A Strong Partnership in Dysfunction: The Sixth Wall Probes the Minds Behind The Marriage Counselor
By Ariel Nishli
Jerry White and Raymond Creamer make a solid creative team. They’re on the same wavelength. They tend to finish each other’s sentences. Jerry will begin a joke, and Ray will come in with a punch line. One will reference the short-lived 1990 TV police drama musical, Cop Rock, and when I express ignorance, both balk in disbelief.
I know I’m not alone based on the number of online clips and its short-lived run of 11 episodes. Nevertheless, I’m grateful for the exposure. These two share a biting, refined sense of humor and similar worldview. They’re also quite talented filmmakers.
The yin and yang between Ray and Jerry is simple enough to decode. Ray shoots from the hip, rattling off acerbic reflections on the current social ills. Jerry, in turn, translates that energy into a cohesive dialogue, and into a story.
It’s the way they talk, and it’s the way they work. Ray is the writer and Jerry the director of the runaway hit Internet television series The Marriage Counselor, a show that plays with the consequences of placing trust in a terrible, self-obsessed couples therapist. For a pair that seems very much in sync, they’ve created a show that nails relationship dysfunction on several levels.
The show quickly sets an alluring tone by taking a wild turn towards the absurd. A creaky vaudeville act appears from under a table, fried chicken is eaten under the most inappropriate of circumstances, and marbles pour out of a girl’s mouth. The Marriage Counselor does for In Treatment what The Simpsons did for The Cosby Show, with a dash of abstract street theater thrown in.
Click to play the first episode of The Marriage Counselor, “Francesca and Brandon, Case #557”
Visit our player at the end of the story to
watch a 5-episode “mini-movie” of The Marriage Counselor
I tried to keep up with the guys over a Skype call taking place from one end of Los Angeles to the other, a city where thousands of other writers and directors will now have to push the envelope a little further to keep up themselves.
THE SIXTH WALL (T6W): What are you guys working on now?
JERRY WHITE: We’re in pre-production on the second season of The Marriage Counselor.
T6W: What can we expect from season two? Anything you guys can speak to yet?
RAY CREAMER: Without spoilers, hmm…
T6W: You can just give viewers a taste of what’s going to happen.
RAY: It’ll be way worse than the first season because there are more episodes, and I’m sick of writing it… The basics. More racism, bigotry, there’s a lot less of the brilliant bin. It’s the same formula. It’s more of the same but we’ve been deepening the counselor’s backstory and doing more and more in the way of —
In the background, a girl crawls out from behind a couch and runs off screen.
T6W: That was unexpected.
JERRY: That’s my girlfriend, and there’re two dogs. It’s a very small apartment.
T6W: What’s behind the absurdity of the show? Every episode in the first season gets progressively more surreal. Are you making a comment on our counseling culture? Were you just having fun?
JERRY: It was meticulously planned to go that absurd. We wrote it for like a little over a year.
T6W: Oh, wow.
JERRY: The jokes were down to a tee. We knew what would work. Every episode literally gets darker. And the cinematography, it was meticulously teed and mapped out that way. As far as a commentary, I don’t think it’s anything that deep.
RAY: Well, the thing is, when I wrote the first episode I had no intention of turning it into a web series. I didn’t actually intend to show it to anyone. I’ll occasionally write little throwaway pieces just as an exercise, and I’ll just follow my impulses as a writer.
And so the first episode came out, and I was watching a lot of 30 Rock at that time and they get really meta in the middle seasons of that show, so I wanted to write the first episode of it absurdly and a little bit meta. And then when Jerry read it (I don’t know why I let anyone read it to be honest) but when he read it, he wanted to turn it into a web series, and we just stuck with that theme and made it deeper – not necessarily broader, but we got more pop culture references in there and got more and more specific with the absurdity within the show’s universe.
T6W: Do you see the marriage counselor as someone who genuinely wants to help his patients underneath all his twisted, esoteric antics? Or is he really a malicious, sadistic guy at heart?
JERRY: We went into it thinking of the specific actor we ultimately cast, Matt St. James. I’ve known him for two years and when I read the episode I said, I got the guy. He took it to a whole different level I didn’t even think was possible. He just owned the role. So I think he really does want to help people, but he has zero people skills.
RAY: When we were shooting the first episode though, Matt St. James said to us that he really likes those few moments when they actually breakthrough and find something helpful even if it is grasping at hairs.
But as we were writing it, or rather as I was writing it, I wanted him to have one finger in the right direction while the rest of him just followed strange impulses. He does occasionally help out but I don’t think it’s out of any outward desire to help, so much as accidentally falling into helping people while he’s just trying to mess with them. Because he’s not… he has no training.
Matt St. James as the marriage counselor in The Marriage Counselor
JERRY: He’s not a doctor.
