Rachel Bloom Talks Jewish Guilt, Writing ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ And Her Best Advice For Millennials
Rachel Bloom could easily be your best friend, confidante and fierce advocate if she weren’t so busy taking over the comedy world. The Golden Globe winning co-creator of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” has carved out a niche for herself with her candid writing, musical numbers that perfectly capture the human condition, and her (whether you want to admit it or not) completely relatable alter ego.
Bloom’s success story began back in 2010, when “F—k Me, Ray Bradbury,” a YouTube video she made after graduating from New York University, went viral.
She went on to create more viral video sensations, like “I Steal Pets” and “Historically Accurate Disney Princess Song.” The latter caught the eye of Aline Brosh McKenna, the screenwriter of “The Devil Wears Prada”; McKenna later became the co-creator and co-writer of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”
I reached out to Bloom in the most millennial way possible, by Facebook message, and to my complete surprise, she not only replied, but also said that she loves the Forward (she reads us online and follows us on Twitter). We chatted on the phone about Jewish identity, relationships, television writing and her best advice for aspiring creative people.
What was your Jewish upbringing like?
I would call it a pretty secular Jewish upbringing. I went to Hebrew School on weekends from age 5 to 10, and then I dropped out just because I wanted to do theater on the weekends. I went to a Conservative temple, and I was really bored.
Because Judaism was never forced on me really, I like it. I like engaging in the cultural aspects of it, I like reading about Jewish people and history. I have this connection that’s hard to explain because it’s so wrapped up in other things, like my love of Mel Brooks. I felt like I was raised by East Coast Jews despite growing up in Southern California about a mile from the beach.
Who are your favorite Jewish comedians? Did anyone in particular have an influence on you?
Mel Brooks, Gilda Radner, Joan Rivers — and Woody Allen. You know, before everything, I really identified with [Allen’s] work.
You recently went on your first trip to Israel. What was that like for you?
It was awesome. We went around with a really knowledgeable tour guide, and I learned a lot. I’ve been kind of confused about the meaning of Israel for most of my life. It’s a very, for lack of a better word, nuanced situation, especially when you start getting into the history of it. I read this book “My Promised Land” [by Ari Shavit], which was really good. I was watching these really stunningly attractive people walk around and I was like, I’m not related to these people, they just seem so different from me. It was very interesting to see the similarities and differences, because there really is a cultural difference between Jews that come from the Diaspora and America and Israeli Jews. There’s a different sensibility between us, especially with humor.
Speaking of humor, a lot of your work brings up Jewish guilt and the Holocaust. Why do you think that is?
For my lack of religious education, I learned a lot about the Holocaust from my parents. I guess it’s this fixation on the other and being fearful. I grew up in a family that felt like East Coast Jews despite the fact that we weren’t religious. I wasn’t athletic, I felt like I was weird. I felt like I was an “other” and I belonged in New York. So all of that combined gives me a real feeling of being and feeling Jewish. I gravitate towards the contrast between very light and very dark. What is the root of being fearful while being a Jewish person? It’s, you know, oppression from Nazis.
Can you tell the story about your pair of Holocaust sunglasses?
My husband was raised Conservative in Long island, so he’s the flip side of me; his family is incredibly Jewish, and all four of his grandparents are Holocaust survivors. We were at his grandmother’s house in Queens, and my mother-in-law told me that she wanted her mother to live on in her things that I take, so I was like, all right, I’ll pretend I’m vintage shopping. I took a bunch of sunglasses and got those all re-lensed. One is by far my favorite pair of sunglasses. I like them infinitely more than the designer sunglasses I have. [His grandmother] happens to be a survivor, these are her sunglasses, and I’m wearing them, and I hope she knows it.
How did you meet your husband?
My husband was one of the founders of the sketch comedy group at NYU that I later became the director of, so I’ve known him since I was 18. We were friends for a couple years first, and then we started dating. I’d been dating him for eight and a half years, and I’ve been married two and a half years.
Was it important to you to marry a Jewish guy?
No, it actually wasn’t. I think there is something to having a certain shared understanding, but that could also be because he and I love comedy. I know of a couple cases where someone was with a guy they loved and they broke up with him because he wasn’t Jewish. I think that’s really sad and really problematic, especially as someone who is secular. The connection that my husband and I have is very deep and something that is very easy, that we didn’t have to work for. I don’t know what part of that is Jewish and what part of that is growing up in the houses we did. I don’t know where certain things begin and certain things end.
In “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” Tovah Feldshuh plays the mother of your character, Rebecca Bunch. Is her character based on your mom?
