Amy Poehler Fans, We Found Your New Favorite Show

Photo: Ben Ritter.
Julie Klausner really wanted David Byrne to get hit by a car while riding his bike. Not in real life, of course — Klausner loves The Talking Heads — but in her new TV show Difficult People, which premieres on Hulu this week. Sure enough, in one episode this season, Billy, played by Billy Eichner, accidentally mows down the famous rocker. (Don’t worry. Byrne lives.)

“We went through some legal stuff about that, but I fought tooth and nail,” Klausner, 37, says over iced teas on a recent July day in New York. “I was like, there’s no way we’re changing anything about this episode.” Why David Byrne, though? “Because everyone who lives in downtown Manhattan has seen him on a bicycle and has thought to themselves, what if he falls off that bicycle?” she says. “That is something that everybody who lives in New York City has thought. I have nothing against Mr. Byrne, I think he is a genius. I really do. The Talking Heads are, like, one of my top five favorite bands of all time. But the idea of hitting him, and knocking him off his bicycle was an idea I had in my little idea notebook for the show and it was just like, we are doing this.”

With Difficult People, Klausner — known for her 2010 memoir I Don’t Care About Your Band, her podcast How Was Your Week, and her ingenious Housewives recaps for New York magazine — is making exactly the show that she wants to make. She and Eichner star as the semi-alternate reality, less successful, nastier versions of themselves. Billy waits tables while Julie writes recaps of TV shows. The two are rude to others, unfiltered when they probably should have a filter, and have a vast knowledge of pop culture that is seamlessly integrated into their vocabulary. This is a show that somehow manages to reference both Vanderpump Rules and Tony Kushner’s Angels In America in the same breath.

That should be no surprise to anyone who has encountered Klausner’s work, and speaking to her, I find myself wishing I had Google on hand to keep up with her references. (As a random example of something she had to look up at one point in her life, she brings up Felicity Kendal. I, of course, had to go do the same thing.) With her red hair up and a dress that’s part Rhoda (the flowery print), part That Girl (the mod cut), Klausner is more affable than her television counterpart, but similarly quick to riff on a subject. Klausner says that she never had any TV limits as a kid, and once sent a note to a friend about all the TV they would watch when she got home from summer camp. “She cares about pop culture in a way that most people don’t, and it’s just so fantastic and hilarious,” Scott King, the showrunner for Difficult People, tells me in a phone interview. King initially hired her to write on The Big Gay Sketch Show back in 2008.

This is not Klausner’s first stab at writing her own show. She’s written for TV shows including Best Week Ever With Paul F. Tompkins and Eichner’s own Billy On The Street, but previous pilots she had written — including one she sold to NBC — were “cynically derived,” she explains. They were geared to what she thought a network might want to buy. “In the past I’ve tried writing stuff that I think will sell and it’s always broader and softer and it never sold,” she says. “This is the first thing I’ve written just for the sake of saying, like, 'If I could do any show ever what would my dream show be?' And this is the one that got picked up.”

This is the first thing I’ve written just for the sake of saying, like, 'if I could do any show ever what would my dream show be?' And this is the one that got picked up.

Julie Klausner
That, in part, is thanks to Amy Poehler, who, according to Klausner, is truly the fairy godmother you imagined her to be. Klausner wrote the script for what she envisioned as a “female Louie that was sort of like Curb Your Enthusiasm structured.” She then got Eichner on board and sent the script to Poehler, who helped them sell it. Before going to Hulu, the show was originally development with USA.

While Klausner cites Louie and Curb Your Enthusiasm as models, she also points to Lisa Kudrow’s Valerie Cherish from The Comeback as an inspiration for the fictional Julie character. Klausner hadn’t seen a female lead allowed to be as brazenly off-putting as a Larry David or David Brent-type (from The Office) character until The Comeback.

