Just Say ‘Julie!’

Getting to the heart of Julie Klausner’s difficult comedy


By the time I meet Julie Klausner at Marie Nails on Elizabeth Street, on an unreasonably sweaty Wednesday in July, the temperature is creeping past ninety degrees. “I’m not a huge fan of the summer,” the comedian announces. “It’s hot. There’s a lot of pressure to have fun. There’s a lot of pressure to grill. There’s a lot of pressure to relax.” The thirty-nine-year-old creator of Difficult People is a regular here (and the spirit guide for my first gel manicure), stylishly dressed in a blue-and-white patterned sundress and a straw hat to endure a day of air conditioner drippings and sticky subway poles. Klausner’s personal strategy for beating the heat has mostly involved holing away in the climate-controlled sanctuary of an editing bay to put the final touches on the third season of the show — out on Hulu on August 8 — which she can’t wait for you to see. “I’ve basically spent the last two months editing,” she says, “looking at my face over and over again, which is a circle of hell.”

On Difficult People, Klausner and real-life pal Billy Eichner, host of TruTV’s Billy on the Street, star as Julie Kessler and Billy Epstein, fictionalized versions of their earlier-career selves. It’s like Curb Your Enthusiasm was crossbred with Absolutely Fabulous (and injected with carefully isolated DNA from Pizza Rat), or maybe the mathematical inverse of La La Land: a love-hate letter to show business, and to New York, as delivered by an embittered TV recapper (Kessler/Klausner) and a waiter (Epstein/Eichner), both with frustrated ambitions of comedy stardom and a pettiness elevated to an art form. The real Klausner and Eichner first worked together on the latter’s pop-culture game show, on which no pedestrian is safe from a barrage of questions like “For a dollar, what would you say to Jon Hamm’s penis if you could?”

“There are many great things about working with Julie,” says Eichner. “She’s just so damn smart and funny. There are some very long days involved in making Difficult People, but no matter how exhausted or stressed we are, the saving grace is that we manage to maintain our senses of humor and can always make fun of the situation and make each other laugh.”

We get settled in the salon’s basement, where we’re soon joined by another client’s restless French bulldog. Klausner selects a red-orange polish that’s only a few shades more vivid than her trademark copper hair. This is, after all, the woman who founded the Redhead Hall of Fame — actress Julianne Moore and the B-52s’ Kate Pierson (both of whom have appeared on Difficult People) supreme among its members — on How Was Your Week, her late-night variety show in audio form and a longtime fixture on best-comedy-podcast lists. Thankfully, Klausner is considerably warmer and more thoughtful than her caustic, id-forward TV alter ego, though just as quick with a joke. It’s also worth noting that, while Julie Kessler cohabits with two basset hounds, Julie Klausner — who co-wrote and starred in an online comedy series called The Cat Whisperer — is hopelessly devoted to her tuxedo cat, Jimmy Jazz. Ahead of her first-ever visit to a cat café for a photo shoot for the Voice, Klausner told me, “I’ll have to shower. I’ll have to go to the Y and burn all my clothes. I’m going to smell like other cats for a week.”

Executive-produced by Amy Poehler — with whom Klausner took a workshop at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, and who also serves as an EP for fellow UCB alums Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson’s Broad CityDifficult People was originally produced as a pilot for USA. “It’s great to work with someone who is so diligent about tone and protecting the voice of her characters,” Poehler says. “Plus, Julie is a smart woman, hard worker, and the ultimate joke machine.” The show is based loosely on premises explored in How Was Your Week, on every episode of which Klausner offers a “freeform train of thought” about her life, a monologue that’s both deeply personal and instinctively contextualized within a pop-culture framework. (“That’s just how my brain works,” she explains.) She might discuss the four times she saw the American Psycho musical (she walked out twice in the midst of panic attacks) or her years-long feud with “enemy of the show” and NCIS actress Pauley Perrette, who once tried to get Klausner kicked out of a dog awards show and eventually blocked her on Twitter.

