Difficult Woman: A Conversation with Julie Klausner

by Stefania Marghitu

Just like Broad City depicts an unprecedented relationship between underemployed, post-grad twenty-something women, Amy Poehler’s latest producing venture, Difficult People, will portray a new spin on friends in their thirties whose lives turned out different than expected.

The premise behind Difficult People comes from Julie Klausner, who may be best known for her weekly podcast, “How Was Your Week?,” in which she’s interviewed with the likes of Julianne Moore, David Sedaris and Kathleen Hanna. She’s the author of two books, an Upright Citizens Brigade alumna, and has worked on TV series such as Mulaney and her friend Billy Eichner’s hilariously unorthodox game show Billy on the Street. In all of these mediums, Klausner’s style is a combination of the personal and the pop culture-infused, and she’s applied the same mixture in creating Difficult People, which stars her and Eichner. After pitching to various cable channels, USA showed interest in the series and paid for a pilot presentation. The team will soon submit their first episode to the network.

Klausner and I recently chatted on the phone about Difficult People, “How Was Your Week?,” feminism, perms, and her upcoming cabaret performances at Joe’s Pub, among other things.

How did you and Billy first come up with the premise for Difficult People, and how did Amy Poehler get involved?

About a year and a half ago, I took a lot of the ideas from my podcast monologue, and I used them as the plot points for what would be a script starring me and Billy. I wrote the script after asking Billy, “Would you be cool with doing a Curb Your Enthusiasm type show with me where we play ourselves, and we’re best friends?” and he said, “Absolutely.” I wrote a script with that as the premise, and I used a few of the stories I told on the podcast as points of departure. With Amy, we talked about what was interesting about my relationship with Billy, and what would be something interesting to show on TV that people hadn’t really seen before. At the heart of it, that we are really just two people that sort of love each other and kind of hate everybody else in the world.

How did you guys end up with USA? Were they pretty excited, pretty open? The network doesn’t have a history with comedy shows. Does it feel like they’re trying to expand more?

We pitched the premise of the show to a bunch of cable networks, and USA bought the script, and gave us money to make a pilot presentation. I think it’s a good example of a network that said they are looking to do more comedy, and they put their money where their mouth is. I know they did that with Playing House and with us. They’ve been excited and enthusiastic about our project since we came in and pitched it to them.

That’s really great that they were so open and not limiting.

If you told me a few years ago that this project would have landed with USA, I probably would have been surprised. I think the lesson is, especially for writers, that when you’re offered a job or looking for a job, write what you want for someone that really, really wants it. Don’t go into the situation and think, “Oh I wanna do this for this network” or, “I want to work here because it seems like a cool club to be a part of.” Your loyalty is needed more by your work more than it is by its benefactor. If somebody loves you, then you have to follow that, because it’s rare.

In addition to your podcast, you have a great background in comedy, theatre, you’ve written two books, you write for Vulture, and you’ve worked as a writer on other TV programs. What led you to keep pursuing TV?

I have always grown up with TV as sort of an additional family member, and I was absolutely obsessed with TV comedy growing up. I have a lot of really positive memories of watching The Monkees in my childhood home, of getting cable. I remember the first day I got cable, it was such a big deal. I watched You Can’t Do That on Television and MTV. I feel a lot of affection toward television as a medium.

Is comedy what made you obviously or maybe not so obviously want to do UCB?

I’ve always been super into comedy, and especially things that are a little theatrical — a little weird, I guess. I’ve always loved variety, sketch and standup. I was so excited whenever we got Comedy Central for the first time, and I went to a lot of comedy shows in college, and I never really knew how to get started. I thought, “I’m not sure if I should be doing stand up, if I should be doing sketch,” and when I graduated college, UCB had just come to town. It connected me to people I still work with today. It also introduced me to a collaborative way of working, and figuring out what I did well, and giving me space to fail and be silly — giving me space to learn from people that were just in my proximity in a way that they had never been in before. I strongly recommend taking classes at UCB for anyone who isn’t sure how to get started in comedy, or isn’t sure what exactly they want to do in comedy. It’s a great place. I consider it my alma mater.

You met Amy through UCB, and you have a lot of alumni on the podcast, so I really get this sense of support and camaraderie. It seems like a family and nurturing environment.

Yeah, Billy and I know each other from a couple of places. Both of us have done shows at UCB. But Billy was always kind of doing his own thing. He had a show at Ars Nova, he did a show at Joe’s Pub, he was making these videos that I saw and was really excited about. We had kind of been circling each other for about a year before he got Billy on the Street and when he got the show he called me and said, “Please write on it,” and I said “Absolutely.” We’ve been working together ever since.

Going back to developing the Difficult People with Billy and Amy: I’m just thinking about whether it’s Louis C.K. or Lena Dunham, critics and fans can have a fixation with differentiating, or not differentiating, between the TV character and the creator/ actor’s identity. Curb your Enthusiasm as an influence is really interesting when developing Difficult People, and Larry David has said that his onscreen self is very much an alter ego. He gets to say all the things he normally wouldn’t on life’s little injustices and absurdities he encounters every day. How much did you and Billy take from your own experiences and personalities?

