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How ‘Casual’ Creator Zander Lehmann Got Real About His Dating Comedy (That’s More of A Drama)

How 'Casual' Creator Zander Lehmann Got Real About His Dating Comedy (That's More of A Drama)

The creator of Hulu’s new series about online dating has never actually done any online dating. But that’s not actually a big deal, because “Casual,” executive produced by Helen Estabrook and director Jason Reitman, is less about dating and more about the intimate relationship between siblings Alex (Tommy Dewey) and Valerie (Michaela Watkins), who move in together after a series of personal crises.

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Zander Lehmann spoke with Indiewire during Hulu’s time at this summer’s TCA Summer Press Tour about the development of the series, why Alex’s job as the founder of an online dating service didn’t end up being that important, plans for a second season and how essential Dewey and Watkins are to crafting the show’s comedy.

So, with “Casual,” there are lots of shows about dating, but I liked the twist about Alex running his own online dating service. Was that always a core part of the idea?

It’s funny that you ask that because it was actually going to be more of the idea. Obviously, we set it up in the first couple of episodes that this is his job and this is what he does, but we don’t spend that much time in his office or in the world of the online dating space. It just doesn’t make for great drama or comedy, so a lot of the stuff is the face-to-face world for him. That’s sort of where he comes from. I feel like we go away from that as the relationships develop in later episodes. I think the episodes get more dramatic and more fun and more twisty as we go on and it was hard to maintain that, living in the online dating space.

What intrigues me about that element of the concept is that it hangs a lantern on the question of how authentic and real online dating actually is.

That’s a huge part of the show. How are you presenting yourself online? What does it actually lead to? Can you find happiness through online dating? For our characters, the answer is generally “no.” They find little moments and little pieces, but what makes them happiest is being in the house with their family and going off and having relationships with real people. I think online dating and the internet is presented as this be-all end-all cure for our woes, and in the show, it ends up being more of a problem than anything else.

For you personally, what are your feelings about online dating?

I have never done it! Which is funny to say, writing a show which has a large component that happens to be about it. I have been in relationships that I’ve had in real life for so long, I’ve never had a chance to do it. I’m so curious, and I know so many people who have met their partners online, that who knows? In the next couple months, I could very well be on one of those sites doing it. I just haven’t had the chance to do it yet.

It’s such a weird thing to do. My experience is that it feels like you’re filling out a job application.

Totally! “This is me at my best. These are the properties I want you to know about.” For me, that makes me so uncomfortable. I feel like trying to sell myself in that way, I would not do a good job of it. I always worried I would never get matched with anyone because I’d be too reserved and not sell myself. Our characters don’t really have that problem, but it’s obviously something I’ve thought about.

Meanwhile, in “Casual,” you’ve got your guy saying, “I’m manipulating the profile.” He’s manipulating aspects of Valerie’s profile to match her up with ideal men.

Which isn’t the best thing to be doing, but I guess in the world of the show we’ve created, he has the power to do this. He’s just looking out for his sister, trying to give her the best dates possible. Hopefully, it’s forgivable in that way, but he straddles the line of morality, and that’s a good character.

I don’t think you see enough shows which are really built around a relationship between a brother and a sister. Was that always something that was really interesting to you?

Always. That’s where it came out of. I was always really close with my sister and I’m still really close with my sister. We lived together. We were roommates for three years. I set her up with my best friend. We’ve had a very close relationship forever and there’s this thing when you’re with your family, you’re not allowed to talk about your sex life. That is a taboo. Yet you’re allowed to talk about it with your friends, with strangers on the internet. I felt like that seemed kind of backwards. If I’m going to share things with my family, I want to share everything. I want to share intimate details, my concerns, all the quirks I have and things that I’m afraid of and I didn’t see that in real life. I thought it would be fun to write a show where our characters shared everything as a family and were open and casual about it.

What’s been the reaction to that so far?

Here’s the thing: We don’t do sensationalist TV. These are huge talking points and we’re pushing the edge of the envelope. I think it feels pretty authentic. Everyone who’s seen the show has related to it on some level. All of our crew and our cast reads the scripts, watches the episodes and says, “Oh my God, I have been in that situation. I’ve done that before.” To me, that was always what was most important. I think the comedy and the drama come second and third to the reality of it. We’re trying to paint a picture of a real world with real characters, and to me, if you’re lost in that world, we’ve done a good job.

