California Teeming: An Interview with “You’re the Worst” Creator Stephen Falk

December 10, 2015   •   By Nandini Balial

I MOVED TO LOS ANGELES in October 2014. What I at first jokingly called “stranger in a strange land syndrome” developed, over the course of a year, into full-blown desperation. I’ve paid my eyeteeth in parking tickets, I’ve sobbed while trying to parallel park, I’ve been horrified by my dating experiences. I thus relate on almost every level to Gretchen Cutler, one of the main characters on FXX’s You’re the Worst.

Played with spectacular aplomb by Aya Cash, Gretchen is a fairly unlikable woman who doesn’t have her shit together, and doesn’t care. She meets Jimmy Shive-Overly (Chris Geere), a bitter writer who holds the world responsible for his poor book sales and even poorer relationships.

Season One sees these two flawed people try, despite their fears and misgivings, to hazard something resembling a relationship. The show is in turn an acerbic comedy and an emotional drama, which has proven a specialty of creator-showrunner Stephen Falk, having previously written for Weeds and Orange is the New Black.

The recently concluded Season Two is notable for doubling down on the show's emotional honesty in it deft portrayal of severe depression. Throughout the season, Gretchen, who has moved in with Jimmy, leaves their bed, night after night, to drive off and weep in her car. In an episode titled “LCD Soundsystem,” she stalks a couple in her Echo Park neighborhood who seem to have it all: stable jobs they love; a toddler with a promising interview at a preschool; a spacious and hip home; a regular coffee shop, “all within walking distance!” After two attempts at siphoning some of their perceived peace (first she offers to watch the toddler at a health food shop, and carelessly wanders around with her; then she kidnaps the couple’s dog and returns it later), we see that the story — both the one she’s seen and the one the couple tell us/each other — is façade. When she returns the couple’s dog, Gretchen is startled as the husband (Justin Kirk) starts to vent: he used to go dancing, he went to the Largo, he lived in cheap Koreatown apartments and now, his job has begun to frustrate him, he has a kid, and a mortgage, and if Gretchen ever wants to go get dinner, his wife won’t mind.

Jimmy, who dropped by to pick her up, is happy to rail about how pathetic and synthetic their neighbors are on their walk home. But Aya Cash’s face is contorted with sorrow. The disintegration of Gretchen’s fantasy is slowly making its way down her face: her gait slows, her shoulders move in time with silent sobs, and the credits roll. In a show that also uses sitcom gags and slapstick humor to mine laughs, it’s a disarming moment made all the more so because you never quite expect it.

Last week, You’re the Worst was picked up for a third season. I spoke with Stephen Falk about living in Los Angeles, channeling ambivalence into writing, and tackling depression on TV.


NANDINI BALIAL: You seem to have an interest in East LA life and its trappings. I think that episode where we follow a couple we haven’t met before is fascinating, because we don’t know who they are. How much of that couple is something that you pulled from your own life?

STEPHEN FALK: I think more generally the thematic stuff. I live in LA, I’ve lived here for a long time now, and so anything LA-centric crept out of my or my writers’ direct experience or observation. But writing that couple came out of a lot of my general ambivalence about growing up and having a family and that sort of stuff. I’m not one to hit on random girls who come over to my house, but the feelings that Rob expresses near the end, that sends Gretchen into a spiral, is sentiment that I can understand but that was rendered and written purposefully to make the character [Rob] look kinda stupid and clueless. Which is generally what I do with a lot of shows — to take arguments or thoughts or observations that I have, and then just render them in stupid ways to show the folly in that kind of thinking, but also the truth in those kinds of fears at the same time.

You’ve mentioned that you wrote this for yourself. The NBC sitcom you wrote didn’t work out, and it affected you, so you sat down and wrote something you wanted to read. How has your approach as a writer changed?

I think it’s my job to be aware of excuses that writers make or that I make, or ideas that writers have about craft. And I have a great forum to cummerbund those and make fun of them. While I honor being a writer — I think it’s a great living and I’m blessed to be able to do it —people often talk about writing as this noble thing, and it just ends up sounding incredibly pretentious.