Klausner grew up in Scarsdale, forty-five minutes outside the city, in close proximity to her family’s television. Her father is an accountant, her mother a clinical psychologist (as is her TV mom, played by the flawless Andrea Martin), and she has one brother, older by eight years. She was raised on a steady diet of Mr. Belvedere, Small Wonder, Dana Carvey-era Saturday Night Live (she sent the sketch comedian a birthday card when she was fourteen), The Kids in the Hall, and The Monkees. “We actually have [Monkees drummer] Micky Dolenz playing himself this season, which is crazy,” Klausner says. “The nice thing about our show is that part of the criteria when we’re writing is: Could this happen on any other show? Have we seen anything like this? And if the answer’s no, then put Micky Dolenz in the show.” An occasional cabaret singer who’s performed at Joe’s Pub, Klausner also fell in love with musicals as a child — her parents took her to Broadway shows like Cats, A Chorus Line, and Guys and Dolls. When she was a little older, she took herself to Manhattan, armed with a fake ID. “I had this fake Georgia driver’s license that I would use not to drink, but to get into Luna Lounge for their Monday-night comedy shows” — the venue’s weekly “Eating It” lineup routinely featured the likes of Marc Maron, Todd Barry, and Louis C.K. — “which was extremely embarrassing.” She never attempted a Georgia accent, though. “That would’ve been offensive to all parties: the bouncer, me, the good people of Georgia.”

She attended NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where she designed a concentration in cultural criticism. In her 2010 memoir, I Don’t Care About Your Band: What I Learned From Indie Rockers, Trust Funders, Pornographers, Felons, Faux-Sensitive Hipsters, and Other Guys I’ve Dated, Klausner wrote that she’d chosen NYU “because of my crippling fear of places that are not New York City and Gallatin’s decidedly laissez-faire policy about what you actually had to learn.” While in college, she landed an internship with Strangers With Candy, the Amy Sedaris-starring perversion of after-school specials. Having a “front-row seat” to the production of that weird, wonderful Comedy Central series crystallized her show-business ambitions. (She even made a cameo as a Flatpoint High cheerleader.) Now Klausner — who recently visited past Difficult People guest star Sedaris on the set of her upcoming “insane, beautiful, off-the-wall, wackadoo-sensibility” TruTV show, At Home With Amy Sedaris — is working on color corrections for season three of her own series in the same building where she interned more than fifteen years ago.

Sedaris, a “big fan” of How Was Your Week, has fond memories of Julie the intern. “I have some great pictures of her from a wrap party we had and it looks like she was having a blast,” she says in an email. She’s equally positive about the experience of appearing on Klausner’s own show: “She is very supportive and a great laugher and you need that when you are not in front of a live audience.”

Difficult People is what happens when a television obsessive makes television. Its central pair of narcissists converse in pop culture like it’s a second language. Julie and Billy’s staggeringly specific, hyperliterate references comprise an extensive celebrity pantheon, glittering with the highbrow and the low-, the famous and fame-ish alike. Among them are the frequently mocked Kevin Spacey, whom Klausner has called the show’s “patron saint” (and whom Billy compares to a “participator” date at a Bridget Everett show: “His hand shot up faster than Kevin Spacey’s fly at the opening of Newsies”); there’s also Sunday in the Park With George, Rachael Ray, Sasha Grey, Joel Grey (no relation), Botched, Star Jones, Jenny Jones (no relation), Jenny McCarthy, and The Real Housewives of New York City. In season three, the show’s pop-culture fixation has meant re-enacting, in breathtaking detail, the Kenny Rogers-scored “Gutterballs” dream sequence from The Big Lebowski (although, on Difficult People, it’s technically an ayahuasca sequence), as well as building a replica barbershop from Woody Allen’s “pretty shockingly bad” Amazon series, Crisis in Six Scenes.

The best testament to Difficult People’s cult popularity might be its inordinately high-wattage guest stars, some of whom play themselves, some of whom inhabit characters who are degenerate even by Billy and Julie’s standards. This season alone, you’ll see John Cho (as Billy’s boyfriend), Stockard Channing, Maury Povich, Rosie O’Donnell, Jane Krakowski, Chris Elliott, Vanessa Williams, John Turturro, Lucy Liu, and Coco, reality star and wife to Ice-T. On the dream list for Klausner: “Someone who takes people’s breath away when they walk into a room.” Your Anjelica Hustons, your Glenn Closes, your Cate Blanchetts. “Our guests are not the same old five or six comedy cameos, mostly because those people don’t return my calls anymore,” Klausner says.

Meanwhile, it feels like we’re living in a very different world from the one in which Difficult People’s second season premiered last summer. In the background (and sometimes the foreground) of season three, a sense of Trumpian dystopia has enveloped New York City: The Quiznos Qlinic is now Manhattan’s foremost sandwich-slash-healthcare provider, and a new government program incentivizes gay “conversion” with a $6,000 bonus and a therapy kit, emblazoned with Mike Pence’s face, that contains, among other things, a hacky sack, barbecue tongs, and the complete Hangover series on DVD. “All these protests, they keep popping up like Cosby accusers,” Billy says.

