Normally, our fearless leader Chris Hardwick keeps me chained to my laptop like pop culture-obsessed veal, but a few months ago he let me out of my Pulp Fiction-esque gimpquarters in order to pay a visit (and bid a fond farewell to Zed) to the set of Burning Love, the Bachelor/Bachelorette-parodying web series from Yahoo! Screen and Paramount’s Insurge Pictures. Directed by Ken Marino and written by his wife Erica Oyama (Children’s Hospital), Burning Love‘s first season filled the Party Down-shaped hole in my heart, so naturally I leaped at the chance to go behind the scenes of season 2 & 3.
The first season followed Marino as “Mark Orlando,” a dumb-as-rocks firefighter with even less self-awareness than Ron Donald, as he offered his hose to a bevy of eligible bachelorettes (mostly dental hygienists) including June Diane Raphael, Jennifer Aniston, Malin Ackerman, Abigail Spencer, and Natasha Leggero, just to name a few. Season two puts once-spurned contestant Julie Gristlewhite (June Diane Raphael) in the driver’s seat as she searches for the perfect guy to give her box to. (No, not that kind of box – it’s what they call the trophy. Now go put Safe Search back on and think about what you did.) With a cadre of comedic talents like Michael Cera, Rob Huebel, Adam Scott, Martin Starr, Nick Kroll, and our own Kumail Nanjiani vying for Julie’s affections, you can bet your bottom dollar that the Burning Love crew doesn’t know the meaning of the term “sophomore slump.”
Cars lined the seemingly interminable driveway leading up to the mansion overlooking the Calabasas countryside. I’d already taken several wrong turns on my way to the set; Apple Maps directed me to a public works department in a nearby town, so I was beginning to give up hope. Were it not for the few people who were clearly carting camera equipment around, I would have assumed that I’d stumbled upon some celebrity’s house party (or at the very least a tasteful porn shoot). Fortunately, this was the place and the mansion looks like it was ripped straight from prime time ABC. A massive pool, superfluous columns, enough marble to start a quarry – this is the kind of house that was built for reality television whether the architects realized it or not.
Soon, I found myself watching the cast and crew in action (and biting the inside of my mouth so as not to ruin a take by laughing) as host Bill Tundle (Michael Ian Black) attempting to sort through piles of shredded paper while he explained that he was reassembling shredded portraits of the contestants to find out whose portrait was shredded the most and thereby eliminated from the competition. An uncomfortable silence filled the room for a few beats before one of the women leaned over and offered that going upstairs to count how many portraits of each contestant hadn’t been shredded might be more efficient. It was a perfect moment as light dawned over Marblehead for the hapless host, and it’s a perfect example of the kind of reality show minutiae that Burning Love simultaneously skewers and celebrates. From the needlessly confusing rules, the preposterous theme dates and the plucked-from-Guess Who contestants, Burning Love hits the nail on its vapid, empty head.
Although season 2 debuts today, I arrived on the tail end of their season 3 shoot, which will be done Bachelor Pad-style, the conclusion of an exhausting shooting schedule. Without spoiling anything, it’s safe to say that favorites from the first two seasons – including Julie (June Diane Raphael), Mark Orlando (Ken Marino), surprise lesbian Carly (our own Janet Varney), and more – return to find love in what is clearly the worst place possible to look. Oh, and they’re all competing for a grand prize of $900, a hilariously low figure which they enthusiastically repeat at every opportunity. Since it was near the end of their shooting day, I didn’t have much opportunity to speak with the assembled cast, but Rob Huebel made a point to tell me that all of the contestants were “awful people” and he was playing a “prince/man-baby,” so there’s that to look forward to. And with 14 episodes per season, you’ll be able to spend plenty of time on this Island of Misfit Toys.
As a big fan of shows like Party Down, Parks & Recreation, and Burning Love‘s first season, all of which are stacked with talented improvisors, I always wondered just how much improvisation happens on set versus how rigorously they stick to the script. Script supervisor Will Alovis revealed that they primarily stick to series creator/writer Erica Oyama’s scripts and do several takes until they nail what they need, but that the constant improvisation from “fun runs” keeps him plenty busy. Watching over his shoulder, the man takes so many notes that you half expect him to have a six-pack on his wrist.
And for good reason – Marino snaps in and out of character to provide direction, his keen ears picking up on what improvised bits worked and didn’t work in the previous take. Thanks to the strength of Oyama’s scripts and the collected comedic talent, it’s a very collaborative process that has a palpable rhythm and flow. Eventually, the lines between what was originally on the page and what is on the screen blur as they incorporate themselves into one another to create the living, breathing world of Burning Love.
Marino, in particular, deserves commendation for his seemingly preternatural command of the scene, especially those that he’s in. He and Oyama have such a clear vision of what they want that it allows him to shift seamlessly between the hapless Mark Orlando and laser-focused director seemingly on a dime. For those wondering about the difficulty of directing oneself, Marino probably isn’t the man to ask; he makes it seem easy in the same way those Mouse Trap commercials convinced you that you could set up and play the game in less than 48 hours (seriously, go fuck yourself, guy at Milton Bradley who was into Rube Goldberg machines in the early ’90s). Even at the end of a 14-hour shooting day, he was still giving hyper-specific notes and kept the momentum going – an impressive sight for any comedy fan.
I don’t know how you’ll be spending your Valentine’s Day (eating an Edible Arrangement while crying in the dark, anyone?), but I can guarantee that watching Burning Love‘s season 2 premiere will be the best 15-ish minutes of your day. Jonesing for more in-depth coverage? Look for my interviews with Ken Marino, June Diane Raphael, Michael Ian Black and more of the eligible bachelors on the Nerdist Channel, posting at 8 am Pacific time Thursday. Have a happy Valentine’s Day and, from the bottom of my heart, I hope you find the dental hygienist of your dreams too.