Selena Gomez, Steve Martin and Martin Short Are Bridging the Generation Gap in ‘Only Murders in the Building’

“I’m old!” moans Selena Gomez, on the verge of laughter. “I’m going to be 29 tomorrow!” Gomez is spending the day before her birthday needling her castmates Steve Martin and Martin Short on Zoom. Before launching into a conversation about their generation-gap comedy “Only Murders in the Building,” she is establishing just how grand the gap is. “Do you remember when you were 29, Steve?” Short asks.

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“Another lifetime,” Martin muses in a tone that suggests a familiar rhythm has just clicked on.

“Wondering if the Jerrys were going to win the war,” Short continues, invoking the nickname used for Germans in both World Wars.

It’s a moment of levity for three stars who may be separated by decades but share a readiness to riff. Gomez, who’s been acting since childhood, calls herself a “sponge” around her co-stars, who’ve been cutting up since the 1970s. “I’ll just ask them random questions. It means so much to me, and allows me to want to be as good as them,” she says.

Even Zooming in from different locations, the three stars have a spiky and ebullient chemistry, and Disney-operated streamer Hulu is leaning into their unlikely rapport. On “Only Murders in the Building,” which launches Aug. 31 and is the first show produced by “This Is Us” mega-producer Dan Fogelman under his deal with Disney’s 20th Television, the actors play a trio of curmudgeonly New Yorkers investigating a crime that took place in their apartment complex. There are narrative twists aplenty — but what may hook viewers first are two generations of actors. Martin, in his first-ever series regular role, plays a legend-in-his-mind actor, while Short, a familiar presence on recent TV shows including “The Morning Show” and sketch series “Maya & Marty,” takes on the role of a theatrical director whose career has stalled after a flop. Both stars, collaborators in projects like “Father of the Bride” and their ongoing live comedy tour, remain adept at deflating their characters’ pretensions. And Gomez, who’s been growing her audience since her days on the Disney Channel’s “Wizards of Waverly Place,” is stepping out in a big way, applying megastar hauteur to a character who conceals her vulnerability, and her challenging personal history, behind a tough and unknowable exterior.

The combination provides a few ways in for potential viewers. “Certainly, the show is a huge opportunity, given the breadth of talent,” says Craig Erwich, Hulu’s chief of originals. “You have comedy icons Steve Martin and Martin Short, and then you have truly one of the biggest social media presences in Selena Gomez. The audience for this thing is very wide.”

Shows like “Only Murders” represent a bet on the future for Disney-controlled Hulu, a streamer with an evolving identity due to past ownership shifts. More adult-skewing than corporate sibling Disney Plus — Hulu’s signature show may for many viewers still be the Emmy-winning “The Handmaid’s Tale” — it has had success with original series but could soon lose licensed content from networks outside its corporate family as those networks funnel shows to their own proprietary services.

Erwich professes to be unruffled. “There’s going to be change in the future,” he says. “But I think we’re really well-positioned to navigate it. We have a massive content machine that will help us not just weather the storm but continue to be industry leaders that serve our viewers.”

“Only Murders” purposefully lacks some of the flash of other Hulu offerings, like the David E. Kelley-Nicole Kidman reunion “Nine Perfect Strangers,” a high-wattage soap. “I have no doubt that this will be a four-quadrant show,” says 20th Television head Karey Burke. “I believe the Hulu brand is very sophisticated, very classy, high-quality and really broad, and this checks all the boxes.” The show’s pleasure comes from the delicate needling of its central figures’ foibles, and from their methodical progress in their mystery and their lives. “I’ve played the show for people from my little sister to my grandparents, and they laugh when they need to laugh. They’re upset and confused when they need to be,” Gomez says. “It’s something that leaves you feeling intrigued, but not heavy and down and sad or stressed.”

The series serves both old- and new-school performers, combining a moody Manhattan tone with bleeding-edge concerns. The three leads, all true-crime junkies, end up collaborating on a podcast — also called “Only Murders in the Building” — to focus exclusively on crimes that take place where they live. They move in concentric circles around the case, growing closer in the process.

“I think it’s very hard to have to develop a bond in a show without being boring,” Martin says. “That’s what the show managed to do; as long as a story is churning along, and the relationships are sort of incidental, then they start to grow.” He pauses. “Let me ask you one quick question,” he says to this reporter. “So you’ve seen eight episodes. Do you have any idea who did it?”

For a show with a corpse at its center, “Only Murders” fits surprisingly well into a TV landscape recently defined by sweet-natured hits like “Schitt’s Creek” and “Ted Lasso,” series that embrace vulnerability and sensitivity. Fogelman, following up his smash “This Is Us,” says, “It’s a little quieter than you might expect. Steve and Marty’s characters are a little more heartbreaking than you might expect. That was my draw to the television series, personally — these characters finding connection in these relatively lonely lives.”

