When "You’re the Worst" premieres tonight on FX, it’ll introduce viewers to an area of Los Angeles that’s gone relatively unexplored in television — the sleepy east side neighborhood of Silver Lake — as well as Jimmy (Chris Geere) and Gretchen (Ava Cash), a new couple whose toxic personalities might make them a perfect match.
Creator Stephen Falk ("Weeds," "Orange is the New Black") sold the show as a "dirty, cabley, Britishy version of ‘Mad About You.’" Below, he talks to Indiewire about why he changed his leading man from American to British, not shying away from graphic sexual content and whether "unlikeable" characters are actually unlikeable.
Let’s start off with the origin story of the show, from your perspective. Was this something you’d had as a spec or was it something that you just had the opportunity to pitch?
Yeah, I just pitched it. I did a short run never-aired series for NBC a couple of seasons ago in New York, "Next Caller," and came back to LA obviously kind of bummed out, but also had a bad taste in my mouth and wanted to make sure the next thing I did was really 100 percent hard and personal. So, first and foremost, I wanted to do something that was 100 percent passion project. So we pitched it and went from there.
Was Chris Geere someone you had in mind from the beginning, or was he someone you found in casting?
Yeah, no, I didn’t know the guy existed. I wrote [the character] as an American. And then, I really wasn’t finding the guy and casting is incredibly important since there was no way I was building with someone I didn’t know was the right guy. Luckily, after an exhaustive search, I got this tape from England and it was this tall, good-looking blond guy with a thick English accent, and I knew that I wrote an English character and I didn’t even know it.
What I realized is that an Englishman with a charming accent can get away with saying the worst shit. It sounds super charming, like Hugh Grant getting a blowjob and then going on Letterman the next night and everyone loves him again. You get an extra seven charisma points with an Englishman and so, yeah, we were terribly fortunate.
Watching the show, there’s the presence of LA as a character in the show, very specifically Silver Lake. Was there a specific reason you wanted to make the neighborhood that important within the context of the series?
I really just wanted to make a show that took place all within six blocks of my house. So, yeah, that was the main reason. No, that’s a secondary benefit. The main reason is that the best shows are the ones that distinctly have a place as a character. Even a show like "Cheers" in Boston or "Frasier" in Seattle — even those shows, even multi-cams, felt like they had a sense of place. I live in a very specific East Side of Los Angeles, and certainly an east side world that maybe thinks that it’s a lot cooler than it is. That’s the sort of world we live in and poke fun at as well.
Because Los Angeles itself is such an overly filmed city, how do you communicate that sense of neighborhood?
It’s not really super challenging from a production standpoint, in that we’re actually shooting everything on location on the East Side on Los Angeles. So there’s no trickery. We’re just – I like a certain diner in Echo Park. We go to there. I like a certain bookstore in Silver Lake. We go to there. So it’s actually pretty easy. But shooting on location is a whole is whole rigmarole and certainly not having a set is not as relaxing and it really taxes the crew and the cast. But the authenticity that we can get is amazing.
Is it all location shooting? Is there nothing in studio?
Nope. Well, we have our office at the studio and we shoot a few pieces on the lot but we don’t have any sets built.
One of the most striking things for me was, because of the framework of being a comedy, how far you were able to go with a lot of the sexual content. Was that always something you wanted to try with this particular project?
Yeah, I grew up writing for Showtime [on "Weeds"], so I was lucky enough to get to do anything that I and the other writers wanted to do in terms of language and sexuality. I’ve written for all the networks — pilots and stuff like that – but I never had to make concessions.
I never set out to shock people because honestly, and I may sound like an asshole or naive, in my mind all we’re doing is filming a dating show, and that’s the beginning of a dating show. And, as the beginning of a youth dating show, sex is probably going to be right there the whole time. Really I’m just trying to show the weird dumb shit that we do behind closed doors in a honest, but more importantly entertaining way.
