How ‘You’re the Worst’ remains a great romance about two awful people

Senior Television Writer
09.08.15 9 Comments

Over the course of its first season, “You’re the Worst” – a romantic comedy about two terrible human beings (played by Chris Geere and Aya Cash) who would vomit at the thought that they are the hero and heroine of a romantic comedy – went from a show I felt pretty ambivalent about to one of my favorite shows on TV. It’s been nearly a year since the last original episode aired on FX, in part because the show has moved over to the younger-skewing FXX channel(*), but based on the new season’s first two episodes (it premieres tomorrow night at 10:30), the wait was worth it.

(*) Every mention of the network shift brings with it some doomsday theory about how FX is sending the show to FXX to kill it. All that paranoia seems rooted entirely in the failure of “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell” when it made the switch, which ignores several factors: 1)”Totally Biased” moved when FXX was more or less a clusterfudge that nobody knew existed and no one at the network seemed to know what to do with (i.e., before “The Simpsons” marathon put the place on the map), 2)Several other FX comedies (including “You’re the Worst” lead-in “The League”) have made the move and done just fine for themselves, 3)FXX needs more shows, and “You’re the Worst” is much more in line with something like “Man Seeking Woman” than it was with “Married” last summer, 4)If FX wanted to kill the show, they just wouldn’t have renewed it. So relax.

Over the course of the first season, Jimmy and Gretchen fought every attempt to suggest they were having an actual relationship, or that they cared about each other as anything other than a sexual partner. Now, though, Gretchen has moved in with Jimmy (and with Jimmy’s PTSD-afflicted roommate Edgar), and there’s no more pretending that they are something other than a couple. And the new episodes have a lot of fun with that, as always tweaking romcom conventions even as there are genuine romantic moments between the two.

At press tour last month, I spoke with the show’s creator (and former Television Without Pity recapper) Stephen Falk about what he learned from the first year of having his own show on the air, the origins of Jimmy’s foot fetish and prop mustache, and a lot more.

Tomorrow, I’ll have a joint interview with Geere and Cash.

What do you feel like your biggest takeaway was from the first season? You”ve written for shows before, but this is the first one that”s been yours. What did you figure out about it?

Stephen Falk: One of the nice surprises was that people reacted to Edgar”s character in a way that I hadn”t necessarily been 100 percent confident of. It”s sort of a dangerous thing doing a comedy where you actually have a combat veteran with PTSD. I was surprised to find that he popped for a lot of people which was nice.

There”s a joke in the premiere about a massacre, more or less.

Stephen Falk: “I didn”t know it was a school.” Yes, we have a running joke about a massacre that he may or may not have taken part of.

So let”s start there. How do you approach that and thread the needle so that it”s fun?

Stephen Falk: I don”t know. We”ll see if I did. We had a veteran come talk to us at the beginning of last season and I was like, “What do you want us to portray? How do you feel that you guys have not been portrayed in the media?” And the main thing he said was “not to treat us with kid gloves. That we”re ball busters and we have a big sense of humor.” So I took that, but also just in general I tend not to like try to shy away from things. I think I learned it from Jenji Kohan, who I worked with, is not to be afraid of how your show”s going to be perceived or certain characters or certain elements of it as long as you”re writing what clicks for you. I think even if we go too far with certain things, we”re always really trying to add dimensionality. Even though it”s, you know, a dumb comedy, in a lot of ways really make sure they all feel like very grounded characters. Even our small characters.

It’s in the title: they’re the worst. They do terrible things in many ways. As an ongoing series in dealing with this relationship and dealing with these two people who are fighting with every fiber of their being against becoming the couple that they”re becoming, where is the line between like character growth and taking away what makes them special and makes it funny in the first place?

Stephen Falk: I have no idea. It”s a good question. I think the danger that they feel acutely and they deal with right in the first scene of this season is one that me and my staff also have. But I don”t think necessarily being in a committed relationship makes you less of a narcissist or an alcoholic or a liar or any of those things. We talk in the room a little bit about Voltron which is maybe the wrong – I”m not a great Transformers person. Is that even Transformers? I don”t know.

