‘Harley Quinn’ Showrunners Break Down Clayface’s Autoeroticism, Penis Jokes and ‘High-Brow’ Appeal of ‘A Very Problematic Valentine’s Day Special’

Harley Quinn Valentine's Day special
Courtesy of HBO Max

SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers from “Harley Quinn: A Very Problematic Valentine’s Day Special.”

“Harley Quinn: A Very Problematic Valentine’s Day Special” is a lot like “When Harry Met Sally,” if “When Harry Met Sally” had prominently featured a demon who speaks in rhymes to sell sex pills or a sentient lump of clay who falls in love with his own ass.

Not every part of the special is that crass (even though most of it is): “Harley Quinn” showrunners Patrick Schumacker and Justin Halpern wanted to devise what Schumacker calls “a real mash-up of high-brow and low-brow, with the high-brow being Harley and Ivy’s genuine adoration of each other,” and the low-brow being … everything else.

Harley Quinn (Kaley Cuoco) goes to dramatic lengths to plan the best Valentine’s Day of all time for Poison Ivy (Lake Bell), who just wants a quiet night in, and the still-new couple must learn how to love each other in ways that suit both of them. Meanwhile, Clayface (Alan Tudyk) gets catfished by a Tinder date, who slashes him in half, only for his lower end to become sentient and seduce him, and Bane (James Adomian) sets up a hookup with a dominatrix, but begins to worry about the proportions of his genitalia. But to keep things sweet, all the sex and violence is cut together with scenes of different DC couples sitting on a couch, explaining to the camera how they first got together. (Hello, Quinta Brunson and Tyler James Williams as Hawkgirl and Hawkman!)

When “Harley Quinn” returns for Season 4, Schumacker and Halpern will no longer serve as showrunners. They decided to pass the torch onto Sarah Peters as they move on to focus on Brunson’s “Abbott Elementary,” which they also showrun and executive produce via their Delicious Non-Sequitur production banner. With “Harley Quinn: A Very Problematic Valentine’s Day Special” now on HBO Max, they spoke to Variety about their last hurrah.

How did this episode come together?

Patrick Schumacker: We’ve been wanting to do a “Harley” holiday special for a really long time. We were like, “What hasn’t been done? Should we do a Hanukkah special?” And I’d still love to do that. But HBO Max’s schedule and the desire to put something on in between seasons necessitated a Valentine’s-centric episode.

We wanted to do something super gonzo, crazy — what would a rom-com be like with this crazy ensemble of characters? We batted around ideas like an anthology-type thing in the spirit of “Valentine’s Day” or “Love, Actually,” where you’re focusing on different pairings and maybe they come together at the end.

This special was your last hurrah as showrunners, as Sarah Peters has taken over for Season 4. How did that affect the process? Was there anything you were dying to fit into the show before you stepped down?

Justin Halpern: The first three seasons, I felt like we got to say a lot of the things that we wanted to say. So it was like, every dumb joke that we had hadn’t figured out a way to fit into the first three seasons. If you’ve seen the first three seasons, there’s a lot of dumb jokes in there, so you might be thinking, what was left? Specifically, the scene where Bane is working with a dominatrix. We just threw in everything we could — if you’re gonna do a special, you gotta make it special!

I think that that storyline was — I’m gonna try to speak carefully about this, because my kids are in the car with me right now — but we just thought it would be really funny if the dominatrix was insulting the size of the guy’s penis.

Schumacker: Here’s a guy who probably does a lot of HGH, or some fantastical version of it in the form of venom, that probably has some side effects similar to steroids. Or so I’ve heard. This big hulking dude, what would he be insecure about? Maybe it’s that, and it’s exacerbated by the fact that for the dominatrix who he gets a crush on, her client is paying her to humiliate that area.

Halpern: Also, I have a friend who is six-foot-nine, and he was like, “If you took my penis and you put it on a normal person’s body, it would look big. But because it’s on my body, it doesn’t look very big. It’s not fair, because it’s a normal-sized penis!” We took that idea and ran with it.

Clayface realizes he’s being catfished.

What about Clayface’s storyline? Why was he the other supporting character you focused on here?

Schumacker: We were talking about him, and who Clayface would be the most in love with, and we landed on: himself. The mechanics of that character lend themselves very easily to what we came up with — at least, our version of Clayface, where we’ve had his arm get chopped off and become sentient. We’d established Clayface’s power in Season 1, so let’s have him literally get cut in half and fall in love with his butt.

If he can survive being sliced in half, is it even possible for him to die?

Halpern: That’s a great question that I hope you don’t pose to your readers … because we don’t know. We’ve had a lot of arguments in the writers’ room: Can he die? He’s such a goofy character that we’ve never thought there’s been enough dramatic weight to make his death worthwhile. So we’ve never fully answered it. I guess, how do you dissolve clay? Maybe it just gets really wet?

