Rachel Bloom and Michelle Buteau chat about their new memoirs, bullying, and dick jokes
It's become something of rite of passage for talented female multihyphenates to write a book (see: Mindy Kaling, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler). They chronicle everything from their childhoods (generally unpopular, relatively traumatic) to their experiences with motherhood with a gimlet eye and a knowing wink.
Rachel Bloom, the star and co-creator of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and stand-up comic Michelle Buteau (Netflix's Welcome to Buteaupia) are the latest to mine their personal lives for laughs and insight, with Bloom's I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are (out now) and Buteau's Survival of the Thickest (Dec. 8). The pair recently sat down to read each other's essay collections, then came together on Zoom to discuss the essential work of sharing joy in our present moment.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you translate your comedy from the screen or the stage to the page? Was this a particularly different writing process for you from writing a TV show or a stand-up special?
RACHEL BLOOM: For years I've been doing storytelling shows, and there are these special stories I've always wanted to do more with that don't quite fit into anything else that I do. I built it out from there. In the same way on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, where there's a heightened emotion and you burst into song, in this book when I'm dealing with heightened emotions from an essay, I pull that out and go into a sketch. I see the non-essay pieces as written sketches, and sketch [comedy] and live storytelling really informed how I wrote this.
MICHELLE BUTEAU: The material will tell you where it's supposed to go. Going through so much pain through IVF and traveling and sticking myself with needles, just telling these sad f---king stories into a dark room in a dirty mic felt healing. The more people that know you, the shorter your logline is. I'm so caught up in the world of "It's got to be funny," [but] I'm also a human being that has been through this human s---. Podcasting really helped me figure out what I wanted to say.
You both circle themes of not fitting in and bullying. Why were those a starting place for you both?
BUTEAU: I am an only child. I've been to three different high schools, three different grade schools. It was always really hard being not only the only one that's not white, but the one that's new that has a name nobody can pronounce. Rachel, your stories about being bullied really spoke to me because what I loved about your writing is I feel like I'm in your brain. You're definitely taking us into your world, but it's almost by not fitting in you've truly learned to stand out.
BLOOM: I feel like I had such an in to your brain and your experience! You were so good at just putting me right there. The fact that your [character was] pregnant in Always Be My Maybe and [you] were going through [infertility and surrogacy] at the same time is truly stunning. I don't know how you got through that, but you walk us through that.
Similarly, you both touch on motherhood and your paths to it.
BLOOM: Michelle, you talked about how being a mom should be a class in school. Why is it not a class? Why is a parenting class not mandated for everyone? Because this is the hardest thing ever. Anything else in life this hard, it's a specialized skill — you apprentice at the blacksmith's for 20 years.
BUTEAU: We have to figure out what's important to us, and we have to take it upon ourselves to shout that out to everybody we love and care about. Advertisers aren't going to do it, the government's not going to do it. I wish society would've told me growing up that I could be president. But no, they always told me, "You've got to get bikini-body-ready. You've got to lose that weight. If men don't find you f---able, you're not worthy." And even if you don't want to be a parent, it should be a class because it's just wild the things that are considered important.
BLOOM: I'm going to raise [my daughter] to be kind and empathetic. All I can do is impart my own wisdom to her if, God forbid, she is bullied. Then I'll be like, "You have to know these people are in pain, and I know that for a fact." The thing of "They're just jealous," that never rang true. They're not jealous. They're in pain themselves and you're different, and you're a way they can assert their dominance.
You both get really personal in so many ways. How do you decide what you can put on the page versus what to hold back?
BUTEAU: It's like stand-up: You figure out what you can defend, what you want to share, how much you want to put out there. I just don't want to be an a--hole. I don't want to come home and my husband's like, "Why does everyone know about this?"
BLOOM: It's all about hurting other people. I want to be true to the experiences because I find talking about pain releases the pain. It's therapeutic to be vulnerable in certain ways because it feels like spitting the poison out. But I really did my best to not put anything that would hurt others, to try to not get people canceled.
