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Alone Together’s Esther Povitsky on Creating a ‘True Buddy Comedy Between a Man and a Woman’

Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

It shall go down as one of the most perfect character introductions in the annals of modern sitcommery: Our gal Esther joins her best friend Benji fresh from a one-night stand, flipping her hair and smiling demurely. Except we’re about to find out that her latest conquest is not so much the Ryan Gosling type she describes, but more of a Belushi-esque presence. And that she forgot her mouth guard in his room. And that there’s a weird green spot on it. The good news is that it’s just pesto. The bad news is that it’s been a while since she last had pesto. The humiliations crescendo like classical music.

This is Esther, the co-lead of Freeform’s new cult-comedy-in-the-making Alone Together, and her self-described “cute but gross” creator is Esther Povitsky. The comic chronicle of her misadventures around Los Angeles with strictly platonic pal Benji (co-creator Benji Aflalo) is the purest distillation of the winningly candid sensibility she’s developed through an extensive and varied slate of projects. With Alone Together, her recurring role as the office’s resident young person Maya on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, her online sexuality-themed talk show Cocktales, the confessional comedy podcast Weird Adults, and the widely obsessed-over beauty podcast Glowing Up, she’s tapped into a curious contradiction most of her fellow millennials understand intuitively. At a time when teen-soap idols can post clips of themselves binge-eating pizza and doing the chin-rolls face to Instagram, Povitsky has carved herself a niche in the nexus of glamour and playfully mortifying honesty.

Plenty of people are hilarious, but Povitsky is hilarious in a distinctly modern way. Over the course of one discursive phone call with Vulture, Povitsky spoke about what’s true and what’s untrue about millennials, orthodontic maintenance, the politics of makeup, affectionate dissing, and how she learned to stop worrying and throw away food.

Last week, there was an article floating around titled “The Skincare Con.” Have you seen it, and if so, what’d you think?Yeah, someone posted that in the podcast’s Facebook group, I saw it there. Haven’t clicked on it yet. I’m going to, but I almost feel like I know what it has to say. Ultimately, I know that most skin-care products are not going to change my life. They won’t move the needle for me, but skin care is still a form of self-care and relaxation and a hobby. I’m okay with the science behind skin care being bullshit.

Do you find that people don’t always take the concept of having skin care as a passion seriously?
I see some of that, and that’s okay, I’m not bothered by people thinking skin care and makeup are stupid. They just don’t understand. I deal with that a lot, because I watch a lot of beauty YouTube videos, and my boyfriend’s constantly telling me it’s rotting my brain. I can deal with that. I still like skin care — it’s relaxing, meditative, and soothing. It’s an escape from my anxiety over the political climate, work stuff, all that. Because I work in comedy, I can’t kick back and watch sitcoms as a form of leisure anymore. Skin-care and beauty videos became my new safe place, and that’s how Glowing Up was born.

If people think skin care and makeup are lame, I can’t get mad at them. That’s fine. I grew up loving Britney Spears and getting taunted at school for it, so I know how to shoulder being uncool for liking the cool, mainstream thing.

That’s kind of surprising, because at my school, everyone was into Britney. What kind of high-school culture is this, where a person is roasted for liking Britney Spears?
This was actually junior high, and it was a pretty normal public school, there just weren’t many other girls who felt for Britney. It wasn’t cool to like the big thing, everyone cool at my school was into indie music at this time. Looking back, that was kind of weird.

A friend of mine who’s a big Glowing Up fan told me she grew up in a town near yours in Illinois, and that she relates to this idea of a woman leaving the Midwest and sort of shedding her midwestern-ness as she moves through the world.
Oh, absolutely. For example, my best friend is from Beverly Hills, and he had to teach me the concept of throwing food away. It still makes me cringe and makes me violent. I hate it — I will seriously run after him if I see him throwing food away, like, “No! Don’t!” But where I’m from, you just eat every bite of what you have in front of you. You scoop every last Goldfish out of the Goldfish bag, and that’s how you are with all snacks. But my friend taught me the concept of sunk-cost, that you can’t get more than your money’s worth once you’ve paid for it, and that really got to me. I‘m not totally for it, but I’m warming up to it.

So, you’re currently in the writing sessions for the second season of Alone Together. As TV shows go on, audiences tend to expect some development or evolution from season to season — has this been on your mind during the planning for the new episodes?
Yeah, we were just talking about that this week. We’re thinking about topical arcs, because in season one, every episode can sit on its own, and we think we want to change that up. We’re working on a season opener that — what can I say without giving anything away? — it plays with how time passes by. Slight changes, but nothing too drastic. I’m always going to be selfish and insecure and desperate, my character and Benji’s.

Your dynamic with Benji puts you in line with a lot of TV’s classic buddy comedies, and in a league with current stuff like Broad City and Difficult People. How have you and Benji set yourself apart from the similar programming?
When we came up with the show, to be completely honest, we didn’t give a thought to what else was out there. We weren’t crafting the show specifically to be different, we just looked within and thought, “What would a real show based on us and our lives look like?” And from there, we built a show that’s not a will-they-won’t-they, that’s a true buddy comedy between a man and a woman. I don’t see many buddy comedies with a male and female lead that are allowed to remain friends, and even fewer where they’re both straight. This show is our friendship, and so it’s as different from other shows as one friendship is from another.