Schumacker: I will say that we have zero plans of killing Clayface, so we haven’t spent a lot of bandwidth thinking of how we might kill him.

Halpern: I think we just broke a story here.

Schumacker: It definitely gives new meaning to the concept of “Clayface gets fired.” In a kiln! And dies!

You’ve said that Harley and Ivy will never break up, but they’re still in their early stages together, and have a lot of conflict and miscommunication. In the special, Harley’s complete obsession with giving Ivy the best Valentine’s Day she’s ever had almost turns things sour. What were you trying to say about their relationship?

Halpern: There’s so much to explore in a new relationship, because there’s still so much insecurity. It felt like an interesting idea for this special because it’s their first Valentine’s Day together — what are those bad habits you have from your old relationships? How do they manifest themselves when you’re in a good relationship? One of reasons we always say we’re not gonna break them up is not just because we don’t want to, but also because we just don’t think that’s the most interesting part of the story. Seeing two people who have a lot of issues try to sustain a healthy relationship is much more interesting than two people who can’t make it work.

Schumacker: Harley and Ivy are so much more interesting as characters when they are with each other, when they are able to bounce off of each other. They are the best at digging out aspects of each other that they themselves don’t want to the world to see. So they need each other, and we need them together — dramatically — to continue to make the show really interesting.

Harley is portrayed as the problem child, but Ivy took until the end of the episode to admit that this wasn’t her best Valentine’s Day — simply because she had been holding onto a small act of kindness Harley had shown her on a Valentine’s Day years ago, before they were even friends. It’s a sweet memory, so why didn’t she just explain that to begin with instead of letting Harley jump through hoops all day?

Halpern: We thought of it from from two different perspectives. When Harley hears that this Valentine’s Day isn’t Ivy’s favorite, she’s so in the moment that she never bothers to ask what was. Ivy doesn’t share it because it was a time when she felt really weak, vulnerable and lonely. And that’s those two characters: One is constantly living in the moment and unable to put anything in context, and the other one is always remembering a time when she felt less than. Even though it’s a ridiculous special with very goofy stuff in it, that was always at the core of the show. Once we do that, then you can have Bane taking spells that make him hump buildings.

Ivy has been through a lot, and not just romantically. No one has ever shown her kindness without her having to give back something in return. There’s no unconditional kindness in her life. Harley is the first person who does that, and that’s still taking Ivy a long time to get used to.

It’s also interesting that Ivy’s favorite Valentine’s day was so long ago, when Harley was still Harleen Quinzel and not a villain, because in the show, it takes Ivy so long to realize that she’s in love with Harley. What does that say about her? At what point do you think the attraction began, even if she wouldn’t admit it to herself yet?

Schumacker: I definitely think it was there [when they first met], and then their lives diverged when she went from being Harleen to Harley.

Halpern: It’s like in “Family Matters,” Laura didn’t like Steve Urkel, but when he became Stefan Urquelle, she was like, “That’s more my style.”

Schumacker: Justin’s giving away our secrets.

Halpern: Quinta talks about “Family Matters” constantly, so now it’s in my head all the time.

Schumacker: Harley and Ivy might go to space in later episodes, and I’m not saying it’s not based on “Family Matters.”

What should we expect from the new era of “Harley Quinn” led by Sarah Peters?

Schumacker: Sarah writes Ivy like no one else, and Season 4 will explore Ivy more than we have. There’s her new role with the Legion of Doom. There’s something Justin and I would not have immediately gone toward — I’m trying not to spoil anything — but she did an amazing job. Obviously, the show has benefited greatly from so many different female perspectives amongst the writers, and Sarah has always been very key. She’s written some of the most memorable, enduring episodes. She’s the one who brought Catwoman into the fold, she’s the one who wrote the the Season 2 finale where Harley and Ivy go driving off from Ivy’s intended wedding [with Kite Man], the bachelorette episode on Themyscira, our Season 3 premiere. Her grasp of Ivy and her ideas are things we certainly would would never think of, and I’m really excited for people to to get to see that.

And what can you tease about the upcoming Kite Man spinoff?

Halpern: It’s run by Dean Lorey, who we did the first three seasons with, and he partners with Katie Rich, an amazing comedy writer. The Kite Man series is gonna hit some of the same vibes that the special does. It gets out there. It goes for it. They’ve done such a good job of making Kite Man and Golden Gliders lovable doofuses. Pat and I pitched “Harley” as “It’s ‘Mary Tyler Moore’ with a psycho killer at the front.”

But we’ve always talked about the The Kite Man show as “Cheers.” “Cheers,” but for B-list supervillains.

This interview has been edited and condensed.