In terms of the brother-sister relationship, I feel like the cliche is to say, “They’re the real love story.”

It’s tough. In a weird way, they do love each other. It’s a platonic love, but it’s an unhealthy love at times and that’s a relationship we haven’t really seen. There’s always the fear that you’re going to go into something that’s gross and icky that people don’t like, but these characters legitimately love each other and want the best for each other, they’re just sort of tied in this weird way and they can’t escape. This lead to great drama. “I want the best for my brother or my sister, but I can’t handle them being okay without me.” To me, that leads to the most fun stuff.

I love the fact that you have Michaela Watkins involved, someone we’ve seen do a ton of comedy but not a ton of drama.

This is what I love about the show: that what we’ve written is a pretty dramatic show, we just hired comedic actors to play it. They play it in a grounded way, but they add these little moments of comedy and levity that actually make the show feel more fun than the writing necessarily is. Michaela is amazing, Tommy is amazing. They’re both doing bits all day. That’s the sort of stuff that makes me look better as a writer.

Something that came up earlier– Hulu was pushing “Difficult People” to have a more grounded take on their material. Was that a similar note you got?

All the time. To their credit, they were great about this. They tossed out scripts that they felt were too broad, that they thought were not representative of our world, and at the end of the day, I think the show feels very grounded in the reality that we built. I just always love stuff that is grounded and feels real. Jason and Helen are the same way. At the end of the day, if it feels like it could be believable, like you could walk outside and experience it, it’s probably pretty good.

Were there any specific gags or anything else that you still wish would have made it in?

We don’t really write jokes or gags. We wrote it like a half-hour drama and let the actors and the characters exist in this place, and their chemistry together is a lot of what drives the humor. For me, the gag or the joke is the easy way out, but if you write something that’s authentic and true and feels real and have these characters perform it in a way that’s funny, that was always preferable to me. Any time I got a script with a joke in it, I would generally cut the joke out and then have the actors do their own version of the joke and that ended up being funnier. We have so much improv stuff that stayed in the cuts because they were just so funny.

In terms of working with Hulu, what’s your primary focus when delivering a cut? Especially in terms of time?

They have specifics that they want and they need us to get to a certain point: how long the episode is, what the tone of the episode is. Really from the start, Hulu let us do our own thing, which was amazing. They read the first two episodes before they bought the show, so they knew what it was and they said, “Make this show. Here’s 10 episodes, go do it.” From that point on, every note they gave was a conversation. “Do you like this? Do you understand this?” As a whole, their notes have been amazing and their cut notes, especially, have been really good. We’ve cut the episodes down to what I think are really good lengths, really good pacing and really good tones. Hulu definitely knows what they’re doing.

You said you approached it as a half-hour drama. Would you still call it a comedy?

It’s ended up being a lot funnier than what I thought it was going to be! A testament again, to our actors and directors and to everyone who was involved. We wanted to write a real story with real characters that you could believe and we just happened to cast really funny actors who have great chemistry and they make everything heightened and funny, but still stuck in this grounded world. I would call it a comedy. I think it’s a dramedy. I don’t know how to necessarily describe it, but I find the show funny so I guess it’s a comedy.

What is the thing you find funniest about it?

I could watch Tommy and Michaela go back and forth all day. They’re both comedians at heart, and they have delivery. When I write these scripts, I have an idea of the dialogue and how it should be performed, then they get in there and they start doing it funnier and better than I could have imagined. Most of it is just those two actors taking what I think is good material and elevating it and making it funny and making it their own. That’s the stuff where I watch it again and think, “This is exactly what the show should be. It’s funny and it’s real and it’s true to those two people.”

Do you have an idea in mind, if you got a Season 2, about where you would take the show?

I do! We have pitched Hulu on our second season, and they seem to like it. It’s going to go in a place where the characters will intersect more. I think one of the things in Season 1 is, at times, they had their own storylines, but the best stuff is when they’re together. If we get a Season 2, which I hope we do, it will be a lot of our three core characters interacting together, sort of breathing in and out. That’s the funniest stuff and the most real: the stuff where we have our best actors doing their best work.

Do you have a sense of what metrics Hulu is looking at when they consider another season?

I have absolutely no idea. I don’t know how many people watch the show or how many people they expect to watch the show. I don’t know if they’ll even tell us. But they seem to like the quality of it. And that’s all I can really do.

“Casual” Season 1 premiered yesterday on Hulu.

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