It’s been three years since Covid derailed Rachel Bloom’s standup special. Now the actress, comedian, writer, singer and producer finally has the chance to return to the stage to make the jokes and sing the filthy musical numbers that made her name. But doing the show as if the intervening years never happened? Seems, frankly, “stupid,” according to Bloom. Her ditties about the sordid secretions of trees or Kevin Spacey hosting the Tonys feel tantamount to a denial of what has gone on in her life since the virus hit. In fact, the tree song is all that remains of that pre-pandemic routine, and Bloom revised it into an exploration of how to “not let [death] stop you in your tracks.”
Death, Let Me Do My Special, which is playing to sold-out theaters through much of June, may not seem full of obvious fodder for a standup set. But the theme became all-pervasive for the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend star in March of 2020 when—hours after she brought her newborn daughter home following five days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit—she learned her close friend and writing partner, Adam Schlesinger, had died following Covid complications. Compounded by what Bloom describes as the “anguish” of new motherhood, the bad news seemed to keep coming. Two more friends passed away, and the walls fell in on an industry that would have at any other time provided a much-needed respite.
That said, writing (or rather, rewriting) the show let Bloom process some of the grief she has felt since Schlesinger’s untimely and unexpected passing at the age of 52.
“I didn’t want to exploit my friend’s death to make a show,” she tells me over lunch at the Standard Hotel in London, the day after Death, Let Me Do My Special opened in the city. Those seventy-five minutes on stage “helps me to work out an issue that I’m dealing with.” Namely that someone she’d never seen sick—even with a cold—in their two decades of friendship could simply be gone. “My brain just doesn’t buy it,” Bloom, 36, says. “I’ve been saying ‘he’s dead,’ ‘he’s dead,’ ‘he died,’ ‘he died,’ but it still just feels like he could walk in any second.”
She invited Schlesinger’s family to her upcoming New York show, where audiences will see her tango with “the tension between the silly and the deep” that has followed her since his death. It is a balance Bloom is used to striking—one that became the foundation for much of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which she co-wrote and starred in and which won multiple Primetime Emmy Awards, a Golden Globe and a Critics’ Choice Award during its four-season run. Though her protagonist (a lawyer grappling with mental health issues) was entirely fictional, Bloom drew from her own experience being diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder at age nine and the anxiety and depression that has been with her through her adult years. Her status now is “forever in a state of repair,” Bloom says over Cornish chicken, admitting that her past has put her “on the lookout” for signs of mental illness in her three-year-old daughter (whose name and face she keeps out of the public eye). “It’s something I’m going to be mindful of, and watch for in her, and try not to diagnose or pathologize. But it’s something I’m aware of.”
Before giving birth to said daughter, who she shares with comedy writer Dan Gregor, Bloom “had a fear of my own mental health and how bad my postpartum depression [would] be.” Yet that period in March of 2020 turned out to be so dark in so many ways that now, she mulls, the grief simply “bleeds all together.” Still, the panic of new motherhood was acute, marked in Bloom’s show in the best way she knows how: via a musical number about fearing her baby will die, set to a jaunty tune.
It’s an easy hit among the show’s crowd, and “there’s a rabidness” to her London followers, Bloom explains—something the ear-splitting cheers and queues at the stage door easily confirm. “Chances are, if someone is walking toward me and they have dyed hair and a bunch of tattoos and a really cool multicolored sweatshirt, yeah, they’re a fan.” One tweet after opening night likening the crowd to a ‘quirked-up white femme convention.’
But Bloom’s popularity doesn’t lie in shock value or that quirkiness. Many fans tell Bloom how she has helped them confront their own mental health struggles and that they find kinship in her vulnerability and insistence on being herself. This is as true in her shows as it is in our interview, where she unabashedly takes to her chicken with her hands.
Reaching cult status has been a curious experience for Bloom, who says of her celebrity that “you either know exactly who I am, or you have no idea who I am.” Crazy Ex-Girlfriend had diehard fans and undulating critical acclaim yet remained one of the lowest-rated shows in network history to be regularly renewed, something Bloom puts down to a single exec who fought in their corner at the CW (on which the show aired from 2015 through 2019).
“I don’t want to completely do the ‘girl thing’ and be like oh, no, no, no, I’m trash, I’m garbage… no, I worked fucking hard and it’s a good show,” Bloom says with a nod to her co-creator, Devil Wears Prada producer Aline Brosh McKenna. The accolades helped keep them on air in the face of low ratings, she adds. “I struggle with this because I think award shows are bullshit. But I also have FOMO if I’m not nominated, and the night I won the Emmy, it was one of the happiest nights of my life.”
Part of her sees these ceremonies as “a distraction from the art… But on the other hand, do I like going to award shows and getting acclaim? I do. And I don’t know how to reconcile those things.”
Bloom’s latest turn in Reboot, a Hulu comedy about a dysfunctional TV show cast, will likely cause fewer such conundrums, having earlier this year been canceled after one season. She was “confused” by the decision, describing it as a victim of the current “crunch of Hollywood imploding.” Industry issues have both prompted and been worsened by the Writers Guild Association strike, now in its sixth week—a fair pay struggle that has seen the likes of Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon go dark. “This is my heart,” Bloom says of the fallout, which has taken her to the picket lines.
She is unequivocal about putting her head above the parapet. “Everyone has to picket,” she says. “It’s part of your duty.” Not least given the “whiplash” currently afflicting the industry, where the pandemic streaming spike has boomeranged to “money loss” as viewers curb their subscriptions, with show commissions drying up as a result. Some of Bloom’s own now hang in the balance, the present volatility making their future unclear.
Nothing works as it did before, adds Bloom’s longtime friend and collaborator Danny Jolles, who drops by our table, turning a world that traded on a formulaic success for decades on its head. “A-list talent does not matter anymore,” he says. “It’s such an overvalued commodity.” This theory, Bloom says, was made flesh in Gaslit, starring “Julia fucking Roberts and Sean Penn in a show that, like, no one saw.”
This fractious state has made Bloom all the more grateful for the diversity of her career. She can write and tell gags and sing songs via other media (she became famous after her YouTube song, Fuck Me Ray Bradbury, went viral in 2010), rather than relying on screen work alone. Returning from her LA home to New York, where she studied at NYU, along with Jolles, heightens these feelings of gratitude all the more, Bloom tells me, adding that New York City has become “such an important part of [my] identity.” That’s not to say things haven’t changed—she traded nights at Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burger on Broadway, beloved during her student days for a sold-out show in Gramercy this time around. Ahead of her tour’s final leg in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago and Boulder, stopping in New York is a kind of homecoming, Bloom feels. The city is “very close to my heart.”