Hulu has said publicly that “Only Murders in the Building” is one of its most popular shows. But, like most streaming services, it doesn’t release numbers to quantify that success. John Hoffman, the showrunner and co-creator of the comedy mystery can look at Nielsen reports or IMDB votes but admits he’s often in a bubble when it comes to the outside perception of the program. Then again, when Hoffman learned that none other than Steven Spielberg is a hardcore fan it certainly made him take notice.
READ MORE: “Only Murders In The Building” Season 2 Review: A strong cast, sharp writing continue to hold this murder mystery together
“The big one for me was Spielberg who had reached out in the first season and this is partly a little bit of a bubble thing too, because I was like, ‘O.K., it’s Marty. And Marty’s known him forever and Steve’s known him as a friend’ and all that,” Hoffman says. “But it was the fervent quality to the reach-outs that caught me off guard because he would send an email about how cinematic the show was. And I was like, I want to frame that and put that on my wall. And then he would send videos to Marty subsequently of the people he invited over to have screening parties of the show and family members watching the show. He would take videos of the screen. He was showing the family in the backyard in his little screening room. It was a thing for him until he came and visited the set while we were shooting season two and I got to have a nice talk with him. So that felt scale-wise, a step up. So, I felt very thrilled by that. But again, as far as the scope of it, we’ve been very isolated and very, I’ve been very head down making this television show now for two seasons and now we’re into the third.”
“Murders” centers on three residents of a massive Manhattan apartment building (Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez) who band together to create a podcast about the, you guessed it, untimely demise of one of their neighbors. The show is so popular it was renewed for season three even before it landed a massive 14 Emmy nominations including Comedy Series, Lead Actor in a Comedy Series (both Martin and Short) as well as Writing and Directing nods, among others.
Over the course of our interview, Hoffman discusses how, to his surprise, Dana Walden, the Chairman of Disney General Entertainment Content (all Disney’s television efforts), was the first to text him congratulations on his Emmy nods, how he’s about to pitch season three arcs to the show’s stars, how they landed the legendary Shirley Maclaine for a pivotal role in season two and much, much more.
The Playlist: Congratulations on all of the Emmy nominations.
John Hoffman: Oh my God. Thank you so much. That’s the first time for me. Of walking through that morning.
Were you stressed beforehand?
Well, I tried not to be, I was very zen. I was doing push-ups and sit-ups on my bedroom floor. I knew it was between 8:30 and 9:00 AM. And so I was like, ‘O.K., well, I’m going to put my phone on my bed and try to ignore when I’m not hearing a buzz buzz between 8:30 and 9:00.’ And it wasn’t buzzing for a long time, Gregory. And I was like, “Okay, it’s going to be one of those mornings.” We were a first season [show]. I’m starting to [think] that while I’m doing sit-ups. And then it buzzed and it was a little more cryptic than I would’ve liked. But it was, “This was an amazing morning, what an amazing result.” And it was Dana Walden. So, I was like, “O.K., that seems good. I don’t know what any of it means.” And then it was a dance of trying to source out and suss out what had happened. And then someone, I think somebody else called and said 17. And I was like, “No, no, no, no.” So, it was very sweet. And it just thrilled me. And of course, there’s always the moments of, “Oh no,” and, “Oh my God, that’s incredible.” It’s never a straight down the line unless some people have that. Maybe they do.
I mean, so many people work on a show. You can’t get every possible nomination. That never happens.
No. But people really do want that once these things happen.
Did the series or the writing nomination mean more to you personally?
Oh, it’s a very intuitive and appreciated question. Yeah. I have to admit that I would’ve been very sad to not get the series nomination because it feels like that one holds everyone under its lovely tent and all in on that one. And some part of me thought I think that one might happen. I felt a little more assured of it. And I think the beginning of all of this with myself and Steve and the honor of writing with him and working with him to kick off this entire experience together, was particularly gratifying. That was the most, “Oh thank goodness. That’s thrilling news.” I feel so proud about what we did and about what he did. And he’s very, it’s a weird word to use, but demure about his contribution from the beginning on the script and stuff like that. And he was the greatest writing partner. I just loved it. And the insight and the way in which he gently nudged one direction or another. These are the delicate things. I don’t know if you’ve co-written before, but it can be a little bit of a tricky proposition, especially when you don’t know each other like we didn’t before this experience. So, anyway, long story short, that one to write with a legend and to write with someone who cared about it as he did and to feel it that little pat on the back that way was huge for me.
