“Characters Don’t Have to Be Likable”: A Conversation With ‘You’re the Worst’ Creator Stephen Falk

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Throughout the course of its ten-episode first season, FX’s unconventional romantic comedy You’re the Worst has followed the strange, funny, and undeniably twisted relationship of two love-averse narcissists who reluctantly fall for each other while navigating the sketchy fringes of adulthood. With each episode surpassing the last, it became the summer’s best comedy by balancing an unwavering belief in love with its exploration of the more cynical side of romance. Flavorwire spoke to You’re the Worst showrunner Stephen Falk (Weeds, Orange Is the New Black) by phone about likable and unlikable characters, finding humor in serious topics, and what he learned from working with Jenji Kohan.

Flavorwire: How did you pitch You’re the Worst? The marketing was very, “Watch two people be awful to each other,” but that’s not what the show is really about.

Stephen Falk: I’ve always liked romantic comedies and always wanted to do something in that area, but it always felt like you were at the throes of the cycle of old romantic comedies. I really admire British comedies because they get away with more. They can show characters who have some bad attributes, or bad behavior, and it didn’t feel like there’s this need that American television had, to focus on likability — even if characters are flawed, they’re flawed in very benign ways, like the girl is clumsy or the guy forgets to clean up after himself. In American romantic comedies you didn’t get to see genuine bad behavior, and so I took those two ideas together and came up with this idea to do an updated Mad About You with characters that are a little more reprehensible — or, I wouldn’t say reprehensible, but who exhibited actual bad characteristics at times. But, at its heart, I stressed that I really did want to make a very typical romantic comedy but in sort of new clothes.

There’s always discussion about how you can’t like or relate to a show if the characters aren’t likable, which I think is false, but were you wary of this going in? That maybe people wouldn’t connect because they didn’t like the two characters?

I wasn’t wary of it because I had started working in TV on Weeds, and that was never a thing we thought about. Then I did a TV show that didn’t air, that was a network show, so there was that constant worry about likability. I found it difficult to do what I wanted and to write the stuff that I think works best for my voice, which tends to be a little edgier — I hate that word, “edgy,” but I guess that’s the way to say it — and it was sanding the rough edges down.

When I went in to pitch this for FX, I was very much in the mindset that, well, look, they’re either going to like it or not. This is what I want to do and if they don’t like it, that’s fine. They don’t have to do it at all. I’d rather do nothing than not make the show that I really wanted to. I didn’t want to do that again. It wouldn’t have been good for anybody — myself or the network.

But what you say about likability is absolutely true. Characters don’t have to be likable. They just have to be interesting. [With] Jimmy and Gretchen, there does have to be some audience connection to them. They can’t be monsters. And I don’t think they’re that at all. I just think they’re honest and flawed.

They’re not reprehensible. They have some bad qualities, but they’re real bad qualities: narcissism, drinking too much, stunted growth — all normal things, but taken to the extreme.

Exactly. Most of us have people in our lives who exhibit these qualities. They just have all of them, and to big measure. But I think that’s what makes it funny, I guess.

Did you base them on real people?

A little bit. A little bit on me, in ways, a little bit on a couple people I know, a little bit on characters I’ve enjoyed in plays and movies. It’s an amalgam. But nobody is one person I have in my life. I think it would be frightening if I had someone like Jim in my life.

In the breakup episode, the devastation sneaks up on you, because you don’t realize how much you’ve come to care about these characters until the end. It’s this weird trick to get us to care so much despite them being, well, the worst. Was that a conscious decision, to have the breakup be so devastating, out of nowhere?

I think so. I wasn’t trying to play a trick or manipulate anyone, but I think that if you’re going to build up a relationship and tear it down, you might as well do it in a big, dramatic way — although what they ended up fighting about was very small and real.

We broke all the episodes in the writers room, and we grew to really love these two together. We all keep in mind the fact that we all believe in love. I think that these characters ultimately do, too, and for the time that these two are together, I think that you have to buy into it. So when you break them up, I really hope then that the audience is really invested enough to care.

We’re a TV show, so it would be really weird or ballsy if they never came back together and it just became two parallel shows about Jimmy and Gretchen never knowing each other again. That would be a baller move. But so much of the credit goes to Chris Geere and Aya Cash. They’re both such amazing actors, and that breakup scene was incredibly intense. Both actors were really shaken by it. It was kind of beautiful. I think this is one of the fun things about the show and working with FX, that I get to put as much drama as there is comedy into the show and it fits and the network allows for that. I’m very fortunate in that.

I can’t believe how great the chemistry is between Aya Cash and Chris Geere. How’d that casting come about?

