Interview: Stephen Falk On Toxic People, Love Stories & Season 4 Of 'You're The Worst'
Despite revolving around narcissistic human beings who you probably would not want to know in real life (unless you do already know them), You're The Worst has always worn its heart on its sleeve. The not-so-big secret about FXX's anti-rom-com, which kicks off its fourth season on Wednesday September 6th, is that it's an unabashedly "gooey" romantic comedy, as creator Stephen Falk puts it. The show might heighten its characters' nastiness, but that's just because it's also smuggling in their incredibly vulnerable emotions.
After embracing a clinical depression storyline in season two, You're The Worst tackled bereavement and PTSD last season, with the Edgar-centric episode "Twenty-Two" a big highlight. The show risked making Gretchen and Jimmy almost too repulsive in the early episodes, but they were able to bring it all back together for the spectacular season finale...which of course ended with a heartbreaking cliffhanger in which Jimmy proposed to Gretchen, then ditched her on a mountain.
The new season will focus on the breakup of the central couple, and how it reverberates into everything Gretchen, Jimmy, Edgar and Lindsay do. We chatted with Falk in late August, as he was in the midst of working on the final episodes of the season, and discussed whether Gretchen and Jimmy are toxic people, the ramifications of extreme ghosting, balancing comedy and pathos, the origins of Vernon and the universality of love stories.
(Note: some very minor spoilers for tonight's premiere)
How far into the season are you guys right now? We are in the crucible right now. I would say we have three episodes left to shoot, so we've shot about ten. We're getting into crunch time. It's pretty nasty for me because I'm sort of in the middle of editing and I'm finishing writing the finale and doing all this shit, but I see the light at the end of the tunnel, basically.
Considering you're still in the thick of working on the season, is it hard to reflect back on the larger story of the season right now? Are you able to evaluate how you feel about the season as a whole? A little bit, but I would probably change the verb, and not reflect but rather muse. And I've been talking about this since we started writing in January, so if by now I haven't figured out what the season is, I probably made a mistake somewhere along the way.
I've recommended the show to a lot of people, and one of the things that always comes up when I'm talking about it is this delicate mix between the comedy and the darkness of the personalities of a lot of the characters. How do you determine the balance between the comedy and the pathos to make sure it doesn't tip too far over one way? I wish I had a better answer than it just comes down to an internal calibration. I think it's just an ingrained meter that helps me calibrate that. It's this internal sense that now is the right time for a joke on the page, or now is the right time for a lighter theme or a lighter storyline for this character who has had so much dark this season.
It's really just the feel at this point, and I would say it's something that's completely internal and only I really know. But then you look at something like Veep, which got taken over by a different showrunner last season, and that meter seems to have been handed off flawlessly and is still working. While I want to say it's just me who can do the technique, I think we've set up the show and edit enough that it becomes apparent when things need to quiet down, when things need to get serious, or when things need to be a little funnier.
The premiere seemed to me about as dark as the show has gone before. [Laughs] I don't necessarily think the first half with Jimmy is dark. It's lonely and it's weird, but you're watching someone who is not really capable of a lot of honest reflection doing his version of 50 percent penance and 50 percent pure childish hiding out because he did a bad thing.
We've, on purpose, tonally made it very different from the show because I think he is very much not in his world, so to surround him with a bunch of wise-cracking, self-involved people probably would have just felt wrong, like some hollow echo of the show itself. I think there's a lot of funny stuff in the second half, in the Gretchen half, but you're also witnessing the aftermath of a huge betrayal, so she was going to be in a pretty dark place.
Not to be cutesy, but when Jimmy ditched Gretchen at the end of season three after he proposed, would that be considered extreme ghosting? [Laughs] Yeah, oh god, I think so. He ghosted her so hard he turned off his phone, and he hasn't turned it on. In my mind, he got about a mile off of that hill and decided not to go home and she probably started calling or texting and he turned off his phone and didn't turn it on until we see [in the first episode]. I think ghosting so hard you don't even have the ability to ignore the messages because you're simply not seeing them, that's pretty hardcore.
