s the irony of the show; even though it’s the strangest thing any of us have ever worked on, it’s also the most autobiographical and the most personal. The strategy in the room is to write about our own lives, not in the way that things happened, but the way things felt.

RT: Is there a particular issue you’re looking forward to tackling on the show, but you haven’t quite figured out the angle yet?

Rich: Yeah, there’s a ton. There’s so much more to explore. That’s why I’m so excited that we have this other season. Love is such an enormous theme, and there’s so many different permutations of it, and I’m so excited to look for more angles.

RT: How about things you might do differently next season, now that you pretty much have a full season wrapped up?

Rich: Yeah, I think we’ve learned a ton. At least, I have. It was my first time writing a show like this, and I was definitely learning on the job. I feel like I still have a lot more to learn, but I’m so grateful for the opportunity to keep taking these swings, and hopefully the show will continue to improve.

RT: The show ostensibly centers on Josh’s experience, and while I did initially find him the most relatable, there were moments when Mike or even Liz spoke to me more. That’s when I realized the characters had actual personalities; they aren’t just placeholder characters for the sad sack, the bro, or the voice of reason in romantic relationships.

Rich: Yeah, it’s really important that the characters be realistic and three dimensional. The character of Josh is deeply flawed; he makes a big mistake in pretty much every episode, and he pays for his mistakes. And I think that even though it’s a romantic comedy, it’s also very much a coming-of-age story, and I think Josh has an awful lot to learn about himself. One of the things we try to satirize the most is Josh’s solipsism. You know, he’s always whining, and from his point of view, the entire world is out to get him. It’s our goal as writers to puncture that bubble and give Josh as many harsh doses of perspective as we can. By the end of the season finale, Josh will have learned a little bit about himself and will have grown up just a tiny little bit. Hopefully that’ll be satisfying for viewers.

RT: Yours is definitely a unique show, but there are some others out there like Last Man on Earth and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt that are working from bizarre, high concept premises. What do you think it is about contemporary comedy that’s opened things up for shows like yours?

Rich: : I’m amazed by the number of incredibly funny and original shows there are on TV right now. Those sitcoms, but also, there’s great sketch comedy shows and great animated shows. There’s so much good stuff, and I’m thankful there wasn’t this much good stuff on TV when I was in junior high school, because I never would have done any homework. I’m sure the cause is a lot of factors as to why TV has gotten so good, and some are cultural, some are just a shift in commercial realities, but if I had to point to one thing, I would say it’s The Simpsons. I know that sounds simplistic, but I think 25 years ago, nobody had ever seen The Simpsons, and now, every comedy writer has seen The Simpsons, and as a result, comedy in America has gotten funnier. I’ve never been in a writers room before where somebody didn’t reference The Simpsons once an hour. I don’t know how you would ever write a good show without constantly trying not to rip off a specific Simpsons script. So if I had to point to one factor, it would just be the fact that every comedy writer in 2015 has seen between 50 and 200 episodes of The Simpsons.

And, of course, people have access to cable. It’s like, I remember when I was 16, the fact that I had watched a few episodes of The Kids in the Hall, that alone made my writing more daring than somebody who had never been inspired by The Kids in the Hall. Now, everybody, through the internet, has access to incredible stuff. You don’t need to go to some out-of-the-way used video store to find it. People have access to incredible entertainment, and I think that it’s elevated the culture. I think that internet access to great art, of course, is going to make everybody up their game a bit.

RT: So what TV shows do you watch now, then?

Rich: : I watch a ton of reality shows. I’m really into the show Gold Rush. I love True Life; I think True Life is amazing. I like Dance Moms. I really like American Greed; one of my favorite shows, about con artists. And my favorite is probably 30 for 30. It’s staggering how much good stuff there is right now. There’s not enough time to watch it all. There are too many great shows.

Man Seeking Woman is currently Certified Fresh at 81 percent. The season one finale, “Scepter,” airs tonight on FXX at 10:30 pm.

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