At the same time, making the people in your life understand that writing is not always just actual fingers on the keyboard. There’s a lot that goes into it. And there’s a lot of gearing up. Often I’ll take an hour just preparing to write. It’s difficult for others to understand that. So again everything that I write are things that I argue with myself. I agree with Jimmy in that same episode that [breaks into exaggerated British accent] “being in a bar drinking is kind of writing.” In that case there’s certainly a kernel of truth.

I’m new to LA. I’ve only lived here for a year. I’m cynical about this city, having just moved here from New York. This might be contrary in spirit to both Jimmy and Gretchen but I felt encouraged by the show to go out. I recognized some things about certain settings, especially in “Sunday Funday,” like, “Oh, I know where that is,” or, “I’ve driven past that.” It made me want to explore LA, and make friends here. I was wondering if you were aware of that at all, that it could have that effect on people, or that it might be odd for someone to derive some kind of optimism from these characters since both are self-hating and narcissistic and self-destructive.

Yeah. I think that’s great. I share your journey of New York to Los Angeles; same hang-ups. The show is dealing a lot with one’s idea of something, of getting older, of LA being a shithole or whatever, and then the reality, and the fact that often clinging to an idea of something — specifically, the idea that New York is so much better than Los Angeles, that Los Angeles is somehow vapid — that it can end up, if you cling to those, seeming like a way to avoid really living life. It can keep you from actually growing. I think it’s always a good idea to observe yourself and see if there’s some prejudice you’re holding onto, to find if it’s so true or if it’s something that you are clinging to because it’s something you should think or what you used to think, and it’s no longer useful to you. That’s what a lot of what the show is about. And I’m glad! If you’re gonna live here, live here, be here. It’s very common but it’s ultimately immature to just walk around going, “This place sucks, New York’s better.” Because A, obviously. And B, it can only stop you from really living.

You went to NYU, and you were in Tisch for acting. How did you make the transition from acting to writing?

I was in Circle at the Square, which is no longer part of the program, as I understand, and then the Lee Strasberg Institute. I wanted to be an actor, came out to LA to act. Just sort of did writing on the side as something to do, and stay active rather than wait for roles or wait for auditions. It’s harder to make your own work as an actor than as a writer. I just found I liked it. I did a lot of playwriting and fell into it that way.

You’ve already probably heard a lot from fans and critics about Gretchen’s severe depression in Season Two. I’m blown away in a completely different capacity because where I found the show at first to be encouraging me to go out, this was so much more personal. That two-part breakdown — first in “There is Not Currently A Problem,” and then when she [Gretchen] follows the neighbor couple. Did you speak to Aya Cash about these scenes and how to portray depression?

I directed that episode, so I certainly talked to her about that. And I’m on set for every shot so we talked a lot about it, and the scripts are very specific, they’re very descriptive. I’m not telling Aya what her face should look like, but there are certain sort of implicit directions and goals for a certain scene. It’s very much a collaboration and as a gifted actress she has the ability to tap into anything.

But this season is not just about depression, it’s about depression’s effects on relationships. We’re not just interested in Gretchen in isolation, but Gretchen in regards to Jimmy and how her depression affects them. So that’s very important. I think we’ve certainly angered some people, but I think we’ve done a pretty good job of representing how confusing or hard it can be to deal with someone with something as [unintelligible] and stubborn as depression. Jimmy’s not great at it, but few people are.

Did you feel there was a lack in the way depression was covered on TV?

Well it’s something really difficult for people to understand and empathize with, because it can just be like laziness, or not being tough, or pull-on-your-big-girl-pants-and-deal-with-X. It’s tougher than that. So I think if anything I was aware of the fact that it was something that was kind of everywhere but still in the shadows. And something that would be really challenging to try and empathize with, and I love a challenge. We weren’t trying to be service-y necessarily, but we were intentionally aware, much like Hector’s PTSD storyline, that it was something people didn’t know how to deal with, or didn’t particularly want to deal with, and so we raised our hands and said, okay, yeah, we’re willing to give it a shot. It’s been incredibly rewarding, and I love that people who have had experience with it are relating to it and find it to be if not helpful necessarily — some people say helpful — but at least to help them feel a little less misunderstood.


Nandini Balial is the film/TV editor at Queen Mob's Tea House. Her work has appeared in Pacific Standard, Men's Journal, Barrelhouse, Mic, and the BBC America blog Anglophenia.