How 'Difficult People' challenges the conventions of sex and relationships in modern sitcoms


“What did I ever do to deserve you?” diminutive redhead Julie asks Arthur, her clean-cut, bespectacled, and bow-tied PBS lifer of a live-in boyfriend, after he presents her with a taco (no lettuce, no tomatoes, just unseasoned beef on a tortilla) he prepared in accordance with her unrefined palette. She’s just spent the better part of the weekend waging a war against society’s insistence on shunning adults who’d rather eat chicken fingers than foie gras. Her crusade has included multiple refusals of Arthur’s expertly cooked meals.

“Ah, sometimes I wonder,” he says, lovingly. Julie smiles, not offended.

Were this a typical sitcom from the inception of the genre—think Everybody Loves Raymond, Martin, or literally any half-hour show inserted into NBC’s Must See TV block during the ’90s—the wacky, lovable picky eater would be our male protagonist, and the patient partner his doting and reliable but perpetually annoyed wife or girlfriend. But this is not your typical sitcom, with rote themes and perspectives channeled through the prism of the heterosexual male gaze. It’s Difficult People, which wrapped up an eight-episode first season last September, and returns to Hulu on July 12. It’s also, secretly, one of the most subversive pieces of art in comedy today.

On its face, it looks like a lot of other sitcoms. In fact, the Hulu show’s IMDB plot summary could describe any one of dozens of television programs, past, present, and future: “Life is really tough for Julie and Billy, two 30-something aspiring comics living and working in New York City. While their friends and acquaintances move on to find success and love, they continue to struggle with careers and relationships, getting more bitter by the day.” It appeared that this show would occupy the same space in the zeitgeist as a string of recent comedies glorifying misanthropy, including You’re the Worst and Veep.

Difficult People was created by New York comedian Julie Klausner, who stars alongside Billy Eichner of Billy on the Street. Amy Poehler is attached as executive producer. In the pilot episode, Klausner and Eichner, playing less successful and meaner versions of themselves, rush to attend a matinee of Annie, each separately excoriating tourists along the way. They take their seats and launch into small talk, triggering some exposition so we can figure out who these people are. They begin by talking about the guy Billy is dating, and not just in vague sexual terms. How does Billy feel about his relationship? Julie wants to know.

The first time we meet the male lead of this television show, we learn he’s gay, with real desires, sexual and otherwise, and his friend asks him about them—not to eventually make a joke at his (and homosexuality’s) expense, but because that’s how people actually speak to each other. Over the course of the first season, Billy has multiple relationships, sexual and otherwise, because, you know, he’s a real person and not a caricature of urban homosexuality. In “Pledge Week,” he dumps a really great guy because he’s an audience volunteer at a magic show. (“He’s a participator!” Julie screams when she hears the news.) In “Premium Membership,” he shakes off the boredom of dating a nice guy by jerking off with a stranger (played by guest star Seth Meyers) behind an indoor dog park.

“It’s important for me to portray gay men as truthfully as possible: as sexual, three-dimensional human beings, and not just as people who have friendships with women who want to give them makeovers,” Klausner told me when we spoke on the phone recently. “On top of that, one of goals and prongs of my agenda was to depict a different relationship between a straight girl and a gay guy than what we’ve already seen.”

Klausner and Eichner, perhaps the finest one-two punch on television right now, then verbally exsanguinate a mother who has the audacity to ask them not to curse in front of her children with machine gun-fast one-liners.

“I paid $120. I can say ‘shit’ if I want to. You’re not even seeing the real Annie today,” Billy pointedly whispers in the son’s ear. “Do you know what an understudy is?” Julie asks the daughter, blowing a raspberry in her face.

This isn’t ham-fisted message television. Without the hilarity of the duo’s almost sadistic level of misanthropy, their eyes nearly rolling out of their heads as they attempt to just fucking deal, Difficult People wouldn’t work. It’s like freebasing a bagful of confectioner’s sugar to help the medicine go down.

Still, this level of “woke-ness” is normal for Klausner, and she thinks it should be normal for everyone watching.

“To me that’s as natural as waking up and seeing the sun in the sky,” she says. “I welcome it as something subversive on my part.”

Klausner, 38, has led a life that is routinely mirrored in the show. She’s a New York native who got her start doing improv comedy with the Upright Citizens Brigade in the early 2000s. Like her fictionalized counterpart, Klausner at one point wrote TV recaps, penning Real Housewives after-show pieces for Vulture. Both ruffle feathers on Twitter.

Where Klausner and her similarly named avatar Kessler diverge is in the former’s success elsewhere. Klausner is the author of both a memoir, I Don’t Care About Your Band, and a YA book called Art Girls Are Easy. Her podcast, How Was Your Week, is equally long-winded, tetchy, and insanely funny. And, of course, Klausner has her own television show on Hulu. In one episode, Billy and Julie plead to every passerby at an HBO party: “Please give us a show. Anyone. Give us a show.” It’s a knowing wink to the great fortune they’ve been afforded, especially considering that the USA Network, for whom the pilot was created, passed on it. The show ended up with a full order from Hulu, a blessing not at all in disguise.

