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Snark Aside, Julie Klausner Says 'Difficult People' Is Inspired By Love


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Today's next guest, Julie Klausner, created, writes and co-stars with Billy Eichner in the Hulu comedy series "Difficult People," which launched its third season earlier this month. She and Billy Eichner play best friends living in New York. They're both aspiring comics who are failing at becoming famous. One of the show's executive producers is Amy Poehler. Julie Klausner was a co-executive producer and writer for Billy Eichner's other TV series "Billy On The Street." She also did some writing for Joan Rivers. And she is obsessed enough with pop culture that she used to be a recapper, writing episode recaps for "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" and "New York." Terry spoke with Julie Klausner last year.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Julie Klausner, welcome to FRESH AIR. I want to quote something you write in your book. And you write, (reading) there's a fantasy I've always entertained about connecting with somebody who hated as much about the world as me...


GROSS: ...Somebody crank and contrarian who loved dishing about successful people we both knew (laughter). So how did that go in trying to...

JULIE KLAUSNER: It went great, Terry.


KLAUSNER: That was basically my intention - I published my vision board, I guess (laughter). But in the book, I was talking about a romantic partner. And on the show, you know, there very much is a romance between our characters, but we are best friends.

GROSS: But in real life, have you tried to, like, form relationships based on hating things and based on, like, what you don't like about pop culture or what you don't like about certain celebrities? And how far does that get you, that...


GROSS: Deep connection through - I don't like it either?

KLAUSNER: I think it gets you pretty far. But it goes beyond the superficial of what I don't like about celebrities. I think when you connect with someone that has always felt like an outsider or who has not found her tribe yet or is still looking to be heard in a way that she - I keep saying the third person. I'm clearly talking about myself (laughter) - the way that I didn't feel like I was necessarily heard or understood growing up, then there is a romance to that commiseration. It's a shared experience.

So I don't acknowledge precisely how shallow that sounds. (Laughter) I think that it is rooted in a more simple desire to connect with someone that you have something in common with that's actually pretty deep and emotional and comes from, you know, in some cases, some pretty traumatic (laughter) childhood experiences.

GROSS: So I want to play another clip. This is from the third episode of the first season of "Difficult People." And Billy - Billy, who's played by Billy Eichner, was going to appear as the bartender on the Bravo talk show "Watch What Happens: Live," but he's asked to leave because one of the celebrity guests that night, Chelsea Handler, didn't like the fact that Billy had made fun of her on Twitter. So Billy's really depressed about getting thrown out of the show (laughter). And he and you go back to your apartment, where your boyfriend is also - he's really depressed. And he works on PBS, and pledge week isn't going well for him (laughter). So Billy speaks first.


BILLY EICHNER: (As Billy Epstein) I was banned from Bravo.

JAMES URBANIAK: (As Arthur Tack) Congratulations.

KLAUSNER: (As Julie Kessler) It's Chelsea Handler's fault.

EICHNER: (As Billy Epstein) No, it's my fault, too. I need to stop being mean to celebrities. Every time I talk [expletive] about a famous person, I lose a potential gig.

KLAUSNER: (As Julie Kessler) Talking [expletive] about celebrities is what we do, OK? It's the only thing that comes more naturally to us than breathing air.

EICHNER: (As Billy Epstein) I know. But maybe it's time to pull a Perez Hilton.

KLAUSNER: (As Julie Kessler) Pose in a Speedo with a baby in the bathtub?

EICHNER: (As Billy Epstein) No, I mean stop being mean to celebrities.

KLAUSNER: (As Julie Kessler) Just as it's starting to pay off? Chelsea Handler knows who you are now. Maybe it's just a question of picking your feuds as your star rises. I'm hungry. Are you hungry? Arthur, is there dinner?

URBANIAK: (As Arthur Tack) No, I'm sorry, noodles. I was just far too spent when I got home. Would you like pizza?

KLAUSNER: (As Julie Kessler) I guess.

