As one of the best shows on television, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend defies small-screen narrative standards in just about every way possible. So, as we eagerly await the CW’s verdict for a season four renewal, Vulture called up co-creators Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna to learn how they wrote and created six of the most memorable songs from season three — alongside songwriters Adam Schlesinger and Jack Dolgen — which cover nearly anything you can think of. From penises and zoo animals to borderline personality disorder, let’s dive in.
“Let’s Generalize About Men”
Aline Brosh McKenna: That was written very early on. We do a week-long story-breaking songwriting camp before the season starts. Rachel and I had already broken the first few stories, so we knew we already wanted a song of this nature in there. Rachel, what was the first version of that?
Rachel Bloom: Because Donna Lynne [Champlin] and I had been wanting to tap together for a long time, we originally wrote a Paula and Rebecca song around that, which was almost like, You say po-tay-to, I say po-tah-to, mixed with adorable little tunes. Like a 1930s tune. I love ham, and you love bacon, but we both haaaate meeeeen! Cha cha cha! We brought that to Adam and Jack, and they said they had an alternative pitch. What if we did it as an empowering ’80s song instead? The story wasn’t just about Paula and Rebecca anymore, it was about all of the girls, so I thought that was a better song idea.
ABM: I don’t think the men were thrilled with the “I hate men” thing. [Laughs.]
RB: It’s an adorable song! So they pitched this to me and I had the document on my phone. I took a walk around our lot and I brainstormed lyrics. I have a two-minute-long audio file of me going through the motions of the song. We had all separately brainstormed lyrics like, Right now we’re really sad and angry, so let’s just make a bunch of statements! In a period of about an hour-and-a-half, we lyrically brainstormed the outline of the song. This person will cover these jokes; this bridge will be about how gay men are actually great. When I heard it, I thought it was one of the best songs we’d done.
ABM: This is the perfect example of our process. It started with us all talking about the idea, I stayed in the room with Jack and Adam to build ideas, and Rachel went for a walk to think by herself. Because sometimes when there’s an idea, Rachel wants to go for a walk or go in her office and process it in her brain. She’s been writing these songs for years and has a process that doesn’t necessarily require her to be in a room with four people. So it’s the perfect example of brainstorming, coming back with ideas, and the guys synthesizing it.
RB: I’m good to spend an hour or two in a room brainstorming, but then I need to get on a trampoline or something. It’s how I’ve always worked and written. I prefer to write in coffee shops or restaurants. I don’t like writing in rooms that are incredibly quiet, and the only thing to focus on is the writing. I like to have other stimuli.
ABM: Sonically, for the song, Rachel sang a Pointer Sisters song on a boat once.
RB: [Laughs.] I was a singing waiter on a boat that went around Manhattan. That was my last job before I got hired on my first writing staff. We each had two songs assigned to us, and it was the type of thing where passengers didn’t realize they were on a musical cruise, so suddenly they’d be unpleasantly surprised with songs. When we got into the scripting of this song, we watched a bunch of Pointer Sisters and Weather Girls music videos. Those videos, especially the Weather Girls ones, are almost little parodies of themselves. There’s a kind of campiness to a lot of things in the ’80s. It was janky on purpose. Some of the choreography was definitely not precise. It was a combination of things that we hadn’t realized before rewatching those videos.
RB: I started writing this song pretty early in the season, because we knew Rebecca was going to be diagnosed. I was tinkering and working for a couple of months, which was a luxury. It started with the fact that Rebecca hadn’t had a powerful song in a while, arguably since “West Covina.” What does she want? What is this big moment? Getting a new diagnosis was a perfect time for her to embody this mix of Elphaba from Wicked and Evan from Dear Evan Hansen. The idea of a musical-theater number of “maybe I’m schizophrenic, maybe I’ve bipolar” was so interesting to me. By the time we had to record the song, I had a rough melody and chords. I gave it to Adam and he really fleshed it out. When we shot it, we ran out of money at that point in the season. I imagined it like a Maria von Trapp situation, actively running through hills and running through these hallways and leaping onto polls. Because we had a small set, it ended up being a very internal song, despite how soaring the melody is. It was naturalistic and internal. By doing it this way, it was more doing the genre and less making fun of the genre.
