Eight years after she became a YouTube sensation with the music video “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury,” a satire about lusting after the nonagenarian sci-fi writer, Rachel Bloom, 31, has been pulling audiences deeper into her musical fantasies through her Emmy-winning show, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which begins its fourth and final season this month. With Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada) as producer and cocreator, Bloom writes, scores, and stars in the genre-bending show, which blends drama, romantic comedy, and earworm original songs.
Fast Company: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is unlike anything else on TV right now. You play the lead, Rebecca, who is smart and accomplished, suffers from severe mental illness, and expresses herself in musical numbers. When you and Brosh McKenna first started working together, did you have a sense of what you aimed to achieve with the show?
Rachel Bloom: I wanted to question expectations that women place on themselves based on what they see in the arts and in the media. The show was always meant to be a deconstruction of romantic comedies, princess narratives, hero narratives.
FC: How do you make a comedy about mental illness without poking fun at your character?
RB: The nature of the show was always that [Rebecca] was literally depressed. That was definitely autobiographical because I’ve had anxiety and depression. The show’s about finding what makes you truly happy, about inner happiness. We’re always coming at [Rebecca] with compassion and [trying] to understand why she’s doing what she’s doing. Every episode is an experiment. The tone is always the hardest thing to nail, and each episode there are definitely moments where we make a change when something feels totally off.
FC: Last season, your character tried to commit suicide, which unfortunately is something that has been in the news lately. Do you see the conversation around mental health starting to change?
RB: I hope so. In the research we did about people who want to commit suicide, [they] kept saying that they don’t want to die, they just want the pain to stop. When you’re in the middle of a depression, the words mental health are clinical words that just feel so separate from the way you feel. Along with talking about mental health, we should be talking about how it feels—about hopelessness, sadness, the feeling of being trapped in your life. We need to address that in the national conversation.
FC: What do you think you achieved with that episode?
RB: I had a few people tell me it inspired them to go to therapy, which is probably the best compliment I could ever get.
FC: You have a background in writing and performing, but this is your first time creating a show and leading a cast. How did you approach these responsibilities?
RB: I think a big challenge of this job is learning how to be a boss and to forgive myself when I disagree with [someone else’s] choice. That’s been something I [had to] learn as a young woman. I’m the second-youngest member of the cast and [one of the youngest] members of the writing staff. When you’re in production meetings and people are often 20 years your senior, you have to find that balance of being respectful, but also holding firm on what you want.
I try to treat everyone like collaborators. When I’m frustrated, I try to go somewhere where I can be frustrated alone. Every person who’s been in a supervising position has that moment where they feel like, “Ugh, why aren’t people getting it?” Or “Ugh, people are trying to sabotage my show!” You need to understand that everyone is just trying to make a good show.
FC: You’ve talked in the past about being in writers’ rooms where people are afraid to pitch their ideas. How do you and Brosh McKenna stop that from happening on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend?
RB: In every writers’ room, ideas are shut down, but I think it’s important not to look at people dismissively or derisively when one of their ideas isn’t going to work in the script. The role of a boss is to shut the idea down in a very calm and humane way. I reject ideas overly kindly. I’m like, “I understand where you’re coming from. I appreciate it.” [Rejection] is something you have to learn as a writer.
FC: What is it like to write and act on a show that also involves at least two musical numbers per episode?
RB: The hardest part is that we are a network show, so we’re doing it all at once. Other shows, like Insecure, Girls, and Broad City, are 30 minutes long and 8 to 10 episodes [a season]. I believe that all of them write, then film, and then edit. We do it all at once. So in the morning, I’m looking at outlines [for upcoming episodes], then acting, and then editing. It’s very fast and very hard, and I don’t think I could ever do this process again.
FC: You’re among a generation of comedians, including Insecure creator Issa Rae and Eighth Grade director Bo Burnham, who got their start on YouTube. Do you think the platform is still a great talent incubator?
RB: It was a lot easier to get your web series noticed when I was coming up. The lines between web series and TV shows have shifted. There is a real oversaturation of sketch comedy online, and that’s why you see sites like Funny or Die or College Humor downsize. The internet continues to be a great place for people to make art, but when it comes to getting noticed—how you break through with something that isn’t super topical—I don’t know. On [Crazy Ex-Girlfriend] we can’t be topical because we’re making the show in advance. We have maybe three or four videos that go viral-esque [each season]. But having quality content is not necessarily all that you need anymore, because there is so much out there.
FC: The cast is diverse in a lot of ways, from ethnicity to age to body type. Was that something you planned from the beginning?
RB: When Aline and I were researching the show, one of the things we did was walk around West Covina [the Los Angeles suburb where Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is set]. It’s diverse, but no one is talking about how diverse it is. I grew up in Manhattan Beach: Our homecoming queen was Japanese and our king was Chinese, and I don’t remember anyone patting themselves on the back being like, “Oh, we’re so diverse.” I think you get a lot of writers in Hollywood who are transplants from the East Coast, specifically places like Long island where it’s much more segregated—though not officially—by class and race. But if you grow up in SoCal, you have a different experience.
FC: You’ve been a vocal advocate for pay equality in the entertainment industry. How have you approached the issue on your own set?
RB: All of the heads of the show are women and we’re very aware of pay disparity. We’re always monitoring that, especially during actor negotiations. I’ve learned to look at my own biases. Looking at a white person and a person of color, [I’ve learned to] ask why [is one of them] getting paid more? Is it because of their expertise or because they have a better lawyer? We need to give everyone the same chance and opportunity to succeed, and then the ball is in their court.
30-Second bio: Rachel Bloom
Youtube stardom: After studying theater at NYU, Bloom joined the Upright Citizens Brigade improv theater. In 2010, she started posting original music videos on YouTube, beginning with the Ray Bradbury hit. It cost $3,000 to produce (the bulk of her savings) and now has 4.5 million views. Subsequent songs include “I Steal Pets” and “You Can Touch My Boobies.”
Breakout moment: The effort paid off when Brosh McKenna discovered her videos. Together they created the pilot for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which was picked up by the CW in 2015. Bloom won a Golden Globe for her performance in 2016.
Talent overflow: Bloom released her first album of musical comedy songs, including “Chanukah Honey,” in 2013. She followed it up with a Christmas-themed album later that year. Her first book, a collection of personal essays and more, will be published by Grand Central next year.