Not-So-Crazy Rachel Bloom on Creating a Musical-Comedy Unicorn

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Rachel Bloom. Photo: Robert Voets/The CW

Imagine the looks on television executives’ faces when Rachel Bloom burst into their offices to pitch her musical-comedy series, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, with its peppy songs about mental illness and its delusional-in-love (okay, stalker) heroine. It’s a miracle she even got in the door, with that premise, and that title, and her total lack of TV experience; at the time she was probably best known for a viral musical video called “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury,” celebrating the occasion of the sci-fi writer’s 90th birthday. Now, she’s a Golden Globe–winning actress, and CXG, which Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz declared the best show of 2016, is in its second season on the CW. We talked to Bloom about what it’s like to go from getting rejected seven times in one day to having constant affirmation that her show is great, plus, of course, how she’s feeling post-election.

First of all, you did a song for Funny or Die called “HOLY SH*T, You’ve Got To Vote,” calling Donald Trump “an orange talking STD.” How are you feeling this week?
Yeah, it’s really weird. I don’t know. Luckily, work is so busy that I’ve been consistently distracted. The night of the election I was on set and getting updates in between scenes, so even then, I wasn’t really fully participating in the process as an American. I was pretending to be somebody. And that’s been my M.O. the past week. I’d like to keep up on the news, but every time I see an update, it gets worse and worse! It feels so shallow, but it’s true — I just don’t want to be depressed.

Less depressing: Tell me what it was like when you first pitched Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
Actually, it was better than a lot of average, no-one-wanted-it stories because I was pitching this show with one of the top screenwriters in Hollywood. My writing partner, Aline [Brosh McKenna], is immensely respected. She wrote The Devil Wears Prada. So she walks into a room and people are predisposed to want to buy something.

But before this show, I had pitched two other musical television shows, which is a completely different story, me going into a room by myself. I mean, that’s when people truly don’t give a shit. The first show I pitched was a show for network and I wrote a song not dissimilar in emotion and tone to the West Covina song, and I literally had to go into someone’s office, sit on a couch, and sing it in people’s faces. And you would just see their polite fear and their not wanting to deal with it.

For this one, there were three places actually that wanted to buy it, and at Showtime, they were shockingly, wildly passionate. They actually submitted to what’s called a put-pilot deal, which meant that if they didn’t shoot the pilot, they would have to pay us money. Which is pretty much guaranteed that they’re going to shoot the pilot. So it started off on this amazing, amazing, amazing foot. Sorry, this is a long story.

Keep going. I want to hear it!
So anyway, I was about to get married and I was like, I am gonna have a fucking Showtime show! I’m going to buy a really expensive wedding dress. We’re going to be millionaires, baby! And then we sent Showtime the first cut of it, which was very true to what the table read had been, and something happened. I don’t know what they fell out of love with, but that first phone call was brutal. It was just a sense that there was a difference in what they wanted totally versus what the show was. And then it just kind of went downhill from there until they passed.

They passed, it happened to be the week of my wedding. That wasn’t purposeful on their part.

That’s so shitty.
And then the really shitty part is that we had this amazing pilot and literally no one wanted it. We sent it everywhere. One place that had potentially wanted to buy it before said, “We thought it would edgier.” The original pilot contains a hand job, blowjob scene! I don’t know what you mean by “edgier.” We had made this pilot for so much money and we felt so good about it, and then like it was six, seven passes in one day. It was like, “FX is out. Netflix is out. TV Land is out. Epix is out. Amazon’s out.” All of these places where you think, Oh, there’s so many venues now for TV shows, every single one of them passed. And that was the night I mourned the show. When we got six passes on that Monday, I remember sitting with my husband in my house and crying and saying, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry we spent all this money on our wedding. I thought we were going to be able to buy a house. I’m so sorry.” So that’s the very long story of our rejection.

So, to get the good reviews off of the pilot — which aired with just a couple changes — was so wonderful because we were like, We knew this was good! We fucking knew it! But getting six, seven rejections in one day certainly feels like someone taking a dump on your face.

