Interview: 'Man Seeking Woman' creator Simon Rich on Japanese penis monsters and Jay Baruchel
TORONTO, CANADA. FXX's new series "Man Seeking Woman" is a 2015 romantic-comedy with a very specific voice.
Not to spoil too much, but it's the story of Josh Greenberg (Jay Baruchel), a young Chicagoan who faces single life after he breaks up with long-time girlfriend Maggie (Maya Erskine) and discovers that returning to the dating pool is absurd, surreal, whimsical and occasionally sad.
The main voice behind "Man Seeking Woman" comes very clearly from Simon Rich, whose listed age is 30.
The son of prolific writer Frank Rich, Simon Rich has the resume of a much, much older man. He was a staff writer on "Saturday Night Live" for four years, one of the youngest ever. He's been a regular contributor to the New Yorker, a staff writer at Pixar and the author of the novels "Elliot Allagash" and "What in God's Name," plus four collections of short stories including "The Last Girlfriend on Earth: And Other Love Stories," which is the basis for "Man Seeking Woman."
I was on the Toronto set of "Man Seeking Woman" in November and it was striking to watch Rich at work. If he's 30 with the resume of a 50-year-old, he could pass for 20, a snazzily dressed 20, bouncing around the hockey arena location bouncing ideas off of Baruchel and other writers and producers, checking back and forth between dailies from that morning's shoot, as well as cuts of past episodes.
Between shots, as a zamboni circled the ice, I was able to sit down with Rich in a chilly hallway to discuss the flights of fancy that define "Man Seeking Woman," as well as the importance of Jay Baruchel to the entire series, which premieres on January 14.
If you want to go into "Man Seeking Woman" knowing nothing, you may want to skip this interview until after the premiere.
Otherwise, check out the full conversation below...
HitFix: The book has so many different perspectives to the story so no one is going to look at it and go, "It's about Simon," whereas this has one central male perspective, is Josh more "you" to some degree?
Simon Rich: You know, my hope is that the premises, the situations are universal enough that everyone will relate to the hero's plight. It's a very strange show. Obviously there's a lot of ice skating and decapitations and there's time travel and a gigantic Japanese penis monster in episode five. But at the end of the day, it's really a very simple show about a guy trying to find love. And that's what excited me about the project, my hope is that the stories we tell will be very relatable to everyone.
HitFix: But has it become at all more autobiographical to any degree in this format?
Simon Rich: I mean it's such an interesting question. I think that it feels autobiographical for all of the writers because the stuff we're writing about, it's such basic elemental human stuff. It's getting your heart broken; it's unrequited love; it's sleeping with the wrong person; it's feeling wounded, feeling exhilarated. It's all of the very basic dating emotions just told in a slightly weirder way.
HitFix: The book, in certain stories are able to go to dark places sort of very dark somewhat depressing places. Do you have that sort of flexibility in this format to go dark and depressing if you want to?
Simon Rich: Yeah. We really do. I've never had this level of creative freedom before outside of the pages of The New Yorker. They really let us go full tilt on this stuff. Jay, in the show he gets dismembered. He has to fight various monsters; he gets set on fire; he gets badly hurt on the ice; he visits Hell. I sort of see Jay as, this sounds like hyperbole but he's so talented and I see him almost as like a contemporary version of Buster Keaton. He's a brilliant comedian but also just so naturalistic and subtle and so good at playing high stakes, insane premises with total subtlety and realism. But we threw a lot of crazy sh** at him. I mean we subject him to tortures every minute.
HitFix: With Buster Keaton, since you mentioned him, there's always sort of the undercurrent sadness.
Simon Rich: And loneliness and all of his movies are love stories and he's trying so hard to get the girl and he's willing to walk through any sort of torture to get her. Those movies are a big inspiration on this show, I would say.
HitFix: And so do you see that sort of tonal similarities that you can go to those sadder places as well?
Simon Rich: Oh absolutely. I think that I tried to figure out what percentage of these episodes have a happy ending. It's fewer than 50 percent I would say.
HitFix: The pilot has three of your stories crammed into it. Obviously that's not a sustainable rate long-term. What is the ratio of book stories to original?
