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Why Julie Klausner Devoted An Episode Of Her TV Show To Mocking Woody Allen

“Difficult People” is a show that reclaims being a hater. Julie Klausner reveals why it was important to not spare Woody Allen from its comedic wrath.

Why Julie Klausner Devoted An Episode Of Her TV Show To Mocking Woody Allen
Julie Kessler (Julie Klausner) and Billy Epstein (Billy Eichner) in Difficult People [Photo: Linda Kallerus, courtesy of Hulu]

“Am I wrong in thinking Elle Fanning is Dakota’s younger sister?” Julie Klausner asks. We’re discussing some fresh news about the actress with the equally famous sibling: she’s just signed on to co-star in Woody Allen’s next film.

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Klausner is not wrong. At 19, Elle is younger by four years.

“Dakota must have aged out of the casting pool for Woody,” she says, dryly.

Julie Klausner [Photo: Craig Blankenhorn, courtesy of Hulu]
Julie Klausner has no illusions about whether she—the thirtysomething creator and star of Hulu’s acid-hot comedy, Difficult People—would herself be eligible for a Woody Allen role. Even if the iconic, problematic filmmaker was enchanted by Klausner’s visage or vibe, it’s unlikely he’d ever audition her now. Not after the comedian devoted an entire episode of her TV show to the moral conundrum an Elle Fanning might grapple with in booking a Woody Allen movie.

Difficult People is a show about two pop culture-obsessed outsiders fumbling and flailing on the path toward legit careers in show business. The leads, played by Klausner and real-life simpatico sidekick, Billy Eichner, are quick and cutting—with opinions about everything but few true convictions, if any. In an episode from the show’s just-released third season, “Strike Rat,” Julie Kessler’s convictions are put to the test when she is quasi-inadvertently cast in the new Woody Allen project.

Klausner grew up loving Allen’s movies and idolizing him as a creator. (“He was my everything,” she insists.) Annie Hall was her favorite movie. She wrote a term paper about Hannah and her Sisters in college. Then came lackluster efforts like Small Time Crooks and Curse of the Jade Scorpion, and she began to lose interest. Even Allen’s late-period highlights, like Match Point and Midnight in Paris, didn’t do much for Klausner. She thinks audiences may have graded them on a cinematic curve, thanks to their proximity to recent dreck like Scoop and Anything Else. Nothing could have prepared her, though, for how profoundly awful she found 2009’s Whatever Works.

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[Photo: Linda Kallerus, courtesy of Hulu]
“I thought it was not only the most offensive movie that he’s ever made, but one of the most offensive movies to women that I’ve ever seen in my life,” Klausner says. “I was shocked. It was almost violent to women, it just insulted us so deeply.”

That film features not so much a May/December romance, but a February/Next February one. Woody Allen apparently thought Evan Rachel Wood’s character, who would have been 19 years old, would obviously be attracted to Larry David’s character, who would have been Larry David age, on the strength of his curmudgeonly wit. Furthermore, dialogue intended to signal the female lead’s lack of sophistication came across as utter stupidity.

[Photo: Linda Kallerus, courtesy of Hulu]
“It was like, has Woody Allen ever met a woman?” Klausner says. “It really bummed me out. And that he never really got any shit for it was really disappointing. Beyond the shit from his personal life.”

Woody Allen’s personal life is what actors usually have to defend themselves against when they appear in his movies. Allen’s marriage to adopted daughter Soon-yi Previn, and the allegations about his biological daughter, have been conflicting fans of Manhattan for decades. What’s unsettling about Allen’s personal life, though, tends to bleed over into his art with an infinite fixation on absurdly younger women. Separating the art from the artist is difficult in Woody’s case, which is something he actually explored to dazzling effect in 1997’s Deconstructing Henry. What’s brilliant and daring about the “Strike Rat” episode is that it almost entirely omits Allen’s personal life to focus on what sucks about his art. Klausner and her writing team shoot that sacred cow with one of those weird bolt guns from No Country for Old Men, and then they butcher it.

[Photo: Barbara Nitke, courtesy of Hulu]
They go after Woody Allen’s art from every angle: His technophobia, his over-reliance on old (male) creatives seeking fresh (female) muses, his subtext-free dialogue, his reverence for wonky jazz and fishing hats, and his almost MAGA-like nostalgia for a time when affirmative action didn’t exist and women had only recently won the vote. “Strike Rat” takes special inspiration, however, from a recent Woody Allen debacle that largely goes unmentioned: his Amazon series.

[Photo: Barbara Nitke, courtesy of Hulu]
While Allen was shooting Crisis in Six Scenes—with star Miley Cyrus, naturally—reports emerged that his heart was nowhere near the vicinity of this project. According to Klausner, the evidence is in the finished project. The camera hardly moves. Some of Miley Cyrus’s lines make Evan Rachel Woods’ lines from Whatever Works sound like Nicole Holofcener dialogue in comparison.

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“As bad as you think the Woody Allen Amazon series is, you have no idea,” she assures me. “It really feels like a sendup of a Woody Allen project. It’s shocking.”

[Photo: Linda Kallerus, courtesy of Hulu]
She and her team of writers, which includes Scott King and co-star Cole Escola, watched the series for the same reason that the character Julie on Difficult People agrees to audition for a Woody Allen show: for the chance to make fun of it. Having her own TV show has proven to be a fun method for Klausner to air out personal, derisive opinions in public.

“Our characters are people who don’t care who’s listening. They want to take back being a hater,” she says. “Most of it has to do with the fact that they’re not terribly self-aware, but also they’re very confident their opinions are right. I think people watching who are so careful about having to say the right thing or they get in trouble—online especially—will hopefully find some vicarious joy in watching characters who don’t self-censor and either hold unpopular opinions or hold popular opinions that aren’t voiced.”

[Photo: KC Bailey, courtesy of Hulu]
This kind of shade extends to relatively benign opinions, such as Andrea Martin’s concise dismissal of Les Misérables (“It’s too long, too confusing and too much drama for what you take away.”) Speaking her mind offline, however, has gotten trickier since Klausner’s profile has risen with Difficult People.

Early last year, the comedian tweeted a few jabs about young, waifish actress Zendaya hailing herself as a role model for tweens at the Kids Choice Awards. Klausner’s contention was that the willowy star might set unobtainable body standards for impressionable viewers. It was not well received. Klausner sincerely apologized, and deleted the offending tweets. She has since mostly restricted her more candid opinions to private conversations and the mouths of her fictional characters.

[Photo: Barbara Nitke, courtesy of Hulu]
Woody Allen seems to have largely avoided a similar moment of reckoning, though. Despite the objective failure of his Amazon series, and diminishing returns for recent films like Irrational Man and Magic in the Moonlight, Woody Allen has maintained his sky-high cultural cachet without ever owning up to his flaws–cinematic or otherwise. He’s still thee Woody Allen, he still books A-listers for his annual movies, and he has in no way been hampered by the events around his life, nor the uneven quality of his recent work.

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While a lot of people still feel cagey about being a Woody Allen fan, there is a pronounced difference between the regard people hold him in and the way the public feels about Bill Cosby, who is also mentioned in the “Strike Rat” episode of Difficult People. Klausner has a typically pithy way of explaining why that might be.

“If there were like 45 other instances of Woody molesting other people, there would probably be more of a conversation,” she says. “But who knows, the news cycle isn’t over yet.”

About the author

Joe Berkowitz is a writer and staff editor at Fast Company. His next book, Away with Words, is available June 13th from Harper Perennial.

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