Not really, she’s more a combination of a bunch of moms that Aline and I have both known. Rebecca was created first, and then it was like, okay, what type of mom would she have had. It’s funny, my father said to me that when his mother saw his first apartment she called it a hovel. He said that Rebecca’s mom was his mother to a T. So I feel like I did inadvertently write my father’s mother.
What’s your relationship like with your mom?
I talk to my mom semi-frequently. Like a lot of relationships between mothers and daughters, my relationship with my mother is complicated. I’m hard-pressed to find a relationship between mothers and daughters, especially Jewish mothers and daughters, that isn’t complicated.
In what ways are you and Rebecca Bunch similar? Are there qualities about her that you wish you had? Or wish you didn’t have?
I think emotionally she is me at my most emotional, and me at my worst. The way she reacts to situations feels similar to me, but very, very, very exaggerated. I envy her lack of filter, because I feel like my whole life I had one filter, not wanting to seem crazy. I have fantasies of doing certain things she does but I never do because I had more self-awareness.
Were you boy crazy growing up?
Yes, pretty instantly. It was so involuntary. My first crush was when I was 8 years old, and I remember having vivid sex dreams. I was boy crazy from pre-puberty. I humiliated myself, both outwardly and inwardly, I debased myself to hopefully get the love of a man, and that’s definitely reflected in the show. I have a lot of shame about that.
Can you tell us what to expect in the upcoming season? Will Greg come back?
We aren’t trying to keep anything a mystery per se. Anything we do is going to be pretty organic to who the characters are, and if I were to give you spoilers right now it wouldn’t make sense, because you have to understand what’s happening in the plot.
We love Greg as a character. We wrote the episode where Greg left very deliberately, to wrap up the idea that he was hopelessly in love. It’s not really that he was in love with her. He was instantly attracted to her, not because of her, but because she didn’t care about him and he hated himself. And that was deliberate, the way we wrote that and the song “Sh—tshow.”
Did the presidential election have an impact on your work at all?
I don’t know. It remains to be seen, because our show is about empathy towards people. I feel like the country is very divided right now. I think we need to understand that we are all just people, and no one wants to be the villain, right? Even Donald Trump, who acts like a cartoon, you don’t think he’s a villain. He has mental problems that are unsolved and probably will never be solved. I think if anything, this makes me want to go deeper into why people do what they do.
Touching on politics and your video [“Holy S—t (You’ve Got To Vote),”](You’ve Got To Vote ““Holy S—t (You’ve Got To Vote),””) do you think that celebrities have a responsibility to speak up on important issues?
It depends on who the celebrity is. Honestly it’s even more dangerous when people in the public eye speak up on things about which they know very little. Case in point, Jenny McCarthy and vaccinations. Telling your kids not to get vaccinated is a straight-up dangerous lie.
I think it also depends what the issue is. I would try to make a video about Donald Trump even if I weren’t “famous.” In fact, the main writer of [“Holy Sh—t (You’ve Got To Vote)”] is my friend Zach Reino, who isn’t famous but should be. He is an Upright Citizens Brigade writer and comedian and he devoted his time and efforts to make that video.
What people forget about celebrities speaking their minds is that most of us are artists, and the point of art is to explore who we are, and talk about issues, and have opinions about things. I would be as vocal about talking about climate change, for instance, if I didn’t have a TV show. The difference is that I have a lot more people watching me now. I try to be as careful as I can to admit when I don’t know about things, and to answer questions in as specific and nuanced a way possible. I resent people who use their platforms to spread lies.
To say that being in your shoes sounds absolutely tiring is definitely an understatement. What helps you get through the tough times?
My husband is my saving grace; he and my dog both ground me and keep me sane. Being with my husband is the easiest thing; it’s like stepping into a warm bath. Speaking of warm baths, I take a lot of baths, and there’s this massage app Soothe, which I will use like once a week, and that really helps me. And meditation when I can, I got into it a few years ago and it’s pretty great.
What advice would you have for young people who are trying to do it all — have a job, love life, pay rent on time, and still pursue their passions?
I think time management is really important, and setting goals for yourself that make you accountable to other people. Anything that forces you to create or write, like setting a performance date at a local theater, or prepaying for dance classes, or saying that you will go to auditions with your friend to get you to go to the auditions. Anything that makes you accountable to other people so you can’t be like f—ck it, I’ll do it tomorrow.
Samantha Quint is the Individual Giving Associate at the Forward. Her writing has appeared on Elite Daily and Thought Catalog. You can follow her on Twitter @samquint9.