Catching Up With Stephen Falk, Creator of You're the Worst

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Last night, one of the best shows of the summer had its first season finale, and there’s a chance you might have missed it. You’re the Worst is a comedy ahead of its time, or maybe just ahead of its time zone. With programs like You’re the Worst and Married, FX is making some real attempts to diversify (in more ways than one) American programming, specifically the romantic comedy series. There’s a deliciously dark bent to these shows that we’re not exactly used to over here, while the Brits and the French have long-since mastered the art of love with a twist.

For about a week, the name Stephen Falk sounded a bit like “Gatsby” to me. In interviews with two of his actors, Brandon Smith and Aya Cash his name kept coming up. But there was something unique about the way the actors described him, as if he was, well, somewhat mythical. Or at least, a rare sort. And it all starts to make sense when you look at his former projects. Falk has been working alongside Jenji Kohan, writing and producing for Weeds and Orange is the New Black. It’s like he’s been like the man behind these incredible parties we’ve all been going to for years, even though we’ve never met him. Well, we’re happy to report that Jay Gatsby is real. Paste caught up with Falk to talk You’re The Worst, the Kohan influence, and that amazing rant he wrote about NBC.

Paste Magazine: I knew I was getting weirdly obsessed with the show, when I started writing about it in completely unrelated things, like a piece on the best black movie of the year.
Stephen Falk: (laughs) What was the movie?

Paste: A great British prison film called Starred Up. But I was playing off of the idea you use in You’re The Worst, about the black movie theaters versus the white movie theaters, and what those distinctions mean. Enough about me! I know you’ve spoken about how some of your personal experiences with divorce and post-divorce dating inspire your writing. Can you talk about some experiences growing up that might have led you to writing?
Falk: I wish I had some amazing origin story of always wanting to be a writer. Some of my writer friends talk about how they would sit in their closets with their Dad’s typewriter in the middle of the night, just creating stories, and that kind of stuff. I never did. I had no interest in writing. I wrote a poem about a toe, called, “If I Were a Toe,” which was actually pretty good. But beyond that, I never really had any interest in it.

I wanted to be an actor because I saw Kirk Cameron in Growing Pains, and I thought that’d be a really good way to be cool, and get girls.
Paste: (laughs) Sure.
Falk: So I ended up going to NYU for acting, and moving out here to try to do that. I only started writing because I was a director of this theatre company, and we couldn’t afford the rights to plays anymore. We had to start writing our own, so that’s how I got into playwriting. I think writing is fun, but it’s not my favorite thing in the world. I’d rather watch TV or read a book.

This show did come out of my love for a bunch of shows in the past and romantic comedies in general, and also the horror of trying to find someone to share one night, or your whole life with—both of which are pretty terrifying experiences.

Paste: Last week’s episode really brought it home for me. We saw Gretchen trying to do that thing where you go back to being 21, and Brandon’s character is the one that reminds her she’s, basically, too old for that stuff.
Falk: There’s always the point where behavior that was kind of acceptable, and sexy and fun becomes not so. And Aya played that so well.

Paste: Aya told me that you had to fight for her to get this part. What did you see in her that made you say, “No, it’s definitely her, and not someone else.”
Falk: There was a moment during the chemistry read with her and Chris [Geere]. We were doing the phone call scene where she’s in the bathtub at Ty’s house doing coke. But it’s actually a super-romantic scene, at least in my mind. And there’s that moment where she blurts out to him the same story she’d told Ty, and Ty hadn’t reacted favorably—“I lit my high school on fire to get out of a math test.” And [Chris’ character] just laughs very casually, and says something like, “Oh, that’s genius.” The look on her face in the audition, where she realizes that he’s accepting her for all of the mess that she is, to me that’s the crux of a lot of what we look for and also what we fear in relationships—being judged.

In the audition we had them sitting back to back because they are supposed to be on the phone, but that look—the private look of, “Oh, this guy gets me”—was really beautiful, and I saw the vulnerability in her.

Paste: I read some of your infamous NBC rant earlier. Interestingly enough, it was the last bit that got me. Your P.S. about working with women, and how there are plenty of women in your industry, so people need to stop pretending that there aren’t, or that they’re difficult to find—I loved that. Can you talk a bit about working with people like Jenji Kohan over the years, and what you’ve learned.

Falk: Oh, gosh. Well that post script, is a little embarrassing now, but I guess I was feeling like I’d seen a lot of awards shows for comedies—particularly for variety comedies—where they’d win for writing, and they’d go on stage, and it’d be 20 white guys with glasses who all looked like the exact same guy. There were no women at all. And Stephen Colbert made a joke. about this kind of thing at the Emmys earlier this year, which was a misstep on his part. I just don’t think there’s an excuse for that at this point, because there are tons of really funny, smart, comedy writers out there who are women.

My writer room for You’re the Worst consisted of two guys and two girls. And even though Jenji is a few years older than me, and did work in some of those rooms [where she was the one woman], her rooms are also very representative of this. I was one of two guys in the Orange is the New Black room.
Paste: Wow.
Falk: Which was overwhelming at times (laughs), but overwhelming in a good way. The women who Jenji tends to hire are just so smart, and I don’t think she’s trying to populate the room with anyone other than the best people out there, and the best voices for her show. Having learned everything about how to produce, and how to make a TV show from Jenji, gender bias is just not even a part of how I operate.

Paste: It shows. Now, this is that awkward period of time, where we don’t know if You’re the Worst is being renewed for a second season. Do you have any insight into that, or do you have upcoming projects that we should know about?
Falk: I’m adapting a book called A Working Theory of Love. So, I’m writing a movie in my down time. And I don’t have actual insight about the renewal. I’m hopeful. I think the network has seen some of the critical groundswell in the last four weeks or so. I think they’re aware that the episodes have only gotten better and better, and people have fallen for it.

There are a few fall romantic comedies coming to television, and I’ve already seen some reviews comparing them to our show—and not favorably, which sort of makes me happy (laughs). I think we’re the beginning, hopefully, of another phase of romantic comedy—one that’s more honest and representative of actual human behavior, rather than the idealized, Louis Armstrong-scored, New York-y, white male writer in Los Angeles’ view of romance. There’s a lot more to be said, and we have tons of ideas for Season Two. We want to tell Jimmy and Gretchen’s story for as long as we can.
Paste: I agree that we definitely need more of this, and I’m hopeful too. Thank you so much for this!
Falk: Thank you, and thanks for watching the show.

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor at Paste, and a New York-based freelance writer with probably more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.

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