There’s a depressing, though also cathartic, realization that many New Yorkers have at some point: Everyone, it turns out, is the worst.
Some might call people with that attitude enlightened. Some might call them cynics. Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner? They’re difficult.
“I would be easygoing if people had really good ideas,” Klausner laughs. She wrote and created Difficult People, Hulu’s new comedy that debuts today and co-stars Eichner, the comedian best known for running around the streets of New York shouting questions about pop culture at innocent pedestrians on the game show Billy on the Street.
“I don’t think I’m a diva,” Klausner, who is beloved by comedy fans for her hit podcast “How Was Your Week?” and by reality-TV fans for her must-read Real Housewives recaps, continues. “I think I’m just a person who has high standards and is very frustrated by the world continuing to not meet them.”
Difficult People has been described alternately as Will and Grace if Will and Grace weren’t likable, and as a sort-of Curb Your Enthusiasm if Larry David hadn’t been a big success and created Seinfeld. It chronicles “Billy” and “Julie” as they were five to 10 years ago, struggling to make it in the comedy world and bitter as their peers pass them by both professionally—in the world of film and television—and personally, starting families.
Of course, the pair isn’t exactly ingratiating themselves to the masses. Over the course of Difficult People’s first episode, they bitch about everyone from tourists looking for “9/11” to grown men on bikes, profanely curse being forced to watch the understudy for Annie on Broadway—and that her name is, heinously, Taylor, to boot—in front of children, and debate whether it would be worse to date someone who is vegan or Judaic.
And, in the grand tradition of Eichner and Klausner’s own obsession with hyper-specific pop-culture moments and second-tier celebrities—a world populated by Katharine McPhee, Maria Menounos, and Mandy Patinkin—they ruminate over Susan Sarandon’s recent preoccupation with ping pong, and whether or not she and Geena Davis are the kind of friends who talk on the phone or just email.
(“There was a small earthquake in L.A., but don’t worry: Emmy Rossum is fine,” Billy tells Julie at an Oscar party in the premiere.)
They’re caustic, but in the name of comedy. Eichner is careful to clarify: “I do think in real life, because we’re humans living in the world, we have certain social graces that the characters on the show don’t necessarily have.”
Both Klausner and Eichner, through their various projects, have amassed cult followings on Twitter and social media. So for many, their mainstream debut on Hulu—Amy Poehler is executive producer—is a justice moment of sorts for comedy outsiders, passionate pop-culture enthusiasts, and the curmudgeon in us all.
It’s a “nerds will rise” time for people who tweet obsessively about Vanderpump Rules, like Julie Klausner. “It better be time, Kevin, I’ll tell you that much,” Klausner says. “If not, I’m moving to Vermont and opening a bakery. Selling scones to civilians.”
“There are two things going on in the show,” Klausner says about Difficult People. “We are getting in our own way, and the world is also garbage. So we end up screwed over no matter what, but at least we have each other as partners in battle.”
Before they were partners, Eichner and Klausner were mutual fans of each other’s work—he loved her blog, and she often tweeted out his viral videos. They didn’t start working together officially until Billy on the Street was picked up as a TV series and Eichner called Klausner to ask if she would be a writer on the show.
The show’s premise—Eichner ambushes unsuspecting New Yorkers with entirely subjective quizzes (“Would Drew Barrymore like this?” for example), or even sometimes just to startle them with absurdist non sequiturs (“I just want you to know that Blake Lively is available for features.”)
They bonded over the seriousness with which they take pop culture, and relished a televised opportunity to both embrace that and mock it.
“What I’m doing is mocking people like you and me in a way, who have an obsession and think it’s crazy that someone you’re talking to doesn’t know who Lupita Nyong’o is and that she went to Yale Drama School,” Eichner says. “Like how do you not know that?… I just think it’s funny to talk to someone who works for the MTA about that.”
But a love of pop culture isn’t just a fun hobby. For Klausner and Eichner, it’s been a lifelong pursuit.
