‘You’re the Worst’ Creator Stephen Falk on Making Depression Funny in Season 2

How 'You're the Worst' Made Depression
Courtesy FXX

The second season of FXX’s “You’re the Worst” is likely to show up on many critics year-end best-of lists in coming weeks (including mine). Not only did the show’s sharp cast continue to provide witty portraits of self-absorption, adventurousness and silly behavior, “You’re the Worst” took on subject that could have stopped the show’s momentum in its tracks and made it work.

In season two of “You’re the Worst,” music publicist Gretchen Cutler (Aya Cash) hid her struggle with clinical depression from her boyfriend, writer Jimmy Shive-Overly (Chris Geere). Eventually, her secret came out, and the duo’s efforts to remain connected in the face of that situation and other challenges gave much of the season a serious and bittersweet focus. And yet “You’re the Worst” remained light on its feet and funny, which was a neat trick. Not many shows can induce belly laughs and tears in under 30 minutes, but this year, “You’re the Worst” did so on a regular basis.

In part one of a two-part interview, creator Stephen Falk talks about why he decided to take his show into this territory, even as it navigated a move to a new network (from FX to FXX). In part two of the interview, which is here, he addresses the end of the season and shares a few preliminary thoughts on season three of “You’re the Worst,” which was just renewed by FXX.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

You were coming off a first season that was well-regarded critically, but it didn’t make the most noise ratings-wise, and this year, the show moved to a new network. It’s probably a nerve-wracking situation regardless, but then you decided to do a major storyline about clinical depression. Can you walk me through that decision-making process?

First of all, it’s under the umbrella of my not being very savvy about ratings. I get the ratings and I can understand percentage increases or decreases. But in general, for how much I have tried to make myself a student of the industry, I do not really understand what the numbers mean exactly. And it’s not that they’re not important, but there’s not a lot I can do except try to make the show I make.

What I do pay a lot of attention to is [those who cover TV, and I think about] what content now means for providers, since there’s a proliferation of so many different people making television. I get the sense that those [ratings] numbers are less important. It’s becoming more important, it seems, to have a quality product that is brand-defining, and I happen to be on a network now that is in search of greater definition. It certainly has definition being part of the [FX family] — FX has arguably one of the highest brand recognitions. But FXX [is still being defined].

Not to be cheeky about it, but it becomes my job to try to make my show richer and deeper and more interesting and more memorable to the audience that we do have. Certainly, I’d like to grow it and I think that more people should be watching and more people could enjoy it. But my job became to try to make a quality show. I have such a talented cast and such a great writing staff, and it would have been very easy to just make a fun season about Jimmy and Gretchen as a couple, watching them wreak havoc on the East Side of Los Angeles and be rude to people and go through their ups and downs.

But the way I’ve been taught to make television, and what I’m interested in generally as a human being, led me to realize I wanted to do something kind of different and daring and weird, for lack of a better word. I certainly wouldn’t say important, but something substantive. We fished around, and depression was something that I had experience with in my life and in the circle of people I know. On my staff, we all had a lot to say about it. It seemed really challenging and scary, but perfectly fitting within the framework of Gretchen’s backstory and the character that we had set up.

That sounds like a terrible sell to a network and to an audience for a pretty goofy sitcom. We have our serious moments and the show has a large tonal palette, but still, for a sitcom to tackle something like that seems kind of dumb or just wrong-headed or overreaching. But I couldn’t get it out of my head, and I pitched it to the network. They’re very willing to take risks and they let me give it a shot. Of course, they read all the scripts and see all the cuts so I think if at any point they thought it wasn’t going to work, [they would have said so.] But they never questioned it once I had the initial meeting. In the initial meeting, they just said, “Make sure it’s interesting.” So that was my job.

One other point is that my actors are so talented that it would have been a shame to not test them and not use all the parts of their capabilities.

What was Chris and Aya’s reaction when you brought it to them?

They are so just on board. They trust me and the other writers, and they’re just excited by everything that we’ve given them so far. They certainly have input and they certainly question things when they need to be questioned, but they were really excited. Aya has such a strong theater background and she does challenging plays. She takes on dark material and she’s very comfortable moving in those dark spaces. So I didn’t think there would be any pushback.

The goal was never just to tell a story about depression, but rather to tell the story about what happens to a relationship when depression rears its head. It’s incredibly difficult, and I think Aya is obviously doing award-worthy work with such dark material. But Chris [is playing a difficult role also]. He’s trying to support his partner and portray someone who is dealing with the completely confusing mixed messages one receives [in that situation]. We’ve asked a lot of him as well. They’re walking into some really difficult, at times unlikable territory and they’re doing a great job.

