Simon Rich makes you feel bad about yourself, but it isn’t his fault. A former president of The Harvard Lampoon, the 30-year-old was the youngest writer ever hired at Saturday Night Live, where he worked for four seasons, and the author of four short story collections, two novels and countless magazine articles. To say that he’s used his time on Earth more efficiently than most people his age is an understatement.
An impressive creative force who’s as enviable as he is humble, Rich now has Man Seeking Woman, a surreal comedy about dating that premieres tonight on FXX.
Talking with SPINOFF ONLINE, Rich goes into detail about the creation of the series, the journey of protagonist Josh (played by Jay Baruchel), and what his ambitions are for the character. He also addresses how he deals with praise and criticism, his love of The Kids in the Hall, the show’s Japanese Penis Monster and practical effects, and writing Adolf Hitler with Bill Hader in mind.
Spinoff: You’re someone who gets praised a lot. I came across a headline from The Guardian that said “Simon Rich: The Funniest Man in America?” What do you do when you see something like that, or I recently saw that Patton Oswalt said you were, as a short story writer, the closest thing that we have now to Woody Allen in his heyday. Is that a confidence-builder, or is it noise? Nice-sounding noise, but something that you can’t really fixate or focus on?
Simon Rich: You know, I just feel incredibly lucky and grateful that I get to do this for a living in any capacity. You know, I grew up being a fan of comedy and worshipping shows like Kids in the Hall and The Simpsons, and the fact that I get to now collaborate with some of my heroes — it’s beyond thrilling.
That’s the positive side, but when you actually get criticized — especially working at Saturday Night Live … SNL has taken a lot of hits over the years, specifically the writing staff. And to be honest, I’ve delivered some of them myself.
[Laughs] I won’t hold it against you.
What value does criticism have to you as an artist when you’re working in comedy, which is so subjective? How do you use it?
Criticism and in particular, rejection, has been pretty intertwined with my writing career from the very beginning. I didn’t start-off writing for television. I started off as a magazine writer and all through college I wrote short stories and comedy pieces for magazines. And so, I spent, you know, the first few years of my career … I guess my career hadn’t really started because I was pretty much getting rejected by every magazine in the country. But my earliest memories of trying to be a professional writer are sending stories off to get rejected by magazines.
I’ve been having my stuff turned down since the age of 17. By the time I started to sell stories to places like MAD Magazine and The New Yorker towards the end of college, I’d been rejected hundreds of times. So it really just helped me build some calluses and take it a little less personally and kind of not let it get me down.
Obviously, doing a television show comes with the risk that someone is going to control whether you tell a full story. You don’t have that when you’re writing a book — you can start a story and end a story — with a movie, or even on SNL. You get to finish your story. So that’s the downside, what’s the upside for you? Why tell this story again, in this way on TV?
You have so many incredible weapons when making a television show, especially when you’re making it for a network like FXX. The amount of creative freedom you have is incredible. I haven’t had this much creative leeway in my entire life outside of the pages of a book or a magazine. There’s so many advantages to writing for the screen over writing prose. The biggest one being access to incredibly talented actors like Jay [Baruchel]. The amount of heavy lifting that he does is incredible. You know, so many scenes work only because of his ability to humanize and ground them.
You also have access to incredible directors which heighten the material, and then you get to use music and monsters and special effects. So as a writer and as a producer, you just get to have so many extra tools in your tool box. So in some ways, it’s a lot more freeing to write for the screen. Of course, I’ll always love writing stories and novels and there are certain built in advantages — like you said — to writing them.
You get to control how many pages you want something to be and you get to go inside character’s minds and write about their thoughts. There’s obviously certain incredible advantages to writing prose, but writing for the screen is pretty amazing too in its own way.
Is Josh’s struggle to pull away from his relationship with Maggie meant to be a lasting part of the show, or are we going to see that relationship evolve over time?
That’s a tough question because it’s hard to kind of reveal without any spoilers. But yeah, the character of Maggie has obviously had an incredibly powerful role in shaping Josh’s self-perception, and she’ll continue to influence his decision making for the whole season.
Beyond just the first season — because I imagine that you want to make this for more than just one season — is there a way to pivot from a single guy seeking love to someone who is in a relationship down the road? Or are you dedicated to keeping this about the pursuit of love rather than the realization of it?
That’s a good question. That’s definitely the goal — to get to a point with our character that he wades into those sort of deeper relationship waters. Season 1 is very much about trying to get over his ex and meet somebody new, and the character is kind of taking baby steps into the world of dating when we start. But yeah, there’s no reason down the road why we can’t take it all the way to, you know, wedding altar.
