“It’s my oxygen,” Julie Klausner, creator and co-star of Hulu’s Difficult People, says of pop culture and entertainment news. “Like, it doesn’t really affect me that Mary Stuart Masterson is signed to CAA, and yet, I can't help but click on it. It’s a very integral part of who I am -- being surrounded by something that I consume and enjoy and aside or comment on.”
A pop culture junkie, Klausner has channeled that savvy and seemingly endless well of references into a sharp-tongued second season that skewered everything from The Real Housewives franchise to director Bryan Singer. And, yes, the always reliable Kevin Spacey gets the brunt of most of the show’s jokes.
To the delight of fans and critics, Difficult People -- which is about exaggerated versions of its stars (Klausner and Billy Eichner) struggling to make it as actors in New York City -- found its footing when it returned in July. With the relationship between Billy and Julie established in season one, the show embraced the world around them, introducing new characters (among them Lola, a transgender waitress at the restaurant where Billy works), seeing them venture outside of Manhattan and welcoming a slew of hilarious cameos (including Tina Fey, Dancing With the Stars champ Nyle DiMarco, Julianne Moore and Lin-Manuel Miranda).
Ahead of the finale (which is now streaming on Hulu), Klausner talked to ET about finding the show’s voice in season two, pushing the limits of political correctness and why Kevin Spacey is their go-to punchline.
ET: Congrats on avoiding the sophomore slump. Was there any point during production that it felt like things were really coming together this season?
Julie Klausner: Thank you. You know, I think that when we knew it was coming together [was] in the writers’ room. The production was sort of fast and furious, but the writing phase of it, you know, we really went into the season with a sense of what the show was and a sense of what our formula was circling around. We were able to be more ambitious with that. I also appreciate that we had so much more time to write. I wrote, like, eight scripts in 10 weeks or something for season one, so this was just absolutely luxurious to have between, I guess, September, October, November and December. It was decadent. As soon as we started talking about ideas and stringing them together, we all got very excited.
When we talked for Backstage, we discussed Amy Poehler’s influence on the show, in terms of giving notes on scripts. Was there anything in particular that she said to you going into season two?
Amy's very good at making sure our characters have vulnerability, and she's very good at pointing out whenever Billy or Julie seem bemused at something as opposed to affected emotionally. She's really sensitive to the emotional reality of the characters. It might go into crazy places, but Amy's very good at making sure that our characters come from a real, human place and are not just two-dimensional cartoons or monsters. She's also really good at pointing out when things don't seem authentic. We had a couple of ideas that we pitched that were a little too sketchy. Her sense for the tone of it is just so dead-on. Her notes come from a place of making sure that we're protecting our characters by showing them in all their wounded glory.
In an era of political correctness, whatever that means anymore, the show really seemed to enjoy going the other way, pushing the envelope in that sense. Was that a conscious effort?
We were very excited by the opportunity to play with the environment of political correctness in our own way. Meaning we were very excited about having a transgender character who was not sanctimonious or a victim, nor this moral center of perfection. I think that our goals going into this show have to do with diversity, but we want to represent people in a way that jives with our worldview. In our world, transgender people can be huge a**holes and we can use that. We can use Lola [played by transgender actress Shakina Nayfack] to comment on the way that people talk or don't talk about issues related to the transgender community and the sensitivity that people have. You know, we were able to comment on that by having Billy be extremely sensitive around Lola and be afraid that she was going to ruin his life with a hashtag, as she says.
And that was fun to play with, because we didn't have Gabourey Sidibe for as many episodes as we would've liked because she's on this show Empire. I've never heard of it. So, Lola was kind of a great means of making sure Billy had somebody to spar with that he really couldn't speak to because he was afraid of her. She sort of holds power over him. It was very cool to play with that in addition to commenting on the political correctness right now. I think that when it comes to whether or not we're politically correct, I think that we really try to be on the right side of things. At least just speaking from my own experience, we're very conscientious about seeming like bullies. We want to seem like we're sticking up for the little guy who's getting sh*t on. Even though our characters do some really sh*tty things, we make it clear that we're coming from this place -- or at least make it funny, so people are rooting for us.
I’m glad you mentioned Lola, because I thought she was a great character. But she really toed the line with her jokes, including multiple uses of the word “fa***t.” Were you concerned at all about using that word or how far her jokes would go?
