Death, Drugs, Cats, and ‘Difficult People’ with Julie Klausner

Whether you know her best as podcast host, writer, comedian, or cat expert, you’re about to learn a whole lot more about Julie Klausner. Her new series Difficult People premieres on Hulu today, and with some help from costar Billy Eichner and and executive producer Amy Poehler, Klausner finally has the opportunity to lead a gleefully unoptimistic comedy about two New Yorkers/best friends who “love pop culture and hate everyone except each other.” I recently spoke with Klausner about how she developed the series, how she and Eichner met, and which rising cat stars we should keep an eye on this year.

How’s your summer been so far?

It’s been okay – thank you for asking. Summer is not my favorite time because I have a birthday in the summer and I’m not one of those people who doesn’t get depressed around their birthdays. [laughs] But besides that and my tendency to break out into perspiration with no warning whatsoever – I’m just one of those people whose face is not at all sweaty and then suddenly it’s very very sweaty – it’s going okay so far. It’s nice to have the show as something to look forward to and to distract myself from the crushing pain of being closer to death every minute of our lives. So in other words, I’m having an amazing summer.

You’ve been working on a lot of things this summer – Difficult People, your Joe’s Pub show, and your podcast, to name a few. What’s your idea of downtime?

I’m not very good with downtime, in general, any time of year. I have a hard time relaxing. Some people say “Oh, New York is so overwhelming!” but what’s in between my ears on a day-to-day basis is basically what happens between 26th Street and 42nd Street between 6th Avenue all the way to Grand Central. My mind is kind of a claustrophobic place that’s always sort of buzzing, and if I have a moment to slow down and think about what’s happening I can actually get really maudlin and bummed out. So as far as what downtime means to me, it’s not that I’m not lazy, it’s just that when I’m not busy I tend to start feeling blue, so I try to keep my downtime contained. I tend to get bored after a week of vacation.

Do you, in a weird way, enjoy it like that at all? Being trapped in that buzzing mind?

No! No, not at all! I was hoping you had some LSD to sell me…wait, I’m sorry, are you not a drug dealer? Can you not offer me the sweet relief?

No sorry, wrong number.

It’s funny…like if you look at Being John Malkovich and all these Charlie Kaufman movies that illustrate the artistic turmoil of the human mind, we really are, as human beings – whether it’s drugs or movies or any experience – just constantly trying to get out of our heads. But the only sweet relief will be death, Megh.

[laughs] We’ll get there soon enough!

…man, I’d make a terrible therapist. I’d have one of those McDonald’s-style “It’s Been 0 Many Days Since” signs in my office.

Can you tell me about how you and Billy Eichner first became friends, and how that led to Difficult People?

I met Billy maybe six, seven, or eight years ago, because I had seen a couple of his Billy on the Street videos and an ex-boyfriend of mine had introduced me to his particular brand of genius. I remember watching his videos and thinking “Oh my God, this guy is so incredibly funny and brilliant – I have to meet him, I have to work with him.” I had reached out, he had been familiar with stuff I was doing, and we had gotten together in hopes of developing a show. We’d talked about maybe writing a sitcom or hosting a talk show, but then we ended up putting that on ice. He went to sell a show to Fuse, and after it was pitched it went straight to series. He called me and was kind of scrambling to get hires together, but I was one of the first people he thought of and he hired me to write for him. I worked with him for four seasons on Billy on the Street and we really got to know each other in a working environment. We had chemistry and we laughed at the same things, and I always made it a point of making him laugh.

And so a few years into that relationship, I sat down at one point to write a spec script for a show that would sort of be my dream show, like if anyone had come to me and said “If you could do anything you would wanna do, what would it be?” I just figured I’d love to do something where I played myself – like an asshole who is this narcissistic, obnoxious person and the world is conspiring against me – and I’d love it to be something where I could cast Billy as my best friend, and Billy said “Sure, that sounds like something I’d be up for.” So I wrote it and I showed it to The Poehler, and Poehler really liked it and said “Let’s pitch it,” and she rounded up me and Billy and we went to LA and we pitched it, and Amy really helped me figure out what the show actually was – and she named it. Then we took it out and got to make a pilot, which didn’t end up where it was originally, but we got to use the pilot to take the project to Hulu and now we have a first season of a real TV show!

