My favorite new show is FXX’s Man Seeking Woman. It really spoke to me comedically and truthfully. It is a romantic comedy in which Josh Greenberg (Jay Baruchel) goes on a blind date with a troll. It’s not that in his head he sees her as a troll, it is an actual troll, in a world where trolls exist. In the same episode, he meets his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend, Adolf Hitler.
Just on the sheer level of absurdity, I love this, but I also get it. It represents our real struggle to find love, but if you make those feelings literal, it’s hilarious. I got to interview Man Seeking Woman creator Simon Rich when FX presented Man Seeking Woman to the Television Critics Association. Some upcoming spoilers for the first season follow, because I’ve seen the first three and Rich previewed more to come. Catch new episodes of Man Seeking Woman Wednesdays at 10:30 on FXX.
Nuke the Fridge: Earlier in the week we had a panel for the NBC comedy Undatable and the comedians on that show said when a woman says she wants a guy with a sense of humor, she really means “hot guy with one joke.” Do you agree with that assessment?
Simon RIch: Oh, you know, you can never generalize about what women want. It’s always more complicated than you can ever make it out to be. I think the one thing that is true across the board with dating is that people are attracted to confidence. I think that we’ve created probably one of the least confident characters in the history of sitcoms in Josh Greenberg. I think Jay knocks it out of the park playing him.
Nuke: Certainly having done online dating for over a decade, every profile says they want a sense of humor, as if there are people who don’t.
Simon Rich: Right, is there somebody who’s after a somber, jokeless monster? No, of course, everybody wants a sense of humor but confidence seems to be the universally attractive attribute.
Nuke: Is there a real truth to every absurd thing on the show? Like, we all feel like our ex’s new boyfriend is Hitler.
Simon Rich: Right, that’s what it’s all about. Dating seems like a pretty low stakes subject because everybody goes through it. It’s not life or death. It’s very casual but when you’re experiencing it, it feels like the most important thing in the world. So I wanted to do a show that dramatized how horrific or ecstatic dating can feel, because when you go through it it does feel like life or death. It does feel higher stakes than anything else in your life.
Nuke: But dating Hitler or dating a troll is higher stakes than the usual make-up/break up rom-com.
Simon Rich: Well, my hope was to try to use these surreal premises to dramatize how it can feel.
Nuke: Is the troll when you announce what the show is?
Simon Rich: I like to think that the rain cloud is the first time, but I think it takes more than one image probably for the viewers to understand the nature of the show. Because I made the thing, it’s hard for me to have distance from it, but I imagine watching it for the first time, it would probably take a few surreal scenes before you embrace the world.
Nuke: I guess the raincloud you might think was in his head, but when everyone acknowledges the troll, it’s not just he thinks she’s a troll.
Simon Rich: That’s right, yes, exactly. That’s a good point. It’s only once it’s corroborated by the other characters that you fully grasp the world.
Nuke: And then is the point to treat it like it’s not absurd?
Simon Rich: Yeah. That’s my [thing]. The Hitler scene is based on a story in my book. It’s called “Is It Just Me?” which could in some ways be an alternate title for this show. It was so important for us to hit our heroes’ isolation and loneliness. One of the ways we tried to get that across is by giving him no allies. His character is constantly asking whether or not other people relate to his misery and nobody else ever seems to. So that was a fun tool.
Nuke: Do you ever feel like the world stops to mentor you, like it seems to for Josh?
Simon Rich: Like the world is tormenting me?
Nuke: No, that they’re stopping to mentor you. They put everything on hold to help Josh create the perfect text.
Simon Rich: I’m really excited about that scene because it’s kind of the first time in the season where we really get a sense of how much Mike and Liz care about him. In the very first episode, he’s very much on his own. There are a couple sweet moments, but as the season progresses, we try to flesh out those relationships and show the ways in which Mike and Liz at least are attempting to help him, even though their advice is often terrible.
Nuke: Is “I’m not the one you should apologize to” going to be a recurring joke?
Simon Rich: It’s certainly a recurring joke in the pilot. I think “fair enough” is probably, if Jay has a catch phrase in the show, it’s probably “fair enough.” He seems to say that an awful lot after something horrible happens to him. I mean, basically in the writers room, it was just every day waking up and trying to figure out a new way to torture Jay. Whether we electrocute him or push him off a bridge, it was all about coming up with more horrors to inflict on him.
Nuke: Is electrocution and falling off a bridge coming up?
Simon Rich: We have a lot of electrocution, different types of electrocution. In the fourth episode, he withholds some information from his mother about the girl he’s seeing. She, being a lot like my own Jewish mother, is unsatisfied with his descriptions of the relationship. She wants more details so she tortures him, supervillain style.
Nuke: Once again, that’s how we feel about our parents interrogating us.
