Somehow, about a year ago, I found myself backstage at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Rachel Bloom, the star and my co-creator of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” was about to perform some songs from our show in Lincoln Center’s prestigious American Songbook series, and she had invited me to do a number with her called “JAP Battle.” Me, 50 years old, onstage, rapping. Everyone else who was about to be onstage (Rachel and Jack Dolgen and Adam Schlesinger, the “Crazy Ex” songwriting team) was a seasoned songwriter and performer. Me? I was about to perform in public for the first time since my high school graduation in 1985, when I sang, very out of tune, the Kenny Rogers classic “Through the Years” with my friend John.
So there I was at Lincoln Freaking Center. I’m from New Jersey; I grew up calling New York “the City.” So, yeah, Lincoln Center has a “freaking” in the middle of it. The giant floor-to-ceiling windows of the Appel Room made me feel like I was about to perform on the streets of Manhattan. I was scared, but what comforted me was the knowledge that I would be looking into the eyes of my supportive stage mother, Rachel. Yes, my stage mother is a woman in her very young 30s. And this is the story of how this young woman, and the other young people and women on our show, made me into an honorary millennial.
As a woman of her generation, Rachel draws no arbitrary social distinctions. She doesn’t distinguish between young and old, performer and nonperformer. She respects few hierarchies, follows her instincts, and speaks her truth, as the young kids say. She’s a product of her generation. I’m a product of mine, too. I may privately disdain the rules of the old guard, but I’ve learned to obey them.
My first years in Hollywood, in my 20s, I worked on assignments for movie studios and wrote and produced television pilots. I learned my craft, sure, but it was also an apprenticeship in the ways and language of the older people who ran the business. These were overwhelmingly male people. I’m an opinionated person by nature, but I quickly learned that women — and especially, female screenwriters — do best by getting their opinions across in other ways. One way is to learn to speak Man. Luckily, I was already proficient in this language, as the doted-on daughter of a brainy father with whom I spent hours in conversation. I’m also quite proficient in Apple Polishing, a hard-won talent earned through years of trying to get good grades.
Even with the ability to speak in these codes, it was not easy sometimes being the only lady in the room. Over time, though, I developed a carapace. I learned to shrug off the comments, swallow my upset and say something suitably unconfrontational. (Occasionally, my true feelings would leak out, such as when a director I was working with exclaimed, in front of a room full of mainly men, seconds after he had met me: “Oh bummer, you’re engaged? Awww.” The only thing I could think of to do was to spit out an expletive. No one laughed. But he never said anything like that again, so …)
When it came to my work, however, screenwriters, male or female, learn to be careful how they communicate. Too many opinions can get you easily, quickly booted off a set or off a project. And so, against my nature, I learned how to communicate obliquely.
But then, in 2014, I started working with Rachel. I was 46, and she was 26. In selling and managing the process of making the pilot, I was able to use my political skills to good effect. But I also found myself admiring the directness and confidence with which she expressed her opinions, to anyone who was listening or even just standing nearby. Also, since doing an out-there, super-feminist musical TV show was never in my career plan — I had a day job writing screenplays — I never felt a need to conform or compromise. So we didn’t.
Instead of shaping what we were doing to fit what others wanted, we built enthusiasm for what we wanted, by talking about the show with passion and by listening to other people’s opinions. And, ironically, it turned out that those tactics worked better than any of the rather complicated court-of-Versailles dances I’d done to try to protect my work earlier in my career.
When we embarked on shooting “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” we staffed the senior ranks with mostly women. Our writers’ room was (and remained) seven women and three men. So now my collaborators were not just a single young woman, but a group of many women and many young people.
Along the way, over four years and the 61 episodes, I found that I related more to these younger writers than I ever would have expected. I learned quickly that their thoughts, opinions and values really spoke to me and to how I liked to work.
This process made me feel … free. On our show, we did the kind of jokes and stories I’d never been able to do in years of writing for movie studios, things I’d always wanted to write about. We did stories on abortion and menstruation and bisexuality and orgasms. We dealt with the messy details of being a human, creating flawed characters who did troubling, complicated, wonderful things. As a screenwriter, I’d been bludgeoned with the need to make characters “likable.”
We’re in a new era now. “Interesting” is the new “likable.”
Rachel, in particular, has often blown me away with her fearlessness. This is how, over the course of our show, she has ended up sailing through the air on a pretzel or licking a hamster water pipe or tap-dancing while singing about anti-depressants. Rachel’s wild creativity stems from her conviction that she is entitled to follow her instincts and express her feelings. This is often cited as a critique of her generation, but, man, I found it refreshing, especially in light of the careful sublimations and apologies I’d learned to make over the years. This openness is a major contributor to Rachel’s “let’s put on a show and include everyone” vibe. She put me in one of her comedy videos. She encouraged me to make a cameo on our show (which I did in our last season, playing a prosecutor who was quite mean to Rachel’s character, Rebecca).
So that night about a year ago, when I stepped onstage at Lincoln Center, the City glittering at my feet, I was scared, sure. But I knew all I had to do was look into the eyes of my much younger partner, see the steady support in her eyes and let it rip. I danced and rapped and did not care about being judged. They say Rachel’s generation lives for participation trophies because their parents rewarded effort over achievement. Maybe that’s true, maybe it isn’t. But don’t you dare touch the participation trophy I got from Ms. Bloom.
Our show has wrapped. Four years of my life. I could never catalog all the things I’ve learned. I can never thank all the people who worked so hard and gave so much. I also have to thank Rachel, my young friend, for setting me free. People ask me what it was like to discover Rachel. In some ways I did. But I always respond that, to paraphrase Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman,” she discovered me right back.
Now I’m comfortable onstage. Rachel and I have done a few performances together of “JAP Battle” (including one at the 92nd Street Y, where I blanked and Rachel stopped and started us over, like a patient parent). I still get nervous, but I’m more confident with the spotlight on me now.
Which is what led me to say yes to the next show Rachel asked me to be in, the one she’s doing with the cast on May 14 and 15 in New York. Look for me to be there. For about a few minutes, I will be front and center, beside Rachel, at Radio City Freaking Music Hall.
Aline Brosh McKenna is the co-creator and showrunner of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” She also wrote the screenplays for “The Devil Wears Prada” and “27 Dresses.”
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