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May 23, 2017

A Different Kind of Love Story

Fielding Edlow and Larry Clarke may fight a lot, but they enjoy every minute of it.

T.L. Stanley

Fielding Edlow and Larry Clarke don’t spar like prizefighters because they’ve already taken the gloves off.

They’re full-on bare knuckle brawling, looking for the weak spots and hitting below the belt.

If they weren’t so devoted to each other, the result would be pure carnage, figuratively speaking. As it is, they kiss and make up, and their on-screen marriage lives another day.

The warring lovers, who are also aspiring Hollywood power players, star in a just-launched web series called Bitter Homes and Gardens, found at bitterhomesandgardens.com, named best comedy at the New York City Short Film Festival.

Edlow, a screenwriter, actress and stand-up comedian, created the eight-episode series as a vehicle for her and real-life husband Clarke, a character actor whose credits include Law & Order, NCIS, The Mentalist, Grey’s Anatomy and the upcoming Twin Peaks revival.

The Bitter Homes characters, a self-obsessed snack blogger and a perpetually insecure character actor, are trying to break into the entertainment elite. Their progress is uneven, at best.

Meantime, they bicker constantly about everything from snoring and sex (or lack thereof) to summer vacations and cookies (his Achilles heel). He won’t read her spec script for Girls because he hates the font she chose to write it, and she won’t watch his acting reel, which she says is packed with him playing “fat perverts,” traffic cops and museum attendants with no lines.

Neither can resist the razor-sharp verbal jab, and they pummel each other with language that’s definitely not safe for work. Viewers probably haven’t seen a TV couple this antagonistic since Ralph and Alice Kramden or Al and Peg Bundy.

“People can love each other and also be vicious,” Clarke said during a recent phone conversation from the couple’s Larchmont home. “I think a lot of people connect with that. We’re not the only ones who can say horrible things to each other and then go out and have lunch.”

Though there’s not much of a filter, there is a lot of heart at the core of their characters’ relationship, Edlow said during the same call. The series’ animated opening credits, for instance, feature Edlow and Clarke making obscene gestures at each other. Seconds later, they soften and lean into one another, affectionately meeting in the middle.

“We can say and do terrible things and then recover,” she said. “If we don’t, that’s a different show.”

It was important to ground the stories in reality, though she said she takes creative license with her scripts and characters. Art imitates life, she said, but not that closely.

“They’re loosely based on us,” Edlow said about Bitter’s “Fielding” and “Larry.” “They’re totally blown-out personas.”

Clarke has his own take: “It’s us,” he said.

Edlow insists that their real-life fights are “even worse than what you see in the series. But we had to make it entertaining.”

Their relationship will provide “endless material,” said Clarke, perhaps because they’re polar opposites. She’s a Jewish native New Yorker from the Upper East Side, and Clarke hails from a large Irish Catholic family in Maryland. They each migrated to L.A., logging time at Upright Citizens Brigade and various stage plays and TV shows, and met in a writing class. They’ve been married for nearly a decade and have a 5-year-old daughter.

They’re not squeamish about oversharing, drawing from their day-to-day scuffles for Bitter Homes.

“My biggest goal is to be honest without being self-indulgent,” said Edlow, who hosts a popular monthly show, Eat, Pray, F**k at the Hollywood Improv, where recent headliners included Tom Papa and Laura Kightlinger. “The series has a creative spin on it, of course, but it’s so satisfying to me because it’s uncensored.”

“It’s therapeutic in a way,” said Clarke, who will star in an upcoming independent film, Dying: 101, that he wrote and will direct. “The best art is the stuff that’s the most honest.”

Bitter Homes had a somewhat unconventional start. It was part of a storytelling night at a Los Angeles temple, where the theme was forgiveness. Edlow (BoJack Horseman, Behind the Candelabra) wrote a skit about her and Clarke’s ongoing tug-of-war over the DVR.

It’s an everyday scenario, but explosive given the personalities involved. He wants to watch Game of Thrones, but she doesn’t. And she won’t stop needling him until he agrees to read some of her work. But he can’t stomach her script about “pudgy sluts.”

