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Rachel Bloom Upends Romantic Comedy Tropes On 'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend'

Jan 17, 2017
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our next guest Rachel Bloom co-created and stars in the musical comedy TV series "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend." She also co-writes the songs. The executive music producer of the series is Adam Schlesinger who co-founded the band Fountains of Wayne and co-wrote songs Neil Patrick Harris performed when hosting the Tonys. "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" is now in the middle of its second season, and it's made its way on to a lot of TV critics' best of lists.

Rachel Bloom plays Rebecca Bunch who when we first meet her is about to become a partner at a high-powered law firm in New York City, but she starts to suspect that this professional success won't make her happy. She runs into an old boyfriend from summer camp, Josh Chan, who is moving back home to a Southern California suburb. On a whim, she quits her job and follows him there. In The New York Times, James Poniewozik wrote, quote, as the title makes no pretense of hiding, "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" is playing with some tricky stereotypes of obsessive women, but it's also conscious that it's playing with them," unquote.

Rachel Bloom first became known for producing and starring in parody music videos she released on YouTube. Bloom spoke with FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado. They started with the original season one theme song for "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," which gives you an idea of the plot, and the tone of the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND THEME")

RACHEL BLOOM: (Singing) I was working hard at a New York job making dough, but it made me blue. One day I was crying a lot, and so I decided to move to West Covina, Calif., brand new pals and new career. It happens to be where Josh lives, but that's not why I'm here.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) She's the crazy ex-girlfriend.

BLOOM: What? No, I'm not.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) She's the crazy ex-girlfriend.

BLOOM: That's a sexist term.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) She's the crazy ex-girlfriend.

BLOOM: Can you guys stop singing for just a second?

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) She's so broken inside.

BLOOM: The situation's a lot more nuanced than that.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) C-R-A-Z-Y...

BLOOM: OK. We get it.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Crazy ex-girlfriend.

ANN MARIE BALDONADO, BYLINE: Rachel Bloom, welcome to FRESH AIR.

BLOOM: Hi. Thanks for having me.

BALDONADO: Now, you're in the middle of the second season of "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend." Can you describe the show and how you see the character of Rebecca Bunch?

BLOOM: The show is a dark romantic comedy musical, and Rebecca Bunch is our take on an ingenue with very realistic mental problems (laughter).

BALDONADO: Well, I mean, I think that's one of the things that's really interesting about the show because in some ways it's really kind of bright and bubbly and a lot of the songs are like that, but there's certainly this undercurrent. You know, we love the character of Rebecca, but we know that she has lots of issues. Why was it important for you to have kind of that undercurrent of sadness or a grievance to it?

BLOOM: The whole idea of the show being called "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" - the title when Aline and I were pitching the show and coming up with the show, the title was always meant to be deconstructed because it's a title that in itself lives in cliche. So we wanted to take something that felt like a romantic comedy trope and then explore beneath it - so a woman who gives everything up for love, partially because women are sold this bill of goods about how love will solve everything. But also if you let love solve everything for you, you have a lot of problems.

BALDONADO: Well, one way that you can sense the feminist perspective of the show is through some of the song parodies. And I'm going to play one now. This is from the first season "Put Yourself First." It's kind of a take on the women empowerment pop song. Can you talk about the song and how it made it into the show or what kind of song you wanted to take on at that point?

BLOOM: Yeah. Well, this episode is all about kind of exploring this idea of female empowerment and the fact that Rebecca is going to this summer camp to lead a female empowerment seminar solely to spend time with the man she loves which is obviously the exact opposite of a female empowerment seminar, and then we wanted to have a makeover scene and - when she's made over by some teenage girls - but inherent to this kind of empowering makeover trope is getting made over to appeal sexually, you know, is it - how much of it is really for you to feel good about yourself and how much of it is for you to feel good about yourself because you're attracting, in this case, you know, a man's attention?

You see so many of these empowering songs where a woman saying, you know, I'm going to go out, I'm going to wear high heels, you know, short skirt or whatever. But the high heels are quite uncomfortable, and so how good about yourself are you really feeling walking out in high heels? And I think it depends on the woman, and so we wanted to explore that in this song, the idea of an empowering makeover song.

BALDONADO: So here is the song. It's called "Put Yourself First" and a few teenagers at the camp are wanting to help Rebecca out. They want to give her a makeover. And here's the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) What you need is a makeover.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (As characters, singing) Put yourself first. Girl, worry about yourself. Make yourself sexy, just be yourself. So when dudes see you, put yourself first.