And obviously, everyone votes for series, but when it comes to the writing nomination, this is your peers. That has to mean something more because only writers get to nominate those honors.
I think, when we’re working on something, you have your little bubble and you’re talking to people who want to tell you they like your show and they want to tell you their aunt likes the show. But you don’t really have a sense of how. Are we doing O.K. really? Or am I just hearing about it? And so that morning, and I think I’ve said this to other people too, I just realized what an awards whore it turns out I am. Because it really made a huge difference. I was like, “Wow.” I felt it for the first time in a way that I hadn’t predicted. And that part of it felt like, “Oh my God,” I felt very Sally Field. I felt very liked in a way that was essential.
You said you were unaware whether the show was that big. Has there been anything though, besides an aunt, a cousin,saying they’re big fans of the show that made you go, “Oh, wow. Maybe this is bigger than I thought it was?”
Oh yeah. I mean, there have been those moments where it’s like, “What?” O.K., the big one for me was Spielberg had reached out in the first season and this is partly a little bit of a bubble thing too, because I was like, “O.K., it’s Marty. And Marty’s known him forever and Steve’s known him as a friend” and all that. But it was the fervent quality to the reach-outs that caught me off guard because he would send an email about how cinematic the show was. And I was like, I want to frame that and put that on my wall. And then he would send videos to Marty subsequently of the people he invited over to have screening parties of the show and family members watching the show. He would take videos of the screen. He was showing the family in the backyard in his little screening room. It was a thing for him until he came and visited the set while we were shooting season two and I got to have a nice talk with him. So that felt scale-wise, a step up. So, I felt very thrilled by that. But again, as far as the scope of it, we’ve been very isolated and very, I’ve been very head down making this television show now for two seasons and now we’re into the third.
I won’t say who it was, but on Twitter, randomly a couple of days ago, a former journalists tweeted out something along the lines of, “I love ‘Only Murders in the Building’ but who’s the show for?” And I just responded, “Everyone.” Because what I have noticed is that the fans of the show tend to be all ages. Have gotten any feedback that would at least support my theory?
First of all, I love that you said that because it’s right. And in some way what’s more important to me is that we’re in the writer’s room now and every time I’ve been in the writer’s room, those questions come up and our tonal shifts for the show. I’m not thinking about demographics. I’m thinking about, obviously, we’re intergenerational in certain ways. And so there’s a freedom that I feel, O.K., let’s land a joke that no one over 50 will understand and let’s land a joke that no one under 50 will understand. And the balancing back and forth of that. So it’s a comfortable place for me to say, “O.K., tell me it, makes me laugh, now explain to me that joke.” A thing like that. And then we’re putting it in the show. I can’t believe the embrace that’s occurred, but I also think it was necessary. And there are a couple of ways in which I would theorize about why the show feels necessary in this time because it’s a show about three lonely people who are in isolation. And it came out during this incredible last few years where we were all a little terrified that someone down the hall might be able to kill us. So, that thought is underneath everything. And on the other side of it is this big approach to opening up everyone from 10 to 75. And our cast seemed to point that way. So, I was excited about that. I did keep hearing, “I watch it with my daughter and my granddaughter “and that was really cool. And we’re all like, “They want to watch with me. They wait to watch with me.” That’s the other part of it that feels so exciting is that what happens in the show that doesn’t make sense when you look at Selena Gomez with these two gentlemen that we all know is happening at home in some way. And I feel like that’s [something] I have heard a lot of. Like the sons of my friends in Australia, they’re all very cool. They’re all very into sports and outside activities. And all of them send me texts after every episode, along with their mother.
But part of that is because the show is fantastically entertaining and very funny, but the mystery is so good. And I’m wondering in the first season specifically, how difficult was it to land the finale but also leaving the door open to what’s going on in season two? And I’m assuming you must have plotted out potential ideas for three and four. You’re leaving hints and Easter eggs all over the place, correct? Maybe I’m wrong.
