Rachel Bloom talks redefining normalcy

Rachel Bloom - © Robyn Von Swank

Rachel Bloom (Photo © Robyn Von Swank)

As USC Visions & Voices played her into the webinar last Tuesday, Rachel Bloom lit up her corner of the Zoom screen and sang along to “Let’s Generalize About Men,” a song from musical dramedy series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Bloom, who co-created and starred in the show, sat down to talk with professor Karen Tongson, chair of the department of Gender and Sexuality Studies at USC.

The webinar chat was particularly active for the hour-long discussion and Q&A; Crazy Ex-Girlfriend managed to gather quite the cult following in its four-season run on the CW, perhaps due to its unique use of musical theatre parody to destigmatize mental health treatment and address other timely topics. Even Tongson confessed her excitement as she introduced Bloom.

“As I’ve said many times before to whoever would listen, no piece of pop culture ever healed my mind and my heart chakras in the same way,” she said of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

The School of Dramatic Arts co-sponsored the event with USC Visions and Voices: The Arts and Humanities Initiative, the Department of Gender & Sexuality Studies, the Consortium for Gender, Sexuality, Race and Popular Culture, LGBTQ+SC, the Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study and the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life.

To begin, Bloom read from her new memoir I Want to be Where the Normal People Are, which explores the tension between normalcy and unabashed weirdness through the lens of her childhood. The excerpt featured an article she wrote for her middle school newspaper, titled “Inside Jokes Can Leave Many on the Outside.”

Tongson summed up the article’s representation of the book well, noting that “in revealing so much of herself, [Bloom] also reveals to us so much about ourselves, especially to those of us who’ve never been normal – who’ve never had the option of being so, but who are nonetheless fascinated by what this thing called normal is.”

Normal or not

Bloom shared about navigating everyday tension between either conforming to or rejecting normalcy.

“I think that’s one of the reasons I went into comedy,” Bloom said. “Like, okay, well I’m always going to be a weirdo. Maybe I can try to at least control the narrative. I’ll laugh at myself before you laugh at me. I will be such an outlandish version of myself that you’re going to laugh, but the joke’s on you because I was already laughing.”

She recounted feeling particularly hurt when a fashion website panned the dress she wore to accept an award from Los Angeles theatre institution East West Players. She was upset by the criticism, and even more upset with herself for allowing it to reach her, especially after having written Crazy Ex-Girlfriend segments that addressed the construct of trending fashion.

“I have a whole show about embracing weirdness. I have a whole show about how fashion is a construct, about how looking good is all a construct. Why am I upset by this?” she asked. “What I slowly learned is that berating myself for being offended makes it a lot worse. We’re not engineered to read hundreds of comments or to wear a thing and have your picture taken and then be criticized. This idea of like, be yourself and don’t give a s—, that pressure is really harmful, because it’s very human to give a s—, and it’s very human to have your feelings hurt and be vulnerable.”

Tongson agreed, adding that perhaps “going deeper and becoming a theatre person is really kind of consigning oneself to a life beyond normalcy, inviting that level of scrutiny.”

Coastal differences

Tongson went on to ask about the similar tensions that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend draws between California and New York, both theatre hubs in very different ways. The dichotomy is mirrored as Bloom’s character Rebecca Bunch moves from a fast-paced, neurotic New York to an eternally sunny Southern California – where she finds she still has mental health issues.

Bloom, who grew up in Manhattan Beach, noted that feelings of dread and anxiety seem not to exist in the West Coast vocabulary. She said she and Rene Gube (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend writer and Father Brah in the show), who grew up in San Diego, agreed that Southern California residents had a “happiness gap,” a discrepancy between who you are and what makes you happy.

“So when I first moved to New York, I loved it, I loved the fast paced nature. It almost felt like the inside of my mind… But there is, I think, a fear when you begin to associate yourself with that. ‘I am my sadness, I am my late nights, I am my sleepless nights, I am my unhealthy habits.’ There’s an exhilaration to that. And you start to almost fear losing that if you get happier.”

Bloom agreed with Tongson that both mindsets had their downfalls – then explained that she was trying to find a middle ground in her mind.

“Really, at the end of the day, when I think about a place, it’s like Portland. I think I’m trying to get to the Portland inside my mind,” she joked.

Inclusion and representation

Discussing the show’s representation of Filipino actors and characters onscreen, Bloom shared that casting for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend really showed her how little Asian men were represented in the industry, and how much roles for Asian men gave into stigma and stereotypes. She noted that they had to go to much smaller agencies and to New York to find Asian American lead actors — where they found Vincent Rodriguez III, when he was off-Broadway in Here Lies Love, to play romantic lead Josh Chan.

Later, she also answered a student’s question about representing rather than sensationalizing Borderline Personality Disorder in the show. When it came time to diagnose the character, the show’s co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna located Dialectical Behavioral Therapy workbooks (a common form of treatment for Borderline), and they continued to work from that perspective.

“…so it was always creating this character with compassion. And it was important that we be not only accurate, but then also use it to kind of explain all of the things that we’ve shown up until that point that were crazy or quirky,” she said.

Normalcy: then and now

To round out the hour, Tongson asked about Bloom’s idea of normal, and how it changed as she wrote the memoir through the pandemic. Adam Schlesinger, who was Bloom’s songwriting partner for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and beyond, passed away unexpectedly last April of COVID-19 complications, just as Bloom’s daughter was born.

“After Adam died and she was born, and I had a newborn in the house, I was like: ‘Why am I working on a book? Life is so much bigger, what’s a book? What am I doing, why am I writing this book about being a theatre kid?’ ” she asked, before circling further into the existential question.

“I kind of like came around again, with like, ‘Who knows what life’s about, and who knows when we’re going to go? So, yeah, I might as well focus on a book.’ ”

Tongson agreed, reassuring Bloom: “The book has already helped so many people in the brief period of time that it’s been out. And you know, the work we put out in the world is part of our contribution to, and part of the intimacy that we share with, a much broader, cultural and social world. We really appreciate, as everyone’s saying in the chat, how much you’ve been willing to share of yourself, and how much that has moved so many of us.”