Featuring a blind date with a real-life troll, a 126-year-old Adolf Hitler, and a phone call with the President Of The United States -- and that's just the pilot -- "Man Seeking Woman," the new show from former "Saturday Night Live" writer Simon Rich, is a little hard to explain.
Loosely adapted from one of Rich's collections of short stories called "The Last Girlfriend On Earth," it stars Jay Baruchel as Josh, who after having his heart broken by his longtime college girlfriend (Maya Erskine), tries to get back into the dating world with the help of his best friend (Eric André) and older sister (Britt Lower). Sounds straightforward enough, right? At least until you add Hitler, time travel, "sex aliens," and a Japanese penis monster named Tanaka (more on that later, we promise).
HuffPost Canada TV visited the "Man Seeking Woman" set in Toronto, where we got the lowdown from Rich, the writers and the cast about how the show is going to handle all those crazy, supernatural elements. And with the series premiering on FXX on January 14th at 10:30 p.m., here's a primer on what to expect from what's sure to be the most unexpected TV show of 2015. Well, as best as we understand it, anyway.
They Have Trouble Describing It, Too
Turns out, we're not the only ones having difficulty figuring out just how to describe the surreal sitcom. "I've been having a lot of trouble doing that," admitted Baruchel. "I'll just say this, whatever descriptions are out there now on the Internet don't come close. They nail about one-tenth of what the show is."
"People are probably expecting just a straight-ahead romantic comedy," he continued. "And there's nothing straight-ahead about this." See: those aforementioned monsters and sex aliens.
When that same question was put to Dan Mirk and Sofia Alvarez, two of the show's writers, they just laughed. "I usually say that it's a surrealist look at dating. That's what I've found is the easiest, best-condensed way to say it," said Alvarez.
"I usually just tell people a couple of the premises of the show," offered Mirk. Alvarez agreed. "If you say in the pilot, Josh's sister sets him up on a date with a troll -- like a real, living-under-a-bridge troll -- people are usually like, 'OK.' And then they're either on board or they're like..." she said, trailing off. "And the only people who have done the latter are my grandparents."
It's Like A Live-Action Cartoon
After a little more thought, Baruchel summed it up best, calling the show "like a cartoon come to life." And that's a sentiment that Rich, the series' creator, executive producer and showrunner, seemed to agree with, citing "The Simpsons" and "South Park" as two of his biggest influences when it came to making "Man Seeking Woman."
"I realize they're animated, but those shows were a big inspiration on us. Just the way they're able to juggle surrealism and emotional honesty," he explained. "On those shows, space aliens will appear and be a part of the plot and nobody will really question it, and the episode will still be a character-driven, emotional story."
"Yeah, there are a lot of surreal and supernatural elements on our show," said Rich. "There's aliens, there's time travel, there's decapitations, there's a Japanese penis monster. But at the end of the day, it's a very simple show about a guy looking for love."
This Show Is Going To Bring The Weird
Still, Rich is the first to admit that "Man Seeking Woman" is also, well, "strange." And if you've read his short stories in "The Last Girlfriend On Earth," then you have some idea of what to expect -- although Rich cautions that the show isn't exactly a straight adaptation. "Most of the book does not lend itself to adaptation," he explained, estimating that they only used about 20 percent of the stories in the book.
The challenge was figuring out which bits worked as well for a visual medium like TV as they did on the page. "I didn't try to force anything into this mould," he said. "But it's the same gimmick, right? It's taking simple, earnest love stories and trying to heighten them."
"Our goal is to write about old stories in a new way," he added -- which, in this case, means including a bunch of monsters and other supernatural weirdness you'd expect to see in a new season of "American Horror Story," not a new sitcom. "It's no 'Big Bang Theory,' I'll tell you that," promised André. (On the day we visited, the holding area was filled with a bunch of extras covered in blood and a guy in an executioner cowl milling around craft services.)
"I always wanted to do a show like this and I never really thought that I would ever get the chance to. It's such a strange show," said Rich. "I never thought that I would get this kind of creative freedom in a television show."
"We would be in the writers' room and we would come up with some crazy idea and then we'd think, 'Well, but there's no way...' " agreed Alvarez. Instead, the network encouraged them to make "Man Seeking Woman" as out there as they wanted. "FX has been so wonderful and just so willing to let us create this crazy show," said Alvarez.
"I don't know if I'm allowed to give it away, but there's some great stuff coming," teased Erskine. "It's a good pupu platter of demons," confirmed André.
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The Cast List Includes A Japanese Penis Monster Named Tanaka
But while the cast and writers attempted to keep most of the show's creatures a surprise, there was one in particular that no one could stop talking about: Tanaka. "It's a Japanese monster with penis tentacles and he just j****s all over the place," explained André, laughing. "That's one of my favourite monsters."
"Oh man, you should see this penis monster," agreed Mirk. "It's great, it has these very expressive eyes."
