Rachel Bloom: ‘AI will be a good writer when it has the pain and trauma of hating itself’
Rachel Bloom sits on a patio, on a sort-of-sunny Los Angeles morning. This time yesterday, she was on a picket line. The Golden Globe-winning star and creator of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has been one of the most prominent celebrity voices speaking out in support of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) strikes over rights around rapidly progressing technology. On Instagram, she posts a photo, pulling a face while clutching a placard that reads: “I asked AI to write this sign and instead it told me to leave my wife?!” Bloom isn’t too worried about the “formulaic” scripts AI creates – for now. “At this moment, things like ChatGPT, they’re very unoriginal, right?” she says. “They’ll be a good writer when they have the pain and trauma of hating themselves because that’s part of what writing is.”
The use of AI has been one of the most talked about demands of the WGA strikes, but one the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers is currently refusing to debate. Bloom says it’s those in charge who concern her. “If you are not artistically ambitious and you’re like, ‘I just want... a formulaic but passable script, that’s very scary,” she says. “[AI] doesn’t yet extrapolate in the way that writers do, but it very well could very soon.”
For Bloom, one thing has always been clear: “Writing is emotion.” On Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, her cult musical comedy series, the 36-year-old used her own struggles with depression and OCD to tackle complex, nuanced subjects surrounding mental health. When she speaks, it’s with the voice of a woman who’s sure of what she believes; a woman who has had a lot of therapy. She wears a simple black T-shirt, her red hair pulled back into a practical ponytail, and is forced to abandon the patio after an intense bout of sneezing brought on by hayfever. “That was insane,” she declares. She briefly looks at herself in the camera. “I look like s***. Anyway.”
Her comment reflects a change in priorities, rather than any deep insecurity. Now the mother of a three-year-old daughter with her husband, fellow TV writer Dan Gregor, Bloom has learnt to let go, especially during interviews like this. “One of the things that has come from having a child is there is someone in my life who doesn’t really care what I do and loves me regardless.” Bloom shrugs. “There’s a healthy amount of distance and perspective.”
Again, there’s that matter-of-factness. A therapist once told her that when it comes to art, you only want to talk publicly about “processed feelings, processed trauma”. Yet there’s a sense of uncertainty present in her new live show, Death, Let Me Do My Special, in which Bloom explores a subject that she says, “I never thought I’d be dealing with or talking about” – grief.
Death came knocking on Bloom’s door in March 2020. Weeks into the pandemic, the comedian gave birth, her daughter spending her first days in the neonatal intensive care unit. A week later, Bloom’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend songwriting partner, Fountains of Wayne guitarist Adam Schlesinger, died of Covid. “It was this flood of emotions that I’ve never felt before,” she says, still incredulous at the pain three years later. “I feel like I’ve studied mental health a lot more because it’s been present for so much of my life and it’s been a way to understand myself. The idea of grief and loss, I’m much newer to it... I’m not the authority on grief. This just happened to me.”
On stage, Bloom is treating grief the same way she’s always depicted mental health: realistically and empathetically. On Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Bloom’s protagonist Rebecca imagines her life through a series of glossy, joke-a-minute musical numbers, parodying everything from Springsteen to La La Land (these scenes are later revealed to be a side effect of Rebecca’s borderline personality disorder). Fans came for the songs but stayed for the frank discussion of mental health and rich character development. Viewers were few, but fierce, with Bloom often joking that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was the least-watched show to ever run for four seasons.
The daughter of a lawyer and a musician, Bloom grew up in Los Angeles a self-described “weirdo” and theatre geek. It was within women from her favourite musicals – Into the Woods, Guys and Dolls, Annie Get Your Gun – and their big emotions that she saw herself. “We all like to think we’re unique, but the feelings and the fears that we have and the experiences we have, someone else has had them,” she says. “You’re not that special, which is actually such a relief to me.”
After finishing high school, Bloom upped sticks and moved to New York for NYU’s prestigious Tisch drama programme. Musical theatre remained her first love (“I only listened to show tunes really until age 22,” she admits, a guilty look on her face) but an extra-curricular passion for sketch comedy soon blossomed. She learnt to mesh the two, releasing perfectly realised comedy music videos on YouTube after graduating, for songs that included “F*** Me, Ray Bradbury” and “I Steal Pets”.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend hinges upon Bloom’s musical comedy ability, a skill that wouldn’t be out of place on Saturday Night Live. Although she was unsuccessful in auditioning for the show in her twenties, Bloom interned there under Seth Meyers, an experience she says “demystified” the SNL machine and the “sink or swim” environment it encourages. She remembers being stunned by the conditions behind the scenes at the time, recalling “weird and unhealthy” scenarios where writers would stay up writing until three, 4am. “I was like, ‘How’s good stuff coming from this? They’re writing so late,’” she remembers. “I’ve since met people who’ve been on SNL and the sense that I get, it’s like sink or swim. You either thrive there, or you come out after a year being traumatised. And there doesn’t seem to be much in between.”
