‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ Star Rachel Bloom on Why TV Needs More Asian Bros
The charismatic star of the CW’s musical comedy opens up about her recent Golden Globe win, fighting to stay on air, and depicting mental illness in song.
Rachel Bloom is an American treasure in the making. When I ask to meet the now Golden Globe-winning star of The CW’s musical comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, she humbly suggests pizza, specifically John’s of Bleecker Street, a casual brick-oven establishment in the West Village. She arrives dressed to the nines anyway, fresh off a fancier appointment, apologizing for how nice she looks and talking as fast as Katharine Hepburn on cocaine. We order a large cheese pizza. It doesn’t survive the interview.
Bloom’s story is a digital-age American dream. Six years ago, she was writing and producing comedy songs on YouTube. Her first viral hit was an explicit tribute to the author of Fahrenheit 451 entitled “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury.” A few years later, Devil Wears Prada screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna clicked on one of her videos, looked her up, co-wrote a pilot with her, and the rest was history, albeit a tortuous one that involved pitching their show to several networks, landing a Showtime deal that fell through, and weathering gloomy ratings at The CW despite widespread critical acclaim.
Now, with a brand new Golden Globe in hand, Bloom’s future is looking bright.
Her television debut is untraditional, but it is quintessentially American, too. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend follows high-powered but depressed New York lawyer Rebecca Bunch (Bloom) on an ill-advised quest to win back her old summer camp flame Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III) in West Covina, California. It is a musical comedy not in the Glee sense, but in the authentic and, as Bloom notes, “patriotic” sense: In true Astaire-and-Rogers style, the characters break out into original song-and-dance numbers when words alone will no longer do. Sure, that genre has roots across the pond but it was perfected on celluloid here before being all but banished back to Broadway.
During our sit-down, which was condensed and edited for space, Bloom waxes passionate about bringing the musical back to the screen, however small, and about so many other things: Her fans, onscreen diversity, the possibility of a second season and, of course, the pizza.
In your acceptance speech, you talked about the rejection you faced shopping Crazy-Ex around to different networks. Was it frustrating to have something so unique and weird on your hands but to have trouble selling it?
It was really frustrating because we knew we had created something good and all of the rejections were different. Some places just say, “It’s not for us,” which, at the end of the day, networks have their own agendas, so it has nothing to do with you. But one place said, “Oh, we thought it’d be edgier.” Now, in the original pilot I give Greg [Santino Fontana] a hand job, I wax my asshole. I don’t know what you mean by fucking “edgier.”
And I think what they meant was that it’s ultimately an optimistic show [leans over my voice recorder]—Oh, wow! A huge pizza just came, just so you remember while you’re listening to this recording. Oh, yes! Oh my God. Give me just one second to bask in the glow of this pizza. Oh, it’s really hot, I’ll let it cool off—so it was frustrating, especially when you hear that it’s not edgy enough or, “Oh, we wish you were younger.”
Younger? Aren’t you 28?
That’s the other thing. I talked about rejection but I’m the most fortunate fucking person in the world. I have my own show at 28 and a Golden Globe. So, yes, I face rejection but I’ve also been very fortunate and understand how fortunate I am.
Many creators of TV musical comedies find a way to repurpose their old material but none of your YouTube songs have shown up in Crazy Ex so far. When did you decide to go all new?
Always. We’ve tried to occasionally repurpose stuff and that rarely works. We’re doing a musical television show—it’s the kind of thing I’ve always wanted to do—where the music is both funny but also really does further the plot and comes from character. The definition of a musical is that the emotion is so strong that you can’t talk anymore, you have to sing. The emotion isn’t strong enough when you’re just like, “Let’s take a second to sing about lamps!”
It has to come from the emotion for our show because Rebecca’s emotional state is so heightened, and there’s so much juicy emotional stuff to mine. It would have to be such an aside. If you were to try it with “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury,” the whole story would have to be about wanting to meet Ray Bradbury.
That being said, do you feel pressure given the way television is promoted online to produce songs that work both in the narrative and as standalone viral videos?
A hundred percent. You know what? That hasn’t worked. “Sexy Getting Ready Song” has gone viral but, short of that, no other song from our show has gone viral. I think our songs are awesome and some of the videos are successful but you can’t really control what goes viral. All I can do is make videos that are funny, and that can also be poignant, but if the goal is to go viral, you’ll go crazy.
You seem to have a really deep commitment to the genre of the musical…
I love musical theater so much. When done right, I think comedy songs can be the most efficient form of joke delivery. Songs can be the most efficient and the best forms of conveying emotion. Music is universal. It’s worldwide.
And a lot of people forget, or don’t know, that the modern musical is an American art form. It started as operetta in Europe but—Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George M. Cohan, Rodgers and Hammerstein—it’s an American art form and if you support musical theater it’s patriotic.
If I had time to say that in the [Golden Globes] speech, I would have said, “The American musical is alive and well. One of the places it lives is network television.” I have such pride in furthering the American musical and using it as a way to tell story.
