Miracle Workers continues its trip down the Oregon Trail tonight with “What Happens in Branchwater,” the pioneers’ laugh-out-loud stop in “the nastiest saloon town” this side of the Alabama Ass Factory, to quote Benny the Teen (Steve Buscemi).
In its third season, the anthology has been killing us with inspired sight gags, an entire episode devoted to early influencers guest-starring Shay Mitchell and, of course, the buddy-comedy chemistry of stars Buscemi and Daniel Radcliffe, who gets to unleash his inner Lip Sync Battle diva after his preacher Ezekiel ingests too much snake oil.
Originally inspired by the writings of short-story icon Simon Rich, the creator of FX’s Man Seeking Woman, the former SNL scribe has handed over show-running duties but is still an exec producer on the series. And it turns out, he’s just fine with that, since he’s got a few new projects (including one that requires burping) to keep him busy. Still, the amiable author took some time to chat about his hilarious new collection of stories and making Miracles.
This season is so damn funny. I’m never above a dysentery joke, so this is right up my alley. And you have amassed the best cast.
Simon Rich: That was what was so exciting about the project from Day One, was just the fun challenge of building not just a cast who could pull off the original stories, but that had the versatility to be able to handle different premises because we knew from the start that we wanted to be an anthology series and switch it up every year.
So we needed to find a cast that could play the specific parts, but [who] were incredibly versatile and that also would have the chemistry and would enjoy working together. And we really found it. I think that every cast member is excellent in their own right, but there’s some special alchemy that happens when you stick them together in scenes. And it’s really funny here trying to figure out new dynamics for them to play. To have two actors in some seasons who love each other and then other seasons want to kill each other, it’s pretty fun to mess around.
Talk about the evolution of the show. I know Season 1 was based on your book…
The first season was based on a novel I wrote called “What in God’s Name,” and the second season is based on a short story called “Revolution,” which is in my new collection, “New Teeth.” But the third season is a very cool story that is entirely original. I’m no longer the showrunner, it’s now being run by Dan Mirk and Rob Padnick.
And how is that for you?
It’s the first time I’ve done it. I had a different show called Man Seeking Woman and I ran all three seasons. This is the first time with a show I’ve created where I’m not running it, and I’ve got to say, it’s been pretty fun to hand the reigns over to Dan and Rob because I feel so much confidence in their ability. They both worked on Man Seeking Woman and they’ve both worked on Miracle Workers, so I’ve known them for a long time and it’s thrilling to watch them put their own stamp on the show. I feel like they really made it their own the best way.
You’re still maintaining an executive producer credit…and I’m assuming some writing duties, correct?
I help a little bit, but a lot less than you would think. [Laughs]
I interviewed Daniel Radcliffe before the show ever premiered and he was just raving about you being one of his favorite writers. But how do you get Harry Potter to do a series, much less several seasons?!
Well, I’m such an enormous fan of Dan’s and, obviously, like everybody else in the universe, I loved him as Harry Potter. But I also was a huge fan of his work on Broadway and also his more unusual independent film work was always incredibly impressive and showcased his versatility. And that’s why I was so excited to build an anthology show around him: I actually think he’s so much more versatile than a lot of the world knows. He’s kind of like a Swiss army knife. He has a lot of different moves, he has a lot of different skills, and he can play high status, play low status, he can play heroes, he can play villains. He can play romantic leads, he can play characters who are brave, characters who are frightened. He’s just a really special actor. And all of the actors in the cast have a similarly wide array of skills and that’s what makes it so fun to write for them.
Daniel loves to take big swings, and that’s really what Miracle Workers is all about, taking really big swings. That’s obviously why the show is so fortunate to have Steve Buscemi, who everyone has known for decades is one of the great actors of all time. Dan and Steve also have involvement in the writing process as well. They’re always involved on the ground floor in terms of shaping the characters and their relationships. They’re very creatively involved in every aspect of the show.
And it’s very gratifying for me to see Geraldine Viswanathan getting so much great stuff to do. The first time I saw her I think was probably in “Blockers” and was blown away. She’s so interesting to watch on screen, she makes such great decisions and she’s a scream.
Yeah, she’s phenomenal. She’s one of my favorite actors working right now and the first time I saw her is when she auditioned for the show. She auditioned opposite Dan because it was really important to find an actress who is not only super talented, but also had good chemistry with Dan. And from moment one, it was clear that they had amazing comedic timing with each other and that it was going to work.
And now you’ve got a new book, New Teeth? This release must be very different because there are no book tours.
Yeah, I know. But when you have a four-year-old and a six-month-old, it’s for the best that there’s no book tour. Better for me to be here at home than on a train from Portland to Seattle or whatever. [Laughs]
So true. Based on the book’s title and cover art, I am assuming the baby inspired some of these stories?
[Laughs] A ton. A ton. Yeah. I mean it’s been 10 years since I wrote Man Seeking Woman and I feel like my style hasn’t changed at all and I haven’t learned any new skills writing-wise, but at least I have new subject matter.
You’ll always have something to write about!
Yeah, but I’m running out of things to do with my life. I don’t know, I feel like even if I had five more kids, I wouldn’t necessarily get more material, so I need to think of something new. [Laughs]
With the world in lockdown, did that gave you a lot of time to write?
Oh yeah. Most of this book was written during the pandemic. I wrote most of it in the second half of 2020. I mean, my day-to-day life has always been pretty sedentary, so being trapped inside was nothing new. It’s always just kind of me staring at a blank page, no matter what’s happening in the real world. I love writing fiction, especially short fiction, because you can take enormous swings. You can really write in any style, in any format, and because the stories are so short, the reader will often go along with conceits that they would never accept for 300 pages.
Very much like a TV anthology.
Totally. What I loved about Man Seeking Woman as a writer was that within every episode, I could jump from genre to genre. So I could have a single episode go from horror, to science-fiction, to the Wild West. And Miracle Workers is similar in that the genre changes every season. And I try to do the same thing with my short story collections. So, like in “New Teeth,” there’s a pirate story, there’s a noir, there’s a superhero story, there’s historical fiction, and there’s fantasy and science-fiction. It’s really fun to be able to write in all those different styles.
Anything in the new book that would possibly clue is into what Season 4 might look like?
I try really hard when I’m writing the books to really think about them purely as prose and not try and think about what kind of TV shows and movies they may or may not turn into because it’s so unpredictable. So many variables go into the making of a TV show or a movie that if that’s the end goal, it can be really distracting and can actually get in the way of the story. So I just try to think in terms of, what’s the funniest, most entertaining and original short story that I can write this week?
And I always tell the actors not to read the book or the short stories [each season was based on] because often the characters will change during the script writing process and I don’t want them to feel any allegiance to the prior work.
Wow. That is very opposite of a lot of authors who have had their stuff adapted.
I know. You have to have thick skin as an author to then be able to completely tear it apart and rewrite it from scratch with a bunch of other people who have totally different tastes than you sometimes. But I don’t see it as a compromise, I see it as a completely separate fun challenge. I love writing the books, I love making the TV shows and the movies. I like it all. I don’t think that TV show adaptations are necessarily worse than the original, I think often they’re just completely different.
Miracle Workers: Oregon Trail, Tuesdays, 10:30/9:30c, TBS