Andrew Gurland has always walked the line between reality and fiction. Whether it has been shooting a documentary envisioned as a dark comedy (Frat House), or a comedy that contained a documentarian protagonist (Mail Order Wife), Gurland revels in the sweet spot where truth and comedy overlap. It’s territory he’s exploring once again in FX’s Married, the sitcom he created based largely on his relationship with his wife, Michelle, whose second season premieres tonight.
The show co-stars Nat Faxon and Judy Greer as a married couple with three daughters; their increasingly sexless marriage might be doomed, were it not for the fact that they’re such good friends with perfectly aligned senses of humor. The show—whose supporting cast includes Jenny Slate, Paul Reiser, Brett Gelman, and John Hodgman—is very funny. A characteristic joke: one episode begins with Faxon and Greer sitting side by side, with Faxon recounting the sexlessness of their marriage. The woman they’re speaking to—obviously their couples therapist, right?—responds: “This is a parent-teacher conference.” (Season one can be caught up on via Hulu.)
But what happens when the truth that Gurland mines for comedy comes directly from his marriage—more or less in real time? And what is it like for Gurland, long a fixture of the looser world of indie filmmaking, to take on the more rigorous responsibilities of TV showrunner? Fast Company spoke with Gurland about becoming a boss for the first time, his new working relationship with his wife, and the tricky balance between truth and comedy.
Fast Company: You have an eclectic career: indie filmmaking, documentary filmmaking, a horror film . . .
Andrew Gurland: I don’t want to be crass, but a lot of porn stars who do girl-on-girl action are not lesbians. Do you know what I’m saying?
I think so, but I’ll let you elucidate.
The horror movie was just a job. I always had an interest in comedy, and then when I started to watch Errol Morris’s films—like Gates Of Heaven, about pet cemeteries—and I thought, ‘God, nothing is funnier than when people don’t know they’re being funny.’ The movie I made with Todd Phillipps, Frat House, we saw as a reality version of Animal House. We wanted to do a comedy documentary. Then I started doing fake docs, like Mail Order Wife, where I played a documentary filmmaker. That led to me playing a similar character in a comedy pilot for FX in 2004, then another pilot for Showtime in 2012, and then that led me back to FX, bringing that reality style, but with an omniscient camera.
How personal is Married?
It’s very personal. When my Showtime pilot didn’t get picked up, I had a little . . . I don’t want to say breakdown, but I lost my shit. I started counting how many more times I was going to have sex before I’d die. I started crunching the numbers and reporting them to my wife, to get the numbers up. She was like: “I can’t handle this. Go fuck somebody else.” Instead of discreetly handling my business, I decided to make a TV show about it.
That’s the plot of the pilot. Is it embarrassing to share such personal material in a TV show?
I’m very mercenary. Whatever I think is funny and a good story, it never occurs to me to be embarrassed, or private. When other people are surprised or upset with me that I used something, I don’t understand what they’re talking about. I’m missing something, where I really don’t understand. As for my wife, this has been a process for her. She’s comfortable with it now, but was not so excited at the beginning. She works on the show with me: She helped me write two episodes last season, and came into the writers’ room this year.
Your wife, Michelle Gurland, wasn’t a writer before this. What was it like collaborating with her?
She’s no-bullshit in a way that’s awesome—I love to be married to that. But it’s hard to be creative partners with someone who tells you your idea is stupid. I told her: “In a writer’s room, you can’t say something is stupid. You have to suggest something better.” “But we’re not in a writer’s room.” “Yeah, but we’re working on a script together.” “Oh, so any room you’re in is a writer’s room?” This year she started coming into the room and pitching ideas. We used at least three of her ideas this year for episodes. One is about how she was obsessing over who would get the kids if we died, one was about how one of our daughter’s started having a friendship with one of her friends’ moms, and the jealousy Michelle started to feel, and one was about how my wife walked out on Mother’s Day, because me and the kids were being shitty last Mother’s Day.
Has working together been good for your relationship?
It’s been really good. Before, when I’d leave in the mornings, she’s just a general trying to get the kids out the door. You respect the general, but it’s hard to love a general when she’s yelling orders. But the person who came into the writer’s room was so excited to be in a room with other adults. She and I would have lunch together and go for walks. We were having a separate relationship, and it’s been just so good.
Comedy writer is a great job for an oversharer since you can put that material into your writing. Does this also help you build a rapport with the people you work with?
I’ve struggled the other way. I’ve struggled with, When do I become professional? When do I become the boss? When do I put up the boundaries? Up until this show, I never had to work with the same people over and over again. So I had to learn to start creating some boundaries.
Has it been hard learning to be a boss?
The difference between movies and TV is, movies are freelance, but TV is in-house. On a movie set, I didn’t replace people. I’d just say, “Oh well, I don’t love this person, I can’t wait till the movie’s over in 20 days and I never have to see them again.” You can’t do that in TV. In TV, if you notice a problem and keep moving, it’s only going to get worse, so you have to address it right away.
When an episode really comes together, what is it that makes it work?
It’s always luck. You can never tell which ones are going to be the best: great scripts end up being great episodes, but average scripts sometimes also become great episodes, and great scripts can become average episodes.
What makes an average script become a great episode?
Performances will definitely elevate it. Also, you have to be flexible on set. You have to show up on the day of shooting, get out of your head—get out of what should work, what reads well on the page—and just feel what you’re hearing, what you’re seeing. You have to be willing to throw it all away and do something different. Last season, there was a scene where one character gives a speech at a shiva. There were a lot of great jokes in the script, but when the actor started doing them, they felt false. So we just decided to play it differently, to play it very sincerely, and it felt more honest. I care much more about doing that: more about being real, than being funny.
This interview has been condensed and edited.