JAZZ RAYCOLE: (As Tanya) They'll be like damn, you're hot. Want to make out?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (As characters, singing) Push them boobs up, just be yourself. Wear 6-inch heals just for yourself.

BLOOM: (As Rebecca Bunch) If it's just for myself, shouldn't I be comfortable?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (As characters, singing) No. Put yourself first in a sexy way.

LULU ANTARIKSA: (As Kayla, singing) Pierce your ears, just for yourself.

RAYCOLE: (As Tanya, singing) Put a hole in your ear lobe just for yourself.

GABRIELLE RUIZ: (As Valencia Perez, singing) Brace yourself. This is going to hurt.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (As characters, singing) Put yourself first in a sexy way.

BLOOM: (As Rebecca Bunch, screaming).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (As characters, singing) Put yourself first. Girl, worry about yourself. Wear fake eyelids just for yourself, so when dudes see you put yourself first, they'll be like damn, you're hot. Let's buy a house in Portland. Put yourself first for him. That's what you got to do. Put yourself first for him.

BLOOM: If I put myself first for him, then by definition aren't I putting myself second?

RAYCOLE: (As Tanya, singing) Don't think about it too hard, too, too hard.

RUIZ: (As Valencia Perez, singing) Don't think about it too hard, too, too hard.

ANTARIKSA: (As Kayla, singing) It's a wormhole.

RAYCOLE: (As Tanya, singing) It's a Mobius Strip.

RUIZ: (As Valencia Perez, singing) It's snake eats tail.

ANTARIKSA: (As Kayla, singing) It's the infinity sign.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (As characters, singing) Get a tattoo of the infinity sign on your lower back just for yourself.

BLOOM: But I can't see my lower back. Also, can we go back to the fake eyelid? Is that a thing now?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (As characters, singing) Yes. Put yourself first in a sexy way. Put yourself first for him.

BALDONADO: So I want to ask a little bit about the music in the show. In musicals, there is that moment when characters break into song which can be kind of tricky. How do you think about that transition from the speaking parts into the musical parts of the show? How do you know when to plop a song in?

BLOOM: It depends on the song because most of the time, the thing we aspire to do is when the emotion gets so strong, the characters need to sing it or other things - like you play "Put Yourself First" - a makeover montage. That's a big set piece that lends itself to a musical number.

And so the transition into it - the transitions are the hardest part actually about filming these musical numbers because we want to do them in different ways, but we don't want it to seem forced. And we want to always think of new ways to get into the musical numbers, so that's often the hardest part.

BALDONADO: You've said that you only listened to show tunes until you were 20. Were there shows or musicals that you loved that were most important to you?

BLOOM: Oh, my God. Anything by Kander and Ebb, so we're talking, you know, "Chicago," "Cabaret," "The Rink." And part of what I loved about it was it was the only thing that I could listen to that reconciled the two parts of myself which was the part of myself that loved escapist, old-fashioned musical theater, but also the dark part of myself that feared death and new darkness.

And Kander and Ebb play with exactly that. And then in high school, I got into Stephen Sondheim. Notably, I got really into the show "Assassins" which does a similar thing in that it takes these tropes that are very happy, but uses these tropes to discuss very dark subject matter which is literally people who have killed and tried to kill presidents. So those were very important. But then also Golden Age musicals - I mean, really every I - every musical - I was just - I loved musicals, love them still. But also, I'm really inspired by comedy music. You know, I think "The Lonely Island," "The Flight Of The Conchords," anything Mel Brooks has done.

GROSS: We're listening to Rachel Bloom, the co-creator and star of The CW series "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" speaking with FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado. We'll hear more of their interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado recorded with Rachel Bloom, the co-creator and star of The CW musical comedy series "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend." Bloom also co-writes the songs.

BALDONADO: I want to play another song, and it comes up in an episode where your character, Rebecca, has a huge case. She's arguing, and the opposing counsel - or the firm she has to argue against in court is her old law firm, the high-powered New York law firm she left after, you know, she kind of flipped out and decided to move to Southern California. And she in particular is going against a woman who's kind of been her frenemy for years. They've been rivals since they were kids growing up in Westchester. And this song's called "JAP Rap Battle" - Jewish-American Princess battle and we'll talk about it a little after we hear some.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND")

RACHEL GRATE: (As Audra Levine, rapping) I'm straight up malicious, a verbal curb stomper. Since we were toddlers, I've studied every chink in your armor. And between your folks' divorce and that haircut on you, I'm not really sure which one's the bigger shonde.