The first musical you ever saw?
Guys and Dolls. I saw it when I was 5 in a community theater production. It was amazing.
The thing that strikes me the most about you as a performer is how much energy you have, whether it’s on the show itself or backstage singing an impromptu tune about tweeting at Tony Shalhoub. Where do you get it?
A lot of it stems from fear of death and fear of failure and fear of looking back and being like, “I could have tweeted more. I could have done this more.” I’m having the time of my life. I get to make a musical television show. But ultimately, it’s fear of not using every opportunity, not carpe-ing that diem, not taking advantage of the moment. I also love it. I’m having so much fun. And I’m also devouring this pizza and I’m having so much fun devouring it.
And you have a Golden Globe…
That still hasn’t really hit me.
Did it cross your mind that it could win? You were a favorite to win.
So it was like [shrugs] “Eh” and then, a couple days before, I thought I might win. It crossed my mind. I wrote a speech that I promptly threw away when I actually won. And then Rolling Stone said I was the frontrunner. That’s when my co-creator was like, “Rachel, you might win. What’s your speech about?” And then I started to become the frontrunner at all these other publications literally two days before. That was when I was like, “Oh, fuck. I might, like, fucking win this thing.”
You spent your entire speech thanking people, which is something you’re always doing with fans on social media. Now that you’ve got the Globe, when are you going to start acting untouchable?
When we’re a ratings hit. [laughs] I’m so grateful to fans. I owe my career to fans. It’s hurtful to be making a show that is critically acclaimed but, because we happen to be on a broadcast network, our ratings are under so much scrutiny. You know, it’s hurtful to go on TV By The Numbers and see “Likely To Be Canceled.” I know that’s based on numbers but, like, fuck off. That’s not how The CW makes us feel but when you’re on a network, the ratings are so important. So anyone I meet who says, “I love your show,” I’m like, “Oh my gosh! Thank you!” I get starstruck when I meet fans.
I’m checking those same sites with my fingers crossed…
Here’s the thing: I think this Globe win means our second season. I’d be shocked if we didn’t get a second season.
There’s a huge conversation about diversity and feminism around your show, especially with Josh being Filipino-American. Watching it, though, it just feels real. How much of the conversation around diversity on television is actually about representing…
… things as they are? Josh Chan [Rodriguez III] was always going to be an Asian bro. Always. The reason we picked that wasn’t because “Oh, Asians need to be represented more on TV! How do we help that?” That was a plus! We were thinking “What hasn’t been done before? What’s a new story we can tell? What’s a new type of character?” We’ve seen the Bro. We haven’t seen an Asian Bro.
I really think diversity is simultaneous with telling new stories because, I don’t know, “White People Hanging Out in a Coffee Shop” has been done. Diversity is just more artistically interesting to me because you’re in new territory and the whole purpose of making art, in my head, is to explore topics that haven’t been explored.
I have never seen a show that took place in Southern California and portrayed people the way it is in Southern California. The prom king in my high school was Chinese and the prom queen was Japanese. We just didn’t think about it. It was like, “Oh, yeah, George and Mika? They’re the prom king and queen.” It wasn’t until I realized that every other show is set in some nebulous town on the East Coast or Midwest where everyone is white and Protestant… How boring is that? And that’s not truth. That’s not my truth.
I remember as a kid living in Southern California and every TV show was set in that typical East Coast high school. And I remember seeing a high school near me that looked like that and thinking, “Oh, a real high school!” That’s not feeling marginalized. Now, if I thought about the way my school looked, imagine being a Filipino person who’s like “I’m not a real American because I’m not on TV.” We’re a nation of immigrants. That’s what being an American is.
One of the diverse stories you’re telling is about your character’s struggles with mental illness, which seems like a difficult topic for a comedy to approach…
…which is so funny because every comedian I know is on antidepressants and has a very dark sense of humor. It always takes a while, I think, for TV and film to catch up with what’s already being done in the alternative comedy world. Every friend I know, we all have dark senses of humor about our depression, our anxiety, our family issues. I guess what’s groundbreaking is doing it on network television. But to me, I’ve been joking with my friends about this shit for years. And I think that what it is [new] is truth and it’s honesty and it’s not labeling it as an Other.
It makes for tricky viewing, though, because you want Rebecca to grow as a person but if you relate to her, you also want her to get what she wants, even when it’s not right for her.
It’s funny you say that because it’s the struggle that we have. Look, ultimately, when Rebecca’s cured as a person, the show’s over. The show’s about someone in crisis and if she’s learning, she’s learning very slowly. And if we get a second season she’ll be learning veeeeery slowly, if at all. So it’s that struggle between happiness that can last versus happiness that can go away.
You share initials with Rebecca Bunch. How much of the character is you?
Her life is, on the surface, very different from mine. I would say that it’s emotionally autobiographical, like 70 percent. As far as the actual details of her life: 20 percent. It’s like me if I never pursued theater or art—I’d be miserable.