A great deal of who we are in real life is in the show, and that was something that was really important to me. I couldn’t imagine writing it otherwise, if we weren’t true to who we are in real life. It was really important for me to have a specific reality in which the show is placed.

But it did give us liberty, exactly as Larry David said. I can’t put it any better than he did: you create this world where you do have the opportunity for your alter ego to say things you wish you could have said in real life. I’m terrible at confrontation. I’m terrible at being angry at someone and expressing that. I am really good at thinking about it later, realizing I was wrong and talking about it on my podcast with a distance from my antagonist. My writing process is similar in that I can take a situation in which somebody’s acting like a jerk, and my character can act accordingly. She is more confident in her worldview and in saying, “No! Fuck you!”

But there are also things about our characters that are not accurate from real life. I have a boyfriend in this show, and I don’t have a boyfriend in real life — well, he was sort of based on my ex. Billy and I both play less successful versions of who we are, we are the sort of people who would have never got a TV show in the world in which we live on the show. And we’re more frustrated, angry and bitter than we are in real life, but not by much.

I feel like how you describe your own personality, that introspective nature and the thoughtfulness that you bring into the podcast monologue is what people love so much about the show as well, because it’s so relatable.

Thank you, I really hope so. I love hearing that. That’s part of the show that feels most like me and it’s always nice to hear that people say that because to me it just sounds like, “I like you.”

And it got more personal since it started back in 2011. What made you want to make the monologues more personal?

It wasn’t a conscious decision! It was something that came as I just lived my life, and tried to be honest and entertaining in the monologue. My life got a little more personal than it had. I started out doing the podcast when I was in a pretty stable relationship with a guy I had been with for a long time. I wasn’t the happiest person in the world then, and as my life started to change in the service of speaking true to what my life was like, which was originally the intention of the show, to check in once a week, to see what was going on that particular week in my life — to use that as a point of departure for using experiences as an opportunity for storytelling, and ideally something truthful and funny. I had more personal stuff to talk about and deal with. And when I was talking about my breakup and when my cat died, that was what was going on my mind at the time, and I didn’t really want to talk about Shailene Woodley that week.

Your book was super personal, and the New York Times “Modern Love” essay before it, and maybe to some extent your performances with people coming up and talking to you after it. Was that interaction with your fans or people who love the show, was that something new or surprising?

Being personal is never something you should be 100 percent comfortable with, and if you are, you’re not completely sane. I think it’s always a tricky balance in terms of understanding what my podcast persona is and what my real life persona is. There are things that I talk about on the podcast that I would talk about to my close friend, but there are things I talk about with my close friend that I wouldn’t bring into the world of the podcast. I barely ever talk about my family, I tend to skip around certain details of my work life — not to be coy, but to keep healthy boundaries.

And for my book, I think that I have a lot of feelings about the personal nature of it, and what was going on when I put it out. I think I ultimately put something out that was really beautiful in the service of truth, and really well intentioned. I very much took solace in knowing that it reached women who needed it when they did, and when they do, still, to this day. But it wasn’t comfortable, and I still have a couple of regrets about a couple things I wrote about — things that at the time it made sense to do. Nothing’s perfect. Ultimately as long as you’re not lying, I think you’re not betraying what you’re doing. You could be betraying people in your life, but the work is there.

I think anyone who’s read your work or listens to your podcast knows your relationship with feminism. Everyone’s experience and exposure is different to it, whether they took a Women’s Studies class, read The Second Sex, listened to Riot grrrl, etc. What first drew you into feminism?

I honestly cannot remember how I started identifying myself as a feminist because it’s been something that I feel I have always been, like I’ve always been Jewish or I’ve always had red hair, or that I’ve always liked animals. That’s just who I am. That said, I remember going into the library as a freshman in high school. It was a new school for me, this high school with people I didn’t know. And I remember being overwhelmed and spending a lot of time at the library in the Literature section, and reading anything that looked feminist and interesting. I got very involved with that.

But as far as where it comes from, if I had to place it, it would probably be from a feeling of not belonging, not feeling appreciated, or not feeling that I fit in. And watching the girls around me — girls who were more popular or more agreeable or prettier — being more respected and having more social opportunities. It came from growing up a little weird, and not having a group of fellow weirdos I could connect to. I think a lot of that, from the outside looking in, was justified when I looked at it through a feminist lens. I really saw that there were ideas in the world that were upsetting: the notion that women exist in service to men, that women are there to cheer men on professionally and intellectually. It occurred to me that that wasn’t OK during my adolescence, in feminist terms. But like I said, it’s always been there.

If I’m talking about your show to friends or on social media, and I see the responses from people in my past, whether its my high school English teacher or a friend I worked with at a record label, it always feels that a connecting thing to your listeners is that they are feminists. I always link that to fellow listeners.