Had you always planned on breaking them up at a certain point, following a traditional rom-com trope? I think our show was created with the idea that we're following the templates of a traditional rom-com. Romantic comedies follow a relationship, it has built-in little sign posts of the meet-cute, then the first kiss, the first sex scene and moving in and saying I love you, all those things. But along with that, there's always a point where after boy gets girl, the next thing is boy loses girl. So yeah, I think it's baked into the recipe.
I also think about the theme song of the show, which ends with that line, "I'm going to leave you anyway." That always seemed like a promise that it was going to happen eventually. Yeah, there's something I quite love about that, and I love that people pick up on it, that we're telling you before the show even starts, "Hey, this may not go great."
My take on the end of the third season was that Jimmy had sort of an instinctual reaction to the proposal, and that he didn't necessarily think through what he was doing afterwards. Is this season going to be dealing with that and looking at why he reacted like that? Sort of, but I think moreover we're exploring the aftermath and moving forward rather than analyzing, dissecting [that moment]. There certainly is a certain amount of that, and that will play throughout the season, but it's not like a post-mortem on why he did what he did, because it's going to be very clear. But whatever logical reason he lays out, logic doesn't necessarily have any ruling over emotion. We're talking about three months now of the process of what betrayal does to a person when it's not addressed.
Would you say the impact of the breakup serves as the spine of the season, similarly to how you dealt with Gretchen's depression in season two and the death of a parent in season three? Short answer, yes, absolutely. We tell a lot of story, but this is the year of Jimmy and Gretchen reconciling or avoiding or moving past or moving away from what happened.
Do you view Jimmy and Gretchen as toxic people? Probably. When you're writing even a straight traditional villain, which I don't consider these characters, you have to inhabit them. You have to write from their point of view, and you have to be able to make an impassioned argument why their behavior makes sense and why it's necessary. I have to be able to write a perfectly reasoned monologue from Jimmy's point of view of why he drove away. I have to then also do 180 degrees and write a monologue for Gretchen about why that was the biggest chicken shit move in history.
You have to not see them as outside, but at the same time, the rational part of me is fully aware that, and I write it like this on purpose, they do things that I find reprehensible. Even just little things like littering or talking in a movie theater are behaviors that I would not tolerate in someone I loved. I would not spend time with someone like that. I remember going out on a date and the girl was talking through the entire movie, and I just said, "Well, this is just not going to ever happen again. I'm not going to see this girl again."
I'm a very rules-abiding, polite individual, so I suppose I get a lot of my vicarious rudeness out through writing them. I think toxic is a good way to put it, I would not argue with that.
Considering their toxic behavior, especially, say, with the way they treated Edgar last season, are you ever concerned that they have become too awful, or that you've made them too extreme? Sure, yeah. I think though, I would be advocating for a character because I feel bad for them, rather than because I feel like it's artistically correct or I feel like it's accurate human behavior. In other words, if I put a quantitative judgment on the number of times Jimmy can be dismissive of Edgar, I would not be writing from the truth of the character, rather I'd be writing from me trying to calibrate an audience's reaction or just feeling really bad for a person who doesn't actually exist, and I think that would probably be artistically suspect and a bit illogical.
Are there any storylines in particular that you're excited about this season? We carry a lot of things through. I think we're getting to delve into Gretchen's family origin a little bit more, which we got to in the first season, but we haven't really gone back there, and I'm excited about that, because I think sort of filling in back origin story of non-superheroes is maybe as illuminating as seeing why Batman does what he does. Edgar and Lindsay are becoming actual adults this season, and I find watching them try to navigate the world as real people interesting and gratifying.
I think that this season is interesting watching Jimmy and Gretchen at real odds. I think we made an extreme move at the end of last season, and something that the writers sort of live by is following through on what we do, and I think you could say that we definitely follow through on Jimmy walking out on her last season.
Do you think of yourself as a romantic? Absolutely. I think the show is very romantic. I don't think of the show as any different than any mid-'80s, '90s rom-com. It's a big, gooey show about how the worst part of all of us still yearns for and deserves love, and it's just told through the lens of some people who navigate the world as self-interested, self-defeating shitheads.
Hopefully people can laugh at their behavior, but at the same time, key in, in a real way, to the love story. Because at the end of the day this is a love story, and I think that's what hopefully keeps it from not feeling just like an exercise in writers creating mean characters to be mean to each other. I think that has its place. I mentioned Veep, which is nothing but mean to about 80 percent of those characters, but it's a very different show. This is a show that's advocating for love, while at the same time, demonstrating the ways in which we keep ourselves from it.