EICHNER: (As Billy Epstein) Arthur, are you OK?

URBANIAK: (As Arthur Tack) Yes, thank you, Billy. And I'm sorry I didn't get up to greet you when you came in. It's just pledge drive week at PBS, and it is even crazier than last year.

KLAUSNER: (As Julie Kessler) Oh, my God...

URBANIAK: (As Arthur Tack) I've been exhausted.

KLAUSNER: (As Julie Kessler) ...I just got invited to The Simpsons Live at Town Hall after party.

EICHNER: (As Billy Epstein) Oh, I didn't get that invitation, probably because I'm mean to everyone. I bet I said something provocative about Yeardley Smith on Instagram at some point.

KLAUSNER: (As Julie Kessler) Is it Yardley (ph) or Yeardley?

EICHNER: (As Billy Epstein) I don't know.

KLAUSNER: (As Julie Kessler) And an invitation will always be redundant because you will always be my plus one.

EICHNER: (As Billy Epstein) Well, thank you.

URBANIAK: (As Arthur Tack) What am I, flake-sandwich (ph) meat?

KLAUSNER: (As Julie Kessler) And as far as the whole be-nice-to-celebrities thing, I'm not in favor of it, particularly because Chrissy Teigen just weighed in on the Greek elections.

EICHNER: (As Billy Epstein) Oh, well, she doesn't have quite the shrewd political mind of a Naya Rivera. No, I don't want to be mean anymore.


GROSS: So that was Billy Eichner and my guest Julie Klausner on an episode of "Difficult People," which Julie writes, stars in and is the executive producer of.

So they're so surprised that being nasty to people actually has repercussions.


GROSS: So - but I'm wondering how this has played out in your life. I mean, you - you're on Twitter all the time. You've done recaps. So when you've said something bad about people, has that ever come back and slapped you in the face?

KLAUSNER: Yes, but like our characters on the show, I am so amazed every time it happens because, in my mind, I am not famous. I am not listened to or paid attention to. And I think our characters on the show believe, in their world view, that they're so inconsequential, and they're so ignored. Our characters will always use the passive tense because we believe that it's the world's fault and not ours. There's nothing we can do to even that score. But whenever that does happen, there is a certain amount of surprise in the sense of, oh, you were listening? Thank you.

GROSS: So let's hear another scene from the series. And this is from the first episode of the first season. And you're having lunch with your mother in a restaurant, and she is played by the great Andrea Martin, who got her start on SCTV.


ANDREA MARTIN: (As Marilyn Kessler) Hi. Don't you look pretty when you smile. Honey, do you know this Linna (ph) Dunham?

KLAUSNER: (As Julie Kessler) Yeah, actually...

MARTIN: (As Marilyn Kessler) Apparently, she's doing great, and she's younger than you - she has tattoos. Anyway, this article says it is a great time now for women in comedy.

KLAUSNER: (As Julie Kessler) That's very helpful. Thanks, Mom.

MARTIN: (As Marilyn Kessler) So aren't you going to ask me if I finished my hypnosis course?

KLAUSNER: (As Julie Kessler) Wow, that would have been a breakneck pace for a change of subjects if both subjects weren't you.

MARTIN: (As Marilyn Kessler) I finished my hypnosis course. When can I practice on you?

KLAUSNER: (As Julie Kessler) You're not hypnotizing me.

MARTIN: (As Marilyn Kessler) It's not like I tell you you're a chicken, and then you act like a chicken.

KLAUSNER: (As Julie Kessler) That very well may be, but I still don't want you to do it.

MARTIN: (As Marilyn Kessler) You're lucky to have a mom who's a shrink.

KLAUSNER: (Julie Kessler) Yes, I'm a walking gratitude list.

MARTIN: (As Marilyn Kessler) Yeah. I asked for sparkling. How's Billy?

KLAUSNER: (As Julie Kessler) He's good. You know, he is just getting over this guy is the only thing. Josh, I don't know if you met him.