Voltron is not Transformers.

Stephen Falk: Okay, but just five lions. This element of the two of them are attacking the world together and, you know, separately they”re toxic and sort of horrible to people, but together they”re even more so. And I think that as long as we keep them who they are I”m going to keep telling stories because I like to plot. I like things to happen. I”m not a big sort of mumblecorey guy. But we do a mumblecore episode this season I”m very proud of. Things are going to keep happening in their relationship. It”s never going to be stasis.

There”s always this perceived wisdom in the business, which I”ve always found stupid, which is when couples get together, that”s storytelling death. Jimmy and Gretchen are certainly not a happy couple, but they”re living together this season. They still have many questions but it”s no longer, “We”re getting together, we”re breaking up, we”re getting together.” Did you find writing this season any more difficult than the push and pull of last year?

Stephen Falk: No I didn”t. I think if anything I have a little bit of a fear that the show is going to feel less romantic because I found Jimmy and Gretchen to be a romantic coupling. You have the fear of the perception of being boring normal as they say. But no, it wasn”t difficult writing them because we made very sure to find conflict between them and to not do living together conflict in a way that some of the network single cam romcoms that have come and gone all last season would handle it. In other words, we just wanted to make sure we weren”t dealing with who”s going to wash the dishes because that”s A, not really our show and B, not that much fun to watch.

In terms of when you put them through the paces that often happen in romantic comedy, it feels different because they”re so unconventional as the two characters in this type of story.

Stephen Falk: Yeah, I think so. Right away from the jump I had them meet and have sex right away and get together because, I wanted to take that crutch of “will they, won”t they off” the table. I wasn”t allowed to use it. It was never going to be the gas that goes in this engine. So we had to find other fuel sources really early.

The pilot was memorable for featuring as explicit sex as had ever been shown on basic cable. You didn”t really do that after that. Were you just trying to get that out of your system?

Stephen Falk: I was trying to put everything on the table. It wasn”t a sales tool at all. I think sex is treated in TV often just for titillation or it”s shown to be really kind of boring and gross like that HBO show that came and went, “Tell Me You Love Me.” It made me never want to have sex again. And I”m always vigilant about how people on TV don”t look like they”re putting it in the right place. So I just wanted to say, “Hey, all right, this is what we”re going to do. We”re going to be able to go here and we”re going to be able to get really romantic.” In other words I just wanted to have as big a palette as possible to say, “Boom, here audience whether you like it or not, we”re going to be tonally all over the place. We”re going to be comedically all over the place and we”re going to be sexually all over the place.” And then from there only use it when it”s necessary.

Where did Jimmy”s foot fetish come from?

Stephen Falk: I find foot fetishes incredibly fascinating. I just don”t see how that part of the body is particularly sexy to people. Desmin (Borges), who plays Edgar, was like, “I love that girl”s shoes” the other day. And I was like, “How do you even notice that?” I find it also incredibly interesting that in human sexuality that it could imprint on something like that. The idea of a child being on the floor and seeing their mother”s feet and somehow that being tied up in the development of their sexuality I just find fascinating. And I also think it”s really, really silly and funny for a man to be holding a woman”s foot and getting turned on. Gretchen, I”m trying to recall. I don”t think she has an equivalent sexual behavior. She loves vibrators. That”s not really a fetish. That”s just good old-fashioned mechanics.

I was talking to Kether (Donohue) last night for a little bit and she remembered reading the casting sheet where it said Lindsay was “Gretchen”s slightly chunky best friend.” And she asked herself, “Am I chunky? Maybe I am for TV?” In designing that character, what specifically were you looking to do?