ABM: There are very few songs that I wish we had more money for, but I do wish we were able to go to a real hospital for this one so Rachel could do her Sound of Music spins with a lot of space. But after looking at a bunch of options, we built those hallways on our set. It was hard because Rachel really wanted to play this expansive, putting-her-arms-out character, but we didn’t have a lot of room. Our choreographers helped us make sense of the space. I think this really expresses Rachel as an artist perfectly. The scary part was that this was the most sincere song we’ve ever done. It wouldn’t be out of place in a normal musical. But I think we pulled it off.
RB: I liked the small space, to be honest! It might’ve gone more into pastiche if it wasn’t. We had to do the song incredibly earnestly, and not mockingly. I like that I was forced to play it very real.
ABM: Things often end up being a blessing.
“The End of the Movie (feat. Josh Groban)”
ABM: Rachel and I wrote that episode together, most if it over a weekend at my house. We got to that point in the story, and I said — I’m not a songwriter by nature, so Rachel does a lot of the sonic translating for me — I said, “I’d love to do a song here where somebody outside the voice of the show is saying to her it’s going to be okay.” I wanted a super-big celebrity in the script. We had a meeting to talk about what the song could be before the song was written, because we hired Joseph Kahn to direct the episode and we did a lot of early prep with him.
Rebecca believes so strongly in stories. If she knows what story she’s in, then she can know what part she can play. She’s tried so many different stories, but they’ve all turned out to not be the right one. She doesn’t know what story to tell herself anymore and she doesn’t know what narrative she’s in. The song had to say why it’s such a sad low point for her and she doesn’t know where to go. We break convention and have someone come outside of the show and tell her the meaning of this. By having a famous person say this to her, the story is still cradling her in its hand and saying, You’re going to be okay. Even though it ultimately says that life doesn’t make any sense, it makes her realize she’s going to have to tell a new story that just belongs to her. There’s something sad about that, but really hopeful.
RB: I was going through old song demos of mine when I was writing this. Aline was like, “I think it would be the right move if we had a big guest star tell Rebecca everything will be okay.” The first version of the song was called “I Thought I Had It (If Only You Could See This Montage Too).” But we realized it was more of a comment on the story that is melting away. Aline and I sat down with Adam and we just started thinking, “What are all of the things we want to say in the song?” Life isn’t a story. Life is a gradual series of revelations that occur over a period of time. And that became the first lyric! It was us trying to songwrite with what Aline’s gut had been.
ABM: The songwriters are able to translate these musings into a magical language I can’t understand. That’s what’s so funny about this — it’s so theoretical. It’s a mini class on philosophy. In her moments of despair, Rebecca’s still trying to find narrative organization. She’s so intelligent that she’s grappling with this idea during the worst walk of shame ever with soiled panties, after sleeping with her ex-boyfriend’s father.
RB: I met Josh Groban at the Tony Awards. We had talked on Twitter once or twice, and when we met I was like, “Give me your number, we should hang out.” He’s the coolest. I literally just texted him and said, “We have this role that’s perfect for you, please do it.” It was a very easy process. That’s how getting a guest star happens these days. The only way to get someone to do a role like that is if someone’s a personal friend or a fan.
ABM: Let this serve as a formal announcement — if you’re famous and a fan of the show, let us know. We will find something for you!
“I Go to the Zoo”
RB: This song is an Aline Brosh McKenna original!
ABM: This was another song that was birthed in that prewriting-camp process. We had been talking about Nathaniel and his vulnerability, and this was a rare instance where I actually blurted out the title. My idea was that he goes somewhere offbeat to get solace. It was in our outline forever, but Rachel, how did you get to that exact genre?
RB: You blurted out, “I go to the zoo!” And I said, “That’s iconic. I have no notes. That’s the song. The song will never be better than that.” Also, you came up with the second line, “I look at the monkeys!” The melody was sprung forth from your brain. I played her the first song I could think of, which was Frank Ocean’s “Super Rich Kids” — one of the only times I have a reference of a cool musician who isn’t involved in musical theater. When we brought it to Jack and Adam, they were like, “Oh, this also sounds like Drake’s ‘Hotline Bling.’”
Jack and Adam are much better than I at writing hip-hop lyrics, and their prose was on full display here. But what’s a way to heighten it? We know we’re going back to the zoo, but how? True laughs are about surprising the audience, so we can’t just repeat another chorus of saying, “I go to the zoo.” So Jack busted out, “I go to the San Diego Zoo!” Which we had to change, because we didn’t have the rights to say “San Diego Zoo.” So it ended up as “I go to the zoo in San Diego,” which served the same purpose without a lawsuit. It continues to surprise the listener with the specifics.
