From the mind of acclaimed author Simon Rich comes the new FXX series Man Seeking Woman. The show stars Jay Baruchel as Josh Greenberg, a heartbroken romantic on the quest for love. However, don’t expect Man Seeking Woman to be your average RomCom. The series has a distinctly absurdist take, depicting the triumphs and perils of single life in a way never before seen on TV. Not sure what I mean? The first episode sees Josh headed on a blind date with a literal troll and it only gets more bizarre from there.
I recently had the opportunity to visit the set in Toronto, Canada. While there I sat down with a few other journalists for an interview with writer Ian Maxtone-Graham (The Simpsons). He talked about why he wanted to write for Man Seeking Woman, why he considers Jay Baruchel the best actor in North America, the strength of the series pilot, his experience in the writer’s room. He also talked about his time writing for Saturday Night Live, which sketches he wrote, and more. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
So how does it feel to be in a writer’s room full of young whippersnappers?
IAN MAXTONE-GRAHAM: Oh, with four people who could be my grandchild? Theoretically and biologically speaking – that doesn’t mean they are – probably none of them. It’s great. It’s great. That is a great, great hardworking focused writer’s room. Simon has never run a TV show before, he works super hard, he’s super motivated, very energetic all day long, standing up, pitching things, moving cards around the board, talking things through, talking through again, talking through again to make sure you hit all the beats, reconsidering, always looking for problems – as opposed to saying “don’t bring me the problems”, but saying “What’s wrong with this? Can we make it better?” So he has a great writer’s room. I live in Los Angeles, my wife and I moved to New York for the summer, and now Toronto for the fall and we work very very hard every day and many weekends, and it was great. I feel like being in a room with four writers I’ve never worked with before, Simon I knew of, the other guys I didn’t’ know of but, we had a great, intense summer. It really felt great. Working hard is more satisfying than not working. Slacking off for eight hours is depressing and exhausting. Working really hard is invigorating and exhausting. Working for Simon is invigorating, and exhausting, but worth it.
Was there any specific moment either an initial rough script or Simon’s book that really spoke to you?
MAXTONE-GRAHAM: Seeing the pilot. I wasn’t sure. I went and met with him because I’m such a fan of his writing and that’s all I knew. Saturday Night Live he wrote for four seasons, I was also there for a little over three seasons at a very different time, you don’t get credit for your sketches. So unless you have a friend you can call up and say “who wrote that one?”, you don’t know who wrote what. But with prose pieces it’s all you and I read so many of his pieces and liked them so much and just admired him. Then I saw the pilot. Jon Krisel directed the pilot and he’s directed I think every Portlandia that’s been on the air. He has an incredibly fast-moving but thoughtful directing style and between Simon’s writing and John’s directing I thought it was the best pilot I’d ever seen by a wide margin. And there are some very good pilots out there – Curb Your Enthusiasm, Breaking Bad – there’s great pilots. That was the best one I’ve ever seen. And the other directors have, I think, taken a page from the playbook of Jon Krisel with his support. Ben Berman and Tim Kirkby are both great directors that the producers and Jon, who is an Executive producer, picked and they’ve done a great job. I feel like the tone set by that pilot in the writing and the directing is why I’m sitting here to write it now. You want to work on the great shows.
When did you work on Saturday Night Live?
MAXTONE-GRAHAM: I got there in the Spring of ’92. It was Victoria Jackson’s last three episodes, Kevin was on the news, Mike and Dana and Phil were there, Farley and Spade and Sandler and Schneider were there and kind of coming up. There were many many golden years. I’m sorry I missed Kristen Wiig. I’m sorry I missed Bill Hader. I’m sorry I missed Chevy Chase.
You hear Phil Hartman described as “The Glue” on that show.
MAXTONE-GRAHAM: Yeah, The Glue! Where did you hear that?
I read it somewhere. I follow his brother on Facebook or something.
MAXTONE-GRAHAM: Chris Farley used to call him “Gluey”. Yeah, the glue. He was so professional and so good in so many ways on the show and I think he sort of brought up the level of professionalism of many actors. He’ll be missed. I worked with him on Saturday Night Live and on The Simpsons and it was great to work with him and of course horribly tragic when he died. I got there on a Thursday and somebody said, “Did you hear about Phil?” and we cancelled the table read.
