It sounds so familiar. Nice guy meets self-destructive girl. Guy falls for girl, who refuses to be loved. Yet, Love, the new Netflix dark comedy created and co-written by director Judd Apatow, comedian Paul Rust, and Girls writer Lesley Arfin, transcends the usual clichés with complex, smartly written characters.
Rust, 34, stars as Gus, an aspiring TV writer who finds himself suddenly single. Mickey, played by Community star Gillian Jacobs, is a party girl as desperate for love as she is unhinged. Hilarious, tender, and laced with moments of cringe-worthy humiliation, the series is a darkly funny and fairly realistic portrayal of the awkwardness of the human experience—an introspective look at two lost souls as they navigate Los Angeles and bumble through their difficult intimacy in a painfully relatable way.
Rust needed his sense of humor growing up Catholic in Le Mars, Iowa (population 9,826). In his early 20s, after graduating from the University of Iowa, he moved to Los Angeles, where he began acting and performing with the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and writing on shows from The Very Funny Show to Arrested Development, and the popular podcast Comedy Bang! Bang! He also landed a leading role in the 2009 comedy film I Love You, Beth Cooper.
His other recent escapade—not counting his marriage to co-writer Arfin last October—has been co-writing Pee-wee's Big Holiday (a.k.a. Paul Reubens' big comeback), a film due for release March 4. I caught up with Rust to talk Catholicism, how parking affects LA hookups, and why he named his old band—he plays guitar, too—Don't Stop Or We'll Die.
Check out the Love trailer, and then we'll talk.
Mother Jones: Okay, let's have you describe these characters.
Paul Rust: Mickey is from New Jersey. She works at a satellite radio station, and she's a cool person. She dresses cool and has great taste. She's also struggling with addiction and substance abuse problems, but deep down she realizes she's at a point where she doesn't want to keep doing that, and she wants to improve her life.
Gus is a guy from South Dakota who's an on-set tutor for child actors. He's a people pleaser who's motivated by his fears and anxieties. The two of them meet, and for Gus there's this sort of attraction: "Maybe if I date this person who's dangerous, it'll get me out of my shell." Conversely, Mickey is like, "I feel reckless, so maybe if I date this person who seems to be grounded, that would give me something I'm missing." In the show we're trying to deconstruct that idea. Mickey, under her rough exterior, there's actually something very tender about her. And for Gus, somebody who looks sensitive on the outside is maybe angrier on the inside.
MJ: How does Los Angeles itself shape the narrative?
PR: Just the way LA is laid out—30 miles of disparate neighborhoods—adds to the loneliness of the characters. There's a lot more space to feel isolated in. In Los Angeles, you have to meet the person, then walk out separately to your own cars, and follow the person to their neighborhood, and then pray that street parking isn't going to mess things up. I think a lot of nights together have been spoiled by somebody not being able to find a parking spot and saying, "Why don't we just go home?"
MJ: What did comedy mean to you as a kid?
PR: Growing up in a small town, in the Midwest, and Catholic: Those are sort of three layers of repression. My mom was my English teacher in high school. So to be able to bend the rules and be the class clown and get to take on my religion, my mom, and my town all at the same time was glorious. I think the desire to be funny was a mixture of wanting to be liked but also wanting to throw your elbows a bit. If you're cracking a joke in school, it's sort of anti-authority, but it's in the nicest, "Please like me!" way.
MJ: Do you mine your upbringing for comedic fodder?
PR: In the writers' room, we like this idea that Gus presents himself as a nice person, but is it really nice if it's coming from a hostile place? I'm sure that had to do with my upbringing in the church. You do feel these kinds of hostile feelings, and it's like, as long as you put these feelings way down, it means you took care of it. But I gotta say, the Catholic Church has churned out a lot of great artists and directors and actors, so if that's all they do, that's fine by me. If they're good at churning out tortured artists, that's great! [Laughs.]
MJ: The show almost seems to debunk the "nice guy" archetype, because Gus seems so nice, and then he'll do things that really aren't.
PR: The term we use is, "How do we scuff up Gus?" Because Mickey is presented as this self-destructive person, we were really conscious of not wanting this to be the story of, "Hey, if this girl could just realize to accept the love of this kind man, who could solve all her problems and fix her…" To suggest that that's not healthy was important to us.
