Aline Brosh McKenna of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and The Devil Wears Prada on twisting rom-com tropes

By Caroline Framke

“We’re all kind of acting out these love scripts that have been written by other people.”

Aline Brosh McKenna knows romantic comedies inside and out — which is why she takes so much delight in perverting them completely for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

Before McKenna teamed up with Rachel Bloom to co-create the CW’s twisted musical delight of a show, she wrote romantic comedies. She sent plucky heroines into the hellmouth of dating with a determined smile and slyly sharp wit. And even though her scripts occasionally got to draw blood — especially The Devil Wears Prada, her biggest hit to date — it wasn’t until Crazy Ex-Girlfriend that she got to unleash the full range of passion and anger that can make for truly memorable heroines.

Because Rebecca Bunch (Bloom), a whirling dervish of feverish passion and debilitating anxiety, is no heroine — not in the traditional sense, anyway. She spent the series’ first season plotting to win the heart of friendly bro Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III), whom she decides could make her happy, insisting all along in her chirpy theme song that she “has no underlying issues to address.”

In the second season, she parlayed their hookup into not just a real relationship, but an engagement that ended in Josh leaving her at the altar in the finale. Crushed, heartbroken, and more than a little lost, Rebecca vowed revenge — and that’s where we pick up with her in season three, which has her going after a decidedly more Fatal Attraction vibe than the carefree romance she was so desperate to recreate.

So, no, Rebecca isn’t anything like the heroines McKenna used to write, whose problems had to be minimal enough that they could be solved in 120 minutes or less. In fact, McKenna told me, “There’s a joke in the first season where a homeless woman asks Rebecca for money and she says, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I only have 20s. I got them from working.’ Which I would never, ever, ever, in any rom-com I wrote in my career, be able to do that.”

So when I got the chance to sit down with McKenna back in August at the Television Critics Association summer press tour, I didn’t just want to hash out what’s next for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; I wanted to talk about why it’s so much fun to subvert the rom-com tropes we’ve long taken for granted. (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Caroline Framke

What is particularly exciting for you going into a third season versus setting everything up in the first?

Aline Brosh McKenna

It’s gotten progressively more intense [for Rebecca], psychologically. She’s really now in the phase where, it having not worked out in such a spectacular way, her feelings about that are just as powerful as her feelings of love for him were. So in some ways, she’s just as obsessed as ever.

Caroline Framke

There’s always this push and pull between whether or not it’s more about him, or more about her—

Aline Brosh McKenna

The obsession? Oh, it’s a thousand percent about her. It has absolutely nothing to do with him. He could be a house plant.

Caroline Framke

Was there a moment early on when you thought you found the right tone for this show?

Aline Brosh McKenna

What you have to picture is two women just talking about it incessantly. Rachel and I met in June, wrote the pilot over that summer, and we’d talk for hours, and hours, and hours. I have notes from the first couple times we met, and they’re very accurate to what the show is. It just felt like there were all these things we were bursting to talk about.

And I think if you look at Rachel’s previous work and mine, you can see that it’s sort of a blend of the sketch stuff she was doing and the more traditional storytelling stuff that I was doing. I had done rom-coms, though I wasn’t doing as many when we were working together, I was doing things with a more dramatic bent like We Bought a Zoo. So I think it really is a blend of [my] longer character arc stuff with [her] more madcap comedy.

Rachel is still the funniest person that I know, and the person that just drops me to the ground laughing every day … she also has no vanity. For an actor, Rachel isn’t in this endeavor to look cute. That’s not at all what she’s doing. It’s wonderful to work with someone who’s as beautiful as she is and cares as little about it. That’s why I often think of Lucille Ball, Madeline Kahn, Julia Louis Dreyfus, women who are more “traditionally pretty,” but who are willing to send that up. And that’s Rachel, always.

Caroline Framke

Being someone who is really well-versed in rom-coms, I’d love to go through some of the tropes that Crazy Ex … well, totally fucks with. Like with Josh as “the nice guy.”

Aline Brosh McKenna

It’s funny, no one’s really asked me about that, particularly with the men … having written rom-coms, Josh is like, what Ed Burns is in 27 Dresses, and Greg [former castmember Santino Fontana] is like what James Marsden is. That triangle — I mean, ’twas ever thus, from Randolph Scott and Cary Grant, to Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant.

We try to get under those tropes. That kind of talking mannequin that is Josh, he’s also kind of a coward, he doesn’t know who he is. [Crazy Ex] was an opportunity to take those tropes that I had been writing about and explore them in a different way. Now Nathaniel [current castmember Scott Michael Foster] is yet another trope, which is the deeply damaged, very attractive asshole. So in the same way that Rebecca’s the trope of the kooky, slightly madcap girl that comes in and “what’s up doc?”s your whole life, the men are also tropes.

What we try to do is say, “what’s inside that trope?” Paula [Donna Lynne Champlain] is the Rosie O’Donnell, Judy Greer best …read more

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