“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is an odd TV series. A comedy with dramatic elements, it’s a musical that expresses the feelings of its lead character, Rebecca Bunch (YouTube star Rachel Bloom), via original songs. The ratings aren’t amazing and the show is an Emmy longshot, but people are finding it, and the fans are passionate. It’s unlike anything you’ve seen before; the question is, how many Emmy voters will see it.
At a recent FYC Emmy event, Bloom bounded out in bra and Spanx to perform an opening number and then returned dressed for an informative Q & A panel. The audience, packed with fans, whooped and hollered; everyone on stage enjoyed playing to the room. That’s the feeling you get from the CW show itself: as hard as it is to pull off, everyone is having a blast.
So how did this crazy show come about? While it sprang from the mind of Bloom, who is essential to the identity of her heroine and her songs, the show relies on A-list Hollywood screenwriter-turned-showrunner Aline Brosh McKenna (“The Devil Wears Prada,” “27 Dresses,” “We Bought a Zoo”) to wrangle it into submission every week.
McKenna grew up in the suburbs of Fort Lee, New Jersey, the child of well-traveled older parents, a French midwife mother and an Israeli-American father. She learned French, but spoke English around the house. “I had a multicultural background,” McKenna said. “They’re both from other cultures, so American culture was confusing to them. A lot of stuff they don’t understand, like packing a baguette and a hunk of cheese for lunch. I had to learn to decode the culture for them. I was observant. ‘This is what to do. You don’t bring potatoes a gratin to a gymnastics dinner, you buy lasagna.’ I had to learn to translate. I always had the feeling I was a little on the outside, which is common to many writers.”
Those observational skills have served McKenna well. When David Frankel was searching for the right writer to adapt bestseller “The Devil Wears Prada,” he picked McKenna because she seemed able to identify with the brainy young assistant (eventually played by Anne Hathaway) at a top fashion magazine not unlike Vogue. That script not only lured Meryl Streep, but the movie scored two Oscar nominations.
While McKenna worked in television at the start of her career (“All-American Girl”), she has been enjoying her movie assignments, from “Cinderella” and “Annie” to the upcoming “Cruella,” for which she had written a draft after Kelly Marcel, but left the movie when “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” was picked up. McKenna wasn’t planning to get back to television, because she knows “the workload it entails,” she said, “and so had been hesitant about it. But when I met Rachel, I thought she was so terrific, that I wanted to help her write something. It was a process of fumbling, tumbling into the thing as it became more and more wonderful. We were quickly writing together. I was thinking we’d get someone else to run the show once we made the pilot. But I was so in love with it, working with Rachel, that by the time it was a series, I was so invested in it, that I threw myself into running the show.”
Admittedly, the screenwriter role is “not indispensable to the way movies are made,” said McKenna. “They make them often without the writer, which is still amazing to me. I think not having a story person on movies is a crazy thing. But in TV that’s unthinkable. The writer is the machine, is the foundation of the creative stuff, which has been interesting, after all these years of screenwriting and being on sets. It was perfect preparation to be close to the decisions, but that’s different from having the reins.”
Greg Gayne/The CW
Having generated the show with Bloom, McKenna took the helm: “It was always what I was going to do if it worked for me and if it was set up in a way that was going to be productive and best for the show. My only hesitation was the time commitment. I knew what that entailed, but creatively the ideas flow from Rachel and I, and I felt prepared for that. It’s been fun.”
McKenna’s learning curve was “to manage the time stuff,” she said. “A huge part at the beginning of the process was how to run the writers room and the set. Who would cover set, cover post? I had to be in the right place at the right time. I was figuring out where I was most needed and could make the best contribution.”
With a family, McKenna had to find a balance in her life: “There’s a limited amount of time during the day, as we are all trying to have lives. It’s good to have a life to be a writer, it makes you a good writer. And learning to balance the responsibilities of the show with the life stuff got better as the show went on.”
The final results on “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” are a mix of Bloom and McKenna’s voices. “It’s a joint endeavor,” said McKenna. “We developed a style of storytelling together that is specific to the show. When we started she and I had been working together for so long that we became the show, we developed twin speak, talking in half-sentences and grunts. We developed an aesthetic over time. We have had to learn how to translate it to other people.”
The songs usually start with Bloom, who collaborates with a team of songwriters. “Every song is different in the way that it is made,” said McKenna. “Sometimes she’s the first one out, to sing into her iPhone and send it to Adam [Schlesinger, Executive Music Producer]. She’ll talk to Adam and he’ll write a version. Sometimes the three of us sit down together. There’s every combination, but it’s consistent with the aesthetic we’ve developed which is based on a lot of the music that Rachel was doing before. The songs are character-based and emanate from the show and the storytelling.” Just because some schtick is funny doesn’t mean it winds up in the final mix. “The songs are like eggs that have to fit into the overall comedic voice of the show.”
McKenna has never been a student of television the way she has been with films. So with the “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” scripts she has just “gone where it leads me. I’m a long-form writer. I don’t know how to write unless know the end—these are like hour-long movies where I know the beginning, middle and end. I know how to think of stories. Comedies don’t do that, they mine situations and characters. I’m not familiar with that format, I didn’t write dramedies. My writers know we don’t follow any prescribed format. We go to what feels right for the story, and consequently no two shows are the same.”
If McKenna is critical of television, it’s that “a lot of sitcoms are designed to spit out copies of themselves,” she said. “I love a show that can do that, that is so well-constructed that they can make wonderful variations on a theme. That’s not something I’m very good at. When I did TV the first time, it wasn’t successful. I don’t know how to do stories that reboot every week. We see this show as Rebecca Bunch’s evolution, a progression. We want to change dynamics and veer off and try different things. We’re lucky to have a network that lets us do that, to zig and zag. They’ve been supportive.”
McKenna likes to tell Bloom: “‘This is our chance to do it the way we want it.’ We do what makes us laugh. We’re at interestingly different points in our life, but we’re similar. When we write we improve and talk a ton, and we’ve been lucky that Showtime and the CW have encouraged us to be us, to do what we set out to do. It’s evolved over time.”
Another different approach for television is that McKenna and Bloom wanted Rebecca Bunch “to look like a normal girl. We want her to look nice, but she’s living in Middle America, not wearing recognizable expensive labels, that’s distracting. We see someone wearing something we know costs $900 from Neiman’s, she wouldn’t have that. We try not to be too aspirational. She’s living in a suburb in West Covina, not tricking out her house and wardrobe. Rachel has no vanity, zero. She’s happy to put herself out there, whatever, wear heavy boots — I’m the person who wants to find a pretty dress here or there. Rachel cares about the true and the funny and has no vanity!”