What about working with Jay as a leading man appeals to you? He’s sort of unconventional, what appeals to you about that?
MAXTONE-GRAHAM: Well he’s the best actor in North America. He’s unbelievably good.
Wow. Why do you say that?
MAXTONE-GRAHAM: Because he has the body moves of Buster Keaton, his facial acting and his emotion are so good. You watch his face, we sit and watch his face on monitors for twelve hours a day and he’s so good at reacting to things. This show puts him through hell, emotional hell and physical hell, embarrassment hell and cringing hell, and he’s got to do something interesting every time, and he’s got that many moves. I honestly can’t think, and maybe one of you guys can, who could do this job? If you watch that pilot is there anyone else in the world you would put in that spot besides Jay? He’s unbelievable. Did you guys see the skating today?
MAXTONE-GRAHAM: Those physical body movements – like, I’m a dork too, but I couldn’t be such a funny dork. I would just be an un-funny dork. He’s perfect at that. His facial expressions when horrible things are happening to him, when he’s being broken up with, I just think there’s no one who does it better. I think Eric Andre and Jay are the perfect cast for this. If you had a trillion dollars and you could cast anybody in the world, who else would you cast? Honestly, can you name a name? I can’t think of anyone else. They got very lucky. They got someone who the material spoke to him and he’s spectacular.
He’s a writer as well.
MAXTONE-GRAHAM: Yeah, he’s a really good writer and I hope he never quits acting, and keeps working on this show because I really think he’s a unique talent. Honestly, not rhetorically, who would you put in that place? Name an actor. There’s nobody else.
When I was speaking with Simon earlier I was telling him I couldn’t picture anybody else in that role.
MAXTONE-GRAHAM: Yeah, and that’s kind of the definition of a great piece of casting. He is that guy.
When you come onto a show because you like what you saw in the pilot, how much of an asset is it to you to know who you’re writing for specifically?
MAXTONE-GRAHAM: Giant. Giant, because once you’ve seen the pilot you get it almost completely. Then the first two weeks of work with Simon and the writers in New York, then you get it %100. But the pilot really tells you a lot about the tone. Because how was the Hitler stuff going to play? You read it in the script and it could be kind of sketchy, but then you see Bill Hader doing it and making all right moves to make it subtle and perfect, and make the jokes not be obvious jokes, none of the Doctor Strangelove stuff. But playing it like a kind of old rascal. Still a horrible person, but he thinks he’s just an old rascal. He thinks, “Oh, I did some things in my youth.” I just he think you need a brilliant actor to take a great script and take it to that smart place. There’s a lot of bad Hitler jokes and if they’re Hitler jokes maybe don’t make them, because it’s not funny if they’re bad. You can only make them if you’re doing it really smart.
Both the Simpsons and SNL were kind of satirical, and this isn’t as far as I can tell, how is the writing different?
MAXTONE-GRAHAM: It’s interesting. There really isn’t pop culture satire in this and I think it’s a conscious decision to make it universal. It’s just more interesting when you’re not playing with names and brands, but you’re talking about things that will last. On SNL I didn’t a ton of pop culture parody. I tended to write more personal interaction things, so I feel like that made this show a good fit for me.
What skits did you write at SNL? Like you said, you don’t really get the credit for them.
[Laughs] That didn’t hit a little too close to home for John?
MAXTONE-GRAHAM: He was a very good sport. With Adam and Lou Morton I wrote The Haunakha song. I wrote a lot of sketches.
And the Canteen Boy.
MAXTONE-GRAHAM: Canteen Boy, I played a role in that sketch, yes. That was of the most fun sketches to write ever. Alec Baldwin, what a good sport, willing to molest a child on national television. Sally Field at the singles club for people with crab lice, that was a real pleasure. Just working with Sandler and Schneider and Phil and Kevin, the whole group.
What was the first show you ever wrote for?
MAXTONE-GRAHAM: It was called Not Necessarily the News on HBO, 1983. Fairly fresh out of college, I had been on a newspaper and I got that job, and it was very exciting.
That was a template for a lot of shows, wasn’t it?
MAXTONE-GRAHAM: Well maybe, but the template was the English show Not The Nine O’Clock News with Rowan Atkinson in it…who was Jay Barachel’s inspiration. How’s that for bringing it all around?
Man Seeking Woman premieres January 14th on FXX.