“It’s funny. A lot of the comedy writing I see, it’s well intentioned because it’s trying to be diverse and inclusive, but the roles for women or a black character are always very serious. And they’re like, but I made the woman smart, the guy’s an idiot,” she tells me. “It’s like, yeah, but you’re not giving that female actor anything to do. Nobody wants to be the school marmish — stop having all that fun, Jim Carrey. Like, fucking put a bullet through my head. And anyone can do that so of course people are going to choose some symmetrical mutant who looks like Christy Turlington when she was 12... At a certain point, there’s no point of me auditioning because it’s like, just literally close your eyes and point at a pretty girl in an agency catalogue, and if she can read a cue card, you’ve got your girl. If you want someone that can land a joke, that has a voice, that has an authentic point of view, then you’ll talk to women who actually write for themselves. There aren’t that many of us who can speak a certain way. I think and I hope that’s really changing.”

The well-covered idea that it’s a “great time now for women in comedy” comes up in the show. Julie’s mother, played by Andrea Martin, nags her about an article on the subject. “It’s so fucking annoying. I remember when Bridesmaids opened. Well, somebody tweeted me, ‘Congratulations.’ I was like, I have nothing to do with that movie,” she says. “It’s a great time for women in comedy? Really? I can’t pay my rent. How is that helpful to me? So that’s where that comes from.”

If you want someone that can land a joke, that has a voice, that has an authentic point of view, then you’ll talk to women who actually write for themselves.

Julie Klausner
Amid all the insults and pop culture references, Difficult People does subtle work to combat television’s frustrating status quo. Klausner, when writing, wanted “to see a gay man and a woman not being cuddly and adorable and agreeable or [an accessory] to the main character, who is generally a guy who gets to be funny by being obnoxious or stupid or ridiculous or arrogant,” she says. “I didn’t set out to make a quote-unquote female-driven thing, but I always have a hidden feminist agenda under everything, I think. It’s not even something I have to sit out and plan.”

In a reverse of the Everybody Loves Raymond model, Julie’s boyfriend Arthur (James Urbaniak) is the put-upon spouse, cooking for Julie and encouraging her to behave. Billy, meanwhile, is not a Gay Best Friend, even though he is gay and Julie’s best friend. “As a gay dude myself, what drives me a little cuckoo with gay characters on TV is so often... gay is all theoretical, it’s very asexual, it’s just earnest speech after earnest speech, and it’s all about acceptance," King says. "I love that Billy is sometimes a real jerk and that’s okay. I think the more you see all types of people the better.”

The New York Julie and Billy occupy in the show will be familiar to anyone in the intersecting world of comedy and media. In this first season, they perform at a Moth-type storytelling night, Billy goes to see Bridget Everett perform, and Julie gets in trouble for an ill-advised tweet about Blue Ivy. “The Internet does play such an important role in people that are aspiring to be public, and Billy and I both love Twitter, it’s like crack to us,” Klausner says. “There’s been days where I’ve been depressed and I don’t realize why and I remember I haven’t tweeted in a few days and I know that’s a sick thing to say but it’s just true, and we both really enjoy being performative on social media.”

Before I went to meet Klausner, she had tweeted about wanting to go to the “heroin McDonald’s” — a decrepit installment of the chain in Midtown that The New York Times had recently covered. (I regret not suggesting we change the setting of our meeting from Think Coffee on Bowery.) We were talking about that article, and how Klausner likes that there are still “real reporters,” when she mentions that she doesn’t want to call herself a “former blogger.”

“I’ll definitely return to blogging and recapping at some point, it’s not like that’s behind me,” she says. I suggest she just needs the right show. “There just needs to be a Celebrity Apprentice with, like, the cast of Smash competing,” she says. “Then I’ll just have to come out of retirement.” If you’re wondering, Klausner thinks Anjelica Huston would win that competition. “Her gravitas would be very influential to whoever was trying to buy t-shirts or umbrellas or whatever she was selling,” she says.

Klausner is selling something too. She wants her show to “bring new meaning to the word bitter so it’s not an insult anymore.” We’re buying it.


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