At its purest, most carnal form, dating should be as simple as the title of FXX’s new rom-com series suggests: Man Seeking Woman.
But, as we’ve all had the bliss and the misfortune to learn, dating is stubbornly and forever complicated, at times akin to wading through a nightmare dreamscape full of monsters, demons, too-good-to-be-trues, impossibly high stakes, and intangible passions.
Or, in the case of our empathetic protagonist in the sweet, surreal Man Seeking Woman, dating involves navigating a world where your ex is hooking up with Adolf Hitler and Fred Armisen is the voice of a Japanese penis monster.
Been there, right?
“My goal with the show was always to do a program that really dramatized how dating feels,” says series creator Simon Rich, who, now 30, is reflecting back on his mid-twenties dating foibles.
“For example, when you manage to get somebody’s phone number on the subway it’s so exhilarating and the thrilling you can feel sometimes that you’re deserving of a MacArthur Genius Grant or a congratulatory call from the President of the United States,” he says. “Similarly, if you’re still in love with somebody and you find out they’re dating somebody new, that new rival can feel like Adolf Hitler because you’re so crestfallen and heartbroken.”
In the premiere of Man Seeking Woman, both of those things happen to our hero: the naïve, equal parts hopeless and hapless romantic Josh Greenberg, played with Everyman likability and sad-sack charm by Jay Baruchel.
He’s the stand-in for the audience, the guy through which Rich’s clever-turned-absurd observations on the quirks of modern dating we’ve all weathered are channeled. Haven’t we all been set up on a blind date with someone who ended up with the looks or personality of a troll? On Man Seeking Woman, Josh’s blind date turns out to be an actual troll. Her name is Gorbachaka, she lives in a dumpster, and she eats the rose Josh gives to her.
And she’s probably a better blind date than many of the ones you or I have suffered through.
As a comedy series, Man Seeking Woman is more inspired than it is flawlessly funny. But what it lacks in consistency of tone and laugh-out-loud one-liners it makes up for in sharp writing, acute cultural commentary, gleeful weirdness, and sheer creative balls.
In an absurdist echo of frustrating conversations we’ve all had with our friends after a breakup, Josh is none-too-pleased to learn that his ex-girlfriend Maggie’s new boyfriend isn’t just as awful as Hitler. He actually is Hitler. “I don’t like Adolf Hitler. He murdered thousands of people,” he tells his friend. “You don’t like him because he’s dating Maggie,” they dismiss.
Switching tones, the end of the episode is heartwarmingly sweet. Ignoring his friends’ insistent that he join Tinder or cruise for girls at clubs with skeezy pick-up lines, Josh gets a girl’s number on the train through good old fashioned flirting and friendly conversation—a feat so astounding he’s given a Genius Grant and a congratulatory call from President Obama: “You’re an inspiration to men everywhere.”
It’s the kind of TV show—epically strange and still uncannily relatable—that comes from the mind of Simon Rich, the prolific son of writer Frank Rich. The accomplished novelist—Man Seeking Woman itself is based on his bestseller The Last Girlfriend on Earth—and New Yorker contributor was the former president of the Harvard Lampoon before being hired as the youngest writer in Saturday Night Live’s history.
The halls of Studio 8H are, after all, notorious for incubating and fostering Hollywood’s most beloved creative weirdos, giving them the kind of hospitable outlet for their brand of humor that’s not typically found on broadcast TV.
“Especially the last half hour of that show is full of absurdist, premise-driven comedy that you can almost never find on network television,” Rich says, a student of cult sketch series like Kids in the Hall and The State. “It was almost my dream to try a traditional narrative sitcom that incorporated the kind of absurdity and high-stakes premise-driven risk tasking that I loved in my favorite sketch shows.”
While it’s easy to see the SNL influence on Man Seeking Woman—the show is produced by Lorne Michaels and could easily be confused for a kooky SNL sketch expanded into series form—the show is also deeply informed by Rich’s time working (in a super-secret, limited capacity) for Pixar. While a far cry from, say, the precociousness of Toy Story or the adorable whimsy of Up, the rules of Men Seeking Women are the same: you have to commit to every specific detail of the universe in order for the audience to buy into it.
“That’s a huge thing I learned at Pixar, consistency,” Rich says. “Your world has to be fully realized and it has to be consistent, otherwise the audience, they disconnect from it.”
Throughout our conversation, both Rich and I harp on how absolutely freaking weird Man Seeking Woman is multiple times. In equal amounts, though, we talk about how unexpectedly universal and resonant and human it is, a revelation that belies an amusing truth about the creative process: often times, it’s a writer’s most peculiar and out-there work that is the most personal.
“That’s 100 percent true of this one,” Rich says. “I was trying to write about my own dating experiences in my mid-twenties. Whenever I tried to write them in a naturalist style, the always ended up feeling incredibly low-stakes and generic, because that’s what my dating experiences were: they were low-stakes and generic. I couldn’t figure out why the stories were so dull, because they were about the most visceral, emotional experiences of my entire life. So one day it occurred to me to stop writing about dating the way that it happened, and start writing about dating the way that it felt.”
Cue: tales about ex-girlfriends dating Hitler and blind dates that are garbage-dwelling trolls. “So ironically, even though these stories are some of the weirdest things I’ve ever written, they are also the most personal and the most honest.”
Talking with friends who have seen the omnipresent billboards for Man Seeking Woman around New York City or who have seen one of the show’s characteristically peculiar commercials, the most common question I’ve gotten signals baffled curiosity: “What the hell is that show?”
Rich understands the raised eyebrows. “I know it’s a really weird one,” he says, repeating the chorus of our conversation. “It’s full of sex aliens and decapitations and there’s time travel and a Japanese penis monster.” But it’s also smart, and brimming with heart. “At the end of the day, I think it’s a pretty simple show about a guy trying to meet a girl.”