MARTIN: (As Marilyn Kessler) I can hypnotize him. It's not like I tell him he's a chicken, and, all of a sudden, he becomes a chicken or something. Did you get that article I sent you about Palestine...

KLAUSNER: (As Julie Kessler) Yes.

MARTIN: ...Because I'm about to resend it. There we are. What else?

GROSS: (Laughter) Andrea Martin and my guest Julie Klausner in a scene from "Difficult People."

So the mother that you've created for the series is so self-absorbed. Like, everything - absolutely everything is an anthem to herself. But in the acknowledgements to your book, you write - you dedicated the book to your parents. And you write, I love you so much it is actually ridiculous. So make the connection for me between how much you love your actual parents and (laughter) what a monster the mother in the series is.

KLAUSNER: (Laughter) Well, the monster in the series is not my real mother. I want to make that clear - that she is a fictional character that Andrea Martin plays so beautifully and hilariously that we began writing for her as - I mean, she - in other words, she made this character someone that it became a complete and utter joy to write for. And that doesn't come from real-life experiences. I don't think I'd be here talking to you if I had a mother like that.

The notion of the mom being as self-centered as she is and conditional with her love and as lousy of a listener and someone that repeats herself as much as she does - you know, she repeated herself twice in that scene - assumes that people are as bad of a listener as she is - comes from wanting to establish a world in which my character could exist and explaining why she is as, I mean, difficult as she is and, ideally, setting up some opportunity for people to sympathize with her for having a mom that's more self-centered than she is.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Julie Klausner. She created, writes and co-stars in the Hulu series "Difficult People." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Julie Klausner. And she created, stars in, along with Billy Eichner, and writes the Hulu comedy series "Difficult People." So I want to talk a little bit about casting "Difficult People." It's a very representative cast. I mean, you have black actors and white actors, gay actors and straight actors, thin actors and heavy actors, a trans actor, and a great actor who should be better known than he is, who - I don't know what other categories he fits into, but that one would be James Urbaniak. Did you set about trying to make, like, a very representative cast and to have very, like, you know, diverse characters?

KLAUSNER: Absolutely. It was never something that was imposed on us or an afterthought. It was just part of the fabric of the world that we wanted to show. And we also wanted to show how trans people can be jerks, too, that, (laughter) you know, there's a whole range of people in New York City. In our world, you know, Billy and Julie aren't the only difficult people. The people around them are pretty awful, too, or at least difficult. And I think an important part of inclusiveness and diversity in TV and film has to do with writing characters that are not, you know, perfect or...

GROSS: Idealistic.

KLAUSNER: ...Role models or - exactly, yeah. And Shakina Nayfack, who plays Lola, is so irreverent and hilarious. And she was so excited at the idea of playing a trans character that doesn't get killed or isn't a magical, perfect presence. And we got to do things with her character like comment on the misinterpretation of who she is. Cole Escola's character, Matthew, is a sort of effeminate theater fanatic who works with Billy at the cafe as a waiter, and he treats Shakina's character like a drag queen and says things like, yes, honey. (Laughter) And Lola has to remind him that she's not a drag queen and shuts him down.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KLAUSNER: And that stuff - I've just never - I've never seen it before. You know, some of the diversity is political, but a lot of it just comes from the fact that, you know, a big challenge of writing is, well, have I seen that before? And would I like to see that?

GROSS: So you are obviously very passionate about popular culture, which is why you can have so many funny jokes insulting various aspects of popular culture because you clearly care deeply about it and know it well. So what did TV and movies and music mean to you when you were a kid growing up?

KLAUSNER: Oh, wow. I mean, it's kind of a cliche, or at least a modern adaptation of, I guess, "At The Ballet" from (laughter) "A Chorus Line." But it was a very accessible way to escape all of the social challenges of not necessarily fitting in with my peers in class and instead finding a greater connection in something that was on the screen or on stage. And it took me to emotional places that real-life experiences didn't necessarily. So it was very - it was very - it helped me a lot (laughter).