RAY: He’s not a licensed therapist at all.
T6W: How did he even get any clients to begin with?
JERRY: We’ve always asked ourselves that, but you’re the first person to actually ask that.
RAY: So now our goose is cooked.
JERRY: Thanks for ruining that.
T6W: Maybe a third season could be a prequel of him scouting clients.
RAY: Well, the worst thing is not only does he have clients, but that his clients actually come back. There are references sometimes that the couples make about ‘last time you said this or that or something.’ Why would anyone who made the mistake of coming here ever make that same mistake twice? So what we decided is that for one session he plays it straight and he’s just a really great therapist. And then as soon as he gets them hooked—
JERRY: He’s like, ‘Now I can finally do what I really wanted to do.’
T6W: He does sort of have that House M.D. thing about him where he’s such an asshole and makes everyone so uncomfortable. But because of that, he gets to the core of what’s going on with his patients.
RAY: Yeah. He’s not an idiot. He just… he just doesn’t do anything smart.
JERRY: It’s like in Episode 3. We talk about all of his kids and actually show his kids to the audience. He’s got a bunch of illegitimate sons. He’s been divorced multiple times.
RAY: He’s not an idiot. He just revels in idiocy. He just does “idiotic” really, really well.
T6W: I would argue that he helps his clients in the process. There’s always some sort of epiphany oat the end of each episode. Unless he just shoots his patient…
RAY: There is a Scrubs quote that I think about sometimes. I was never a huge fan of Scrubs, but in one episode they do a House spoof where the moral of the story is, the only way to get everyone in the hospital to work together is to have someone to unite against. In a way, I think the biggest way he helps clients is by giving them someone to mutually hate and to agree on with their disdain.
T6W: Right. It saves their marriage because they have a mutual enemy.
RAY: Yeah. And the second season especially. We’re so lazy we’ve gotten it down to a really specific formula.
T6W: Well, you need tight episodic structure in a web series.
JERRY: Now we know what worked and what didn’t work.
T6W: There was an article in the New York Times two weeks ago about how couples are preemptively going in for counseling two or three months into their relationship because they want to be responsible and be proactive about creating a good match. Do you think that that’s normal?
RAY: I think Twilight is to blame for that.
RAY: Well, yeah. Because any woman who isn’t with a terribly abusive boyfriend automatically thinks there’s something wrong with her relationship.
T6W: I think there’s actually a study on that too… So, Jerry, what made you want to take this off Ray’s shelf of personal passion projects and actually direct it?
JERRY: It ended up turning into a weird little passion project of my own. It had more to say than just being cynical about the world and everything. We’re big, I guess, like…
JERRY: We’re proper-sized people. Well, no, it’s just that we like racial inequity and stuff like that; expressing that and talking about it.
RAY: We don’t like racial inequity.
JERRY: We don’t like it. We like commenting on it.
RAY: We were always really careful about towing at the line of racial insensitivity. We always wanted to make sure that the counselor’s opinion was not the opinion of the show. That he was always the fool in the room. If he said something that was stereotypical or racist or sexist or whatever the case may be, we always made sure to flip it on him so that he was the one being laughed at. We definitely acknowledge a lot of stereotypes.
JERRY: Yeah. We did it in the very first episode with the chicken. And everybody was like, “Isn’t that racist?” And I’m like, “No, it’s not.” Because the first the couple says, “No, thank you.” Like, he instantly gets what was wrong with this. “I’m not eating the chicken…”
T6W: Are you bringing back any of the couples? Is it going to be similar to In Treatment, where we saw the patients’ progress with new episodes?
RAY CREAMER: In Treatment was a big influence for us. Going in, before I had written any of the second season, we had discussed the idea of taking it in a different direction, outside of the office. Because of where the couples were in the first season, we wanted to explore how their lives were affected after those momentous sessions. We decided to rein it in and just go with all new couples. If we end up doing a third season, we’ll probably incorporate more of the characters we’ve seen before.
T6W: I’m sure it was a lot less expensive to do that too.
JERRY: Oh, yeah. I mean the show ended up being very, very, very cheap.
A large, fluffy German Sheppard sidles up to Jerry’s lap, poking his head towards the camera.
RAY: That’s the dog.
T6W: Cute dog.
JERRY: This is Bronson.
T6W: Hi Bronson. So in Episode 3 we find out that one of the marriage counselor’s patients is, in fact, his child?
RAY: What, in “Lance and Katie?”
T6W: Yes, it’s in “Lance and Katie.” You touched on this earlier, but what is going on in the marriage counselor’s world outside of his office? How does he become this guy?
JERRY: Well, I know the answer to that but there’s so much that we’re keeping for Season 2.
RAY: We’re trying to refine the reveal in the next episodes.
T6W: Give me the broad strokes.