It’s a just-friends friendship, and yet you’re both constantly teetering on the edge of annoyance with one another. How would you explain that relationship to someone who didn’t have an intuitive understanding of it?
When you’re really close to someone, you’re just kind of mean to them. That’s not true of everyone; I can’t claim to speak for everyone. But for me it’s very true. It’s a form of love. It shows that you know each other very well, and it’s fun and playful. When Benji says something insulting about me, that’s a form of love, almost leaning into a sibling-esque relationship. Which I’m charmed by, because I never had a brother. We were both the youngest in our families, and our older siblings kind of thought we were pieces of shit. [Laughs.] Our older siblings care about us! But they wanted nothing to do with us. Benji and I are closer in age and have more in common, so that’s its own kind of closeness.

Adult characters in both Alone Together and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend comment on how the fictionalized Esther figure and your character Maya, respectively, embody the millennial spirit. And that’s for better or for worse — Maya’s ambitious and woke, whereas “Esther” is lazy and entitled. Where do you stand on this generational divide?
I don’t believe in it at all. I really don’t! Realistically, millennials aren’t nearly as lazy as Esther. Well, maybe the ones getting all their support from their parents are. But it’s really hard to make a living! Over the past ten years, I’ve always kept three jobs at once — I’ve been a nanny, been an assistant, worked at a juice place, worked at an Equinox. You’ve got to work hard if you want to stay afloat, at least when you’re trying to live in a city.

What was your favorite bad job?
In college, I was a nude model for an art class, and I thought that was gonna be really empowering and fun, and then when I saw the drawings of me afterward, I just thought, “I can’t believe my thighs look like that.” I was mortified. I could not handle how thick my thighs looked.

But anyway: I know my character’s lazy, but there’s an inherent laziness within everyone. Who wouldn’t sit on the couch all day, if they could? I don’t see it as the generational thing a lot of people seem to. I don’t think of it as specific to millennials. The reason that Esther’s lazy is because that’s real, and there’s comedy in that.

I felt very spoken to by the joke about mouth guards that opens the pilot.
Thank you. I love my mouth guard. I love how it makes me sound like a baby.

You did the whole braces thing?
Yeah, I wore braces in sixth grade. But my overbite’s still all fucked up, so I do Invisalign now. It’s really sexy. I’ve been on these trays for, like, a year and a half.

I always feel bad for adults who have to do full metal braces.
You know what’s crazy is I really wanted to do that. My orthodontist was like, “You should really get Invisalign, it’ll be better for all your grinding,” but I’m all about facing the scary thing head-on. I thought, “Adult braces, oh my god, that would be so horrible — wait, nope! That’s a sign I should do it.” So I got all emotionally ready for adult braces, but it just didn’t work out.

You’re known to some as “Little Esther,” a nickname from when you were starting out with stand-up. Do you think you might outgrow the title as your career goes on, à la the Rock’s transition to Dwayne Johnson?
First off, very flattering comparison. But I don’t think so, just because I don’t think enough people know the nickname. Or care. While I have been going by my full name a lot more recently, it doesn’t bother me when people call me Little Esther. I think it’s kinda cute.

Not to say it’s all been part of some larger plan, but a lot of the different parts of your career — particularly your podcast and webseries — engage with the idea of femininity, and expanding what that word can mean. Is that something you think a lot about?
Oh, absolutely. There’s this common advice that goes out to women: Let the guy come to you because men love a chase, let them catch you, you know. And I hate this advice, because if men love a chase, once he’s gotten you, what’s he going to do? Chase some other woman. It’s lame, and it takes power away from the woman. It’s never been my game. For me, every single time in my life that a man has tried to kiss me, it’s always gone terribly. It’s not even their fault. I’ve got this thing where I’m really uncomfortable with a man making the first move. I’ve had guys try to kiss me where I do like them and want to kiss them, but for some reason, I just don’t feel comfortable when a man makes the first move.

I like the idea of femininity including this position of being the aggressor. This goes against the common wisdom, but dating and sex advice is never one size fits all … That’s a game for gorgeous models. When men are throwing themselves at you, you can play that game, but it doesn’t work for short Jewish girls with stretch marks. We’re in our own world.

I’m a big questioner. I’ve always questioned things, and that definitely goes for standards of femininity. For instance, I don’t understand why women have to wear high heels. I don’t think it’s cute or cool or fair or fun, so I am constantly telling wardrobe and stylist people, “Please, no heels.” You’d be shocked at how everyone looks at me like I’m crazy, or says that one day I’ll come around on it. All because that’s what’s normal.

As a person gets more successful, they’re expected to be more glamorous and to fulfill a standard of how a celebrity dresses and looks. Has that been weird, to negotiate the way you feel most comfortable with the way you have to present yourself for work?
So much. That line on Alone Together — “Can we go to my place? I just want to put sweatpants on” — was an ad-lib, because I was sitting there in my dress and all I wanted was to get out of it. But yeah, it’s a weird balance. How do I stay myself and look professional when I go on late night or interviews? I have to look good, but I also want to be myself. When I left my house for the premiere party of Alone Together, I grabbed my onesie so I could change halfway through. Why not? I can do what I want. I’m not Jennifer Lawrence.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Esther Povitsky on Skin Care, Buddy Comedies and Millennials