How a real-life murder-mystery helped shape ‘Only Murders’

In 2019, I got damn lucky when, after just my second drive through, I found a nifty little spot on Larchmont Boulevard during the prime hours of the weekday. Before I got out of the car, I checked my e-mails on my cell phone – and my luck suddenly multiplied many times over.

“Hi! Would you be interested in speaking to Dan Fogelman and I about a series idea Steve Martin has about three strangers who investigate a murder at their New York apartment building? Steve plans to star with Martin Short. We need someone who runs the shows and co-creates with Steve.”

I kept the car going and immediately typed back to Jess Rosenthal, “Um… yes, hello.”

I kept typing—notes to myself now—and gimmicking about this Steve Martin idea that now makes me think of true crime podcasting and my love of pre-war New York City apartment buildings and Ruth Gordon in Rosemary’s Baby let, and – honk!! – a very New York moment on Larchmont – apparently my foot was still on the brake and a line of cars were parked behind the guy waiting for me to pull out where I had stopped 10 minutes ago.

A man is sitting.

John Hoffman.

(Philipp Cheung / For the Time)

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity – according to a Roman philosopher. At this point, my main preparation was several decades of writing, executive producing, writing and directing several seasons of Grace and Frankie. However, this new opportunity wasn’t just the other half of this Roman equation. This one came with a creative team of Steve, Dan and Jess – brought together with a team from 20th TV and Hulu through to Dana Walden – all of whom fully embraced and enhanced the big swings we wanted to bring in. Steve’s idea, the one could make a show that goes beyond what many would expect. Now let’s talk about happiness.

On the road to success, there were key moments that were far less predictable. Ones that felt magical. Selena Gomez arrives with Steve and Marty for a perfect classic meets modern comedy triangle. A team of writers masterfully highlight the tonal shifts in “only in New York” human comedy in our murder-mystery mash-up. A cast of dreamless New York actors who chose to come out of their homes when few of us did, to help create something that might bring the world a little joy and understanding, with stories , which are suddenly built upon all – all-too-relevant themes of “connecting” out of loneliness and isolation.

Personally, the biggest challenges for me have been the various fears that come over you and can keep you from getting the job done properly. The main ones were 1) How the heck am I going to be funny enough to do justice to this solid comedy gold cast that’s coming together here? and 2) how the hell am I supposed to be smart enough to keep a segment of our audience who loves twisted crime fiction on their toes through 10 episodes?

The answer to both questions, it turned out, was…with a lot of help- and, most surprisingly not afraid to include one of the most deeply personal experiences of my life. One that didn’t feel comedy-ready at all.

Just before I pulled into that Larchmont parking lot, I had been deeply invested in a year-long, much-needed search to understand the truth behind the death of my childhood best friend that occurred in Wisconsin in August 2018. Mark was the brother I never had growing up. But we were way too disconnected when word reached me that he had been found with another person in his home in what appeared to be a murder-suicide. The injuries made it appear that Mark was the shooter. Heartbreak aside, I just couldn’t imagine this scenario.

I couldn’t imagine Mark shooting everyone, let alone shooting himself and separating from his two children. How did he end up here? I traveled to Wisconsin and there I met his beautiful family for the first time and slowly began to piece together a story I wish I had known much sooner. I met with a local reporter and visited the home where Mark died and spoke to his neighbors. After a year, the final police report was released and despite what the original injuries might suggest, it was confirmed that Mark had been murdered – and the other person had killed himself. There was no victory here, but it was a comfort to know the gut feeling from the bond my boyfriend and I made when we were young, and it validated my understanding of what I couldn’t believe he was capable of.

A man is sitting in his house

John Hoffman.

(Philipp Cheung / For the Time)

Again, not funny – like most true crimes – with real tragedy at its core. However, through my sorrow and the need to understand since was laughed a lot too. Between me and Mark’s wife and children. Necessary laughter. The kind I love the most, honestly – the kind when you’re not target to laugh—the kind I had when I was a kid with Mark—at church, or when someone falls ridiculously, the laugh that might be impossible to avoid at a funeral.

By overcoming my fears of sharing this groundbreaking experience in my writing and by not neglecting the true human comedy that can connect people, even in the midst of tragedy – and with the great encouragement of Dan Fogelman to go there – I have found the voice of this show. How a real-life murder-mystery helped shape ‘Only Murders’

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