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July 25, 2018

A Meeting Of Her Minds

In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the left brain and right brain of multitasker Rachel Bloom find full flower.

Margy Rochlin
  • Frank Ockenfels 3/The CW
  • As Rebecca Bunch in Crazy-Ex Girlfriend, Rachel Bloom sings of her permanent single status with a surplus of cats.

    Greg Gayne/The CW

Aline Brosh McKenna and Rachel Bloom have a running joke about the first time they met.

Brosh McKenna likes to tease Bloom for showing up at her office on the Henson lot in Hollywood in baggy cargo pants. Bloom, however, swears that she doesn't even own a pair. Her friend and colleague concedes that she might be wrong on the specifics, but insists that she's essentially correct. "She dressed like a writer, not an actor," says Brosh McKenna, whose writing credits include the film The Devil Qears Prada. "She was wearing what a writer would wear to a writers' room."

On a sunny afternoon, when Bloom showed up at a Burbank café, it was easy to take Brosh McKenna's point. Outfitted in torn jeans, soft felt shoes, a T-shirt and an air of rumpled weariness, Bloom didn't look like the Golden Globe–winning star, executive producer, writer and co-creator (with her fellow exec producer Brosh McKenna) of The CW's musical dramedy series, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. She seemed like a 30-year-old briefly given respite from a grind.

As spring approached, she was supervising the editing of the third season of Crazy Ex, about a Manhattan real estate attorney, Rebecca Bunch (Bloom), who abandons her high-power job and moves to West Covina, California, to be near a summer camp crush she hasn't seen in years.

At the same time, Bloom was also writing a 10-chapter book, a mix of fiction and nonfiction essays — using a keyboard that doesn't connect to the internet ("So I don't get distracted") — on a self-imposed dizzying schedule.

"I work well off deadlines," she says. "So I told my editor, 'Once a week, I'm going to give you a chapter.'" She stuck to the schedule even through late March and early April, when she and many of her Crazy Ex cast members took a live musical tour across the country, performing songs from the series.

Meanwhile, she also has a Broadway musical in the works, based on Crazy Ex. Then there's Most Likely to Murder, a mystery-comedy feature she stars in with Adam Pally and Vincent Kartheiser, which was released May 1.

According to Donna Lynne Champlin, a Crazy Ex costar, Bloom's secret is that in an either/or world, she is both logical and imaginative.

"It's very easy for her to organize — which is incredibly rare. If I work with someone who's a creative geyser — which she is, musically, lyrically, dramaturgically, it's endless — the other side of their brain is kind of shriveled to a raisin," Champlin says. "I call her Hermione [after the Harry Potter character] because I think she has one of those time keys that allows her to have 36-hour days."

In 2009, Bloom graduated from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts with a BFA in drama and joined the Upright Citizens Brigade, thus introducing herself to sketch comedy and some of its most motivated practitioners.

"Every other week someone was putting on a one-person show," Bloom recalls. She cites Billy Eichner Goes Pop, a live, onstage precursor to Billy on the Street (a pop culture game show that aired first on Fuse and then on truTV). Meanwhile, the web series that her Brooklyn roommate Ilana Glazer was making — Broad City — would morph into the Comedy Central TV show of the same name in 2014.

It didn't take long for Bloom to have her "Why not me?" moment.

Tapping into her own self-starter tendencies, she commenced writing, starring and singing in funny, slightly raunchy YouTube videos. The first was a song she'd been thinking about since college, a bouncy ode to the author of one of her favorite books — The Martian Chronicles — that she released on his 90th birthday. She'd hoped she might use "Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury" as an online calling card, but the video instantly took the internet by storm.

"I remember the day it went viral, I didn't know what a hashtag was," Bloom says. She'd set up a Twitter account but was unsure about using the social networking service — until she was bowled over at the famous people posting about "FMRB." "I knew it had gone real viral when [writer] Neil Gaiman tweeted about it. And then his wife, Amanda Palmer, lead singer of the Dresden Dolls, which I'm a big fan of, emailed me and I was like, 'Whoa.'"

Never one to ignore an open door, Bloom put out a series of similarly tart, gleefully ribald music videos.The way Brosh McKenna tells it, she was in her office "procrastinating," when she happened upon one of Bloom's animated clips, "Historically Accurate Disney Princess Song."

When she Googled the rest of Bloom's oeuvre, she noticed that Bloom plays distinct characters in her videos, yet they all share a fragile quality. "There's a moment in every video where you glimpse the vulnerability in the character, no matter how comedically it's pushed," Brosh McKenna says. "They all have a little bit of a sob in their heart."

Pretty soon, Brosh McKenna and Bloom were brainstorming together, retooling one of Brosh McKenna's feature film ideas into a TV series. It wasn't until after they'd sold a pilot to Showtime, written a script and hired a director that an important question was posed to Brosh McKenna.

"The first day of the pilot, Marc Webb, the director, turned to me and said, 'Hey, by the way, can she act?' I knew she was appealing as a performer and frankly wonderful to look at. But the funny thing was, during the whole journey I never [saw her] act," Brosh McKenna says. "So I was like, 'Oh, yeah. A hundred percent.'"

Of course, if Brosh McKenna and Webb had only asked, Bloom could have directed them to a library of more than 70 DVDs and VHS tapes shot by her mother, Shelli.

"Every part of my childhood is on videotape," Bloom says. Growing up in the southern California suburb of Manhattan Beach, she had parents who were not only eager to encourage creativity but to document it meticulously, starting with her age-three turn as one of the Three Little Pigs to her fourth-grade triumph as the Evil Queen in a community theater production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Also on record is Bloom's breakthrough moment in the eighth grade, when her discovery of musical theater had a transformative effect. "I was depressed. I had OCD," Bloom says. She describes herself as a lonely teenage outsider who shuffled around in sweatpants, cut her own hair and was given to bouts of crippling anxiety.