GROSS: So in one of your podcasts in which you talked about seeing the revival of "Cats," you talked about how when you were 5 you went to the theater and saw "Cats." And, you know, the cats go out into the audience. And one of the cats came up to you and touched you. You remembered the cat's orange nail polish. And you wondered, like, is that the moment that you thought you should become a performer? So what did that moment mean to you, especially as someone who's not a participator?


KLAUSNER: I was 5, I think, so I was very impressionable. And I remember the orange nail polish - it was chipped. And I remember thinking, oh, this is, like, a real, cool girl. She reminded me of my my baby sitter at the time who was also cool, and I looked up to her. And I thought, look at that - holy cow (laughter). And then, the rest of it is all emotion that I can try to, you know, retroactively infuse with reason. But it really just comes down to - oh, my God, oh, my God, oh, my God - Broadway and kitties (laughter) and the feeling of just being exposed to this intensity that was very escapist and exciting. And then later, you grow older, and you're like - why do the cats have to come into the audience?


KLAUSNER: But I did look over - at the revival, I did look over the aisle, and there was a 10-year-old girl who was interacting with one of the cats who'd come into the audience. And the look on her face was - that was definitely one of the elements that caused me to cry like a baby during "Memory" - was seeing this little girl being, you know, moved in the way that I was, I'm sure.

GROSS: So I don't know if you're in a relationship now or not. In a way, that's irrelevant to this question. When you've had boyfriends over the years, did it matter if they shared your taste or even your interest in popular culture?

KLAUSNER: (Laughter) I think it matters to some extent. I don't think I could be with someone that had terrible tastes. I don't think I would be OK, you know, having to go to a Grateful Dead concerts or see "Star Wars" movies. But I also know that that is not necessarily a deal breaker. And one part of a healthy relationship is one person having things that they're interested in and the other not necessarily feeling obligated to attend every cultural event that they want to check out. I didn't, you know, watch "Game Of Thrones" with my last boyfriend. (Laughter) I was in the next room.

GROSS: What makes you one of the few people who don't like "Game Of Thrones"?

KLAUSNER: A few things - dragons...

GROSS: (Laughter).

KLAUSNER: ...Rape. I mean, there's so many (laughter) overlapping categories of this particular Venn diagram of not-for-me.


GROSS: So I was thinking I'd maybe end the interview the same way I ended my interview with Don Rickles. And this is a question that I've only ever asked Don Rickles, but I think I'll ask it to you, too. And I may regret it, but, fortunately, we edit the show, so if I don't like the answer, we can just take it out. So the question is would you insult me?

KLAUSNER: Not for a million dollars.

GROSS: Oh, come on.

KLAUSNER: (Laughter) I just - I love you so much, Terry. Can I insult you? I really don't know if I can.

GROSS: OK. All right.

KLAUSNER: I just - I know, like...

GROSS: ...I don't want to put you on the spot. I thought it would come naturally.

KLAUSNER: No, I wouldn't - here - I wouldn't insult you. I wouldn't insult, you know, Madonna (laughter). Certain people that I just won't...

GROSS: ...I am often mentioned in the same sentence as her.

KLAUSNER: (Laughter).

GROSS: This happens to me all the time.

KLAUSNER: Well, you're more self-aware about your singing. I'll say that.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KLAUSNER: Oh [expletive], I just did insult Madonna.


KLAUSNER: No, I just - I'm really - yeah. I just couldn't do it. I couldn't do that. I couldn't insult you. I'm not going to insult my dad.


KLAUSNER: Certain people that are off-limits.

GROSS: OK. Julie Klausner, thank you so much for talking with us.

KLAUSNER: Oh, my God, Terry, thank you so much for having me.

BIANCULLI: Julie Klausner, the creator, writer and co-star of "Difficult People," the Hulu sitcom that launched its third season earlier this month. Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews the new independent film "Patti Cake$," which caused a stir at this year's Sundance Film Festival. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.