MJ: So, what's it like co-writing with your wife? I mean, what if you had a fight the night before?
PR: Because I think so highly of Lesley and her writing, I fully trust her take and her opinion. She's very sharp and intuitive. If there is a disagreement, we can usually work through it because the relationship stuff is the real work. Anything to do with the show is fun and entertainment.
MJ: In a recent interview, you said you didn't want to call this show "honest," but maybe "truthful." What did you mean?
PR: Maybe it's splitting hairs. I think "honest" sometimes gets used to describe a real depiction of real life. I don't think that's necessarily what we're doing. We created these fake characters and we're just trying to figure out what they would do in situations they enter into. We don't want people to necessarily think that Mickey and Gus are related to Lesley and me, because it's not true and I don't want people to think that. If I heard there was a new show, and the creators were writing about how they met, I would be like, "Pass! No thanks." Instead of watching, I'm going to go off and barf.
MJ: Well, how much do the characters mirror your own relationship?
PR: It was just sort of a jumping-off point. These characters were more based on the years before we met each other—we didn't really meet each other as damaged as they are in the show. Judd, correctly thinking, said that more sparks will be able to fly if these people are in more toxic times in their lives. If Lesley and I did a show that was really about us, it would be extremely boring.
MJ: Lesley has been open about her past struggles with addiction. Has it been difficult for her to revisit the subject as a writer?
PR: I think because she considers Mickey an older part of herself that's far, far back in her history, it's not particularly challenging for her.
MJ: I know you lost a friend, the comedian Harris Wittels, to heroin last year. Has that rubbed off on your writing?
PR: Really the effect is all life-affirming stuff. You know, Harris was one of the funniest, most creative people I know. The greatest quality Harris had was his ability to—he would tweet stuff that I would never be able to admit to another person, let alone tweet to thousands of people. This is a guy who really held the torch for being honest.
MJ: You and Harris had a band together called Don't Stop Or We'll Die. You also had a band with comedian Charlyne Yi, who appears in Love, called Glass Beef. Where did these band names come from?
PR: Glass Beef came from just putting these words together. We had different understandings: Charlyne saw it as a piece of beef with chunks of glass in it, and I saw it as a glass figurine of beef. [Laughs.] Don't Stop Or We'll Die came from a line in Back to the Future that's often misheard by people. There's a part where Michael J. Fox tries to flag down a car, and an old couple starts slowing down, and the elderly woman says to her husband, "Don't stop Orvel. Drive!" A lot of people think she's saying, 'Don't stop or we'll die,' which is such a hilarious, bizarre thing to say to somebody. We started performing music with comedy because it makes it a little easier to get a response that doesn't require a wig and a funny costume and an accent.
MJ: The archetypal "struggling" TV characters are often in their 20s, but Mickey and Gus are in their early 30s. Does that make for richer comic fodder?
PR: A lot of the day-to-day, minute-to-minute struggles are a bit more taken care of, so it allows you to start asking more existential questions like, "What do I want in life? What's going to make me happy?" In your 20s, you're checking your bank account to make sure you're not broke. In your 30s, you're looking at yourself and realizing you're broken.
MJ: What was it like working on Pee-wee’s Big Holiday with Judd and Paul?
PR: Awesome. Paul sensibility is silly and fantastical, Judd’s is more grounded in reality and real feelings. So much of what Judd writes about is some sort of stunted adolescence, and there's no greater poster boy for that than Pee-wee Herman. Judd is just such a fan of comedy that he likes all parts of it. It was a dream getting to work with Paul because even before I started working with him, I considered Pee-wee's Big Adventure my favorite comedy. I would try to write a script like that, and I couldn't, and it would be terrible.
By luck and chance, I was able to get paired with Paul. And I basically got a tutorial in how to write a script like that. The thing I learned most from him is that the more simple and straightforward and stripped down something is, the better it can be. If I took 25 words to write something, Paul could write it in five. His gift of simplicity and minimalism is really what I learned, and I consider him a friend now. As a 10-year-old [fan], getting to be friends with Pee-wee is a dream come true.
The first season of Love is now available on Netflix for your binge-watching pleasure.