No, you’re not wrong. And you’ll see, I think you’re getting, it might be today, tomorrow, or Monday, the last two of season two.
I think they’re going out imminently and I’m very excited about them because this is a big season with big swings and lots going on and there’s been some understandable criticism I’ve been reading here and there about too much and how are they going to pull these threads together? And that part of it, I feel really good about within these last two episodes, both emotionally and case-wise. But that dance of the mystery, the one prerequisite Steve Martin said when we first started this was, “Yeah, you have to finish every season and be very satisfying and finish that case we’re following.” So, we knew that. I found great comfort in that. I started as a screenwriter for many years making delightful, unproduced screenplays that never saw the light of day. But I learned the longer stretch storytelling before I learned television storytelling. So, I can see a three-act structure across 10 episodes in this world that I’m in now. I feel comfortable in that. But the mystery itself, I quickly realized we had to start at the end and twist our way there. And that helped me have a target and know and hide everything up until that point. And as you say, lay the Easter eggs. But yeah, I think I have done that. Certainly, as we deal with season three, there’s a familiarity with the milieu. You’ll see where we’re going at the end of season two and it’s exciting. But the milieu is interesting. And I don’t know, now the familiarity with crafting these mysteries that feels, in the room, you feel a shorthand suddenly where there wasn’t one in season one, for sure. But we learned quickly, I think.
In season two we discover that Nathan Lane’s character has an interesting connection to Martin Short’s character that we probably wouldn’t have expected after season one. Was that something that came out of the writer’s room working on season two?
That did come out of the room in season two, but I think it came out of the room in season two because of elements of things that were in season one. When we open up a new season, it is very much like what, I think there’s the line that Mabel has at the end of season one about loose ends. There are the loose ends and there’s also the information that’s actually in the show. So we write a lot, and then we shoot a lot, and then we edit them down. And what actually is in those 10 episodes is a question we ask ourselves and we watch all 10 at the beginning of our room for each season. And so then we make our lists and we say, “We’ve learned this and this and this about this character. Is there anything in this for something that we could twist, we could subvert, or we could extrapolate on?” And I think that was one of the things around that I thought, “O.K., the balance of power between Teddy and Oliver has shifted so dramatically by the end of season one.” And their history is such that it’s one of the few touchstones and we knew there was a relationship between Will and Oliver we wanted to talk about because one of season’s major themes [revolves around] fathers. And so all of that led pretty directly to the delightful speech that Teddy makes in an elevator in episode, is it four? It’s four of season two about repercussions from what happened in season one. And the f-bombs that Nathan Lane so brilliantly delivered.
How did you land Shirley MacLaine?
Oh, that’s the best, Gregory. That’s my favorite question. I just had brunch with her on Sunday. I mean, I have been friends with her for I think about eight or nine years now. And she is very dear to me and I can’t believe it, Shirley MacLaine. But this all began with a piece of development that I had been working on a memoir by George Hodgman called “Bettyville,” which was about himself and his mother. And I love this memoir, love George, and went to Shirley to play George’s mother in a film version. And we hit it off. And then we just started the conversation and I’d go out and have lunch with her. And then I was in Santa Fe hanging out at her house and staying over for the weekend and all that stuff. We just hit it off and she’s a crack-up. She’s very intriguing and she’s all the things you want her to be. And I think in some ways, whereas I would be normally intimidated, there’s a warmth, and I think a little bit of a mellowing at her age. She’s a bit softer in certain ways. But wow, that was the moment for me was calling her up 87-years-old in Santa Fe in the middle of a pandemic to say, “Do you want to come play in New York with Steve Martin and Martin Short and Selena Gomez?” And having her say, “Oh my God, absolutely. Get me out of here.” And loved her for it.
She hasn’t done a lot of acting. Is it because people aren’t asking, do you think?
