'Forever' creators Matt Hubbard and Alan Yang talk about how they made a show about marriage stand out in a crowded space
Creators Alan Yang and Matt Hubbard wrote a letter to critics asking them to refrain from including spoilers in their reviews
By Patti Greco
This article contains spoilers about 'Forever'
By now you’ve probably heard that 'Forever', the new Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph show on Amazon, has a twist. (It’s a show about a bored husband and wife—but there’s a twist!) The mystery was essentially part of the show’s promotion: Creators Alan Yang (Master of None) and Matt Hubbard (30 Rock) wrote a letter to critics asking them to refrain from including spoilers in their reviews, leading to a glut of content that alluded to the show’s big reveal without giving it a way.
In the case of this interview, Amazon requested that Meaww not run it with spoilers until a week after the show’s premiere. That, of course, is today—and so, without further ado (spoilers ahead!): Oscar (Armisen) dies in a ski accident at the end of the first episode; June (Rudolph) dies by choking on a macadamia nut at the end of the second; and six of Forever’s eight episodes take place in the afterlife. Here, Yang and Hubbard, who also worked together on Parks and Recreation, talk about the twist and making a show about marriage stand out in a crowded space.
How’d you decide on the twist—and specifically the one-two punch of it? Because a lot of people are going to assume, after the first episode, that they know the twist. But they don’t.
Matt Hubbard: That’s kind of what excited us about it. The conventional wisdom in TV is you need to understand what the show is about after you’ve been watching it for five minutes, and we’ve said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if you’re just following this couple, and then there’s big twist right at the end where Fred gets killed?” And then I think if you’re watching episode two, if you don’t know what’s going on, you’re gonna be like, “Okay, this is a show about Maya in Hawaii and maybe she works on a pineapple farm, meets some handsome guy”—and then she dies and you see Fred again.
Alan Yang: In a lot of shows, you would have taken that first hour, or maybe even hour-and-a-half of story, and put it in two minutes. So instead, we made it longer. We kept saying, “We’re slow playing it.” I just like the idea of someone starting it cold, watching the first episode, being weirded out, watching the second one, being even more weirded out—that was just exciting to us, and it’s a little bit of thumbing our noses at what’s expected.
There’s so much TV right now, which makes it a challenge to do a show that feels original. Does that encourage more experimentation?
Yang: That’s one of the reasons when we went into the show, I was like, “Look, there’s 50 million shows on television. There are all these shows coming out that I hadn’t even heard of. So why not be bold?” Because how are you going to cut through? If you’re just going to make a show [about] “Hey, this is a family hanging out.” It’s like, who’s gonna watch that show? To me, it’s become a word-of-mouth economy. You trust your friends more than anyone, so what’s going to be a show that you might talk about?
Hubbard: I think both of us were always like, “Write a show that we would watch.” Now the standards are so high. I was driving in the airport and I was looking at this Hulu poster and I was like, “SEAN PENN’S GOING TO MARS?” [Editor’s Note: Penn stars in a new Beau Willimon show called The First.]
Is there a different attachment you have to writing a show like this versus Parks and Rec? Not in the sense that you like one more or one is better, but in the sense that you’re putting a different part of yourself into the project?
Yang: For sure. When we started, Netflix didn’t exist; Amazon didn’t exist. We weren’t talking about doing eight-episode shows. You would go into a network and be like, “How does this go 200 episodes?” And so the liberty, the freedom of being able to do a show this ambitious in concept and tone and execution is really exciting.
Hubbard: We’ve both done many NBC shows, and you need to be built to do a marathon with those shows, and that’s why it’s like, after 20 episodes, someone gets married or something. You just sort of keep going. When we started this show, I think we knew what the last moment was going to be. That was the first time I have ever been in a situation where we knew that going in. It changes the way you can work.
I like that Oscar and June don’t fight or outright ignore each other—they talk, they have inside jokes. But they don’t say anything honest. They’re sort of aggressively polite. Once you decided you were going to do a show about a marriage, how did you decide on that dynamic?
Yang: A lot of it is inspired by, number one, knowing Maya and Fred and their personalities and how they can be funny, and then a lot of it was inspired by people’s real lives. We hired a lot of writers who were married, and so we kind of drew from personal experience as much as possible. For instance, the fight they have over the dishwasher and whether the forks go tines up or tines down was from your life, right?
Hubbard: I’ve had that argument.
Who are you in that argument?
