The creators of Only Murders In The Building Steve Martin, John Fogelman, and John Hoffman set themselves a formidable task of satirizing true crime shows and riding on the associated podcast wave. Walking the delicate tightrope of not falling face first into the tropes of wannabe sleuths accidentally plunged into a murder mystery, the writers were mindful to not base their comedy off the characters’ ignorance, haplessness, or zany antics as they argue over the best way to solve a murder mystery while the murderer slips away.
Murder-solving trio Charles Haden-Savage (Steve Martin), Oliver Putnam (Martin Short), and Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez) are thrust into the limelight when they suspect the suicide of Tim Kona, a resident of the Arconia, was actually a murder. They play their comedy with deadpan earnestness to ensure we laugh with them rather than at them. Their exploits are naturally monitored via a true crime podcast called All Is Not OK In Oklahoma, narrated by the newscaster-sounding Cinda Canning (Tina Fey).
John Hoffman spoke with Creative Writing Magazine about getting their true crime TV show with a distinct New York edge on the screen. The writer described the show as being both one of the hardest and one of the easiest things he’s had to write.
“I would call Only Murders In The Building a mystery comedy,” mused Hoffman. “It starts with a crime and angles into a true crime mystery and all the tropes that come with those,” he continued. Comedic legends Steve Martin and Marin Short had fun with those tropes and creating their characters. (Selena Gomez was not generally known for comedy, until this show).
The TV show is underscored by its comedic style – a blend of biting satire and dark comedy. “It’s a comedy told through a humanist lens,” added Hoffman. “There is a connective tissue in these types of stories. I was driven to ask what makes people interested in solving these crimes and how wrapped up they can get in that.” This also prompted Hoffman to ask what drives the characters to get to the truth and reach a final answer to the puzzle.
What are the puzzles in their own lives that are solved by solving the crimes in these stories?
The audience’s appetite for true crime stories shows no signs of abating. “It all starts from commodifying these crimes through podcasts,” said Hoffman. The interest arises from looking at these crimes from a “true story” perspective. This culminates to a line of dialogue from Charles, “Every true crime story is actually true for someone,” as if it’s a major revelation. This truth can become dissociated from the story surrounding it through the podcast. This disconnect drives the comedy.
True crime podcasts were an integral part of Only Murders In The Building. “Podcasts tell the story from a variety of angles to support the characters and their view of the world,” said the writer. There are tangential players in most crimes whose involvement in a crime varies as the story unfolds.
Steve Martin made one notable request to the conclusion of the series in that the case had to be solved at the end. “We needed a satisfying ending with no ambiguity.”
Hoffman confessed he wasn’t a huge true crime podcast fan prior to Only Murders In The Building. However, he did listen to the Serial podcast hosted by Sarah Koenig as a structural template. Other influential podcasts he listened to were Crime Junkies and My Favorite Murder. These podcasts were about true crime fans, or armchair detectives, who examined the crime from outside.
True crime podcasts differ from true crime television shows in their storytelling. One is an audio-visual storytelling experience and the other is an aural one. “I’m fascinated to hear the wheels of a car coming through a muddy driveway… the sounds of the place… the birds… the horses in a podcast. The aural experience of a podcast is so evocative.” Hoffman specifically ties this experience back to episode 7 in which a deaf man follows the trio to spy on them – there is no dialogue at the start of the episode, yet there is still an aural experience. “These scenes capture the texture and the mystery from the podcast world. You can create the pictures in your head from that.”
These imaginative choices allow the audience to get into the head of a character through sensory deprivation. “There’s a sense of new life opening up for this trio. There’s Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig in the mind of Charles Haden-Savage.” This approach contrasts against the way cases are solved in police procedurals like Law and Order and CSI.
Crime shows are typically structured around a detective and an assistant solving the case. Only Murders In The Building is unique in that it centers on a trio. “Martin Short and Steve Martin are a classic duo. We wanted to add Selena Gomez to the mix to combine the classic with the modern.” Short and Martin are vintage comedians with well-established jokes, patterns, and rhythms. Hoffman brought in a surprise character to challenge them in order to complete the trio. Selena Gomez disrupted them as much as possible. “She [Mabel] has a very shrewd, laser-focused, dry humor which contrasted with Charles and Oliver’s.”
Team Charles, Oliver and Mabel’s love of solving the murder serves a purpose in their journeys. Charles is a washed up actor who loves storytelling. “There’s so much he’s avoiding looking at in his own life, that he prefers to get lost in someone else’s story.” At some point he has to confront his own life through this.
Mabel is at the Arconia to renovate her aunt’s apartment. “She grew up with the Hardy Boys and had mystery thrust upon her from an early age.” Her yearning for the truth of the murder is linked to her sense of belonging and her place in the world.
Oliver is a theater director and a storyteller who relishes the opportunity to rise from his ashes via a podcast and hopefully resurrect his career.
“There were different access points for the main characters to enter the murder. Each had a different motivation to solve the mystery,” said Hoffman. “For Mabel it’s more personal, more intellectual for Charles, and more desperate for Oliver.”
Mabel is the most introspective, taciturn member of the trio while Charles and Oliver are over the top. She likes to travel in packs and comfortable with other viewpoints. She often hides clues from Charles and Oliver for as long as possible in order to protect them from acting impulsively and putting them all in danger.
Oliver is an open book who isn’t afraid to ask questions and the most over the top. Charles is independent and doesn’t like to be told what to do.
The three crimefighters form a truly ensemble cast each with their own stories which could potentially spin off into their own TV shows. The A-stories unwind in rotation across the episodes between the characters to ensure each gets their moment in the sun.
Collectively, the murder provides an opportunity for Charles, Oliver and Mabel to explore their friendship for the first time.
John Hoffman didn’t consider the TV writers’ room for Only Murders In The Building to be a typical one. It wasn’t so much about creating gags or making a scene funnier necessarily. “We had a responsibility to true crime fans to write a mystery with twists and turns. The whole season was plotted before individual episodes were written.” After that, the three main character arcs were meticulously outlined.
Hoffman has a varied body of work to his credit including Grace and Frankie and Looking. However, he describes Only Murders In The Building as the show that most closely defines the range of his writing. “It holds the most of the work that I’ve done in that it holds many tones. The tone of New York means you can walk ten blocks and see something hysterically funny or tragically sad.” You can be intrigued or frightened all at once. Only Murders In The Building captured those shifting feelings.