I’d seen every actor that could be right for [Jimmy]. I’d actually written him to be a little more schlubby, but I couldn’t find the guy. The guy has to have incredible verbal proficiency because Jimmy is a very eloquent, if at times pretentious, talker, so you have to have that verbal ability. [He has to] be very charming but able to be nasty, but not be repellant, so I think you [need to] have a misanthropic douchebag quality to you as an actor. To find that person is incredibly hard. I got to see a tape of this tall handsome British guy and within the first sentence I knew that was him. That’s where the casting completely changed the concept of the character. The network, while they loved him, had a hard time because I had convinced them that he was this one guy and then they had to shift their thinking. But they were on board.

I’d been aware of [Aya], so she came to read for me on this. We had met on a previous project that didn’t work out. She just blew me away. I don’t think I’m out of step saying this: The network was hesitant. We had to have her audition again and to her credit she was game for it. She had been offered a role on a very lucrative crime drama, and it was a very harrowing 24-hours where her time limit on that offer was about to be up. It was an offer that would set her for life. Seven years, make a lot of money — she could retire and open an antiques shop upstate — but she really wanted to do this. I actually flew out to New York and did a private taping with her and sent it to FX. We had an hour left; it was very dramatic. To their credit, FX watched her again, gave her another shot, and loved her. This was after we had done a chemistry read and they saw what I saw. It took a little convincing, but once they saw the pilot, they were like, “You were completely right.”

They’re just so fantastic together. I think that it helps that they’re both such amazing, lovely human beings, and they’re both married so there’s never any weirdness. And they’re both incredible actors.

Do you have a clear idea of where the story will go if the show is renewed for Season 2? Jimmy and Gretchen are starting a new chapter, but there’s always a problem with shows about “bad” characters: It’s going to feel false if you reform them, but they can’t stay the same way forever.

That’s the eternal question with television that isn’t a procedural. You have to make the characters stay true to themselves, but you also have to keep reinventing the show or it gets boring — not only for the audience but for you. On Weeds, where we literally blew up the entire concept at the end of Season 3, some people were really upset by that. I don’t blame them, but at the same time, no one would be watching if we had had five seasons in Agrestic selling pot. You have to keep moving.

Once you see the finale and you see what happens at the end, I think it gives a very clear vision of what the next season can look like. At the same time, Jimmy and Gretchen are very, very difficult people; I’m not worried about finding issues or conflicts. We’ll hopefully explore more of the ensemble, which is something I love. I think all the supporting players, particularly Edgar and Lindsay, will keep having stuff to do. But, again, this is a very traditional romantic comedy in wolves’ clothing, so we’re going to continue to follow the normal course of a relationship but with a very strange worldview.

When Gretchen and Jimmy move in together, they’re taking small steps toward adulthood and normalcy but still aren’t wholly comfortable with it.

I think you see it in the second-to-last shot in Episode 10. You see that split-screen, you see the looks on their faces, and I think that tells the whole story.

There’s a great contrast throughout the series, where Lindsay is a perfect wife who then cheats, while Gretchen isn’t into relationships but then ends up in one.

Something that struck the writers as very funny and true is that, at the end of the season, Jimmy and Gretchen are the ones that are happy and, in the process of kind of finding each other, have destroyed the lives of everyone around them. There’s something funny about two human beings, who are such narcissists and nightmares of people, seeing the damage that everyone else has to take on and emerging happy. That makes me laugh.

Edgar is an interesting character. It’s usually a personal choice to include a character like him.

I think it’s a very strange choice in a comedy to touch on a subject like that. It’s potentially really tricky because there’s nothing inherently funny in PTSD or what we do to our veterans after we’ve used them.

Like the VA scene.

Yeah, the VA scene where he was trying to get his meds. I think we approached it trying to take very serious things that vets go through, but take them as a day-to-day task that Edgar has to do and see how hard the Veterans Administration makes it — something as simple as getting the meds that you need and deserve.

It’s tragic and, sure, you could show it as a tragedy, but that’s not fun. Who wants to see that? With this comedy, we have the ability to tackle a real subject, a serious subject, and shed light on it while also enjoying watching it. That’s the only way I can respond to serious subjects: through comedy. That’s just how I’m wired, which is maybe weird, but that’s just who I am.

I’m very sensitive to the subject and we did have a guest in the writers’ room — a veteran with PTSD — who talked to us. He was very adamant on wanting to see the subject tackled in a not incredibly somber way. Hopefully we’ve done that.

You’ve worked on Weeds and Orange Is the New Black, with Jenji Kohan. Did she teach you anything that’s carried over to your approach to You’re the Worst?

I don’t mean to be flip when I say there isn’t really an answer to that, because she’s pretty much taught me everything. If you give me a couple of minutes I could come up with a top five.

Jenji is fearless when it comes to staying true to her characters and telling the best possible story. She’s just fearless in that way. I could tell you stories from casting to writing to editing to music — ten things about each of those she’s taught me. She’s an amazing teacher, and I’m incredibly happy that my name and hers appear next to each other sometimes. It’s just incredibly gratifying.