“If I were more invested in having a shot at dating a guy in my grade, would I have cared as much as I had about how Wayne’s World opened internationally? Probably not,” Klausner says.
Older, wiser, and a season writer, she’s in a more self-aware place where she can acknowledge the absurdity of such childhood passions, and the priority she placed on pop culture over her own life. But it’s also rooted in escapism, as it is for so many of the people who have gone on to become fans of hers and Eichner’s.
“Like who wants to be a girl in the suburbs growing up and going to high school? It fucking sucks,” she says. “You want to like watch the Oscars and get really excited about the speech that Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon made about the Iraq War when they were just supposed to be presenting Best Supporting Actor.”
When I confess my own frustration that so many people seem startled by how seriously I take pop culture—let alone that I make a living from discussing it—he tells me things have changed. It’s no longer just “gay men and certain women who love pop culture and love gay men” who can appreciate such a thirst for entertainment trivia and who dabble in comedy about it.
Now, thanks to social media and the increased availability of entertainment and celebrity news, everyone is more pop-culture obsessed and aware. “There are things I take as sacrament,” Klausner says. “When I meet someone who is like, ‘I don’t know, I think Anne Hathaway is pretty cool…’ it’s like they’re saying, ‘Oh, no, the sky is pink. It’s not blue.’”
A joke like that may no longer fall on deaf ears.
“The great thing about social media is that it gave people like me and Julie and many others who may have been considered too niche or sophisticated to find the people who were like us and prove that this was viable,” he says. “Once you have fans, the industry comes around. The Internet made it possible for me to say, ‘Hey, remember how you said this was too New York or too this or too that? Well, I have 24 million hits on YouTube.’”
You’re not an idiot for caring about pop culture anymore. You’re less judged—and it’s about time, too.
“There are really few things that are more depressing to me than when people want to be applauded for not having a TV, or when I mention a celebrity and they go, ‘I don’t even know who that is,’ and expect you be like, ‘That’s so cute about you. I love that you’re so ignorant about the things that are my livelihood,’” Klausner says. “It’s so rude. It’s like saying, ‘I don’t read books,’ to a literary critic or something.”
It’s why, to go back to the “This is their time” hypothesis, Difficult People is the manifestation of a career’s worth of big breaks, big-ish breaks, and breaks that should’ve been bigger than they were.
At one point, Klausner’s first book, 2010’s I Don’t Care About Your Band, was optioned for a HBO TV series from Will Ferrell’s production company and set to star Lizzy Caplan. A year later, Klausner was set to write and executive-produce a NBC series based on Sue Margolis’s novel Apolipstick, but neither came to fruition.
But everything happens for a reason: Difficult People, she says, is the kind of vehicle you wait a career for. “I always wanted to write a semi-autobiographical show starring a version of myself that’s basically me—a more obnoxious, braver version of myself, who gets to be the asshole.”
And for Eichner, it represents an opportunity to branch away from the persona he’s carved for himself with Billy on the Street and Parks and Rec: the screaming maniac.
“It’s a double-edged sword to have something hit that hard,” he says about Billy on the Street. His character on Difficult People still is a variation on “Billy Eichner,” but it allows for more nuance. The character has relationships and family issues and a full range of emotions. It allows Eichner, a trained actor, to flex his muscles.
“Have I wanted to do other things and maybe stop screaming at people on the street at some point?” he laughs. “Yeah, obviously.”
On Monday night, Klausner and Eichner appeared on Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live. It’s a bit of a life-imitating-art moment. On Difficult People, Eichner is booked to be a bartender on the show, but is ushered out after an embarrassing misunderstanding involving Chelsea Handler.
Asked to relate a similar humiliating moment on her way to Difficult People stardom, Klausner recalls when she was asked a few years ago to be a stand-in for rehearsals of the Comedy Awards, for minimum scale. Mortified, offended, bitter, she turned it down. Now Amy Poehler, who won an award that night, is producing her show.
“So they can all suck my fucking dick,” she laughs. “Just let people know that now that I’ve had my first opportunity I’ve already become insufferable. The launch sequence for that has already been initiated.”