Thanks! I’m really lucky to have people that are attracted to the show that are not jerks. There’s also something in the personality of someone who would be attracted to a funny, sort of cranky, outspoken woman, that is inherently feminist.

There are people that don’t think women are funny, that they aren’t equal to men, and that’s something that they don’t consciously know or make a decision about. There’s a bias in people in their decisions on what kind of entertainment they choose, who to date, who to work with, what to do, and [you see a lot] when you see the company that they keep. I have to say I’m super grateful to have people in my life who like what I do, that are rooting me on when I call bullshit on things. Other people wouldn’t really see what I was getting so angry about.

A bit of a side question. When I was talking to my friend about interviewing you, she said she would have a lot of questions to ask you, but she thinks most of all she would ask if she should get a perm. Do you have any advice on that, now that it’s summer?

I do have advice. Don’t expect that it’s going to look like curling iron curl. They are going to be sort of frizzy and all over the place. It’s up to you to control the shape, and get a diffuser. You’re going to spend probably as much, if not more time, on your hair than you did when it was straight, you just have to spend it differently. Just go for it, also. Always change your hair, when in doubt. Always make your hair look fabulous.

No regrets on perms?

No regrets on hair! You could always get a gorgeous wig! There are so many wigs that one can buy, you could get one that has parts in them. You could wear pieces, everyone wears clip-ins now, everyone has extensions. As long as you have a lot of money.

How long do you see yourself doing “How Was Your Week?” and do you see it changing anytime in the future? You’ve mentioned the situation with tips, that it might not be commercial-free forever.

I plan to do it as long as it’s worth my while, and that is always an equation with a lot of variables to do with time and money and energy, and how else I’m expressing myself at the moment. Right now, it’s worth my time and energy. I would love to make money with the podcast, I would love to be able to support myself with the podcast, but I don’t think that’s realistic right now. I would love to keep doing it as long as my numbers grow, and they have been [growing] pretty consistently since I started. And that’s very encouraging and it’s also a hat tip to consistency, and the value of consistency in itself. I’ve never done anything for as long as I’ve done this show, and that feels great, that’s something I take pride in, or try to remember to take pride in when I feel shitty about myself.

If you had your own late night talk show, what would be your ideal format?

My ideal format is from Larry Sanders, who is not a real person. He is a character on the early 1990s television show, hosting the Larry Sanders Show, which is not a real show. I would have a monologue, a sidekick, and three guests. And I’d go home every night at 6 p.m., and I’d end up sleeping with a lot of the guests. That’s probably not very realistic, so I would just say that my dream talk show is the show that I’m doing every week. It’s just “The Julie Klausner Show”: I can talk about whatever the fuck I want. That is incredible freedom, to be able to spend a whole monologue talking about the Aladdin number from the Tony’s or an old movie that I recently rewatched and have a point of view about. That’s something that I take a lot of pleasure in. It’s just a question of making a living doing it, which is oddly enough not in heavy demand right now. But maybe that’ll change. Maybe one day there’ll be a show where people are dying for me to do Alice Cooper’s concert songs from 1975. But in the mean time, I’m still going to do it.

But something about pop culture would be good, something that’s as smart as The Daily Show is about pop culture. I haven’t seen anything like that — I think Billy’s show is the closest that comes to dealing with pop culture in a challenging way and with passion. A lot of pop culture stuff is either too snarky or too ingratiating. Or it takes pop culture the way people write about animals, too: it assume you’re dumb because you care about celebrities. In a lot of cases, that’s true. I mean, I don’t read US Magazine. But I love it when smart people get together and talk about The Real Housewives or a Broadway show or Shailene Woodley, or, “Did you hear what that person said that, that’s hilarious, oh, what a crazy weirdo” — that’s my bread and butter.

Lastly but not leastly, you have a week’s worth of Joe’s Pub shows coming up starting June 23 and running through the 27th. Any sneak peaks for what NYC attendees and visitors can expect?

I’ve done this show for about a year now in a couple of different incarnations. It’s cabaret in so far as it’s me singing songs and talking, and making jokes on stage. But I’m not doing any show tunes this time around. It’s going to be mostly all pop and rock stuff, mostly from the ’60s and ’70s. The nice thing about my Joe’s Pub show is that it gives me an opportunity to say things I normally wouldn’t say in recorded form, which means on the podcast or on Twitter. It’s a more intimate room so I do feel safer to be a little bit meaner, more honest, bitchier, in the service of making the show as memorable as it can be. I am very excited. I have a lot of costume changes, and I’m going to sing some Alice Cooper, some Paul Williams, Stephen Bishop, Nancy Sinatra. It’ll be an experience.

Stefania Marghitu is a PhD student studying television history and industry, with an emphasis on showrunners and the role of feminism in the medium. You can follow her on Twitter @DearStefania.