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Married: Paul Reiser interviewed by showrunner Andrew Gurland on Jess-Shep split

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Prashant Gupta/FX

What happens after succumbing to the inevitable? Worse, what happens when you’re forced to admit everyone was right? On last week’s episode of Married, May-December couple Shep (Paul Reiser) and Jess (Jenny Slate) unceremoniously called it quits. Their dramatically different lifestyles finally proved too much for Shep to handle once it became clear that his wife had no intention of curbing the increasingly erratic behavior that had either been suppressed for the bulk of their marriage or was a knee-jerk reaction to the white-picket-fence life she mistakenly thought she wanted.

In real life, their split would be an inevitability. However, despite the fact that the FX series does not shy away from finding humor in the less glamorous aspects of marriage, child-rearing, and the occasionally dreary slog of simply existing, the idea that Shep and Jess would call it off seemed to defy the laws of television. (After all, we live in a world where Homer and Marge are still going relatively strong and where an endless parade of unimaginative sitcoms paint wives as nagging shrews who would never leave their equally stereotypical do-nothing husbands despite the physical attractiveness ratio, too, being way out of whack.) 

Married, which airs Thursdays at 10:30 p.m. ET on FX, is a serialized comedy that takes risks. Even when the truth hurts, showrunner Andrew Gurland is at the helm of one of the most refreshingly honest — and criminally underwatched — series on television. 

In an effort to understand just how Shep and Jess got together — and what went into the process of getting Married off the ground — EW moderated a conversation between Gurland and Reiser. Even if it wasn’t explicitly stated by Gurland, it’s clear that he’s one of Reiser’s biggest fans and the conversation ahead is just as warmly funny — and occasionally biting — as Married itself. Read on to find out how Shep became Shep, why Gurland’s parents may just punch Reiser in the face, and what, exactly, may have drawn Shep and Jess together — and why their age difference was not necessarily a factor in their split.

ANDREW GURLAND: Paul, why would you say that Married is your favorite show that you’ve ever worked on?  

PAUL REISER: Well, that’s a good question, Mr. Gurland. It is my favorite show that I’ve ever worked on largely because I can’t remember anything past three or four weeks ago. As far as I know, this is all I’ve done. I’m happy to be in the business. No, I think it’s a great job. Andrew Gurland is not only a talented writer, but a handsome person. 

GURLAND: Well, I’m going to answer for you. I didn’t like that, Paul. The answer is because you love working with one of your biggest fans.

REISER: I love working with Andrew Gurland, one of my biggest fans.

GURLAND: No, do you remember anything from our first meeting?

REISER: Yes. You didn’t have anything. I had a coffee, and you wouldn’t drink a beverage. I sat down, and I wanted to compliment you on what a great script you wrote, and you cut me off. You said, “We’re not even going to talk about that,” and, “I gotta tell you about you.” And you started to tell me my work that you were familiar with, most of which I didn’t even recall. And I was very flattered and tickled that you knew so much of my stand-up and it was kind of heartwarming.

GURLAND: Watching you do stand-up made me want to write jokes when I was younger. You were one of the inspirations for me to put together the structure of a joke. It made me want to write.

REISER: That’s why I did this show. It’s very nice. I was just talking to somebody today, and he says, “Do you ever have anybody come up to you and say, ‘You’re the reason I became a comedian,’ and then you see them and they’re terrible?” He goes, “I don’t know that I’ve helped the world. ‘You’re the reason?’ Ahh, s—.’” I’m the reason.

GURLAND: Now my parents are going to read this and want to punch you in the face, Paul. Anyway, if you go on social media, a lot of people are saying your work on Married is Emmy-worthy. I’m curious, why do you think this character is striking a chord with people?

REISER: I don’t know. I think they’re relieved. They go, “Oh look! God bless, he’s still standing.” They go, “You know what? He’s still alive“

GURLAND: I feel like people are connecting emotionally with Shep and really feeling what he’s feeling.

REISER: That’s really nice. I’ll tell you what feels very fun, truly: I love your writing, and I love how much you care, and I love how much of your guts you put into it, and how you don’t rest until it’s all the best you can make it. It was always fun to be a part of something that somebody cares that deeply about. But also what’s fun about it, and what sort of mirrors reality, is I am older than all the other actors. And I have done this longer than any of the other actors, and there’s a part of that that’s in the character, which makes it easier to play, and I would imagine it makes it easier to write. There’s a sort of been-there, done-that thing that he has.

