FXX’s unique romantic comedy “Man Seeking Woman” explores the dating life of Josh (Jay Baruchel), a young man struggling to find love under heightened circumstances — like, you know, being set up on a blind date with a monster, or finding out his ex-girlfriend is in a relationship with Adolf Hitler. It’s all (emotionally) ripped from the life of creator Simon Rich, who achieved intense professional success — including several published books and years of writing for “Saturday Night Live” and Pixar — before turning 30, but floundered in his 20s in the quest for romantic happiness. So at the TCA winter press tour, Indiewire sat down with Rich to discuss what makes “Man Seeking Woman” more than just another story about how hard it is for a straight white guy to find love.
I wanted to start off by talking to about your concept of the romantic comedy, because what struck me about “Man Seeking Woman” is how much it’s playing with the concept. How did you originally come at the concept of doing something in that genre?
In my early 20s, in the first couple books that I wrote, I was really interested in high-stakes premises. I would write a lot about the apocalypse, or human extinction, things like that. By my mid-20s, the only high-stakes subject on my mind was dating. [laughs] I would try to write in a realistic style, but the stories would come across as incredibly generic and dull because that’s what my dating experiences were, generic and dull. I couldn’t figure out what was going on because what I was experiencing felt extremely visceral and high-stakes and life or death.
And it finally hit me that I should stop writing about dating the way it happened and start writing about it the way it feels. And the first story I wrote was about a guy who finds out that his ex-girlfriend is dating Hitler and nobody else seems to care. From that, I kept going in that vein until I had written “The Last Girlfriend on Earth” and adapted it. And that’s kind of the genesis of the project.
When you say you write about the way it feels it’s happening, is that reliant upon taking it to that higher note?
Yeah, that’s basically our strategy with the show, is to take a very basic, elemental, human experience like loving someone who doesn’t love you back, or missing someone who dumped you, and hopefully dramatizing it in a way that hopefully gets across just how life and death it feels.
This is your first experience as a showrunner. What’s been the biggest thing that’s caught you off guard?
In so many ways I’m learning on the job. The production side of it is incredibly exciting but also daunting. We have a lot of monsters on our show. We have a lot of special effects. In Episode 7, our characters go on a destination wedding to hell. [laughs]
In the writer’s room we sometimes pushed it a little far, and then you get to the shooting and you think, “Oh man, this is gonna be difficult to pull off. I think most of the learning I did was on set. I had had a lot of experience in writers’ rooms, but I had never been on a shoot this ambitious before. Luckily I had a great team around. Most of the credit goes to this guy Paul Jones, who is this Toronto-based creature manufacturer who is responsible for Bill’s Hitler makeup and Gorbachaka — Tinacka, our Japanese penis monster… He really bailed us out week after week. He gave us these creatures quickly and with amazing expertise.
Was there anything that you had to pull back on, or didn’t do that you wanted to?
I would say that we pulled it all off but just barely. We pulled it all off, but with a lot of long nights and packed weekends.
In terms of the writing?
No, the writing went off like clockwork because we had such a great staff. Ian Maxtone-Graham from “The Simpsons,” and Rob Padnick from “The Office.” Sofia Alvarez, this great New York playwright, and Dan Mirk from The Onion. That was the most fun part of the job, getting to write with them all.
So there was one woman on staff. I’m curious because it is very much from a guy’s point of view.
Right, at least initially. Obviously, it’s called “Man Seeking Woman,” and initially it’s centered on Josh’s experiences in the world. As the season progresses you find that it’s a little less Josh-centric and a little less male-centric. Without giving too much away, I think the audience will be surprised by just how much females enter the show.
What was the inspiration behind moving toward that place?
Obviously, when the show starts it’s incredible myopic. It’s 100 percent focused on Josh’s emotions. But we thought it would be more fun and more honest to show a little perspective and remind the viewer that Josh is ultimately just one person on this Earth and there are a million other points of view. We wanted to emphasize that later in the season.
Did you find it difficult to sell this as a show that’s about, you know, another straight white guy who’s having a hard time finding love?
Well, that’s one of the things we’re trying to satirize on our show, especially in later episodes where we really hit that hard. But yeah, for all of Josh’s complaining, for all of Josh’s misery, he really has nothing to complain about. He takes a lot of the good things in his life for granted, and he lives a life of comparative ease compared to most people on this earth, and that’s a lesson that Josh will ultimately learn. But he’ll learn it the hard way.
The show is based on your book, at least emotionally. How close do you feel to the character of Josh at this point?
Pretty far away, because it’s based on stuff I experienced so long ago. I wrote the stories when I was in my mid-20s, about some things that happened to me in my early 20s. Even though I don’t have any raw wounds, I can still put myself back in that place. When I’m on set I can still feel the emotion that triggered that scene in the first place. It’s super-autobiographical, but it’s not just based on my life. It’s based on the lives of other writers on staff, and in some cases on the lives of our stars or our director. So it’s a personal show for all of us, not just me.
So when you say you feel far away from Josh, is it just because of the time that’s passed?
Yeah, I connect with the character and I hope the viewers do, too, but I personally feel like I no longer have a lot in common with that guy. Hopefully. [laughs] Hopefully I don’t have a lot in common with our hero, because he is deeply flawed.
We could be having this conversation in five years and you’d be like, “Oh, God!”
[laughs] Oh yeah, that was me. Yeah, hopefully I’m not as helpless as Josh. He’s a very insecure character. He doesn’t have a good sense of self. He is completely intimidated by his smarter, more successful older sister. He is completely intimidated by his chauvinistic friends. He needs to learn how to grow out of it, and that’s what the show’s about.
In terms of casting, how do you go about finding someone that could essentially play yourself, but younger?
The hope was always to create a character that everyone could relate to and I think that with Jay, we really hit the jackpot. He’s extremely funny, but a brilliant actor, and has an ability to play in any scene no matter how insane the premise is. And he’s completely believable whether he’s opposite a human or a monster. And I think the rest of the cast are phenomenal as well. The show starts out obviously Josh-centric — it is Jay’s show after all — but by the end of the season I think people will be amazed by how versatile Britt, Maya and Eric are as well.
Yeah, Eric [Andre] was such an interesting choice. When you cast him, what from his other work made you think he’d be great for this part?
I’m a huge fan of “The Eric Andre Show,” and I’m just a fan of how brave and audacious his comedy is. But also having met with him and we talked about comedy and our favorite shows and I could tell that he was smart and a great writer. We had the same comedy nerd obsessions. We both love “Ren and Stimpy.” We’re both “Simpsons” fanatics. We both love “Kids in the Hall,” and I just knew this would be somebody who would help us create a great show.
How much of the show came from him pushing?
Oh, a ton. Eric and Jay’s chemistry is a huge part of the show and a lot of their lines are improvised, and they’re really in on the ground floor. At read throughs, they’ll throw things out and we’ll sometimes incorporate them. The whole cast is super smart.
Is it sometimes intimidating to have a cast as smart as you are?
Oh my gosh, no. It’s a miracle. It’s less work for me to do. This is the main thing I got going right now, and it’s thrilling because I have such a belief in my writing staff. Running a writer’s room where you love all the writers is like typing with 10 hands. It’s a miraculous experience, and I’m overjoyed I get to do it.