“The election was dark, man. I think I’m still recovering from it,” Klausner tells me. The day after Donald Trump won our nation’s highest office, she was back in the Difficult People writers’ room — conjuring comedy felt like both an impossible challenge and a welcome diversion. “It was nice to not think about what was going on, but you can’t not think about what’s going on.” Ultimately, while the third season does skewer the new administration, Klausner will be more than satisfied if it’s received purely as comic relief. “If our show exists to distract people with a laugh, or so people can see people who look like them who they don’t usually see on TV, that’s good, too,” she says. “I think our show represents a group of people that Trump supporters would really hate.” Indeed, there’s plenty to hate here (or love, more likely, if you’re reading this story), what with female characters who couldn’t give a shit whether they’re “likable” and some of the most fully realized LGBTQ roles on television, like Shakina Nayfack’s “trans truther” Lola, a part-time waitress and full-time Bush-did-9-11 conspiracy theorist. Amid a political climate that becomes more difficult to abide with every passing day, maybe being difficult right back is the only logical response.

Back at the salon, after recommending that I incorporate into my media diet both Andie MacDowell, whose timeline is full of rescue Chihuahuas in need of forever homes, and playwright John Patrick Shanley (why? I ask; “I’d rather you discover it yourself,” she says), Klausner pauses: “OK, watch this.” She produces a pair of UV-shielding fingerless magenta gloves and puts them on before sliding her hands back under the light. “Listen, I don’t have a lot else going on,” she says. “I don’t have any children. This is how I spend my money, dammit.”

Klausner, of course, has a lot going on. As Eichner puts it, “‘Julie Kessler’ and ‘Billy Epstein’ maintain a very strong ‘us against the world’ attitude that often ends up getting in their own way, hopefully to thrillingly comedic effect! In real life, I think we’ve evolved past some of that — not only professionally, but in terms of being more self-aware and more appreciative of what we have.” She’s no longer a TV recapper, recounting the exploits of various Real Housewives for Vulture — she’s a TV star in her own right, with all the unexpected baggage that entails. For example: An off-the-cuff, Twitter-typical joke that Klausner made about Gwyneth Paltrow at Difficult People’s second-season premiere became a Page Six story last year, after a reporter asked if it was a myth that Hollywood stars are all really good friends, like Paltrow and Demi Moore, and Klausner responded that the celebs are just pretending — “Well, Gwyneth Paltrow, there’s many a tale to tell. All kinds of backstabbing.”

“I realized I’m being listened to, and I’d never felt like I was being listened to,” Klausner recalls. The increased scrutiny is part of the reason she went nearly a year before releasing a new episode of How Was Your Week. “[The podcast is] as much for me as it is for the people that like it, if not more so,” she says. “It’s genuinely therapeutic, but I have a big mouth and I don’t want to jeopardize [Difficult People], the people that work on my show. I also have this amazing outlet now: If I have something to say, I have a TV show. I could put it on the TV show.” Beyond that, Klausner doesn’t want to hurt people’s feelings, she just wants to make people laugh — though, yes, that sometimes means hurting other people’s feelings. As she sums it up, “Dance like nobody’s watching… and then a couple of people might be watching.”

Even now that the idea of her having “beef” with an A-lister like Paltrow is not totally unimaginable, Klausner still “absolutely” feels like an outsider. “I think that so much of that is formed by your childhood, that even if you are accepted, it’s less like the Groucho thing [the Marx Brother’s apocryphal resignation from the Friars Club: “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member”] as much as it is, like, ‘I’ll never belong in this club. They don’t really understand me. The stuff they like isn’t really me.’ I’ll always have a means of rationalizing my misery, I think.” And so her show remains a “celebration” of underdogs, weirdos, and cranks — and also of New York City, the only conceivable habitat for those underdogs, weirdos, and cranks.

Most New York-set sitcoms are, as if by law, set in enormous apartments, improbably affordable on struggling actors’ and intermittently employed caterers’ non-salaries. But Billy’s place — originally a real apartment, now a set — is only getting smaller. Really. “The walls are literally closing in on him. It’s like we’re gaslighting him, essentially,” Klausner says. This season, Dave Attell makes a truly inspired, career-highlight appearance as a pizza- and porn-bingeing personification of the city. Filled with inflatable Scabby the Rats (Scabbies the Rat?) and crickets released by performance artists on the subway, Difficult People’s version of New York is as “nasty and dirty and obnoxious” as its misanthropic inhabitants. “And I say that with all the love in my heart, because I could never live anywhere else,” Klausner adds. “Nobody wants me behind the wheel of a car. Nobody wants to see what I look like when I’ve been in the sun. It’s kinder to the world that I stay in my little hidey-hole here.”