I love all the actors, and they’re great people, and they’re enormously talented, but when everyone’s like, “Let’s all go out and drink,” no, I’m not really doing that. There’s a sort of older-guy point of view on the set. 

GURLAND: Clubhouse veteran.

REISER: There you go. Clubhouse veteran. I like that.

GURLAND: Talk about your role in helping shape the character of Shep. Including his name.

REISER: That was the first meeting I had. I said, “I don’t care what the character does.” I said, “I don’t like that the name was Doug or Greg.” It was a name that I said, “Yeah, I don’t know who that is.” And I had one of the most unplanned laughs when I told you, “You gotta change the name.” You said, “To what?” I said, “I don’t know, Shep.” And you just fell off your chair. Like, why? It was so specific. There was something that was older about it, and it just felt right. And then, it’s still a gray area. Is it my first name? Is it my last name? There’s a lot of gray area we don’t quite know. And a lot of it was in the formation. We were told he’s never been married, and then we find out he actually has 15-year-old kid.

The character is loosely based on a friend of Andrew’s, but a lot of stuff about the character was up for grabs. I’ll read the script and say, “What if we dig a little deeper here? And what if we come up with something to play with this?” What has been fun is that you have been very receptive to trying to incorporate my thoughts. And it’s hard, because there are a lot of characters to service and a lot of storylines to service.

GURLAND: One thing that Paul and I have joked about is, I was going to stage a live reading of Paul’s emails to me called “A Few Thoughts.” Is it normal for you to have that much involvement when you’re acting in something? Or were you able to smell some kind of weakness in me?

REISER: Oh, I smelled a weakness in you ages ago, but I’ve never really taken advantage. I’ve always been creatively involved in the television I’ve done. It’s sort of second nature to jump in. And you may regret it, but one of the things you said when we first met is, “Hey, I want to hear from you.” I went, “All right, well you say that now, but I’m gonna write you at 11:30 at night with thoughts.” To me, it’s actually been a very fun change of pace to be in a show where somebody else is staying up late worried about it, and I just have scenes three, seven, and 12 to worry about. And I give you my thoughts, and then I run away and it’s your problem. I like that. 

GURLAND: One of the reasons I wanted to do this interview with you this way is just because I really do feel that this episode of “Guardians” was just kind of the culmination of that collaboration. The dissolving of Shep and Jess’ marriage was really a product of collaboration, and I’m so proud of that.

REISER: Yeah, I think it really was. One of the things that Andrew does deliberately is he writes very subtly, and he writes a little past the joke and past the obvious. And in this case, I kind of raised a flag and said, “You know, you may have sold yourself right out of the business here. I think we’re missing the meat. If these two are breaking up, let’s not avoid it. Let’s actually see some of the pitched fight or the conversation between them.” And he heard it and agreed to take a look at it, and we jammed and went back and forth on the scene.

What I love about working with Andrew is he has the same fun that I do, that if you come up with a line — especially if it’s a product of collaboration, I’ll say “A,” I’ll pitch an idea. And he’ll say “B,” and then I’ll put a little cap on it, “C” and before we shoot it he mumbles “D” and we’ll go, “There you go.” And you have it. It’s a great way to work, and it’s usually where great stuff comes from.

GURLAND: Let’s talk about Shep and Jess for a second. What do you think brought them together in the first place?

REISER: That was always a mystery that I found very intriguing, because you think of all the people that either of them could’ve chosen, this one doesn’t seem right. And I kind of regret that we didn’t really get to explore a lot of what Jess’s appeal was. 

GURLAND: What do you imagine in your head? Where’s that attraction coming from on both sides? What’s the story you tell yourself?

REISER: I think of Shep as an experienced guy. At the point in his life he’s at now, he’s sort of forced into retirement and stepping down. And I don’t think it’s a typical “older guy needs a younger woman to make him feel younger.” I think it’s something endearing, and there is something very endearing about Jenny Slate and something very child-like in the best sense. And there’s also, I think there’s a propensity for guys — and maybe women, also — to want to fix somebody. You see them and go, “I can really help this person. I’m going to help this person develop and become more well-rounded and grow up.” And I always imagined Jess, was like, “Okay, I’ve had enough excitement in my life, and I’ve had enough wild cards in my life, I need somebody who’s stable who I can count on, who’s gonna be there, and maybe a dollop duller than I’m used to, but I need that.” So I think they serviced each other. He brought a little stability to her life, and she brought a little excitement and unpredictability into his life. Something that they each needed. 

GURLAND: So what went wrong, do you think? Why couldn’t they make it work?