First of all, I'm so excited about Lola, and Shakina is fabulous. She's so funny, she's so smart and she adds such a Maude-ish quality to it. She's got this Bea Arthur delivery where she comes in, says something scathing and then leaves. But as far as what she says, we worked very closely with Shakina. Shakina was a consultant for the show and she pitched a lot of the lines that Lola has. That was something that I wouldn't have written. Because it came from her, it came from a place of observation and came from a place of authenticity. And for that reason, we all said, “OK, that's really f**king funny.” We went full throttle and she completely committed to it as the great actor she is. And for that reason, I think people can see the authenticity and I hope it doesn't read like we're making fun of people just for the sake of making fun of people. Lola is as difficult as everybody else in the cast and what she does speaks to that.
Another way to look this show is in the LGBT context. Did you ever think of Difficult People as a "gay series"?
You know, first of all I'd like to say it right now that Billy and I should get GLAAD awards this year. I don't know what GLAAD is waiting for. At this point, I'd take a Glad garbage bag award. If they want to send me a trophy, I'd be thrilled. As far as do I think of this as a gay show? I think of this as gay as much as I think of everything as gay because it's just so f**king smart and funny. It's almost like saying, “Is it a Jewish show?” Or “Is it a New York show?” And the answer is yes. All of the above. It speaks to who I am, who we are, and a big part of that is when you're writing from what you know and you have a lot of gay friends, you write about your gay friends.
One joke that the show got away with, without an apology or disclaimer, was the one about Bryan Singer. How did that happen?
Well, let me put it this way: We have a fabulous legal counsel on our production and he tells us when something might be dubious, and this one got through scot-free. So, hallelujah! I mean all Billy said is, “Why haven't you drowned in Bryan Singer's pool?” Everyone knows Bryan Singer has a pool, right? And he didn't say, “You did drown.” He didn't say, “This guy I know drowned in it.”
It was a good groaner.
I'm very proud of it.
Kevin Spacey became a recurring punchline this season. What is it about him that makes him ripe for jokes?
I just think he's a patron saint of the show. We made a lot of jokes about him in season one too. He’s sort of the show's patron saint and mascot and guiding light. He's welcome to come on the show -- we'd be thrilled to have him.
This season, the show really shone during some of the parody moments, “Patches” in particular. That was an incredibly funny episode. Where did the idea for that come from?
Thanks! Scott King is the showrunner and my co-writer on every script, and we wanted to do something that made fun of the shows that cast British and Australian actors who try to do American accents in the leads in these artful shows. It was Scott's idea that somebody would possibly misinterpret that, and then it snowballed from there.
The show really developed Andrea Martin’s character, Marilyn, who became a bit zanier and crazier. Was there anything in particular that you knew you wanted to do with her this season?
Here’s the thing: You have to cut back the amount of ideas that we have. This season, in particular, she was in Noises Off the whole time she was shooting Difficult People. You only have three out of five days, and then she was there full time and then she'd go uptown and do her play. It was insane, so we actually had to cut back on the stuff we had for Marilyn. It always breaks my heart to cut anything Andrea would ever be doing because I don't know anybody funnier or more talented than her. She's just so f**king amazing. I love writing for her.
You mentioned this season’s cameos earlier. You had Sonja Morgan and Luann de Lesseps from The Real Housewives of New York on, and Lin-Manuel Miranda reunited with Billy. How hard was it to get Lin on the show?
I don't know where he gets his energy. It's definitely not cocaine, because I’ve asked him enough to know. He has the money for some good cocaine at this point. The night before he shot our show, at 5 in the morning, he’d just taped the GRAMMY performance and Monday is the only dark day for Hamilton. He said, “Absolutely.”
Debbie Harry returns in the finale. Is she going to become Difficult People's version of Elena [from Billy on the Street] and appear every season?
Debbie Harry's much more than the Difficult People's version of Elena. She just happens to be a rock ‘n’ roll icon and a living goddess on planet Earth. And we will continue to use her as much as we possibly can, because she's Debbie Harry. She's really funny, too -- both she and Amy Sedaris. I want to do a spin-off where it's just the two of them. I love those two characters so much.
Difficult People is now streaming on Hulu.