JERRY: I mean, without saying too much, he has an ulterior motive. He’s trying, he’s…
RAY: Yeah, I don’t want to say too much either.
JERRY: Because in Season 2 we’re bringing out so many little things that we’ve hinted on up until now. We wanted to hide so many things in there that if you kept re-watching, you’d notice the stuff in the background, on the table, the little props and little bits of the production design all have some significance. We wanted it to be a repeat watch show.
RAY: So we’ve already hinted on little things about his backstory and we’re going to hint on it way more on the second season.
JERRY: We’ll stop hinting, it’s more of just saying.
RAY: It’s more like saying in the second season.
JERRY: We’ve always tried something new in our filmmaking even if we failed at it. And so, that was part of the reason we went into The Marriage Counselor. When we were making it, we said, “Nobody’s going to watch the show. It’s dumb. We’re just having fun. We’re making jokes.” And then we were getting 50-60,000 hits a day on KoldCast, and we were like, “Holy Crap. Who is watching this?”
RAY: It was just really surreal. I mean, I’d call him and be like, “Dude, we had 50,000 hits today.” And he’s like, “Why?”
T6W: Well maybe it’s because there’s a 52% divorce rate in this country.
JERRY: Possibly. Yeah. I mean, yeah…
RAY: They shouldn’t be coming to us for relationship advice.
T6W: They should be watching Dr. Phil, right?
RAY: Dr. Phil. Whoa, don’t get me started.
T6W: Why, what do you have to say about Dr. Phil?
RAY: On the record, I hate him. Is he your father?
T6W: No. Why do you hate him?
RAY: Don’t all doctors hate him? Doesn’t he have a real bad reputation with doctors?
JERRY: He’s not even a licensed doctor in the State of California.
RAY: That may be a rumor. He might be a real doctor but he seems just kind of like a hillbilly to me. He gives out all that bumpkin wisdom. He’s not wrong, but it’s more for like, a stump-speech than it is for a television show.
JERRY: Dr. Phil’s going to hate us. Tyler Perry’s going to hate us.
T6W: So you don’t think he’s actually helping the divorce rate at all?
RAY: No, I don’t. I don’t think he helps anybody. I mean he gives away cool prizes and things.
JERRY: I’ve never watched more than a couple of episodes of the show. I’ve never seen him give away prizes.
T6W: Do you think the fact that so many people are getting divorced is a serious problem or just the way the social mores are progressing?
JERRY: I mean, yeah. It’s like having a dog. It’s like having a designer handbag. Everybody’s like, “Look, I’m married… Now I’m divorced.” When all these celebrities have 15-minute marriages and that’s what our country outside of LA looks up to, that’s a problem. They watch TV, they watch these reality shows, and that’s all they see.
RAY: The weird thing for me is that the marriage rate has gone down and the divorce rate has gone up. Fewer people are getting married. They choose to just live together for long amounts of time.
T6W: And from what I understand, the 52% divorce rate doesn’t account for second and third marriages. So individuals are counted as if they’ve always been married.
JERRY: Once they re-marry they get pulled out of the equation?
T6W: You get pulled out of the divorcee pile, yes.
JERRY: So that’s the drop down?
RAY: Then the percentage has to be higher than that.
JERRY: More than one out of two?
RAY: Here’s what I think. It’s not good that people are just doing stuff to do it. It might be because our generation doesn’t have anything that defines us in a solid way.
JERRY: We have the Internet.
RAY: That is really sad. I just now realized that fewer people are getting married and more people are getting divorced. That sucks… What’s the Fight Club quote? “We don’t have a great war in our generation, or a great depression, but we do. We have a great war of the spirit. We have a great revolution against the culture. The great depression is our lives. We have a spiritual depression.”
We have reality TV and everyone being awful to each other on the Internet. I don’t know what else you would expect. I guess we should be glad that anyone is getting married at all nowadays.
T6W: It’s a lack of values in our generation then?
RAY: I think it’s a lack of one specific value, but I don’t think it’s necessary to get married. I just think if you do get married, do it for a reason. I wouldn’t have a problem with people dating for five years and then breaking up. That never makes the headlines.
T6W: So the specific value that’s lacking is commitment.
JERRY: Oh yeah, we live in a town that definitely lacks commitment.
RAY: I think more marriages would last if people could marry their f*%king selves.
Click to watch the 5-episode “mini-movie” of The Marriage Counselor
Ariel Nishli is the Editor-in-Chief of The Sixth Wall. He’s got a big apple in his heart but moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. After graduating from Vanderbilt University in 2007, he worked in the motion picture literary department at ICM, then moved on to feature film development at Parkes MacDonald Productions. Ariel’s wardrobe has steadily devolved from designer suits to worn out slippers, as he now focuses on screenwriting and journalism when he’s not obsessing over this magazine.