BLOOM: (As Rebecca Bunch, rapping) That means disgrace. I'm translating for the goys. Our life lines have been parallel like corduroys. But now we'll see whose bars will prevail in this beef of two hard-as-nails shebrews (ph) from Scarsdale.

GRATE: (As Audra Levine, rapping) We've got a conflict of interest.

BLOOM: (As Rebecca Bunch, rapping) I'm about to give Levine the business.

GRATE: (As Audra Levine, rapping) Spitting venomous hate.

BLOOM: (As Rebecca Bunch, rapping) Penetrating her defenses.

RACHEL BLOOM AND RACHEL GRATE: (As characters, rapping) It's a JAP battle.

PETE GARDNER: (As Darryl Whitefeather) A what?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) A Jewish American Princess.

GRATE: (As Audra Levine, rapping) Rap battle.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Daughters of privilege.

GRATE: (As Audra Levine, rapping) Spitting mad flow.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Find that term offensive?

GRATE: (As Audra Levine, rapping) Too bad, yo.

BLOOM AND GRATE: (As characters, rapping) Oh, snap. It's a JAP battle rap.

BLOOM: (As Rebecca Bunch, rapping) Look, academically, you could never catch me. You were close, but no match scholastically. No how, no way. I put the OG in 5.0 GPA.

GRATE: (As Audra Levine, rapping) Well, speaking of which, are you AP graded...

BALDONADO: That's a song from "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend." My guest is Rachel Bloom, the star and co-creator of the show. You said that you had a hard time growing up that you felt like a fish out of water.

BLOOM: Yeah.

BALDONADO: What do you feel like made you feel different from the kids growing up around you?

BLOOM: Well, first of all, when you're an only child, you get very used to pleasing the adults around you. And so I was very accepted by my parents and so kind of, you know, precocious smart things I do around my parents that they loved were like seen as weird with kids. You know, for my school lip sync contest, everyone was doing Britney Spears. I did "Adelaide's Lament" from "Guys And Dolls."

Also, I didn't have a sense of how to dress. I still don't really, but, like, back then, I truly had no sense of how to dress because I wanted to be a tomboy - I thought I was a tomboy, but secretly wanted to be girly, but didn't know the first thing about making myself girly. So I ended up like wearing just like sweatpants to school with, like, long T-shirts that I got on family vacations. And it was just weird.

And then plus at the time, I was going through pretty serious - and I hid it from everyone - but like anxiety and depression issues which I later realized that's what that was and kind of got solved when I got into eighth grade. There was a teacher who started a musical theater class, and I got the lead in "Guys And Dolls" and suddenly, like, I started to dress better. I started to get more friends. My OCD disappeared in what felt like overnight, and so that was really important. Theater kind of saved me.

BALDONADO: Now, you are an only child, and you say that as a kid you were obsessed with performing and musical theater. Was that something you got from your parents or was that something they were really into, too?

BLOOM: Yeah. My mom is - was a piano player. She was a music major and then my grandfather was an amateur stand-up comic theater director and actor, and so never - he always, I think, had a job selling technical manuals door-to-door very kind of classic 1950s middle class, but in his spare time did a ton of community theater - and very young realized that I had the acting bug.

And my cousin on my mother's side also did stand-up comedy, so there is some sort of performing bug that I feel like comes from him and started teaching me show tunes very young. And my parents just really supported it. And I would sing, and my mom would play piano and then I just kind of - they got me started and then I really took it and ran with it in a way that they were like, oh, all right, you're really into this. All right.

BALDONADO: You moved to New York to go to NYU. What kind of performer did you want to be? Did you want to be a comedian? Did you want to go to Broadway and perform?

BLOOM: I wanted to be a Broadway star - or of like the, you know, I mean, Ethel Merman-style like less dancing, more like heavy acting and singing. And then I got to school and got scared because suddenly I wasn't the most talented person anymore. And when you wrap up your self-worth with your talent, and suddenly you might not be the most talented, that's really scary. And I think that fear is in part why I turned to comedy because I had no expectations of being a comedian. It was exciting to get good at something where I wasn't afraid of not being the best.

BALDONADO: Well, Rachel Bloom, thank you so much.

BLOOM: Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Rachel Bloom spoke with FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado. Bloom co-created and stars in "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" on the CW Network. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Imam Khalid Latif, the second ever Muslim chaplain for the NYPD. When he's in uniform, strangers salute him on the street. But in plainclothes and an airport, it's a different story.

KHALID LATIF: They say, look, man, you're young and you're male and you're Muslim. And those things don't go so well together right now.

GROSS: Latif is also a chaplain at NYU. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. I want to thank Dave Davies for hosting last week while I was on vacation. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.