'You're the Worst' Creator Opens Up About Failure, Dating and How Jenji Kohan Brought Him Back to TV
The creator of NBC's Dane Cook comedy "Next Caller" talks with THR about his return to TV and the lessons he learned from opening up after the show's cancellation before its premiere.
You're the Worst creator Stephen Falk knows what it's like to make a comeback.
The showrunner had his first series — NBC's Dane Cook comedy Next Caller — canceled months before it was scheduled to air as a midseason replacement. Four of the show's six-episode order had already been completed before the network opted to scrap the series set in the office of a satellite radio station.
Following the abrupt cancellation — which came only five months after it was picked up to series — Weeds alum Falk took to his blog and compared the loss of his show to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, a 10.0 earthquake and more in an incredibly candid essay that went viral.
Now Falk is back on the small screen with his first series to make it to air in FX's dark comedy You're the Worst. The comedy is described as a love story about what happens when two toxic, self-destructive people (played by Chris Geere and Aya Cash) fall in love despite themselves and attempt the impossible — a relationship. Here, Falk talks with The Hollywood Reporter about how Next Caller influenced You're the Worst, how his former Weeds boss Jenji Kohan helped bring him back to TV and the origins of the dark FX comedy.
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Your last show, NBC's Next Caller, was canceled before its premiere and you were very vocal about what a difficult experience that was. How did that influence You're the Worst?
I had a very direct relationship to making You're the Worst. Having a show canceled before it aired was tough. It was my first show. I worked on Weeds. I sold a bunch of pilots before that. Before Next Caller, none had gone to air and then Next Caller got picked up and I moved to New York. I wrote that essay in a motel in Arizona; it was me, my dog and a bottle of Jameson, and I published it and immediately took it down. I had no idea it would go viral. The next morning I reread it, made a few adjustments and published it. I'd been writing online for over a decade, so I thought it would just go to the people who read my dumb blog, but it went beyond that. What it taught me is that the networks or the studios don't 100 percent own the PR space anymore. I was linked in your magazine to Dan Harmon in an article called When Showrunners Attack. It showed that suddenly you can write something on Twitter or on Tumblr and it can get picked up just as much as a thing that you pay $50,000 for a publicity person to put out there. I think Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse are the ones I found at the head of that with Lost. Working with Jenji Kohan as I did on Weeds and Orange Is the New Black, she and Roberto Benabib — the guy who ran the room — thought creators should have a voice and spend the time in the PR sector of the job. I took that to heart.
How much of that anger was poured into creating You're the Worst?
Writing You're the Worst was really my sorbet from the experience of working for NBC, a network that I love and grew up on and hope does well, but the experience was not great. When FX approached me to bring them an idea, I wrote it very specifically to get some demons out and to write something that tickled me. I tried to not care what the market would bear. I write little notes to myself on the top of outlines — like "stay true to your voice" or "make sure you're keeping in mind the seven tenets of a well-made play" — and for this one I wrote, "make the people in your life worry about you when they read this." I wanted to write something very personal, excise of demons, and didn't care if it went anywhere. As a result, I think I wrote something that came from a place of truth. FX saw that and decided not only to order the pilot but to put it on the air.
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How hard was it to get back to writing after Next Caller? Did you take time off?
The show got canceled on a Friday night while I was editing in New York and we were about to start a new episode on Monday. I got a call from Lionsgate's Kevin Beggs, who's a lovely man, saying the show was over. I had to call all the writers and actors and then I couldn't move back to L.A. because I had sublet my house. So I sat in my East Village sublet for weeks, and then Hurricane Sandy hit, so we had no power. We lost power for five days. It really was terrible. Please, no one take out a tiny violin for me. I'd gotten TV money. It was fine and I could survive, but it was bleak for a while. I came back to L.A. and I didn't really do anything for about four months until I was walking the Silver Lake Reservoir with Jenji, who had just finished the first season of Orange Is the New Black. It hadn't aired yet and no one knew what it was. It wasn't really my wheelhouse, I didn't think, but she convinced me to come on board the second season, and I had an amazing experience.
Did you not want to go back to writing for broadcast TV after both Next Caller and OITNB?
I was excited to write for FX because I like what they do. I don't care if it's network or cable. I'm not great at branding myself, so I've written hour, half-hour, multicam, single-cam, cable, paid cable, network. I find it all a different challenge. You're trying to fit into a different construct and a different marketplace. The one thing I do appreciate about FX and Netflix as opposed to NBC — but NBC has risen back to No. 1 — but at the time, they were not, and I think they were operating from a place of fear. I think that well-founded fear of eroding viewership and market share was leading them to second-guess their showrunners. I really like network executives. I don't have anything bad to say about them, but it is refreshing to work for FX and Netflix, which are both organizations that are coming from a place of success. In both of their cases, that breeds a feeling of creative risk-taking and leaves them to hire the people you want to hire and then give them some rope. [FX boss] John Landgraf has been doing this for 20 years. I would be an absolute fool to not listen to everything he says. When he gives me a note, I absolutely listen to it. I've argued with him on castings and was right and I have argued about other things, and eventually realized they were right.
What was your biggest takeaway from Next Caller that you brought with you to You're the Worst?
It's an unfair comparison simply because I was a first-time showrunner and I was 3,000 miles away from the people whose job it was to oversee the show. FX came once to set to hang out and say hi; they weren't breathing down my neck. With NBC, I think their development to current transition is very awkward. You sell the show to a team, they usher you through it. Then suddenly you're getting notes from a new team. It's a weird experience. It's as if you are in a dorm and you have one RA and then suddenly you have another one. I found FX's transitional team a little more graceful, and that they didn't operate from a place of fear or suspicion as I felt that NBC did with me. Again, rightfully so, I was 3,000 miles away from them. I get it.
You're the Worst kind of stems from that whole experience. Is the title directed at all at NBC?
(Laughs.) No. The title was not directed at NBC at all. I'm honestly very pragmatic. I don't think giant corporations are capable of true villainy because they are corporations. They're beholden to shareholders. Corporations are inherently evil. The people who work for them are not. It's very easy to be reactionary as an artist and confuse the two. So, no, You're the Worst is not a swipe at NBC at all. It was literally just me needing to clear my creative gullet, my creative palette, and try to do something that was very personal and small. I'd gone through a really weird divorce. I'd been in the dating scene. I had tried this recalibrating my relationship to what true love is. It's very weird, and it's incredibly rich. I'm a big fan of romantic comedies, but I come at it from a very cynical, been-burned-before, bought in, been-burned-before point of view. The show for me really explores what it's like for someone who believes but then also has empirical evidence that a real loving long-term relationship is probably possible. How do you keep going and why do we keep going? Part of you feels like a fool. Part of you feels like, "Why am I buying in again? Am I just succumbing to my training from ’80s movies and rock songs? Or the basic nature of procreate or to construct some sort of family unit? Or am I genuinely willing to try again?" The show was my attempt to do a British, cable version of Mad About You. It's a show that I really liked, but it was very much of a time and a space: early ’90s/New York/NBC. This is my attempt to do something that's taking that same romantic view but filtering it through all of our share of knowledge. And that is f—ing hard and painful.
You're the Worst airs Thursdays at 10:30 p.m. on FX.