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Photo: Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

How did the CW of all places end up being the one place to take a chance on it?
We were like, “Who else should we pitch to? Should we try sending it to broadcast networks? It’s not a network show, it’s a cable show.” And then Aline happened to be watching Jane the Virgin and she was like, “Check out their pilot. It’s really in many ways totally similar to ours.” Plus, CW is owned by CBS, which was our studio, which made things easier. So she sent it to them, and we had a meeting where they raved about the pilot in all of the ways that we wished someone had for the past six months. They had us rewrite the pilot to be an hour, and told us they’d consider it for a mid-season pickup. So we did the revisions and figured they wouldn’t read it for three months.

A week later, Aline calls me and she goes, “Okay, don’t freak out, but CW isn’t fully content with their pilots and we are being considered for the fall. We might know about it tomorrow.” And then literally the same day they were all in a hotel room in New York planning out what their fall schedule was going to be, they gave us last-minute notes. We turned in the script the next day, and then Aline called me and told me we got picked up, so it happened very fast.

During all that rejection, did you wonder if you’d been wrong about the pilot being good?
The whole time we knew it was good. There was never a doubt. It’s more of a frustration of like, I know what I’ve made is good. Is anyone going to realize that it’s good? You realize how unlikely it is that anything gets picked up to be a television show. There are so many good pilots that don’t get picked up for whatever reason because the network is trying to do a very specific thing. My husband just made a pilot that’s fantastic for MTV, but MTV went a different direction and didn’t pick it up. It’s not always about what’s good, it’s about also what are the needs of the network, which is hard.

Was it also confirmation of your idea that people would watch a musical about mental illness?
I had no confirmation on that. All I can do is make a thing that I would want to watch and I have no idea whether other people want to watch it. My favorite network shows — 30 Rock, Arrested Development — were notoriously good quality, but low rated. My taste is, like, Stephen Sondheim’s deep cuts [laughs]. I truly didn’t know if people would watch it. And look, we’re not a ratings hit. We are a hit among the people I had hoped we’d be a hit among, which is Jewish girls and gay guys and anyone who’s a fan of musical theater and in general very smart people. It’s been a slow burn to even get where we are.

Were there any times when you pitched episode ideas to the CW that they thought were crazy, but turned out well?
Yeah. The depression episode of season one, episode seven with the Dr. Phil dream sequence. They were like, “Oof, okaaay. Alright, we’ll do this.” And that is one of our best.

Does having a second season feel like vindication?
It does. I mean, at this point, the CW and the critics and the fans are such a constant flow of praise. There’s no real waiting for vindication. We know what we’re doing is good. It’s just a matter of my understanding what position they’re in, which is they’re a business and they have to make money. And we are not Game of Thrones and we’re not Empire, you know?

Are there any big swings you’ve been able to take in season two with the confidence of knowing that the CW has your back?
Well, we spend a solid chunk of time without a love interest for Rebecca. And it’s really just focused on the women interacting and the question of having a girl group. I really like that.

What would you say to someone who’s worried about not having her ideas accepted?
I would say, “Have you spent a lot of time on the idea? Do you have the experience to back up that this idea is good? Have you had your idea looked over by people who you respect in your field, other writers, other artists, other people whom you look up to and who do your craft?” Because it’s wrong to say that if you feel good about an idea, it’s definitely a good idea. That’s not necessarily true. Especially if you’re in the first two years of being a writer, a lot of what you write in those first couple years is shit. So it’s important to fail. It’s really important to be trying your best and failing. That’s how you get better. So I’d say it just depends on the idea, but vet it with people whose opinions that matter. And that’s not internet commenters. The people’s opinions that I really care about are people who understand the craft and people who I look up to.

So, would you say you wound up with something better after getting rejected six times in one day?
Yeah, it definitely made me humble. I was, in my head, riding a little high from the Showtime thing. It definitely felt like, Bing, bang, boom! Making a show is easy! And then going through all those rejections, no, making a show is not easy. It made me appreciate this all the more. I don’t know if we’ll ever get to do something like this again, where we get to be this creative and free.

Not-So Crazy Rachel Bloom on Creating a Comedy Unicorn