ABK: Our videos usually take four or six hours to shoot. This video took 16 hours. That’s a huge chunk. We may have spent more time on that than any other song in the season except “Where’s Rebecca Bunch?” We shot it outside, we shot it onstage, and we had to find a place that was very zoo-like.
RB: The beginning of the season, we blew a lot of goodwill between “Where’s Rebecca Bunch?”, the mask ball, and “I Go to the Zoo.”
ABK: Our line producer thought we were going to kill her.
“First Penis I Saw”
RB: Adam and Jack were sitting around, and we were trying to think of some big number for Paula.
ABM: We wanted to try a ballad at first. Like a lost-love song. I expected them to come in with a ballad. I remember being in the writers room and thinking, “Oh, we’re going to have this big ballad.” And then Rachel burst in through the door and she was like, “I got it!” She pitched it and she was totally anti-ballad. I love that certainty. Whenever we hear that certainty in another person’s voice, it’s great.
RB: I was thinking about love. It’s Paula’s high-school love. The most emotional thing I think of about love is … the first penis I saw. [Laughs.] I get emotional about that. In my case, the first penis I saw was my high-school boyfriend who ended up being gay and is now my best friend. That experience really bonded us. It was the first penis I saw and the first vagina he saw and will ever see. Sex is often very jokey, but sex is very emotional. Those moments are so, so important. One of us was like, “What if it’s an ABBA song?” Jack and I immediately started harmonizing to “Mamma Mia!” And then the ideas started pouring out.
ABM: Our challenge in shooting this song was that you can’t shoot in a market. It’s very hard to shoot in that setting. Notice how, if a show shoots in a market, they’re in the produce section most of the time. Because you can’t show all of those products without proper licensing. Our line producer came in and was despondent. We couldn’t figure out a way to do it. I suggested that we make fake products, and somehow we got to the idea that they’d all say “Jeff” on them. Some are actual products, and some are cardboard renderings. Thematically it works great because she’s surrounding by his name. And I love the juxtaposition of her singing this fanciful song in this drab grocery store. It’s very Paula. The essence of Paula is a housewife, a homemaker, and a worker, with a very active imagination. So it’s always great when we give her songs juxtaposition and drudgery. The dancers are so perfect, as well, in terms of seeming like ordinary market workers. They surprise you! We came up with some specularity dirty choreography, actually. It was so dirty that the standards-and-practices lady took a lot of blow job-y things out of it. It was filthy! So we had to tame it down a bit.
“Buttload of Cats”
RB: This song came from the idea of Fuck it, I’ll just get cats. The idea of being Rebecca just giving up. She’s not meant to be with anyone, she’s going to be alone forever, so fuck it and get some cats. We quickly hooked onto this jubilance of becoming a cat lady. It’s a very funny emotional tone to work with because it’s tacky, but it’s happiness in this almost depressed delusion. Adam and I wrote the bulk of the song in a few hours with the melody. I really wanted it to be with puppets. As we were writing the lyrics, I was writing the episode’s script along with it, because the script is so essential to a song like this. It’s very much about the interaction between me and the cat store. Adam’s experience with owning cats informed the lyrics — many have torn up his couch and peed on his Atlantic magazines.
ABM: It was a magical day on set. It came at a time where everybody was pretty tired and the writers were wrapping up their work for the season. And up comes a ’40s musical with puppets. Everybody drifted in to watch by the video monitors. I know this could be the best job I ever have, where you’re making something you believe in with people you love. There’s certain moments when you think to yourself, “We should really appreciate this,” but you’re too busy to do so. But not this time. Everyone was so happy and forgot about the 50 million things we had to do.
RB: We never attempted to get real cats. I had been wanting to do something with puppets since season one. I love working with puppets, and I’ve done a few things with puppets in the past. A lot of people forget that Jim Henson, when he started out with Sam and Friends, was basically in an improv group. The characters on their arms were extensions of themselves. I love not only working with puppets, but also with puppeteers. There’s such life and artistry to it. Let me tell you, sometimes those puppets have more expressions than real-life acting partners. It was never a question about real cats. Fuck cats, I want puppets.