Yeah. I think it’s a balancing act. I think she’s almost outsized in ways that she’s who she is. And it feels intimidating to go there to ask her. First, if you have a part for someone of an age. Now it’s hard to find the parts for someone of an age to carry the film. So, do you want her to be the star or does she fit into an ensemble and not have it be about that? It’s crazy to me, of course, because she’s an actress and she melded perfectly in with this group, but also undeniably Shirley MacLaine has walked on stage. So, that part, I knew that we wanted to do the balance. She had to fit into our narrative, but I knew I had to give her some good stuff. And the cocotinis? Cocotini is what we have every Sunday at our brunch. So that, at the brunch she said, “I don’t think this character is done.” And she clearly wants a spin-off. “And it was that cheese bit. We need more of those bits where I can really find those moments.” I give her full credit for that whole cheese bit. It was written, but what she did with it was her own.
The first season ends, that mystery’s solved, but then there’s a cliffhanger. But there’s a fan base for the show. People tweet about it, they go on Reddit or whatever, all sorts of places to talk about it. Did you pay attention at all to what the fans thought had happened or what was going to happen? Or did you do everything you could to just ignore any potential fan theories?
That’s a great question.It’s a mix for me. The answer to that because I definitely was aware, definitely read here and there. I heard from other writers who read all the time. So, I would peek at message boards and the Reddit boards particularly were fascinating at times. And I thought, “O.K., I could go down this whole rabbit hole.” Because truthfully there was theorizing going on there that was so intense and smart and obtuse sometimes and Byzantine. I was like, “Wow, that is way more down the rabbit hole than we went.” But then they were close on some things and then they were right on some other things. We definitely felt the presence of that audience as we were crafting season two and checking ourselves. You’re constantly checking yourselves. “Are we giving this away? Is this too much of a lead? Is this too much of a red herring that feels, eh, and you get annoyed at the person who put that in the show?? I think those voices of trust that you have to build with an audience are very present. However, I feel so excited to be in this room with this brilliant group of people. And I feel like up until the very end, there were things in the finale episode of season two that are coming up that I ran in on set and said, “O.K., we need to do one more take. You need to say these two things because it’s a loose end that I want to have. It’s the moment to shoot it. So if we need it, let’s have this moment because this puts a button on this thread.” And it could have been forgotten in the script or it got cut somehow or various things like that. This job is exhausting, Gregory.
When you do this, are the actors looking at you like “What?” Or do they get it?
They first go, “What?” And then I say, “Just trust me. And just do it one more time.” It’s like, “O.K. say this, say that, say that.” And they’re like “What? O.K.” And they trust it now because they know where I’m coming from when I’m like, “O.K., I don’t know that we’ll use it, but we might need it.”
Steve, Martin, and Selena know the entire arc of the season before they shoot it?
I share it with all three and I’m getting ready to do it in about three weeks for Hulu. I share the whole arc of the season on a big pitch. It’s very goofy actually. We put visuals and put photos up on a big Zoom and it takes about 40 minutes to go through and I’m doing a big song and dance number walking everyone through episodes one through 10 of the season. But before that, I’m sharing the big character arcs and the big swing stuff that happens to each character. Those things are vetted with Steve, Selena, and Marty first, individually alone. Before I’m having that big pitch, I want them to hear where we’re thinking and where we’re going with their characters and get their input. And so that’s all separate talks of here is act one, act two, and act three for Charles, Oliver, and Mabel throughout the season. And these are the additional stuff. This is what we’re thinking. And Marty and Selena both have very specific things that are more about what the character would or wouldn’t do or like. I love hearing that. Steve is very intuitive about the case. “I don’t buy that,” or, “What if we did this?” If there’s physical comedy stuff coming up or there’s this or that, how to play off of it. And a lot of times, it’s I like knowing them like I do and pulling from what I know of them to know, “Oh, we’re going to do the thing that you hate but we’re going to do it with you hating it as a character because I know you hate it. So that kind of a thing.” Or just knowing stuff about their own lives that point to aspects that I think will move them or they’ll connect to. And most of the time I’m right. Sometimes they’ll tell me it’s, “I don’t know that I’m comfortable there.” And I love that. I love hearing that.
“Only Murders in the Building” Seasons 1 and 2 are available on Hulu.
Emmys 2022John HoffmanOnly Murders in the Building