Right now you can turn on the TV and watch Hannibal make some guy feed his own face to a dog, and yet a scene about the intricacies of oral is somehow seen as more shocking and weird — not necessarily abhorrent or bad. I’m not moralizing about that. I like TV violence. I guess what I mean to say is, I didn’t really set out to make a sex show or be shocking. I just set out to make a romantic comedy and luckily on FX they’re bold enough to be a little bit more realistic and honest, even though I can’t show a nipple or say "fuck."
That was the thing that really stuck out about it, how frank it was. It’s about the reality of what it’s like when you’re naked with another person.
Yeah, I hope so. I certainly took a lot from my life. We’ve all been in the dating scene and weird stuff happens. Hopefully I get to reflect some of that through the specific lens of these two weirdos.
So going back to casting, how did you track down your female lead?
Aya Cash was known to the LA casting community. She’d been on "Traffic Light." She’d been on "Newsroom" last year. I met her a couple years ago on my NBC project, but she got cast in a Greg Daniels thing ["Friday Night Dinner"] that luckily did not go forward. After her "Newsroom" thing, she happened to be available and she came in and read for me, which was nice of her because she was at a point where she probably didn’t have to, but she really liked the role. And she was awesome. I had always really liked her and then she came in and it was fantastic.
FX maybe didn’t see it at first, so we convinced them — they, to their credit, took a second look, which a lot of networks wouldn’t do, and they loved her and realized that I was right and now they couldn’t be any more in love with her. It was a blast process and every day I film or edit, I think, "Oh My God, what if I had not gotten these two? It would have such a different and inferior show." But yeah, they did a chemistry read and as I think you can see from the pilot, it’s pretty awesome.
The premise really depends on them working as a couple.
Oh yeah, absolutely. Again, I would love to have an even longer conversation about casting because there are certain names that casting directors just love, but it doesn’t matter. Certainly Aya and Chris, and their co-stars Desmin and Kether – none of them are names.
But for me, the chemistry between the actors is the most important thing, whether they have any name recognition or not, and I know how that probably makes the network uncomfortable. It would make them more comfortable if they had name recognition, but again to FX’s credit (not to kiss their ass constantly), they did not care. So I was very lucky.
One thing I know is that when FX first started getting into comedy, with "It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia," what helped that show get on the air and stay on the air was the budget. They kept the budget really low and as a result, FX didn’t really mind giving it a chance. Are you guys in a similar position with this show?
I don’t know how our budget compares dollar to dollar to "It’s Always Sunny," but yeah, FX is – it can be frustrating at times. They have their budgetary limits that they feel comfortable with. They have formulas to determine budgets for different shows in different slots. So it’s not exactly the same as "It’s Always Sunny," and it certainly can be frustrating to not be able to get all the money that I want, but I also think that I’m perfectly comfortable with my budget. It’s a smart way to do business.
How many questions have you gotten about the unlikable character issue?
I have done this question a bit, but then I would be naive to say I don’t understand it. It brings up a larger point: I think the industry, this town, kind of tends to misuse likability. I think the most likable characters in literature, in film, in television history are sometimes some of the most loathsome. I would rather watch Al Swearengen do any modern soliloquy while getting a blowjob from a hooker than almost any other character on TV, yet no one would say that he’s a good person.
So, to just reject the question as I completely understand it, I think if your characters are coming from a place of emotional truth for them, if they’re operating under a system of rules that work for them, that have an inherent logic, even if it’s flawed to an outsider, I think that question become sort of moot, because ultimately all that matters is that you want to go on this journey with them.
I’m sure there are people who will watch my show and just think [the characters] are nasty or don’t like the way they talk to people or have a problem with the fact that they talk in the movie theater, which by the way I hate. I think people who talk the movie theater are awful people — yet I wrote a scene where my lead characters do that because it’s operating under their system of truth.
What’s your status with "Orange Is The New Black"? Are you on Season 3 at all?
No, I talk to Jenji [Kohan] and the writers and the actors to get gossip and hear what they’re doing from the sidelines. But no, the timing of this meant I couldn’t do Season 3, which was very sad. But if this doesn’t work, maybe I’ll go back for Season 4.
And at the very least, you’re up on the gossip.
Yeah, that’s all that matters really.
"You’re the Worst" airs Thursdays at 10:30 on FX.