Simon Rich: That’s right. That’s exactly right. It was our attempt to take these universal experiences that we all go through and tell that old story in a new way.
Nuke: I would like to see “I’m not the one you should apologize to” keep coming back.
Simon Rich: It’s true. I think Jay does apologize a lot in the show. There’s definitely a recurring motif of Jay having to walk quietly out of a room after having just disgraced himself. I think that happens at least three more times.
Nuke: Is the point ultimately that with everyone’s advice and as fantastical as the show gets, to still be yourself and not practice any of these tricks people suggest?
Simon Rich: Yes. Without giving too much away, it’s about a very insecure, cowardly character who’s very much afraid to be himself. He’d rather be anything but himself. He follows his sister’s advice. He follows his best friend’s advice and the only person he doesn’t listen to is himself. As the season progresses, after making many, many mistakes, he’ll gain a little bit of self-confidence and become a little bit self-aware.
Nuke: Was R. Lee Ermey not available for the war room scene?
Simon Rich: [Laughs] You know, I always thought Hogan was our guy. That would’ve been great too, but I thought Michael Hogan knocked it out of the part. That bottle take, it was just two takes and we got it on the first one. What you see is what you get. That was one take.
Nuke: In episode three, are you allowed to show the alien breasts because they have no nipples?
Simon Rich: That’s the idea. On planet Sex, which is where our sex aliens hail from, their species is nipple-less which is a good coincidence as it fits into standards and practices.
Nuke: Although FX is pretty bold. They’ve shown a lot.
Simon Rich: That’s true. The sex alien episode is not our most risque. Not to give too much away, but we do have an episode that revolves around a Japanese penis monster, Tanaka. That was a lot harder to squeak through than the sex aliens.
Nuke: No hentai? Just penis monster?
Simon Rich: I think there is definitely a hentai influence on that character. He’s an octopoidal creature from another dimension who travels through space and time looking for orifices to penetrate with his many purple penises.
Nuke: Is New York dating significantly different than LA dating?
Simon Rich: I wouldn’t know because I’ve never really dated in LA. I think dating is kind of dating wherever you go. Especially now with the internet, everyone is kind of living through the same apps. Everyone is kind of living a closer experience. I think if anything, dating has become more homogenous as a result of universal access to the same few popular apps.
Nuke: More homogenous meaning everyone has the same experience, there’s less diversity?
Simon Rich: Yeah, I think so. I bet dating used to be very different whether you were in the suburbs or a city for example. Now it all kind of starts the same way. It all starts with flirtatious texts and banter.
Nuke: Have you noticed this generation, a lot of women on social media say they refuse to date now? Yet they complain about being single, so I don’t know how I can help them if they’re not willing to do the thing that ends being single. If I’m interested in them but they refuse to date, what do I do?
Simon Rich: That is a conundrum. I don’t know how to solve that one. I haven’t picked up on that trend. That sounds unresolvable.
Nuke: It seems like a reaction to modern dating going badly, so I’m just going to excuse myself from the whole process. But that is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Simon Rich: That’s something we definitely explore on our show. From time to time, our characters, not just Jay, will say, “Enough is enough. I’ve been tortured, I’ve been humiliated, I’ve been degraded. I’m just going to check out of this dating world.” But they always get sucked right back in it.
Nuke: I’m sure you’ve heard people say, “It happens when you’re not looking.” So I tried that and stopped online dating or going places just to meet women.
Simon Rich: And how’d that work out for you?
Nuke: Years went by it didn’t happen when I wasn’t looking either, so I said, “Sh*t, I’d better start dating again.”
Simon Rich: [Laughs] Wow, that’s great. I love that.
Nuke: But I think ultimately you find when people give you that advice, they’re just trying to articulate something they don’t really understand. Their experience might have been “it happened when I wasn’t looking” but that wasn’t really the totality of the forces that led them to the person they met.
Simon Rich: No, no, and people always like to rewrite their own dating narratives to make it more picture book and make it sweeter. Nobody likes to say at their wedding toast that they were incredibly desperate, craven and through sheer force of will they managed to find somebody. It’s always a miraculous storybook meeting.
Nuke: You’re right, I know people who changed the story of they were introduced by friend or they met at a bar to something else.
Simon Rich: Yes, there’s this pressure to concoct this whimsical fairy tale and that’s something we talked a lot about in the writers room. The reality of dating is always much messier and darker. Also, the way dating usually works in your 20s, people drift in and out of your life. The fact that we have an ex-girlfriend as a series regular will foreshadow how that character features into Josh’s life. But yeah, the sort of on again, off again thing is such a reality of 20s dating. We wanted to write a lot about that.
Nuke: Did Jay get the tone right away?
Simon Rich: Yeah, instantly. He got it right away. They all did. Our entire cast, our guest stars without exception. As soon as we told them to just play it straight, play it naturally, they all nailed it.