Stephen Falk: In calling her “Fat Lindsay,” that was in the pilot and that was really just to show that Jimmy and Gretchen were kind of shitheads. It”s probably something I”m less proud of, and we”d never use it again because she lost weight. And actually it came down to her and a really, really thin girl, and so the idea of her being overweight was sort of out the window from the beginning. You need a best friend in a romcom, but I didn”t want it to be typical and I didn”t want them to get stuck in those roles of, “Hey man, so are you going to ask her out?” Which is what so many sidekicks are relegated to and it sticks in my craw because everyone”s a center of their own drama. No one is a sidekick.

And even at the smaller size she”s at now, she”s still not the size of like the usual skinny minnies you get on TV.

Stephen Falk: Oh and I”m incredibly – it sounds dickish to say I”m proud of that but I love the fact that our characters eat food and particularly that our female characters like to eat and they relish in it and it”s not really treated as a joke. It”s just they”re – what do you call it? – sensualists. They”re all consuming people. They love to consume things.

Jimmy”s fake mustache. What was its origin?

Stephen Falk: Fake mustaches are fucking funny. They”re just silly. Just to be a little more serious, I think it kind of fits in line with his complete lack of self-awareness that he thinks that a mustache somehow represents a disguise. Yeah and it was just funny and my fiance, who”s the makeup artist, found that mustache and it”s just so stupid. I love it.

It”s an attention-getting mustache.

Stephen Falk: It really is.

It”s not at all stealthy.

Stephen Falk: Exactly.

You come out of the Jenji Kohan school, and both “Weeds” And “Orange Is the New Black” have an affinity for blending comedy and drama together and moving quickly back and forth between the two. This is primarily comedy, but you”re certainly dealing with the ways in which all four of the characters are damaged and you take that seriously. How do you figure out when you can go there and how much you can go there in any given episode?

Stephen Falk: I think it”s an inherent barometer, probably because I don”t get a lot of guidance from FX in terms of what they expect, because they just trust their people to make the show that they want to. We have some really really serious episodes this season. It”s never going to be “Transparent.” We”re always going to have a lot of dumb, dumb comedy, because I”m just a fan of silly humor. I think being raised by Anglophiles who love British humor, I just love that. But in terms of how do I know when the limit is, just if it feels true and real. Also, I think I have a pretty good barometer, probably from Jenji, and just from having been raised by a television almost literally -no offense, parents – of what the limits are and what is entertaining.

Is that something Jenji ever explicitly talked about, or did she just have her own internal barometer and you just had to watch her to see what worked?

Stephen Falk: I think she probably did espouse that. One of her mantras on “Orange” the second season, which I worked on, and it was tacked to the wall: “More fucking, more fun.” And so yeah, she does like to espouse her philosophy. I do remember her very often just saying, “What”s fun about this? Why is this fun?” And I often hear that in my head a lot, like even if you”re doing something dramatic, why is it fun to watch? It has to be fun to watch. It has to be entertaining.

I understand you”re going to do another Sunday Funday episode.Is that going to become your version of “Bar Wars” where it happens every year?

Stephen Falk: Yeah Bar Wars or Slapsgiving. God, I hope not. I think the network loves it because it”s an easy to market thing and it happened to be in the zeitgeist. We just found it. It was probably our most balls out fun episode last season. And it”s just a really easy structure to make a very episodic episode; we were in 17 locations in that episode. So it would feel very episodic to just have the characters just do a bunch of fun shit one day. And this is a really easy structure to hang it on. I don”t know if we”re going to do it every year, but we certainly do it this year.

Beyond that, what do you feel comfortable teasing about what”s coming up this year?

Stephen Falk: It gets really dark. We have shit tons of great actors coming in like Justin Kirk and Mageina Tovah and Collette Wolfe as guest characters. Sam, Shitstain and Honeynutz have a rap feud internal and so there”s a lot of dis tracks that I got to write. So I wrote a lot of Drake and Meek Mill type dis tracks and we recorded them because they”re really good rappers those dudes. Lindsay sings again. We meet Paul”s girlfriend and Sunday Fun Day is a Halloween-themed episode.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at

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