Hubbard: I am, “Who cares?” And my wife is, “Tines up. I read it in Real Simple magazine. I’m sick of reminding you.” I feel like sometimes in shows there’s a fight and people are screaming and running around and it’s some big, dramatic thing. I think a marriage is so up and down—you go through two days where your emotions are inside and you’re secretly mad at the person and it comes out in a weird way, but then five minutes later you’re laughing. I think to some extent we wanted to [offer] that hopefully more realistic depiction of a marriage.
Yang: There was also some comedy in it. There’s something funny about seeing Maya and Fred as just this really normal couple. That was sort of the excitement to me after we first met with them and they were like, “Maybe we’d like to work together on something.” We wanted a departure from their previous work [Editor’s note: They also collaborated on Saturday Night Live] and a lot of their previous work has been bigger, broader, crazier stuff with them in wigs and costumes. And so to see them in these costumes [points to a Forever poster], talking about dishwasher stuff—that was really compelling to me.
When they came to you about doing a show, what did they say they wanted to do?
Yang: We had breakfast and they were like, “You have any ideas?” So I called Matt up immediately…and then within a couple weeks I emailed Fred and Maya some stuff and they said, “Wow, we have these meetings and no one ever sends anything. It’s always just kind of a bullshit meeting.” And they responded to one of the ideas and it really was a pretty quick process. [We] pitched it and sold it and shot it all within the next nine months or so.
When June and Oscar meet in the afterlife, it’s not called Heaven. Was that intentional?
Hubbard: I don’t think we wanted to impose any, “This is heaven or this is the Buddhist version of the afterlife.” They just wake up and there’s a lot of confusion, and they have rules that are maybe not true; someone’s passing information onto them.
Yang: It’s completely unclear what’s happening. They’re just on earth, man. That’s what’s weird about it. I think sometimes when shows have a big premise—I always get bored when people get bogged down in rules. It’s just a little bit like, Ugh. Because exposition is tough already, so when it’s completely arbitrary rules of your own making then it gets even more—god bless Christopher Nolan, right? His movies work, but it’s a very difficult needle to thread, so we felt like it would be more interesting and also more narratively satisfying, and more accurate to the relationship, to have it be more mysterious.
Hubbard: You could easily write a show that’s just about rules.
How did you come up with the stand-alone episode? [Episode 6 follows two realtors, Andre (Jason Mitchell) and Sarah (Hong Chau), who fall for each other at an open house, reconnect years later, and consider leaving their spouses to be together. By the end of the episode, Andre learns that Sarah has died. They never really got to be together, and he didn’t get to say goodbye.]
Yang: We thought that specific idea was one that would make use of our premise in an interesting way, and allow us to play with the passage of time, the idea of regret and the path not taken, which I’ve certainly loved to write about. And [it was] one of the most difficult episodes to write and produce and direct, because you are essentially starting a new show in the middle of another show. So you are establishing these characters: Who are they? Why should I care about them? Why do they care about each other? What happens to them? And you’re doing all of this in 28, 30 minutes.
Hubbard: The reason this works is because a ghost [June] is watching it the whole time, and that reveal at the end is hopefully effective. So we just liked that idea, and then wrote, you know, 20 scripts.
Yang: And truly, Maya’s in it for a second but she kills it in her one scene … it’s all in her face.
She is the best face actress.
Yang: A lot of episodes end with just a shot of her face.
Hubbard: The scene where she’s in Nordstrom and she’s about to get on the plane, and she’s looking at herself in the mirror? And she’s like, excited, scared, knows she’s kind of bullshit, knows she’s a coward. We’re watching her do it and we’re like, “Holy shit.” That’s hard.
Yang: That whole block, episode 1 and 2, we kind of felt like, “Oh, Maybe this will work,” just from the stuff she was giving us. And, likewise, Fred: Oscar has this sort of stubborn and willfully unchanging personality, but because it’s Fred, you’re on board, because you’re like, “He’s charming!” You sympathize with him as well.
There’s a scene where Oscar says something like, “Every relationship needs a peacekeeper and I’m the peacekeeper.” And it’s like, yeah, that’s the exact problem with you.
Hubbard: I think sometimes when you’re in a fight you’re like, “I just want out of this fight.” And like, “I don’t wanna deal with what this fight is about.” And that’s just all him. And we thought that’s a real thing that hopefully you haven’t seen before. And he seems berserk in that scene. He’s like, calm seas, but you’re like, “This guy’s deeply troubled.”
Yang: There’s definitely an alternate cut of this show where he’s revealed to be a serial killer.
Any chance there will be a season 2?
Yang: We’re open to it, for sure. We feel like there’s some closure with the last shot of the season, but also that it’s a very exciting opening to something else that could happen. We have some ideas, so we’ll see what Amazon says.
This interview has been edited and condensed