Only Murders in the Building Showrunner and co-creator John Hoffman drew upon his own investigative impulses while creating Hulu’s most watched comedy ever after experiencing a true crime mystery within his own life.
The lauded series, which stars the formidable comedic talents of Steve Martin and Martin Short alongside the global superstar and occasional chef Selena Gomez, follows an unlikely trio who share a love of true-crime podcasts, and join forces after their neighbor is murdered in their building to solve the crime.
Hoffman, who co-created the series with Steve Martin, uncovers the whodunnit murder mystery over ten surprisingly affecting episodes with an awareness that even the improvisational comedy wouldn’t overshadow the crime itself. The series is brilliantly surprising and appreciates that while true crime podcasts build communities among listeners, uncovering details of the victim can often lead to an unintentional catharsis for the investigating enthusiasts.
“In the year before (we filmed) I had my own personal experience like none other in my life,” Hoffman shares. “I found myself driven to understand what was going on, and all of these emotional feelings came up as I was exploring those questions about how it happened.”
Hoffman spoke with Awards Focus about balancing the central murder mystery with improvisational comedy, finding the chemistry between the central trio, and keeping Oliver silent during an episode that features no dialogue.
Awards Focus: When did you get a sense that the show was taking off with the viewers?
John Hoffman: It’s so crazy to me. I’ve been focussed on season two in many ways that I’ve not taken in the success we’ve had. With these people involved in the show, I felt a tremendous amount of responsibility. It’s been incredible beyond all of our expectations. We made this show when the world was in a very upset place, and it was challenging in every way. There were many times I felt like we’re never going to make this but everyone stepped up in such a big way.
AF: What were the initial conversations you and Steve had about the balancing act between the mystery of the murder and the myriad of characters within the building itself?
Hoffman: It was the most delightful time developing because we asked ourselves, can we do this mix? I was really interested in the idea of why people are interested in Podcasts. Then, subsequently, realizing as I was researching and talking to people who love them, that it can build a community, which makes me feel both touched by that idea and also laugh because I’m like, really? Community out of this? Like what the hell? I could see ways into it, at times dark comedy, and at times genuine stories about connection and unexpected connection.
AF: How did you go about ensuring the victim in the show wasn’t overshadowed by the comedy and trivializing the fact that someone was murdered and lost their life?
Hoffman: I was in this very unusual circumstance. Dan Fogelman and Jess Rosenthal were looking for someone to take on the reins of the show as a showrunner and head writer, and co-create with Steve. In the year before I had my own personal experience like none other in my life, which was a friend of mine had been found in a sort of murder-suicide position in Wisconsin. It was him and another man on the floor of his home. He was my dearest friend growing up and we had been out of contact, and I didn’t know how he could have ended up in this situation.
I found myself driven to understand what was going on, and all of these emotional feelings came up as I was sort of exploring those questions about how it happened. As the police were looking into it I was catching up to his life and understanding what was going on with him. It was a hard experience, but it was very clearly for me about the victim and understanding the victim. So that was very front and center for me as I was writing.
AF: The relationship between Charles and Oliver is quite moving. With Steve (Martin) and Martin (Short) working together for so many years, what were the conversations that went into their friendship in the show, and how it evolves over the 10 episodes?
Hoffman: It’s so nice to think about the ways in which that relationship is so like breathing, the way they are. They just adore each other, and yet the basis of their comedy is typically Marty jabbing at Steve. Both of them delight in that so much so the natural set-up, once Steve had painted these characters as an actor who has seen better days and a director who had seen better days, it became pretty clear.
Then I latched onto the idea that if they’re about to do their own true-crime podcast, then you have the director directing the actor, commenting, and making fun of doing all that. It just became clear fodder for the dynamic that they’d established over all these years, and they’re wonderful dramatic actors too.
AF: A highlight in the series was when Oliver and Charles follow Maple in Oliver’s car. Their conversation turns into a song, and they’re suddenly singing a duet that felt entirely organic for their characters. Was that moment improvised, or did they stay true to what was in the script?
Hoffman: That makes me so happy you’re saying that because I have lots of relatives on Long Island, and I felt terrible about dissing Long Island the way we did, but it proved a great set-up for what we wanted to do in the show, which was watch this spark happen between two friends that sort of forget themselves for a while. You realize they’re meant to be friends together for real. They sink into this thing and Marty did improvise that song, so it was heaven for us to watch them find their way through that.
AF: The three leads in the series have a fantastic, natural dynamic. How did Selena Gomez come to the series, and what can you remember about that first meeting together?
Hoffman: Dan Fogelman had said that we needed a third person in the mix that is unexpected and completely different then you would imagine. It was an interesting challenge and it wasn’t long before we landed on Selena. The first meeting she just immediately recognized Maple as something of a kindred spirit. She was a true crime person herself. She and her mom had actually gone to Crime Con, which I didn’t know was a thing. She had a great delivery and a real flare for a dry line.
We got on zoom with the three of them together for the first time, which was only a couple of weeks before we started shooting the first episode. It was very clear that we were all stunned. She could cut through Steve and Marty, and just bring them down to size with one simple line. The energy was a completely different thing they didn’t know what to do with. It was all just funny. They’re looking at her like, “I don’t know how to deal with her!” We all called each other after that first zoom table read, and Steve and Marty were like, “She came to play.”
AF: The episode focusing on Theo, played by James Caverly, has no audible dialogue. Can you talk a bit about developing the episode and how you managed to keep Oliver quiet?
Hoffman:(Laughs)We were talking about classic meeting modern in New York, and the style of the show. I was thrilled because Hulu and Dan jumped to board with these leaps we were pitching this episode from this perspective. They encouraged us to go there and it became character based. The only requirement was that it wasn’t just for a gimmick.
Theo is a deaf character and we wanted to make an episode from his perspective. We also wanted to create an episode where Mabel and Oliver are investigating, which required silence and sneaking around. Perhaps for Charles’ and Jan’s first date we only see the silent moments? We had a wonderful director Cherien Dabis who elevated the episode, and everybody jumped in with a feeling that this one could be special if we can really try and pull it off.