September 16, 2019

Julie Klausner talks ‘Difficult People,’ her ‘very Jewish’ comedy series

“Difficult” only begins to describe Julie Kessler and Billy Epstein, the snarky, pop culture-obsessed, 30-something New Yorkers at the center of the Hulu comedy series “Difficult People.” They’re best friends and aspiring comedians whose get-ahead schemes fail spectacularly — and hilariously. 

And like the actors who play them, they’re both Jewish, which is an integral element of the show.

“I think the whole show is very Jewish. Being Jewish is a very important part of who I am, at least culturally,” said Julie Klausner, who created the sitcom and stars in it opposite Billy Eichner (“Billy on the Street,” “Parks and Recreation”) as her gay best friend.  

Klausner didn’t specifically set out to do a Jewish show. “But I wanted to write something that was very honest and true to life. I think one of the reasons people respond to the show is that it’s so specific,” she said. “I don’t turn away from exploring that, even if there are people watching who aren’t Jews and have no idea what a shiva call is.”

Jewish holidays, family dynamics and references pepper the plots, many of which are inspired by Klausner’s experiences as a writer, performer and single New Yorker. There was a Yom Kippur episode in the first season, and in the second — which begins streaming July 12 — Julie talks her way into a group of high-powered Jewish showbiz women, but it doesn’t exactly work out. 

How close is the TV Julie to the real one? 

“I think she’s dumber than me. I think she’s less self-aware. And she has better hair than me because there are people who are paid to make sure it’s in place,” Klausner said. 

She wrote reality show recaps like her character does, and her love of Broadway is apparent. In one new episode, Julie takes revenge on a scammer who sold her fake theater tickets on Craigslist, “which really happened to me,” she said.

Klausner and Eichner met when he contacted her to write for his “Billy on the Street” series and they bonded over common circumstances, interests and envy of others. “I’m 37 and I spent my 20s and 30s watching my friends go onto really great things,” Klausner said, and that jealousy motivates a lot of the characters’ bad behavior. Often obnoxious and sometimes offensive, the duo are redeemed by their vulnerability and foibles.

“One of the charming qualities of these characters is their gleeful lack of self-awareness and their surprise whenever someone calls them out on acting completely inappropriate,” Klausner said.

Klausner said series executive producer Amy Poehler, whom she met in 2000 when she became part of the collaborative comedy group the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York, was crucial to developing the comedic tone. When Klausner wrote the spec pilot script that became “Difficult People” based on her experiences and bits from her “How Was Your Week?” podcast, she sent it to Poehler, who came up with the title, fleshed out supporting characters and helped her turn the idea into a series. 

“She was very instrumental in shaping it,” Klausner said. “She insisted that the characters remain vulnerable. It’s important for the emotional investment of the audience and to make the characters more interesting and fun to watch.”

This season, Julie and Billy have victories as well as setbacks. “They’re slowly getting more opportunities. They’re inchworming ahead in the Hollywood food chain,” Klausner said. 

Their love lives are still a big part of the show, as are big-name guest stars in often unexpected roles. In addition to Poehler, Tina Fey, Nathan Lane, Joel McHale, Sandra Bernhard and Amy Sedaris appear this season, along with Nyle DiMarco, cast before his “Dancing With the Stars” win.

“I have a reverse casting couch where I promise not to sleep with them. It usually works like a charm,” Klausner joked about scoring celebrity guests. The reality, though, is “they love the show and come to us and we fit them in or write a part for them,” she said. Meryl Streep, Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest top her future guest wish list.

Klausner, who still does her podcast in addition to writing and starring in “Difficult People,” always wanted to write and perform, “but it was easier for me to get work as a writer. I don’t audition very well,” she said. “My skill set is very specific. For whatever reasons, I never got jobs as an actor. I knew that if I wanted to act, I needed to write something for myself.”

She began writing in her adolescence “as a means of dealing with my social surroundings and feeling like I wasn’t popular and would never have a boyfriend, or that I was fat and I didn’t fit in,” she said. Joining the Upright Citizens Brigade enabled her to experiment and find her comic voice. 

A native New Yorker, Klausner is from a Conservative Jewish family, attended a Jewish school and had a bat mitzvah. “I grew up with a very strong Jewish identity. It’s a big chunk of who I am,” she said. Today, she goes to services during the High Holy Days and has Passover seders with her family. But she feels her Jewish influence most significantly in the strength it gives her.

“I’m blessed with some pretty tough DNA,” Klausner said. “We are blessed with intelligence and resilience. I think the clannishness of Jews has served me well as someone who is seeking her own tribe in my creative community and being OK with not appealing to everyone.”

Now adapting her 2010 book, “I Don’t Care About Your Band,” into a screenplay and co-writing a pilot for actress Shannon DeVido, Klausner considers “Difficult People” her greatest accomplishment to date. 

“I don’t take this chance lightly. I take this opportunity seriously and put everything I have into it,” she said. “I’m very proud of it.”