Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's Rachel Bloom: 'Ten years ago, no one talked about a cultural problem in comedy'

Sian Cain
·10-min read
<span>Photograph: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP</span>
Photograph: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

On the day in April that Rachel Bloom finally took her newborn daughter home from the hospital, one of her best friends died. Her daughter had arrived with fluid in her lungs, into a maternity ward that was rapidly filling with furniture as other wards were transformed into Covid wards. Bloom, tired and elated to be home, had a nap. Her husband woke her with the news: Adam Schlesinger – the well-loved musician and one of Bloom’s closest collaborators on the musical-dramedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – had died from Covid-19 in a New York hospital, aged 52.

For a wild and strange period, it was unclear how to grieve. Schlesinger, like so many of this year’s dead, had no funeral. Jack Dolgen, the third part of the songwriting trio behind the TV show, came to mourn with Bloom, standing 15ft from her fence. Aline Brosh McKenna, the showrunner, stood in the street. “We didn’t know anything, there was no testing, we didn’t know how this thing spread,” Bloom says. “Now we have a Crazy Ex Zoom, where we all talk. But there’s nothing natural about it.”

It has taken six months for Schlesinger’s death to feel real. “It’s fully sunk in that he’s dead,” she says, flatly. “This was the first experience I’ve had with suddenly losing someone very close to me. I’ve experienced the deaths of grandparents, but not a friend. I still don’t really know what my grieving process is like when I don’t have a newborn, or when I’m not in the middle of the same pandemic that killed my friend. I really miss him.” For months afterwards, she says, “I kept thinking that Adam was just a text away.”

But at a time when sadness is all around, her memoir, I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are, is one of the funniest books of the year, with possibly the best cover to boot (inspired by the 80s-girl trinity of Judy Blume, Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley High). Bloom displays the same blend of high-functioning competence and vulnerability as her Crazy Ex character, Rebecca Bunch, and the same goofy, yet acidic humour that made the show zing.

“Rachel’s wild creativity stems from her conviction that she is entitled to follow her instincts and express her feelings,” Brosh McKenna once wrote, which rings true. Bloom’s experience in therapy, for anxiety and depression, as well as a natural earnest candour, make her the perfect memoir writer.

She has all the receipts to document what it is like being “the weird kid”: the extensive home video collection, including one of her first time on the toilet (“filmed as comprehensively as the Eichmann trial”); the sad, yet endearing childhood diary entries: “Two days ago I was in the talent show. I got no boos, except for a barely audible ‘Rachel sucks!’ I did super well.”

Criminally overlooked in the US – but now enjoying a second life on Netflix – Crazy Ex was packed with Bloom’s love of musical theatre. It was a show about one woman’s quest to find happiness, peppered with Sondheim send-ups, a breathy Marilyn Monroe-inspired number about love triangles, a Fred-and-Ginger pastiche about settling in love (“like 2% milk / or seitan beef / I almost taste the same”) and the catchy 80s-inflected song Let’s Generalise About Men.

Bloom being Bloom, the memoir includes a musical chapter to explain her love of musicals – complete with score to listen along to online – a chapter about the mental gymnastics required to masturbate while pregnant, her love of hiding in the toilet (her pee breaks were factored into the Crazy Ex filming schedule) and Harry Potter fanfiction. She adores Potter, which is complicated by her despair at JK Rowling’s stance on trans rights. “Oh God, J-Kaaaaay,” she groans. “Harry Potter is so part of my identity. But there’s someone in my family who’s trans, and he is a minor. I don’t think he knows what she’s saying. But even though she says there is a self-proclaimed nuance to what she’s arguing, she’s saying that a man can dress as a woman and that’ll put women in danger. JK, JK, J-Kaaaaaaay!” she wails.

Scrawny and proudly nerdy (“I sang show tunes under my breath and used words like ‘parlance’”), Bloom attracted bullies, then developed anxiety, which has stayed with her. She shed the bullies for a time in high school, when her talent for performing suddenly made her cool. At New York University, she majored in musical theatre, but was daunted by the competition of her cohort. So, at 19, she refocused on the college sketch comedy group.

There she found herself pursued by two older male members, her comedy mentors, and dated both. But when she decided the dynamic was getting too messy and told both men it was over, they helped to persuade other men in the group to have her thrown out.

Just a year ago, Bloom called one of the men who had helped to remove her to explain the impact this had on her. “He had always known the situation was fucked up, but it took me calling him out. I told him: ‘I’ve been pissed at you. This was terrible and it hurt me and what you did was wrong.’” He did it, she says, “because he was afraid, because he was working on a script with these guys. It was bros before hoes.”