Were there changes you made to the show between the time it was a pilot at USA and picked up by Hulu?

Well, the show is the same, but things have changed between the pilot and the series that we would’ve changed whether it was for Hulu or USA. A lot of that has to do with Billy’s character – we decided to give him a family life in the form of his work life at the restaurant, and that was not present in the pilot. And then we also paid a lot more attention to Billy’s drive in the show. Usually he has a goal, I have a goal, and then the two of us have a goal together, and that was something we sort of figured out as we went along. And then we also figured out a lot of other things as we started writing the episodes: We figured out that Billy and Julie are people who get in their own way – we do sort of sabotage things and make things more difficult for ourselves than we have to – but in addition to that, the world around us is horrible and so we’re right about that, but we also make things worse. So if we don’t fuck things up for ourselves, the world will do it for us. That opened up some more story ideas.

Are there certain shows you drew inspiration from in terms of the format and style of the show?

Well I always really loved Louie. I think Louie’s show is so great, and he’s been able to dramatize his comedic voice in a way that went so beyond adapting his standup to television that I was so inspired by him artistically. His voice is so resonant on that show and format-wise, he doesn’t do the traditional thing of having an A story, a B story, a C story, and then having them overlap – he really just does what he likes, and the freedom of that is so compelling and refreshing. So I’ve always fancied the notion of…What would it look like if there were a female Louie or if there was a version of Curb Your Enthusiasm where, instead of having an old successful cranky guy there were two not successful, completely unknown people in the form of a lady and a gay guy, who generally don’t really get as many opportunities to be cranky and funny in the ways that dudes, traditionally in the sitcom world, have the chance to be? Usually it’s the guy who’s being annoying and the wife is this gorgeous size 0 actress who’s like “Sweetheart, that’s ridiculous!” And he’s like “Well, I guess you’re right honey!” and then he gets to go and be funny, and then they’re in bed later and he’s like “That was really silly wasn’t it?” and she’s like “That was…yes it was! Goodnight, sweetheart!” [laughs]

What is a “likable character” to you?

I think characters are likable when they’re funny and you want to hang out with them and be around them. You either know what they’re gonna do and you can’t wait to see them do it in a new situation, or you’re invested in them so much that you just want to see if they change – if they do great, if they don’t that’s fine too. It’s really just a question of spending time with someone who seems like a real person, I think that’s important. I think a character that is not well-rounded tends to not be likable, because then you’re just using paper dolls and putting them in a diorama instead of telling stories that come from real things that have happened and that are funny.

One of my goals with this show was to have a female lead and a gay male lead and have them be cranky, obnoxious, loudly ignorant, not understanding why people aren’t giving them what they feel like they deserve, and just completely selfish and using social causes for their own benefit. I also feel like even if characters are cranky, if they’re loyal to each other and have a friendship that seems very grounded in something that’s real, people tend to give them a lot of slack to get away with terrible things. And I think that’s what we have in the show – we’re real friends, and I think that comes through.

I wanted to close with a cat-related question since I don’t often get to interview cat experts – is that okay with you?

Oh good, yes, I would love that.

Do you have any rising cat star recommendations? Are there any up-and-coming cats we should keep an eye on?

Well I was a panelist on a little show called America’s Next Cat Star, and during the process of lending my expertise to that panel I learned of a cat named Brimley who’s got a nice little smile, and I learned of a cat named Sauerkraut who’s like a big sourpuss. I enjoy the antics of this cat on Instagram named sophielovestuna. There’s another Instagram cat named mycatkyle – he is a “rescue with 3 teeth, no claws, severe dandruff, hip dysplasia, and a crooked ear. Also, he witnessed a murder.” So this is an important cat that I strongly recommend you follow. Then there’s King Sylvester, whose Instagram handle is handlebarcatstache – he’s handsome. He’s got a nice big white mustache. And I’ll end with tuxedotrio – this is someone who has three tuxedo cats and they are up to no good. The three of them, I think, are in cahoots, and they’re just always up to something that is not for your benefit, it’s more about them being happy. And they do seem very happy, but they’re just not doing anything that’s helpful to you or me, you know? They’re three naughty cats.

That’s why cats are the best.

Oh, cats are…cats are my heart.

The first two episodes of Difficult People are currently available on Hulu.

Death, Drugs, Cats, and ‘Difficult People’ with Julie […]