Ryan Murphy Dissects Glee and American Horror Story, Addresses Fans and Critics
Ryan Murphy has never been known for keeping his schedule light. In addition to running Glee and American Horror Story, planning to direct a feature-film adaptation of Larry Kramer’s AIDS drama The Normal Heart, and writing the all-star musical One Hit Wonders for pal Gwyneth Paltrow, Reese Witherspoon, and Cameron Diaz, he now will also run The New Normal, a new NBC comedy premiering this fall about a gay couple who decide they want to start a family. The show stars The Book of Mormon‘s Andrew Rannells and The Hangover‘s Justin Bartha alongside Ellen Barkin, who plays the bigoted, ultraconservative grandmother of their surrogate. Somehow, in the midst of all that, he found time to sit down with us for a Vulture Transcript, an in-depth conversation covering everything from the “hard road” of making Glee (which concludes tonight) and his plans for next season, to details of the next, sixties-set season of American Horror Story, to his response to those who think his shows blow up too fast.
Three TV shows and two movies … how do you stay focused with so many ongoing projects?
I don’t know how to answer that other than I just have a passion for all of them. They feed each other. I never get bored; I’m always excited. It just feels like a very circular gerbil wheel of creativity, to be quite honest. I started off as a journalist when I was young and I did not get paid unless I wrote three stories a day. So I was brought up with that mentality, that productivity was a good thing. And I do have a great support system and bosses who understand.
And will you be the showrunner for all three of your series?
Yes. I’m still the showrunner, but Brad Falchuk [co-creator and co-executive producer on Glee and American Horror Story] is working really closely with those writing staffs. And we’re bringing on people to Glee who have run other shows, so that’s very helpful. Ali Adler co-created The New Normal and has run and staffed many rooms before. That show also will have a very overexperienced staff that we’re bringing on.
Last year, FX president John Landgraf told me what he loved so much about American Horror Story was that you had planned it as an anthology, which would keep things fresh and new for you. Is it a fair assessment to say that you like the beginnings of things best?
Certainly I am aware people say that about me, which I always find interesting and I guess I understand it … well, yes and no. I would say for American Horror Story, I do like the freshness of that and I love that show because it’s a miniseries; it’s a beginning, middle, and end.
When you write stories 22 episodes a year, it’s a daunting task. Even though Glee is sometimes a hard road, I am very excited about writing a multi-year arc. For example, Rachel Berry, meeting her as you did, hopefully by the end of her journey she will be a star. That’s a very long, long period. That’s harder, because you don’t get instant satisfaction. But I know where she’ll end up; I know what the last scene will be. The New Normal is also a really great template because I know the last scene of the first season is the birth of that baby. It’s a five-year plan — first season is about getting ready for the baby, second season is about the baby, the third season is like, “We’re in our fucking mid-forties and we need to have another baby!” New Normal is almost like a weird hybrid of Glee and American Horror Story. It’s good for me to write to something in the long and the short term.
One of the things your critics say is that your shows have a supernova quality. They ignite and everyone’s talking about them, and at some point they inevitably fall back to earth. Then those critics fall all over themselves saying, “Yes! This is what we’ve said all along!”
I suppose I get what that is about because the things that I have done so far in my career seem to have started with a big burst of attention. Magazine covers, awards, nominations — all that stuff that you really can’t create or control. So I get that by comparison the third season of Glee was maybe not as sexy and shiny and red hot as the other seasons. People said the same thing about Nip/Tuck and the fourth season wound up being its highest rated in that show’s life of seven. I guess what I have learned is that people can say what they want to say, and I respect it. Everybody has a right to put people in a box or a niche because that’s their job. I used to do that [as a journalist]. I don’t think that’s true about me, but time will tell.
At the beginning of this season of Glee, you said no big tributes, no guest stars. But the truth is, you began doing both in the second half of the season. What happened there? Do you feel pulled in both directions?
I don’t feel that I’m pulled in those directions. And you know, the first season, which now everyone has put a halo on, did exactly that: We had guest stars, we had the Madonna tribute. .. I think the thing about the fan base is you can’t take anything too personal because it all comes from a place of passion. There are some people who love the characters. There are other groups of people who love the spectacle. When you do the spectacle, the people who love the characters get pissed. “Fuck them, why aren’t they doing a Brittany and Santana story instead of a Michael Jackson celebration?” Then when you do the opposite they’re like, “You know, where’s the tribute to Frank Sinatra? This is bullshit.” You just can’t win. So I think you try to do the best that you can, and I really do respect the fans, because I think it’s a young audience, and I think it’s a very Internet-savvy audience. We care about the show and we care about the characters and the tributes, but it’s a young, rollicking show by design. I get that sometimes people fall in and out of love with it in the course of two episodes.
It’s also hard when you do a show that no one thought would work — even the people who ran the network did not think it would work. Some of the critics thought it was gonna be five episodes then out. And I think that it’s a show that the fans made. They found it, they loved it, they bought the music, they turned it into a phenomenon, they bought the tickets for those concert tours, they created the ability to do multi-platforms, they had a really strong proprietary grasp on it. I think the critics did, too, and I think a lot of the bloggers did. So whenever you have something like that, and then you evolve and you grow and you try different things and you experiment and you risk, [they say] “We don’t like it, go back to what you used to do.” And then you say “Well, we are kind of doing what we used to do, but I understand how you would see it was different.”
I will say the story for season four gets back to the underdog status [for the characters] and that will appease people, maybe. Sometimes I feel that you can’t win. It’s just a volatile group of people that watch it, and for that, I like their passion. Anybody who’s ever done a show about youth has told me they went through this exact same thing.
What did you think of Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly saying next season would be a “creative renaissance” for the show at the network’s upfront?
I don’t think that Kevin was particularly a fan of what I was trying to do with the beginning of this season. We did an episode of all show tunes, we did several of them. There was the West Side Story thing that I loved, but I don’t think the audience did. Kevin wants a Glee that’s about Top 40, pop culture, big stars. So I know that he loved the end of this season, and I went and pitched him the next season and I think he loves it because it’s very pop-culture-based. We’re doing a great tribute right off the bat, another Britney Spears episode. Many of the characters will be starting over as underdogs, which is a good thing for the show. I really made an effort, talking to all the regulars about it.
What do you mean?
We had a meeting, and you know that we’ve become like a family, and I said to them anybody who wants to stay on the show will stay on the show. I asked all of them, “What do you want to do? What are you interested in doing?” That said, the show next year will have less characters than we’ve ever had and I think that’s a good thing. But I don’t think that you’ll see a show that suddenly you don’t recognize. A lot of people have been writing Dianna [Agron]’s off the show, Amber [Riley]’s off the show — they’re not off the show.
You know why they’re saying that about Amber, though. Amber tweeted that she had “closed a chapter” of her life.
I think she was talking about a bittersweet feeling of, “I’ll never be in the choir room with that exact group of people.” At least that’s what she told me. When I read that , I said, “I think people will misconstrue that.” She’s excited about where her character is going. They all are. I wanted to do the right thing by all of them. I think that was the problem in the media last year when people thought that I was getting rid of Lea [Michele], Cory [Monteith], and Chris [Colfer] because I couldn’t talk about the spinoff. “Oh, you’re getting rid of my beloved characters? Fuck you, I hate you, how dare you.”