BUTEAU: Print is crazy. It's like an emotional tattoo. The way I would say a story at a dinner table is not the way I would write it in a book.
Even before your books, you've both been vocal champions for female desire and pleasure. But was it more intimidating writing about it than talking about in other contexts? What do you wish people were more comfortable talking about?
BUTEAU: Every time there is a dick joke, comments are like, "Female comedians can't think about anything else." It's like, let this female comedian talk about what she wants because it's her f---ing business. I don't know why guys are out here talking about all this s-- but the minute we do it, all of a sudden she's a ho. If I'm a ho, let me be a ho.
BLOOM: I can't stop talking about my clit. I'm really obsessed with it, apparently. But once I realized everyone feels out of place, then the things we consider taboo, they're not taboo if everyone's feeling them. It's a part of human nature, and the taboo and the repression is the cause of so much evil. The only thing I'm actually still a little embarrassed about is my fifth-grade erotic poetry that I put in the book. I was embarrassed for 11-year-old me.
BUTEAU: It's important to own your sexuality to figure out what you like and don't like. Sort of like Julia Roberts in Runaway Bride: She had to eat all of them eggs to figure out how she likes her eggs. Let me f--- the dicks to see which dick I like. They want to control us. They want us to feel bad. And then they're the ones that makes us feel good when they think we're worthy. I'm not going to apologize for who I am and what I've done. If you want to talk about it, great. If you don't, great. Don't judge me, because I'm a good person and I pay my taxes on time.
Michelle, your book often discusses and celebrates "heavy titties." Rachel, you talk about body image more broadly, but you also previously wrote a song called "Heavy Boobs." Why is it important to you to both celebrate and skewer this?
BUTEAU: When I woke up on my 12th birthday and I had woman-sized tits, I was like, "Well, here we are." It's like a short haircut — you have to dress around it. I got unwanted attention from men, and I felt so sad and unworthy and shameful. Until I got to college and got to have sex for the first time, where I'm like, "Oh no, this is great. I'm a good person. I want to be happy I like my titties. They like my titties." When you have a body that isn't on a magazine, you don't feel you're worthy of love. And that's what I love about your show, [Rachel] — some Hollywood producers have figured out big bitches need love too.
BLOOM: It's all the patriarchy, and the patriarchy hurts everyone. I always wanted big tits. Like when I drew myself as an adult, I drew myself with good cleavage. I thought it looked beautiful, but definitely because of the male gaze. I thought about that more, and I was proud of my breasts, but also there were so many inelegant things about them — trying to find the right f---ing bra. Tit sweat. The density and heaviness of them. That's why I started poking into demystifying sex. In every song that I write, I want to make sure there's a boner-killer moment. Demystifying one of the core sexual images in every culture, which is breasts, I wanted to be like, "I know from the male gaze you see these as beautiful sex sacks, but here's how it actually feels when you have sex sacks."
You can only keep one: dick jokes or poop jokes.
BUTEAU: Oh my God! Dick!
BLOOM: Poop jokes.
Your books are coming out in the midst of a global pandemic, right after arguably the most important election of our lifetimes. How has that changed your perspective on the final product?
BLOOM: It feels so weird to be doing publicity for it. The world is truly apocalyptic, but even though [our books have] very serious stuff in them because the state of the world is so dire, I'm like, "It's escapist at this point."
BUTEAU: My Netflix special dropped [recently]. In 18 and a half years, I finally get an hour special and I finally get this book together, and 2020 is essentially canceled. There's so much death. For a hot minute, I'm like, "Do we need to do this?" But everyone keeps reminding me, people need to laugh at something.
BLOOM: I gave birth, my daughter was in the NICU while my friend [Crazy Ex-Girlfriend songwriter Adam Schlesinger] was on a ventilator with COVID in New York. He died a week after my daughter was born. The thing that got me through it was comedy. That s--- f---ing saved me.
BUTEAU: I feel hateful and grateful at every moment.