"He's kind of horrifying, but also lovable," he added. But Tanaka was also a good barometer for what the writers could get away with on the show, said Mirk: "I mean, as soon as FXX was like, 'You can make a Japanese penis monster,' that's when I think we knew we're in a good spot."
Paul Jones Is The King Of The Monsters
Paul Jones, the man behind designing Tanaka, earned as almost as many raves as his creation; no matter who we talked to, Jones' name kept coming up. "He is killing it for us," said Rich, calling the show's prosthetics designer and supervisor "a genius."
And while he'll admit that it's not exactly normal for a sitcom to have a dedicated creature guy on staff, Rich said it's crucial for a show like this, because it helps bring all those crazy ideas to life. "The special effects and creature building are extremely important for us," he explained.
"I love practical effects and I hate CGI, so it's great," said André. "I'm glad they went in that direction." Alvarez felt the same way, saying of Jones' work, "The things that he's made for this show, I'm just astounded. I don't think I've ever seen anything like that on television. It's just so high-end and beautiful."
"It reminds me of Jim Henson," agreed Mirk. "Like those old Jim Henson movies, like 'Labyrinth.' "
And that allowed the writers to let their imaginations run wild when it came to dreaming up new ways to torture Baruchel's Josh. Alvarez said they would send Jones their latest idea, "and he'd send back these sketches that were beyond our wildest dreams of what these things could've been."
"And we'd say, 'But can you make this?' And he's like, 'Oh yeah, yeah. Easy,' " she recalled. " 'Penis monster? Here you go.' "
It's Not All Just A Dream
One thing that everyone wanted to make perfectly clear is that no matter how bizarre these surreal situations and monsters get, they aren't just a figment of Josh's overactive imagination, like on a show like "Scrubs." "They're really happening," Rich promised me, in keeping with the whole live-action cartoon approach.
"They're not dream sequences at all," Baruchel confirmed. And that was something that Rich and the writers decided on almost right away, according to Mirk. "We did explicitly talk about that, and we very quickly just decided it's real, it's not in his head, it's not like he's dreaming," he said. "So his ex-girlfriend really is dating Hitler, and he really does go on a date with a troll."
"I think that going into a dream sequence is something we've seen before," Mirk added. "It just feels a little done." Said Rich, "The whole fun of the show is juxtaposing those supernatural elements alongside very generic, dull realism."
"We realized that it was super-funny -- in our minds anyway -- to have these really crazy, super-broad elements counteracted by everyone talking like they're in an indie comedy," explained Baruchel. So when it comes to those moments, Erskine said, "There's no mugging."
The perfect example of that, according to former "SNL" and "Simpsons" writer Ian Maxtone-Graham, is having Josh's ex start dating Hitler in the show's first episode (who's played by Bill Hader -- the first of the show's many "SNL" connections). "There's a lot of sweaty, bad Hitler jokes out there," explained Maxtone-Graham. "And he makes all the right moves to make it subtle and perfect and make the jokes not the obvious jokes, and none of the 'Dr. Strangelove' stuff."
"Play it straight is kind of our motto from top down," Rich told me. "For the performers, but also for our directors, for our writers, for our prop master. We play things as straight as we possibly can in every aspect of production."
And that approach is one of the things that really appealed to the actors, including Erskine. "It could be filmed in so many ways," she explained. "Someone might take it and make it very ridiculous, but because it's played so sincerely and as if it's reality, it's a blast."
Baruchel agreed. "We only get away with them if those moments are played incredibly earnest and real. And small," he said. "And it kind of mitigates the craziness, and I think it gives us license to go even crazier."
You'll Be Able To Relate -- To Some Of It, At Least
Above all, they want "Man Seeking Woman" to feel relatable. Well, as relatable as a show featuring time travel and penis monsters can be, laughed Mirk and Alvarez, realizing how ridiculous that might sound. But it's at the core of their approach to the series, another thing they all agreed on from the start.
"As weird as this show seems on the surface, it's our hope that it'll be emotionally accessible and as universal as possible," said Rich. "Because we're really just writing about things like heartbreak and unrequited love and all of the emotional highs and lows that dating can produce."
Alvarez explained the approach by saying that sometimes dating can seem like a life-and-death struggle. But, she said, "It's really hard to get peers, friends, whoever you're talking to, to understand how high-stakes it was for you." Enter the trolls and demons.
"I remember talking to best friends and being like, 'But you don't understand, it was crazy!' And they were like, 'Well, that coffee doesn't sound that crazy..." she laughed. "But in this show, it really is crazy."
"What's great about the show is that it's about experiences that everybody's had," agreed Mirk. "Every set-up, even this crazy Japanese penis monster thing that we keep talking about, is based on a real situation that you've been in." To ensure that, Rich and the others started the writing process by swapping dating stories, and then reverse engineering what the supernatural version of those stories might be.
