‘Difficult People’ Creator Julie Klausner on Writing Comedy with a Capital “C”

At Flavorwire, we live for TV, movies, books, music, and theater. So the Hulu original series Difficult People —  about two struggling comedians, played by Billy Eichner and Julie Klausner, clawing their way through the obstacle course of New York’s entertainment industry — scratches many of our cultural itches.

We’ve been dutifully tracking the show’s pop culture references throughout its second season, which ends today (the finale is now streaming on Hulu). We caught up with Difficult People creator Julie Klausner to talk about the show’s cultural universe, writing a comedy with actual jokes, and the tradition of neurotic Jewish New Yorkers in comedy.

Flavorwire: When you were first developing the show, was it always going to be set in a pop-culture-saturated world?

Julie Klausner: That’s just always been a very big part of my personality and my identity. I tried to write to what I thought was funny. When I was a kid growing up and saw a TV show, it was like it was speaking to me directly. The language of pop culture is one in which I am extraordinarily fluent, as is Billy. He and I, we have a friendship that is very — I don’t want to say it’s fueled by our love of pop culture, but that’s definitely the thing that brought us together. We’re both creative people who grew up watching television and are really passionate about film and TV and theater and music.

I feel like that really comes through — as much as you don’t try to hide your characters’ flaws, at the heart of it is the love these two characters have for the entertainment world.

I think that what keeps the show universal and our characters likeable is that we have that love for each other. When two people are literate in the same language, they’re able to communicate in ways they hadn’t before. It’s more the language than it is the substance. The substance is that these are two people that know each other and love each other.

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I’m sure you get this line quoted back to you a lot from this season, when Billy says, “When did comedies become half-hour dramas?” Did you set out to make a show that would counter that trend, and that would be filled with a lot of jokes?

Absolutely. I’m a comedy writer and comedy performer first and foremost. Watching The Larry Sanders Show, Strangers with Candy, and more recently, 30 Rock and Curb Your Enthusiasm — the writing is so dense and the jokes aren’t diametrically opposed to real human emotions or connections. Characters are able to have sentiment or pathos or experiences that go beyond the cartoonish dimensions of a lot of sketch comedy, which I also love. But for me, I can’t stress enough how much funny is a priority when we’re writing the show. I take a lot of pride in it having as many jokes as it does, and I also take a lot of pride in it being a hard comedy, with a capital “c,” and you’re not going to be able to confuse our show with anything but.

Has anyone at Hulu had a problem with any of the references? I’m thinking in particular of the episode where you and Billy go to a bunch of networks to pitch a show.

Not in that instance, that I can remember. We had some legal issues, we had to change the logos of the shows. But before it even goes to the network, we have so many internal rounds of notes — [executive producer Amy] Poehler weighs in at every stage, very early, so we’ll pitch her and then we’ll do an outline and she’ll have notes on the outline. All that happens before it goes off to network. We can kind of use our judgment to figure out, well, is that too far, or does that not work because it’s not tonally correct. Then there’s this moment of, “teehee, are we gonna get away with this?” And when we do it just feels like stealing the last cookie from the cookie jar and never getting caught. It’s kind of the best.

I also love the recurring characters on the show — Cole Escola as Matthew, and the addition of Lola (Shakina Nayfack) this season. Are you involved in the casting process and how do you go about casting those roles?

I’m involved in absolutely everything. The addition of Lola was so exciting. We knew we wanted a trans waitress at the café and we wanted her to be a 9/11 truther. Shakina was also a consultant on the show and a lot of the most outrageous lines that Lola says come from Shakina herself. She’s just such a find. Billy and Julie, even though we’re assholes, we’re not living in a world in which people are all great and we’re the ones getting in our own way constantly. It’s a combination of that, plus everyone around us is just exhausting, or clashes with what we want.

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The show reminds me of Seinfeld, partly in the ensemble of all these difficult people and partly in the way it’s so tightly plotted. What were some of your influences?

The comparison to Seinfeld is hugely flattering. I’m a huge fan of Curb Your Enthusiasm, I love how beautifully those plots weave in and how there’s stuff that’s funny for the sake of being funny. When I sat down to write the show I was really thinking of doing something in the Louie model, where I could play myself and I could dramatize situations that had actually happened to me and that I, at the time, was talking about on my podcast week to week. So I wanted to do something quasi-autobiographical, and I wanted to have a funny role for myself. I didn’t want to be the girl that sort of stands by while the funny guys have the fun. This is a character I really wanted to play in all of her obnoxious glory.

How would you describe the role of New York in the show? And did you worry about alienating non-New Yorkers with some of the references?

It’s very important this show takes place in New York, because New York is sort of the ultimate difficult location. Everything is loud and crowded and expensive and stressful and no one has time for bullshit. Attitudinally, Billy and Julie are very similar. I also think there’s something to struggling in New York instead of Los Angeles when you’re trying to make it that’s more interesting — there are more diverse occupations around you besides show biz. As far as being worried about being too obscure, I’m only worried if this doesn’t make the people around me laugh. The other thing about New York, it’s just very simpatico with the great tradition of New York Jewish comedians and neurotics and people who are obnoxious or at least are self-aware. That’s a long, beautiful tradition that Woody Allen can’t just ruin with an Amazon series.