Simon Rich: We burned through those pretty quickly. I would say that it's mostly original. I don't know the exact proportions but in the book I relied a lot on literary tropes and also just text-based formats that I thought would be fun to play with.
HitFix: Structure-based humor.
Simon Rich: Yeah. Exactly right. You can't have an archaeological excavation report as an episode, but the advantageous flip side as we get to play with a lot of filmic tropes. So we can employ tropes from horror movies or from Olympic sporting events or whatever it is. So we lost some weapons but we gained a lot more.
HitFix: Are you prepared to pontificate on the state of the romantic comedy as a genre and do you have your answer yet for what The State of the Romantic Comedy is and how this fits into it?
Simon Rich: I mean this is my version of a romantic comedy and it's pretty strange. I'm sort of amazed they're letting us get away with it.
HitFix: How deep do you want audiences to poke into the "realism" of this? Because everything has sort of obviously an emotional realistic core, but do you want people to go, "Is he having some sort of a psychological break"?
Simon Rich: My hope is that if we do our jobs right it will feel seamless and the madness won't feel digressive. And I think there are a lot of shows that are able to employ supernatural elements while remaining emotionally grounded. The biggest ones that I can think of are "South Park" and "The Simpsons," which are two of my all-time favorite shows. And I know those shows are animated, which is a big difference.
HitFix: I didn't figure you needed to point that out.
Simon Rich: But the way that they're able to introduce space aliens into a premise while still keeping it emotionally grounded. We probably ripped those shows off as much as anything I would say.
HitFix: Talk a bit more about Jay and sort of his essentialness to this because it feels like this is a character who has to be able to cover a lot of terrain.
Simon Rich: This show doesn't really work without Jay. Everyone know that he's an extremely funny actor but he also is just so natural and subtle and realistic and he grounds the entire show. I mean the whole thing centers around him. And no matter how insane the premises get he is able to find the emotional truth in them and play it with all his heart and soul. And in this season I mean he goes to hell; he fights a demon; he ice skates; he fights a Japanese penis monster; he argues a case in court; he leads a military style meeting. We require so much versatility from him and everything we throw at him so far he's been able to nail.
HitFix: Was this a situation where you saw other people or where someone threw out the idea?
Simon Rich: The dream was always that it could be Jay. And it's such a hard thing to pull off to play these scenes with dry naturalism. It's extremely difficult. I don't know how he's able to do it but he's been killing it.
HitFix: What were the conversations like to allow you to have the position you have on this show, to be the showrunner, to be the guy on-set, as opposed to having them bring in a more established veteran as it were?
Simon Rich: Right. That's sort of a question for FX and John Landgraf. I'm really thrilled and honored that they put this much trust in me and I'm just determined not to blow it. And they've been wonderful in every stage of the process. They understood the show immediately. Their notes have been helpful. And they've never made us water anything down. They've really given us the freedom we need to attempt something as strange as this.
HitFix: Where has the learning curve been steepest for you in this job?
Simon Rich: You know, every single episode is a kind of whole new world of production realities. It's very easy to sit in our writers' room and say, "Oh right, this will be a figure skating scene" or "This will be a post-apocalyptic hellscape scene." And then when you actually show up to go to preproduction meetings you start to realize oh man, some of this maybe is a little bit more technically involved than I expected. So I think certainly from a production standpoint I'm learning a lot. It's a lot more challenging to mount some of this stuff than it was to mount a sketch at "Saturday Night Live."
HitFix: Well, does a show "Louie" give you inspiration when it comes to the possibility of extended arcs within a show like this? Because obviously the first show episode is sort vignette-y, but do you have dreams of doing a multi-episode?
Simon Rich: Yeah. Our season is pretty traditional. I think you'll find that it's pretty by-the-book. Characters learn lessons. They go through trials and tribulations. At the end of the day it's a pretty basic dating sitcom just told in a very strange new way.
HitFix: But do you aspire to blow it up in Season 2?
Simon Rich: Blow it up how?
HitFix: Blow up the genre, blow up the format. Having seen what you can do by using the traditional?
Simon Rich: Oh, my hope is to keep the show emotionally as simple as possible and as earnest and relatable as possible. But if we do another season they'll be way more madness and probably twice as many decapitations and five times as many species of aliens.
"Man Seeking Woman" premieres on Wednesday, January 14 on FXX.