There’s a flurry of insults and yelling, sending Clarke on a frantic search for ginger snaps, followed by the inevitable detente. The resolution? A Game of Thrones marathon.

“It was so random that we were even part of that event, and the evening had such heft and gravitas,” Edlow said. “And then there’s our story about a superficial ridiculous fight over TV.”

The audience loved it, as it turned out, and the response encouraged Edlow to keep going with the concept. “DVR” became the pilot and a calling card for the series, shot over eight days at director Dave Rock’s Eagle Rock home.

Edlow’s no stranger to the TV sales game, having had her one-woman play Coke-Free J.A.P. make it to pilot stage at Showtime. She and executive producer Jim Leonard shopped Bitter Homes during a period where quirky series such as Marriage, You’re the Worst and Catastrophe were already on air.

They didn’t find a buyer, but they did snag financial backing to go the digital route, where Edlow felt she was “jumping without a net,” in a good way.

“You really have creative cart blanche,” she said. “It was exciting for me because I’d never done it before. It’s an amazing breeding ground.”

Clarke liked working outside the traditional TV system. “I really enjoyed these intense short episodes and the freedom we had,” he said. “It was so much fun to create it without three producers over our shoulder saying, ‘Could you try this ending?’ or, ‘Could you do it this way?’”

Leonard (Dexter, Major Crimes), who recalled being “knocked out” when he first saw one of Edlow’s short plays a number of years ago, said her style and talent are perfectly suited to the digital age.

“From the moment I saw her work, I just said, ‘Wow, what a voice,’” Leonard said. “The pieces stuck with me like a song. They’re absolutely built for the Internet.”

Her work captures a “Mike Nichols-Elaine May” vibe, he said, making for “a wildly honest look at relationships. She’s so completely specific, but within that, it strikes us all. The size of her voice continues to amaze me.”

Despite the stars’ backgrounds in improvisational comedy, Bitter Homes is fairly tightly scripted, Edlow said, and the digital media platform gave her an added challenge.

“The writing has to be economical, so I was always thinking about how to say something in fewer words,” she said.

The whole series is compact, clocking in at about an hour total but covering a considerable amount of emotional and comedic ground. Viewers meet Edlow’s best friend, a professional organizer whose loyalty has a price, and Clarke’s “little brother,” who turns out to be a an African-American millennial from Brentwood instead of a needy kid from the hood.

Clarke and Edlow visit a vegan restaurant where he tries to order “something that used to be alive” and agree to go to a child’s birthday party at a place called Giggles and Hugs only to schmooze with the kid’s industry-hotshot mom.

The entertainment business and its merciless dog-eat-dog culture loom large over the series. Edlow gets “discovered” at the dry cleaners and lands a part on The Good Wife, while Clarke finds himself stuck behind the horsehead costume for Equus at the Malibu Playhouse II, which he describes as “a beach collective.”

“Both of these people are so ambitious, and they’re desperate to be validated in the world, against this unforgiving shellacked Hollywood backdrop,” Edlow said. “That’s where a lot of comedy comes in, from that competitiveness that they feel even with each other.”

She wasn’t immune herself, she said. “For the first four or five years, I was so competitive with Larry. He’d say, ‘Are you insane? How can you compete with a balding character actor?’ We’re just always comparing ourselves to other people in Hollywood. It’s an ongoing conflict.”

And it will continue to provide fodder, she said, as will their marriage. Season 2 of Bitter Homes is already in the works, with new characters planned, a baby on the way and couples counseling in the mix.

For anyone who wants a Bitter fix, there’s a separate video series on YouTube, a spin-off of sorts, about Edlow’s snack blog that consists mostly of her trying to become a serious vlogger and him walking into frame and ruining her shots.

“We’re using her snack blog as a tool so we can yell at each other,” Clarke said. “The feedback we’ve gotten so far on the series is that people love to watch us argue. So we’re going with that.”

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