"The things that we're taking and making these crazy monsters and premises out of are all things that, like Dan said, we've experienced," explained Alvarez. "We want people watching to think this isn't just a crazy show, but this is what it feels like to be a 27-year-old out in the dating world." It's why Baruchel refers to "Man Seeking Woman" as "painfully earnest" and "embarrassingly truthful."
"In each episode, there's moments of heartfelt sincerity," agreed his co-star Erskine. "It's real life," she added. "Even though it's very crazy and fantastical."
They Torture Baruchel
Playing a newly single guy looking for love, even if it kills him, Baruchel is put through hell on this show. "Emotional hell and physical hell," said Maxtone-Graham. Not to mention, literal Hell.
"Every show is 22 minutes of us torturing him," laughed Rich, before rattling off the long list of torments Josh has to endure. (In one episode, he's actually, well, tortured.) "We have him encounter aliens and monsters and creatures from the underworld and he has to keep dusting himself off and getting back up again," said Rich. And Baruchel's been keeping score. "I started doing a tab of what I've gone through thus far," he promised. "It's a grueling job," admitted Rich. "It's not like starring in a network sitcom."
As a result, the role requires a lot of physical comedy -- something Baruchel's been channeling Rowan Atkinson for, according to Maxtone-Graham. In the episode they were filming that day, Baruchel was tasked with slamming himself into the boards at a local hockey rink take after take. Afterwards, a crewmember reminded him to "ice it" tonight. "It" being, well, pretty much his entire body. But Baruchel's taking it all in stride. "I have gotten the s**t kicked out of me, as any single person does," he joked.
They Found The Right Guy For The Job
Despite it all, for Baruchel, filming "Man Seeking Woman" is anything but torture. "I forgot what it's like to be psyched to show up to work every day," he said. "That's how it is here." And the feeling's mutual for his boss -- and not just because the actor hasn't filed for workman's comp yet. "He was always our dream for the star of this show," Rich told me, saying he wrote the part with Baruchel in mind. "I always hoped it would be him."
Maxtone-Graham went even further, calling their star "the best actor in North America." Why? "Because he has the body moves of Buster Keaton; his facial acting and his emotion are so good," Maxtone-Graham explained. "We sit and watch his face on monitors for 12 hours a day, and he's so good reacting to things."
"His facial expressions when horrible things are happening to him, when he's being broken up with, I just think there's no one who does it better," he added.
"He has to emotionally ground every premise, regardless of how insane it gets," agreed Rich. And that's not an easy job, according to André. "Jay has to be this reactive character," he explained. "The world around him is insane and he has to be grounded."
"I can just come in and just be bats**t crazy for two days," said André. "I have more freedom to be a little bit more nuts."
"I think Eric André and Jay are the perfect cast for this. If you had a trillion dollars, if you could cast anyone in the world, who else would you cast?" asked Maxtone-Graham. "I can't think of anyone else."
"They got very lucky," he added. And Rich knows it. "I don't think this show would work without him. That's the honest truth," he admitted.
You'll Have To Watch It To Get It
When it comes to getting a handle on the show's unbridled weird streak, Baruchel acknowledged that there's "a learning curve." Still, said Mirk, "Once you just accept, 'Oh, there are monsters in this world,' then it's fine."
As for their trouble describing the show? "I just tell people, you should just watch it if you want to see what it is," he explained. Because once you do, Baruchel's willing to bet they'll have you hooked. "I've been in this crazy business for 20 years and I have never figured out what the formula is for what people are going to like, and who likes what, and all that stuff. They've made four of those goddamn 'Transformers' movies for God's sake. So I have no idea what people will respond to," he said. "What I'm most excited for them to see is a show they've never seen before. And it's bloody rare to be able to say that."
"We're in a kind of golden age in television and yet, I don't know how much that applies to comedy," Baruchel added. "There's not a ton of shows on TV that make me laugh." So, he reasoned, "I think it's there for the taking."
"I think we're working on the funniest show in the world right now," said Baruchel. "And I just can't wait to get out there and go toe-to-toe with whatever's on network TV right now, because I think we'll smoke 'em all. I really do."
Alvarez agreed. "I'm actually not worried when people are watching it if they'll relate or not. I think it's more about people finding it," she said. "Because I know they'll like it if they do."
That was certainly true of Maxtone-Graham, the elder statesman on the "Man Seeking Woman" writing staff, who was convinced to join up after watching the pilot. "I thought it was the best pilot I'd ever seen, by a wide margin," he explained. "There's some very good pilots out there. 'Curb' and 'Breaking Bad,' there are great pilots. That was the best one I've ever seen," he said. "You want to work on the great shows."
"Love is strange and love is scary," said Mirk. "If you've ever been lonely, or if you've ever looked for love, or if you've ever been on bad dates, you're going to like the show." You'll also get to see some pretty weird s**t along the way.
"Man Seeking Woman" premieres on FXX on January 14 at 10:30 p.m. ET.