As the writer and performer of her own work, Bloom has a sense of pride in the comedy she’s created, especially on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. But in April 2017, at the height of the show’s success, she found herself at the centre of a firestorm, and struggling to defend her comedy. Bloom appeared on an episode of Netflix’s new science show Bill Nye Saves the World, performing a track called “My Sex Junk” about the fluid spectrums of sexuality and gender. Before speaking to Bloom, I rewatch the clip on YouTube. The singing is a little breathy, the dancing a bit out of time. It’s not to the standards of her Crazy Ex-Girlfriend numbers, but not awful. Not awful at all.
Yet when right-wing commentators saw the song, they had a field day. Bloom was bombarded with hate messages, people conflating the unsure performance with the song’s message about embracing sex positivity and attacking Bloom for both. When I mention the video, Bloom takes a moment, gathering her thoughts. It’s a topic she’s clearly spoken about a lot – with her therapist, husband, friends – but rarely publicly. She chooses her first words carefully. “I’m so... OK, so this is one of those experiences that I still have shame over.” Really? She nods. “I remember the day that I felt the backlash. It was a complete surprise and the amount of shame... Honestly, out of every experience in my life, I still have so much shame about it.”
“It’s so funny,” Bloom says, although I suspect she doesn’t mean ha-ha funny, “you bring that up and it’s still a very painful experience.” She describes the process to me: how she did it as a favour for a friend but didn’t write the song; how she had no time to rehearse the choreography; how she was made to sing a tricky pop vocal live. She compares it to Ariana DeBose’s much-memed “Angela Bassett did the thing” rap from the Baftas. The difference between Bloom’s musical blunder and DeBose’s, however, was the message behind her song. “My Sex Junk” promoted progressive ideas about gender and sexuality, and that was what the right were targeting her over.
“I don’t regret being in an episode about gender and sexuality being on the spectrum – that was f***ing awesome,” she stresses. “It’s when you [feel] shame for something, [and] you wouldn’t die on that hill.” In the wake of the backlash, Bloom read Jon Ronson’s manifesto on trolling, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. “Now, when the right rails against ‘cancel culture’” – she gives an eye roll visible from space – “I’m like, ‘No, no, no, you guys started cancel culture. You absolutely did. You absolutely did. F*** you!’”
Ultimately, however, “My Sex Junk” changed Bloom’s life. “I realised after that experience, and maybe it’s an unfair pressure to put on myself, [but] if I’m going to do anything political, it has to be impeccable. Not for them, but for me. So that when I am inevitably shamed and targeted, I know that I did my best. I know that this is something I can 100 per cent defend.” She compares it to an abortion storyline on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. The right hated that plot, but she notes that “I had complete and utter control over, complete conviction. Every line was so parsed over. I don’t feel any shame for that storyline”.
Bloom has only occasionally dabbled in and out of political satire in her career. “I always have very mixed feelings about it, because at a certain point, how much are you just preaching to the choir?” she muses. “Just being like. ‘F*** Trump!’ and the liberals are like, ‘Woo!’ Who is that helping?”
Ultimately, Bloom really does want to help, with empathy the “general MO” through which she views her life. When she speaks about the WGA strike and the minimisation of the TV writing industry, it’s with “lower level, mid-level writers” in mind. “I feel like that’s who the strike is for, and the profession of writing in general,” she says. But Bloom has been affected, too. Right now, she’s struggling to get her Difficult Second TV Project off the ground. Recently, she tells me, two TV projects she had in development (a sitcom pilot with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend showrunner Aline Brosh McKenna for Hulu, and her own sketch show) were both passed on by different networks in the same week.
“I was so high on myself,” Bloom says. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna f***ing sell [both shows]... I’m gonna have two TV shows on the air.” Hulu had originally been “so excited” about the show she and McKenna were working on, but over the course of the year of developing it, she says, she saw the industry change. “I think that everyone is very confused because it is so numbers and algorithm-driven and unlike [American TV’s] Nielsen ratings, which are public, these streamers will not tell us what their numbers are.”
So Bloom sits in her home. There’s no show to work on, and even if there was, she’d be loudly, passionately striking. I think fans will be shocked to hear she can’t get either series picked up, I tell Bloom. She laughs, seemingly both at the situation and the suggestion it’s in any way surprising. “I don’t know where I stand,” she says. “I have not sold a single thing to Netflix. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is on Netflix. That’s where it lives. Aline and I have this pilot, we’re still shopping it around. Hulu passed on it, but we’re still shopping it and you’d think, oh yeah, Netflix!” She shakes her head. “Nope. Because of some sort of algorithm? I don’t know.”
The experience has been “whiplash-y and humbling”, she says. “I’m very confused about where I stand.” For four years, the comforting, inclusive world of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend shaped her experiences of the TV industry. Now, on the other side, the harsh reality has fired her up. “I’m really feeling the this,” she says, pointing her finger to signify this specific moment, “and that includes feeling how much the industry is changing, really taking into account what other people are saying. It’s just given me a lot more perspective.” But that’s the thing about a shift of perspective. It can bring about change.
‘Rachel Bloom: Death, Let Me Do My Special’ is at Bloomsbury Theatre on 15-17 & 19 May