Would you want to go beyond a wedding altar? Would you want to see how that is … that’s kind of the undiscovered country for a TV show. To take a single character, introduce him to a new character, and then actually see that relationship and play it out on screen. Is that a challenge you’d want to take on?
I think like all dating sitcoms, we have so much material to mine from singledom before we go down that path, you know? So as the showrunner, that’s really in the back of my mind. We’d be extremely fortunate to get enough seasons to justify a kind of move like that. For now, we still have so many episodes we want to do about dating, so it’ll be awhile until we look down that road probably.
I feel like a mom pushing him to marriage. Like, “What are your plans? What about babies?”
[Laughs] That would be great! I mean, some of my favorite sitcoms in the world are marriage shows. I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, The Dick Van Dyke Show — some of my favorite sitcoms are about being married. But obviously the character of Josh has a lot more mistakes to make before he smashes that glass at his Jewish wedding.
Can you talk about the value of practical effects when you’re trying to sell the more surreal elements and characters on the show?
Yeah. For starters, it’s one dude. It’s this guy Paul Jones, who is just a genius. He’s a Toronto-based creature maker, and we just won the lottery. We knew we were going to be filming up there before we hired him and we are … I’m just unbelievably grateful and thankful that I found this guy because he’s basically like another member of the cast. You know, he’s responsible for creating the troll, for creating our sex alien, for creating Bill’s Hitler makeup. He brings so much creativity and skill to the show, and so, I’m really lucky to have him on board. Paul Jones.
As odd as it is to say, did you write funny Adolf Hitler for the show with Bill (Hader) in mind?
[Laughs] Yeah, from the very beginning I have to say. Even when I was writing the short story, in the back of my mind, I was always like, “If I ever adapt this, Bill would probably nail it.”
But yeah, he was first on my list for that part and nobody was a close second.
What can you tell me about — I haven’t seen this part yet but I read an interview that Eric Andre did, and everyone is apparently talking about the Japanese Dick Monster.
What is the Japanese Dick Monster?
The Japanese Dick Monster, Japanese Penis Monster. He’s an octo-portal creature. He’s from a different dimension and he travels through space and time searching for orifices for his many penises.
[Laughs] And why is Josh lucky enough to come into contact with him?
I’m gonna keep that under wraps, but suffice it to say, they both want the same thing.
What were you looking for when you built the writing staff?
It was finding people who were both imaginative enough to come up with rock-solid, bold, original, absurdist premises, but also had enough writing savvy to craft three dimensional characters and write realistic dialogue.
So it’s kind of like, two things: You needed people who were able to write scenes with major realism but also be able to come up with something like a Japanese Penis Monster. So it was really hard to find people who could do both and I read through hundreds of packets. It took me like two months to find my staff but I found them and they were phenomenal.
Ian Maxtone-Graham, from The Simpsons — one of my heroes. Really fortunate that he agreed to work on my show. Robert Padnick from The Office. This writer named Sofia Alvarez, who is incredibly talented — probably the best dialogue writer of all of us. And this brilliant Onion guy named Dan Mirk. And that was it; that was the group. And they were unbelievable. Writing with them in the room this summer was the creative highlight of my life. It was unbelievable. I just feel so lucky that I got to write with them.
Eric Andre did an interview where he said that he auditioned for Mike and for Josh. What was it that made the pieces come together for Jay to play Josh and Eric to play Mike?
Jay was always the dream. He was always the person that I thought would be perfect for the part, but he just wasn’t available. So we were looking at a bunch of Plan Bs. And also Eric Andre, I always thought would be incredible for the more confident best friend. And then when Jay became available, everything really fell into place.
We didn’t get to see Jay and Eric read side by side until the first table read and as soon as I saw them together, I just had this huge sigh of relief because I knew that the show really had a shot at working.
Yeah, their chemistry is just fantastic.
And Mia is incredible as Maggie. And Brit is phenomenal. Brit and Jay are so shockingly believable as brother and sister — they even look alike.
And Mark McKinney was a great surprise.
Isn’t that cool!? I mean, you know, for me growing up as an obsessive Kids in the Hall nerd … I still can’t believe I got to write lines for Mark McKinney. Even shooting in Toronto. I’m such an obsessive Kids in the Hall fan, just walking around various neighborhoods I would recognize locations. “Oh, Season 2 from Kids in the Hall,” you know? Like, “Wow, Buddy’s bar is around the corner!” I was just excited to be around Mark and hear stories from his Kids in the Hall days.
Man Seeking Woman premieres tonight at 10:30 ET/PT on FXX.
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