"Then I started this musical theater class and my OCD went away. I started getting friends. I got popular. People respected me and all the work I'd been doing for years. It truly changed my life."

In person, Bloom comes off like one of those people whose brain is always whirring. "I have a very specific view of how I want to edit the music videos," she says, popping open her laptop to reveal document after document filled with stage directions and multiple drafts of songs with names like "First Penis I Saw."

On the road to getting their hard-to-pigeonhole, by turns outrageous, dark, moving and unapologetically feminist series on the air, she and Brosh McKenna avoided networks that might not consider Bloom conventional leading-lady material and therefore relegate her to sidekick. They targeted cable, which led them to Showtime, where execs agreed to Bloom as their star and welcomed what she calls "jokes about vaginas."

Yet when the show was ready, Showtime declined to give it a series order, dashing Bloom's dreams.

Looking back, Bloom theorizes that Crazy Ex just didn't fit with Showtime's lineup. "It's ultimately optimistic," she says. "I think there's this general aura around cable that's like, 'Everyone's irredeemable. Everyone's a piece of shit.' Our show has some of that, but there's an underlying empathy for our character."

At the time, however, Bloom's belief that Crazy Ex would ever make it to the small screen was rapidly diminishing. "I thought I was going to be this big Showtime star, and suddenly I had a dead pilot," she recalls.

So they shopped the project to Netflix, Starz, Amazon, TBS, TNT and TV Land. Bloom can still remember the night when she was leaving a movie theater and got Brosh McKenna's text: all six passed in a single day. "Aline said, 'I'm so sorry, honey,' and when I got home I burst into tears."

At the time, Bloom had just sunk a fortune into her wedding to her college boyfriend, Dan Gregor. Now she was contemplating their financial stability. "I said to my husband, 'I'm so sorry.'" To make ends meet, Bloom returned to her writing job on Robot Chicken, a stop-motion sketch comedy series on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim.

A month or two later, after watching the pilot for Jane the Virgin, it hit Brosh McKenna that if The CW had welcomed a peppy, bilingual adaptation of a Venezuelan soap opera, might it not have room for the fluctuating tones and kooky irreverence of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend?

"I had gone from being in the space of 'This isn't going to happen' to Aline calling me up [at Robot Chicken] and telling me, 'Babe, we've been picked up for the fall.'" Brosh McKenna instructed her not to tell a soul, but, after her long journey, Bloom wasn't about to respect a gag order. "I walked right back into the Robot Chicken writers' meeting — and they are all my friends — and I just went,  'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend just got picked up! I quit.'"

Roughly a week and a half later, Bloom was on stage at New York City Center announcing her show at the upfronts.

Crazy Ex took its time building an audience in The CW's Monday-night comedy block, but from the start, critics found it "sharp," "sly" and, in reference to the two musical numbers featured in every episode, "wonderfully surreal." Just months after the series premiered, Bloom was in the audience at the Beverly Hilton Hotel hearing her name announced as the winner of the Golden Globe for best actress in a comedy or musical series.

She would go on to receive a second Globe acting nomination, as well as three Emmy noms, for the original music and lyrics in Crazy Ex and for the main title theme; she previously was nominated as a writer of Robot Chicken.

"It was fucking crazy," she says of the Golden Globe win, noting that her desire to savor every moment was overwhelmed by her rushing adrenaline. "Andy Samberg gave me the award and we walked off stage together, and the first thing I said to him was, 'I was an intern at SNL when you were there!' And he was like, 'Oh!' and I said, [in a babbling voice] 'You once said hi to me on an elevator!' I was holding a Golden Globe and that's all I could think of to say."

When Bloom describes three seasons of wearing so many hats, it sounds like a slapstick blur of memorizing lines, rushing to the edit bay and composing songs in the bathtub. But Champlin has been there to witness something Bloom doesn't mention, which is her transition from a 20- something TV newbie into a full-on Person in Charge.

"It's been really fun to watch her become so businesslike. She's a strong, independent woman who isn't afraid to say, 'No, and here's the reason why.' I'm with her a lot on set and people will come to her and say, 'We need an answer in five minutes.' The first season, she might have gotten anxious about it. But this season? She's on top of it — with no apology. She's like, 'I'm the boss. This is my decision.' And I'm like, 'Damn girl! You are and, yes, it is!'"

From the beginning, Bloom and Brosh McKenna master-planned Crazy Ex as a four-year saga. Knowing that season three (which concluded in February; viewers can catch up on Netflix or cwtv.com) would explore Rebecca's mental health issues, they sent key scenes from earlier episodes to experts and asked for a diagnosis. The consensus was borderline personality disorder.

Crazy Ex managed to remain a comedy filled with songs belted out by a cast full of Broadway vets, even as it went on a tone-deepening exploration of attempted suicide, depression and recovery. At season's end (spoiler warning!), Rebecca Bunch is pleading guilty to the crime of trying to murder her stalker. "It's about the other half of self-discovery — taking responsibility for one's actions," Bloom says.

Because Bloom's life is so busy (season four of Crazy Ex was announced in April), there are days when she's grateful for a skill she developed on the set. She calls it "meditating," but acknowledges that once she closes her eyes and relaxes her body, something else takes over.

"Theoretically it's meditating, but every time I try to meditate, I just fall asleep. I can actively sleep while someone is curling my eyelashes and putting eyeliner on me," she says. "I can sleep anywhere."


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2018


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