REISER: I think we hit it on it in head in that episode. In the scene with Judy Greer, I said, “I promised myself I’d never get married. I almost made it.” And certainly on paper, you look and these two should not be together. And then you feel dumb when the reason you break up is glaring — it’s exactly the reason that anybody would’ve predicted. Well, she’s going to find you too responsible and too dull and old, and you’re going to grow tired of the unpredictability.

I had a friend who was an older guy. He was in his 70s and he was married to a woman who was 25 years younger, and she was really a bit crazy and unpredictable. And I saw the joy that he got out of it. The first time we ever got together, she just went off on some tirade that was just off the wall and crazy and a little insulting to everybody at the table. And when it was all over, we’re all a little uncomfortable, my friend looks at her lovingly and just goes, “Ain’t she a pisser?” And I went, “Okay. Love is love.” When you love somebody, you just go, “Yeah, that was really endearing.”

Jess was and is unpredictable and a party girl, but the heart wants what it wants. There was something in her that maybe doesn’t fit any category that he found appealing, but ultimately, I think they said, “You know what? The obvious is obvious for a reason.” These two are not going to make it. And I think she didn’t really have the maturity. Jess didn’t have the maturity to make the sacrifices and changes that you need to to be a mother and to be a life partner.

GURLAND: That was a great answer. So talk to me a little bit about what it was like working with Jenny, as well as some of the other actors in the show, and how you mesh with them. 

REISER: Well, as I said, what’s funny about the character — and this I’m sure will change going forward, it would have to — is Shep is sort of reluctant in all his dealings. He’s an easygoing guy, but he doesn’t need to be going out drinking. When Jess is out, and the guys were hanging around and needing him, his MO was always to dodge them and avoid them. He liked them — nice guys, nice people, but I don’t need to be caught up in their shenanigans.

The actors, I love. The actors kill me. Brett Gelman is a genius. He’s just comedically brilliant and a great improviser and really very powerful. And it’s funny, Nat Faxon and Judy Greer do this thing that’s sort of invisible, because you don’t see and it doesn’t look like they’re doing anything. They just look so naturalistic, which is not easy to do. They’re brilliant. I love watching them. I watch it with my wife. She goes — it’s funny, sounds like what I always imagined when people watched Mad About You — she was like, “It’s really hard to believe they’re not married.” They just seem very comfortable with each other, and this is a credit to the writing and the whole production — everything seems very real. The set looks real, their wardrobe looks real, their interactions look real. It really does feel like a nice, sharp look into marriage, which is why I think the show works.

People are watching a very well-constructed and very well thought-out, heartfelt inspection of marriage and the moments and the forces that are at play. You care about these people because they care. They’re tired of each other, and there’s a lot of discontent, but they’re committed to the marriage, and it’s never easy. It’s not easy for a second.

GURLAND: Yeah, that’s true. This isn’t a question, but it’s so different when I talk to people who watch the show who are not married versus people who are. People who are all get that this is a happily married couple, but there’s just a lot of work and you’re not happy all the time, all day long, every day. And the people who are not married look at it and say, “Oh. Uhh, they’re so unhappy.” And I’m like, “I gotta tell you, this is as good as it gets.” 

REISER: They’re happy.

GURLAND: If there’s someone you enjoy being miserable with, that’s as good as it gets.

REISER: I’d rather be miserable with you than anybody. 

GURLAND: Back to Shep: What are some of the things that you would like to see happen to him in future seasons? I know that’s a conversation that you and I need to have without a third party.

REISER: I don’t know. I don’t have an answer, but it’s an interesting point because there are so many options, and because Shep was brought into this group. And this was about a group of friends who are in different phases of marriage, and Shep was definitely the plus-one. He got into this group and now has inherited this group.

GURLAND: One of the things we did this season is like, in “Guardians,” you see that Shep is getting a little bit closer with Russ. And last week on Mother’s Day, you saw him really connecting with Lina, and by the end of the season with A.J., who you kind of had been resisting the most, you guys develop an intimacy and kind of a connection over your divorces. So that’s something that the show has kind of dealt with this year, is you kind of connecting with all your wife’s friends, and now I guess the question is where do we go with that? 

REISER: Yes, that is the discussion to have, and there’s a lot of fun places to go. I don’t have a wish list of where it goes.

GURLAND: All right. Did we hit everything? [To EW] Anything else?

EW: All good! Thank you so much.

REISER: Make it look like we know what we’re saying.

With additional reporting by Megan Lewis.

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