Episode nine, “LCD Soundsystem,” had one of the most memorable moments of the entire series. Jimmy and Gretchen are walking away from the house of the couple they’d met, and Jimmy’s babbling about something, and Gretchen’s face is just devastated. She just completely conveys how lost and alone she feels in that moment.

Thank you. All the credit goes to the actors. That walk at the end of the episode was one of the most technically challenging experiences we’ve ever had. Not only did Aya have to do that, but [she had almost no time to do it]. I was directing that episode and by the time I said, “Action” on the first take, we had eight minutes before we had to shut down. We would basically be arrested if we kept going.

Not only that, but she had to walk at a certain pace so that the camera could hold just her in the shot. We wanted to go from [having both characters in the shot to having just Aya in the shot]. I couldn’t do that with camera movement, because we were on such a tight focal plane. So it had to be timed out perfectly — she had to get closer to the camera, but not too close or she’d be out of focus. So she had all these difficult technical things to think about, and everyone was super-tense because it was 2:22 a.m. and we had eight minutes to shoot it. The fact that we got it and it was so masterful — that was just such a testament to her skill as an actor.

Have you experienced depression in the past?

No, I have not. I’m lucky for whatever reason to have a chemical makeup that’s incredibly buoyant. It’s probably just the way stupid people are — I’m probably just too dumb to be depressed. But no. People in my life [have experienced it].

Why do you think TV has such a hard time conveying it in any kind of realistic way? Is it because most of TV is still stuck in a mindset that says, “We have to be able to wrap it up by the end of this arc or at the end of this episode”?

Yeah, I think so. We’re in an environment with FX that allows us to be truthful and not have to gussy it up. Certainly having the mandate to make it interesting was a challenge, because it can be very passive. But even the episodes where Gretchen’s depression is at its worst and she is very passive, like in episode 12, we worked really hard to find ways to make what’s happening in the frame not passive or boring, or we tried to render the passivity in an interesting visceral way.

I reject the idea that a lot has to be going on in a frame for it to be interesting. You can delve very deeply into silence and inactivity and paralysis and render it haunting and beautiful and just as interesting as Joe Pesci delivering some whirlwind monologue. It’s not binary. [It’s a matter of doing it realistically], but also just having the dramatic skill set to make it also fun. I mean, “fun” seems like a really weird word when describing this kind of storyline, but that’s what you have to do. Even “Kramer vs. Kramer” — it’s a fun movie, and I think I mean “fun” in maybe a different way. There’s something happening in the story. You’re feeling something. You’re feeling alive, and to me that’s fun.

With shows like “BoJack Horseman,” “Mr. Robot” and “Unreal,” I think there’s a different approach to depression bubbling up here and there. There are some shows that are treating it much more matter-of-factly.

Certainly. I think that television is cyclical, and we’re probably in a cycle [that allows more] depth and [encourages] the kind of stories we’re allowed to tell right now. It has a lot to do with what we were talking about earlier — the fact that there is such a cluttered landscape and that it’s hard to stand out. And also, people like myself or Raphael Bob-Waksberg on “BoJack” or Marti Noxon and Sarah [Gertrude Shapiro of “Unreal”] are being allowed to make television. If you reach a little deeper onto the Hollywood list of writers — and I’m certainly not anywhere near the top — you maybe get people who just have to tell different stories, because [those stories interest them and] they need to try to define themselves and make their career.

I think the executives are getting savvier certainly. I don’t have the exact demographics, but it does feel like I started working at the end of a certain generation of television writers, certainly sitcom writers, half-hour writers. A new generation has kind of moved in and is taking their place, in certain ways. Certainly not in Chuck Lorre’s world, but in other worlds.

But we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. As a kid watching TV, shows would go to really dark places. I mean “M*A*S*H” went to the darkest places. Hawkeye watched a woman kill her child so as not to alert the enemy that they were coming. “M*A*S*H” could be the darkest show.

Maude had an abortion.

Yes. “Maude,” “All in the Family.” There was incredibly dark s— on TV. Also, I went to drama school and wanted to be an actor, and I was always more attached to more complicated stage work. I sort of brought that over and fused it with those early “M*A*S*H” memories. I can never get away from thinking everything is kind of a joke and finding life tragically funny and finding humor in anything.

Speaking of episode 12, do you just happen to be pals with Henry Rollins? How did that happen?

No, not at all. We were searching for someone whom Gretchen may have known or dated in her travels in the music industry. Henry Rollins is kind of iconic and funny and I’ve always really liked him. So we just reached out to him, and he was actually traveling so he couldn’t be there. We had him on the iPad from his hotel room in Istanbul or something. He was kind enough to do that.