Her husband, the TV writer Dan Gregor, was in the same sketch group. Then just a friend, he told her this was sexual harassment. “I was like: ‘No, no, it’s not. It’s not, because I deserve it.’ He said: ‘No, you don’t.’ And he was completely right. My husband’s fucking awesome. He’s really great. You know, I talk about the entitlement of straight white men – and I really love this straight white man. He is a good, wonderful person who has actively fought the patriarchy. He’s smart and incredibly secure in who he is.”

At 23, Bloom was hired to bring “a woman’s voice” to the writer’s room on an unnamed show. She would eat lunch by herself while the men played poker, and the biggest laughs came from jokes about how unfunny she was. Recently, one of her former colleagues contacted Bloom after hearing her speak about the experience on a podcast, wanting to make sure he wasn’t one of the bad guys. He hadn’t meant to be mean, he argued. Bloom pointed out that her male colleagues had gathered to watch the first episode of Crazy Ex together, just to mock it. “When he stammered an excuse, I interrupted with, ‘Look man, I don’t really give a shit if you don’t think I’m funny.’ And I meant it.”

For all that she writes about being a bit of a mess, one gets the sense that Bloom is free of the fear that might stop some women from demanding an apology. The reckoning such men are now facing, for everything from harassment and bullying, to sexual assaults on female fans and colleagues, is “a long time coming”, she thinks. “We’re starting to have those conversations and it’s messy, because it’s stuff that we haven’t reckoned with, ever,” she says. “Like, everyone has always known not to grab an ass, or to not say point blank, ‘You’re a woman – you’re not fucking funny.’ But even just 10 years ago, no one would have talked about a cultural problem in comedy.”

Bloom was only 23 when her parody song Fuck Me Ray Bradbury went viral on YouTube, and just 26 when Brosh McKenna approached her for Crazy Ex. But she was already weathered enough by experience to know what she wanted on the set, particularly in the writers’ room. It “had to be nice”, she says. “People can’t be creative if they feel threatened. You need people saying random weird shit without feeling their boss will yell at them. And it worked. I think there has been an awakening of compassion, since, a reckoning with privilege.”

After shooting a pilot, Showtime passed on Crazy Ex (“I would have had to get my boobs out more if we were on Showtime, and I was fully prepared to,” she says) so Brosh McKenna and Bloom took it to other networks. “To this day, Aline and I have meetings with people who say: ‘Oh my God, we love Crazy Ex, we would have loved to have it on our network’, and we go: ‘Wellllll, we pitched it to you and you passed!’” Finally, CW picked it up and it became an hour-long show, with much less nudity. (“I would have shown them if they asked,” Bloom maintains.)

When the show debuted in 2015, the title rankled those who didn’t seem to understand its self-awareness. “We didn’t realise that it would turn people off … it’s like calling a show Fat Pig or Women Are Inherently Insane, you know, if we’re being that offensive you know it is going to be a deconstruction of something,” Bloom says. “But too many smart people have said they were turned off by the title for me to be like, ‘You’re all idiots’.”

The show was always written to be four seasons long, to map Rebecca’s quest for happiness, then breakdown, then diagnosis (with borderline personality disorder), then recovery. The show ended in 2019 on a quietly joyful note: Rebecca sitting at a piano, finally ready to sing outside of her imagination.

Now on Netflix, the fanbase is still growing. “I’m just so tickled and amazed that the show got made at all because it was just as peak TV was starting and weird stuff wasn’t really being made as much as it as it is now.”

What is next for her? “Writing another book right now sounds like getting a pap smear in a world war one trench,” she says in the memoir, so probably not that. There have been rumours of a claymation show about breasts, and a Christmas musical with Paul Feig. Until recently the latter “was not getting legs – but stay tuned for it having legs,” she says, tantalisingly. But there is one thing she really wants to do: “A sketch comedy series all about the clitoris.”

Her whole life, Bloom has remained steadfast in what makes her seem odd to others. But even with the childhood bullies, the sexism in comedy, all the potential cringing moments that come with performing, she seems to have a remarkable lack of fear. Has this come with age or experience? A bit of both, she thinks. “Getting older is great, but I think bravery also comes with having a good career and high status. The world has shown me that bravery and honesty tends to be the better route. And I want to set an example for my daughter.”

Surely she has already, with a back catalogue of no-nonsense feminist songs to teach her about being kinder to herself, sex positivity and even healthy mother-daughter relationships? “I definitely feel very well prepared to talk to her about being a woman,” says Bloom. “But she’s currently so genderless. She’s a potato.”

A couple of months ago, a bee flew into the house and Bloom “shielded this tiny person with my body, you know, really Lily Potter-esque,” she laughs. “I can only see upsides to being a parent. I can only imagine it’ll affect my ability to deal with setbacks and criticism. Like, ‘OK, well, this kid needs me.’ I’m so paranoid about her turning into a terrible child of Hollywood people. But I want her to have infinitely better …” She searches for the word. “… everything!”

I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are is published by Hodder & Stoughton. To order for 14.78 (RRP £16.99) go to P&P charges may apply.