“That was the big question, right? How is that going to work?”
That’s “Only Murders in the Building” co-creator and showrunner John Hoffman, and anyone remotely aware of his new Hulu series (now picked up for Season 2) knows exactly to what he is referring: its three stars Steve Martin, Martin Short, and—pause for dramatic effect—Selena Gomez, the actor and very famous millennial pop star.
The dark comedy, which premiered Aug. 31, follows three strangers who live in the same Upper West Side co-op building in which a young man is brutally murdered—or is he? Thanks to a shared love of true crime podcasts, the trio become enmeshed as they attempt to get to the bottom of the tragedy, digging a few of their own skeletons out of the closet along the way.
“I find it so beautiful that these three unexpected people, you’ll very quickly begin to root for. They feel like they’re a little mini family.”
Having gestated “squarely in the mind of Steve Martin,” says Hoffman, who was brought on to the project by “This Is Us” creator and “Murders” producer Dan Fogelman, the show obviously leads laughs-first. But there’s real darkness there, too, as all three grapple with the specific brand of New York loneliness in which isolation is compounded by the city’s density. Pairing Gomez with the two older oddballs was, in fact, just what the series needed in order to strike its peculiar tone.
And Gomez came to play, Hoffman insists. “We knew we wanted someone unexpected, someone sort of alien to their world,” he says. “She fits perfectly because she’s this dry, assertive, cut-through-it-always [presence]. I find it so beautiful that these three unexpected people, you’ll very quickly begin to root for. They feel like they’re a little mini family that makes no sense but that is very watchable.
“It’s been extraordinary to watch her blossom and develop as a young comedic actress who we all knew when she was growing up,” Hoffman adds, “and to watch her mature into this deep role. And the three of them together really are just so funny.”
Adding Gomez into the mix also allowed Martin and Short to do what they’ve always done: surprise. As Hoffman describes it, “I wanted to subvert expectations about what you might think a show with these classic comedians is going to be and take them into something really modern. That’s who they’ve always been as comedic geniuses. They haven’t just played in the land of the expected.”
Hoffman actually didn’t know Martin—or Short or Gomez, for that matter—prior to his involvement with the series. It also marked his first time at the helm, having previously worked as a writer on other people’s shows, including “Grace and Frankie” and “Looking.” To have this kind of narrative autonomy “was heaven to me,” Hoffman says. But at the same time, being the person who is called upon more than anyone else on set was also immensely challenging (especially given COVID protocols, which were foreign to everyone).
“The only way I knew how to do it,” he explains, “was to be as prepared as I could ever be and to accept that I’m probably the person who should answer most of the questions, but not be afraid to say, ‘I don’t know and let’s find out.’ I’ve never learned more.”
Even though the show checked off a number of firsts for Hoffman, it was produced in accordance with the writing principle he’s always sworn by. It isn’t new or novel—in fact, it’s almost cliched, and yet so many creatives, especially aspiring ones, still have a hard time figuring it out: Write what you know. No, write what you actually know.
“The specifics that come from your own life that you can transfer into a good idea, that’s the place to look,” Hoffman insists. “Think first of an idea and then, How can I match that up with something that I know? Because it’s your life experience that’s like nobody else’s, and that will create something that is your own voice in some way. If you can, hold on to that first.”
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