“I’m happy that it landed with people that love it and don’t bend it to what their idea of what it could be,” Klausner said. “If you’re with people who get you, you’re in so much luck.”

That luck allows Klausner to play with the conventions of Julie’s other relationship, with her live-in boyfriend Arthur. Throughout the first season she lovingly emasculates him in a way that would elicit a pointed “Ooooh,” from a canned audience track on another show. How’s he going to hurt her back? In one episode, when her mother tells her she’ll need help carrying bags out of her apartment. Julie quips, “I’d call Arthur, but he has arms like Lincoln Logs.”

In the episode “Pledge Drive,” when she arrives home, stressed, she groans at Arthur, “Let me guess, pizza again for dinner? This place is a mess.”

But this is more than Julie merely “wearing the pants” in a relationship. It’s not enough to simply flip the male and female roles in Julie and Arthur’s romantic partnership. Arthur is written—and expertly portrayed by Urbaniak—as patient and kind, thus subtly altering the dynamic even as it is turned on its head. Arthur is not the snippy shrew to Julie’s outlandish, free-spirited woman. He is written in a way so that Julie’s antics (which are inherent in her character) aren’t merely tolerated and, in turn, corrected by her counterpart. Through Arthur’s holistic acceptance of the complete woman, they’re validated in the eyes of the viewer, who is accustomed to the standard sitcom relationship of one normal bore plus a wanderer who needs “fixing.”

Klausner takes it one step further in the episode “Devil’s Three-Way.”

The story is simple, seemingly formulaic, even: Julie’s high school crush, Brian, is back in town (a.k.a. she found him on Facebook) and she wants his attention to boost her self-esteem. Arthur suggests having him over to make a quiche, in the delightful way only he can. After misreading some signals, Brian suspects he’s been invited to a MMF threesome. Arthur attempts to shut this down, but Julie takes over.

“We’re never going to have a sexist three-way with two girls and one guy,” Julie says to Arthur, while Brian aloofly sips a beer behind them, “because I firmly believe in my heart that men have enough privilege in this society.”

Arthur, trepidatious though comfortable with himself (and uncomfortable with the implication that he’s homophobic if he doesn’t go through with the three-way) reluctantly agrees, and in an instant, they’re all in bed together. Julie has crafted this sexual situation for herself, and is fully in control of what she is comfortable with in bed. It’s another nuanced take on sexuality, neither fetishizing outlandish, male-driven sexual fantasies nor relegating Julie to the role of prudish bore.

“One of things that bothered me growing up watching male spearheaded comedy is the assumption that the audience is on the same page as you in matters of sexuality,” Klausner says. “It’s like when a character on Married With Children thinks that he is going to have sex with two blonde sisters and the audience is like, ‘Woooooo!’ That audience is on board with having sex with two siblings, which is disgusting. It grosses me out to assume that I’m on board with that fantasy.”

Ultimately, Julie isn’t “spit-roasted,” as Kessler says, but Arthur and Julie merely have sex while Brian watches from a chair in the corner, a comment on consent that springs from the discomfort the trio eventually feels when they attempt the ménage a trois. The orgy would have been a transcendent moment, but alas, one that would have veered too far away from the “com” in sitcom.

“We’re always very conscious of whether or not something is funny enough,” Klausner says. “That straddle is something you struggle with. I’m not ever going to come out with an episode of Louie.”

There’s an episode in the upcoming season two that Klausner says deals with Arthur catching Julie watching porn. Not only does this storyline examine the idea of women watching porn, but a feminist watching porn that may be, in Klausner’s words, “awful to women.”

“There is the assumption that men are sexual and women walk in on them and are shocked,” Klausner says. “Or that [women] want to watch something with a story. I want to explore this.”

Klausner says that, ultimately, she’s writing what she knows, and the subversiveness naturally springs forth from there. Though she mines certain comedy structures from the old guard of male sitcoms for Difficult People—”that’s most of what exists,” she explains—the characters, the situations, and jokes are written from a female perspective.

“A lot of this show is my Make-a-Wish,” Klausner says, laughing. “But the truth is, I wouldn’t be writing it if I didn’t know it to be truthful. It’s not a what-if—to picture a world in which this would be possible. I know there are women who watch porn and masturbate. I know men who want to be more committed [than their partners]. I know men who cook.”

In this way, Difficult People’s greatest asset is how its inclusivity is intertwined with the rapid-fire jokes peppered throughout. It’s ultimately a haven—and a hilarious one at that—for realistic relationships that have never been accurately depicted in mainstream media, which should make people optimistic both for their own relationships and for the medium as a whole. For Klausner, she’s happy to run with this.

“If other shows don’t want to do it, great,” Klausner says, her voice perking up. “More for us to do first.”

Chris O’Connell is a writer and editor living in Austin, TX. He is the world’s foremost expert on La Croix flavors.

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