Love is universal and polarizing, and I think we aim to be that. We're a small show, but we're not a niche show. We're about something that everyone can relate to.
Do you have an idea of how long you want the show to run? I think seven seasons sounds really nice. I was talking to Chris [Geere], the lead actor, and we both said seven in tandem to each other, so I'm going to go with that.
I was curious: have you dated at all while you've been making the show? Has that had any impact on what you have been writing about or perhaps how people perceive you in romantic relationships? No, I've been in the same relationship. I think I would have been too close to it if I was still dating, because the show came partially out of my dip back into the dating world after being married, but I think to write artistically about something, it's difficult to be deep in the middle of it. I think perspective lends ability to field something artistically, but some of my writers have gone through some stuff, and we get a lot from everyone's lives even if we're boring old married, like me.
I don't know if it's changed my wife's perspective of me—we just got married, but we've been together for a while. But when I was starting to write the show, I wrote at the top of the outline, "The people in your life will worry about you after they read this." And I think that's a fear that if you're a very self-aware person, as I am, that you will be judged by what you create. I'm fortunate enough to be with someone who doesn't take what I write as some secret diary entry, and also she works on the show, so she shares the voice and sentiment, I think.
That must be very nice to work with your partner like that. How did you meet? We were already together when the show started. We met at a bar, we were like normal people.
Did you have a pick-up line or anything like that? [Laughs] No, I think we were both very drunk and we both recognized that for some reason we followed each other on Facebook, but we didn't know why. It was just one of those things that just somehow some people slip into your social and then you're like, "Oh, yeah, wait, you're that cute girl that I don't know why I follow," and it went from there.
That's a very 21st century meeting. I know, mixed with a good old-fashioned bar drunken meeting. We ran the gamut.
Before we end, one of my favorite characters on the show, who has slowly come into his own, is Vernon. I was wondering how that character evolved and how he got to the place he's at now. Oh, god. Specifically, the guy who plays him is someone I went to NYU with. We were both in acting school together. His name is Todd Robert Anderson and he's a genius. But he had one line in the pilot, it's very much the Cliff Clavin story from Cheers. I don't know if I'd planned on making him a bigger character, but he just threw his brilliance out there, and his professionalism and how funny he is, and the character grew.
That's what we like to do. We take great, small tertiary characters and develop them and dimensionalize what seem like stock characters at the beginning. Sometimes you start with a character flaw or a specific way they talk or a function in a relationship within the show, and then you start to ask questions like, "Why are they like that?" You can start to peel back layers and reveal and reveal and reveal, and he's someone who just tickles us. He came out of a friend of mine who was dating this guy we called Dr. Douche, he was this douchey orthopedic surgeon who referred to his job fixing rich people's knees as his "calling" and I just thought that revealed a lot about him, and so that came out of that.
He's just grown so much. We gave him an episode last season where him and Paul were stuck in the woods, our little homage to The Sopranos' "Pine Barrens" episode.
Oh yeah, with the Russian in the woods! Yeah. Exactly, it was really just two men who are in relationships and marriages where they feel like they're not getting what they want and that tickles me, characters who are unhappy complaining about it together and trying to do something about it in an impotent way, but at the end of the day realizing that they love their lives and families too much to actually go through with anything. There's sort of a hilarious ennui that makes me laugh about it.
I always saw Vernon & Paul as really funny parodies of the emasculated man, but I never made that Sopranos connection before now, which makes a lot of sense. Yeah, and for his part, you're going to see this season the next evolution in the emasculated man that I think people are going to recognize and enjoy.
Is there going to be another "Sunday Funday" episode? No, not this season. We said it was the last one last season and we wanted to, like we do with anything, stay true to our word. But we may just be taking a break, it may come back. I hate when artists say they're retiring, but you know they're not, like Steven Soderbergh. I was like, "No, you're not fucking retiring, shut up." And then they come back. But we may be guilty of that next season. For now, no, we have to find other things to do.
He retired so hard he went and made multiple different TV series while he was retired. Yeah, he directed 20 hours of television. He made a secret iPhone movie, whatever. Oh, god, don't get me started.