The new bonds help each break out of tired routines and out of their self-regard. “We’ve all been locked in our little workspaces, sheltering with our own core group of people,” says Fogelman. “And there’s been a lack of larger connection — even predating the pandemic.” Here, the worst sort of crime ends up breaking familiar patterns.

The show had been pitched and greenlit pre-pandemic; over lunch with Fogelman and his producing partner Jess Rosenthal, Martin shared the idea, which he’d been tossing around for five years. Martin has written films, plays and novels; TV is something new. “We had to decide, is this a three-parter? Is it a murder every episode?” Martin says. “Dan Fogelman and his group had insight into that: They said, we like it as 10 parts, one murder per season. I let them handle that, because I truly didn’t know.”

“We had just been chasing a general meeting with Steve forever. You kind of hate those things, because unless you have a point, it can be a disappointing way to meet one of your idols,” says Fogelman of the fateful lunch meetup. Martin’s idea provided the point. “Right at that lunch, we started talking about it. We started shaping it,” says Fogelman. “We started trying to convince Steve to act in it, which he hadn’t been thinking about when he told us the idea.”

Eventually, Fogelman brought on board John Hoffman as co-creator. Hoffman, a TV veteran (“Looking,” “Grace and Frankie”), brought to bear personal experience. “I was grappling with a mystery myself, around the murder of a friend,” he says. Hoffman’s childhood best friend, with whom he’d lost touch, had been found shot to death in his home. “I couldn’t understand that. And that led me to trying to learn what his life was — and all that I missed out on.” There are shades of this story in Gomez’s character, who has a mysterious connection to the departed. While solving a mystery can be rewarding, the series has a clear-eyed sense of the rupture murder causes.

All of which might seem to make “Only Murders” an ambitious sell, even with Martin attached. “It was a real leap,” Hoffman says, but there “was nothing but this galvanizing support for the leaps we wanted to take with the show — from everyone.”

That support extended to the higher corporate reaches of Disney. Dana Walden, chair of entertainment at Walt Disney Television, readily approved the project when Fogelman pitched it.

“Because Steve was already involved, it was a direct call to Dana Walden,” Fogelman recalls. “We both agreed it would be right for Hulu. It was pretty easy from there. We were really trusted by the studio and network to figure out the show and bring them back something that we believe in.”

Hulu was the first place the show was pitched. “It’s our goal to deliver as much as we can to the home team,” Burke says, “and this one felt like a perfect fit.” But “Only Murders in the Building” represents an unusually splashy comedy offering for Hulu. “Day in and day out, we ask ourselves, are we the best home for talent?” says Erwich, who also oversees programming at ABC. “That’s a constant critical conversation that we have. Disney has Dan Fogelman, one of the most storied executive producers and creators in television right now, and because Disney has access to talent, talent gives you talent.”

“The Handmaid’s Tale,” up for 21 Emmy awards this year, came to Hulu from MGM Studios, but the streamer is now focused on producing its own shows. Today, “ownership of programming is critical to our strategy,” Erwich says. “We’ll continue to look at opportunities from outside productions, but there is a bench of talent within the Disney corporation that we have access to that we draw upon.” Hulu, for instance, is where much of FX’s programming first airs (under the FX on Hulu banner); it also features, among its second-run content, next-day-air programming from ABC.

Erwich stresses that Hulu is not playing a volume game. “We only program things that we believe in,” he says, “and that we know we can make a strong selling on the marketing and distribution side.” But he places an emphasis on Hulu’s breadth: “I think that you’d be surprised, or it’s not given enough consideration, how diverse people’s tastes are. People often watch TV or turn to Hulu not based on a demographic but, quite frankly, based on a mood.” He cites a hypothetical viewer who wants to experience the Gilead of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and the Calabasas of the Kardashians: Kim and family, after ending their run on Comcast’s E!, are to produce content that will stream stateside on Hulu. Surprised that the Kardashians and the D’Amelios — two TikTok-famous sisters whose series, “The D’Amelio Show,” debuts Sept. 3 — are on a Disney subsidiary? You shouldn’t be, says Erwich: “Who are the best? Dan Fogelman’s the best at what he does; the Kardashians are the best at what they do; Charli D’Amelio is the best at what she does.”

• • •

“Only Murders” was produced this past winter and spring in New York City amid heightened safety concerns due to the pandemic. “Being in the city was really important,” Gomez says: “even though it was a ghost town.” Fogelman, who remained in Los Angeles as he worked on “This Is Us,” says, “We were testing hundreds of people every other day. We had numerous scares. It was a lot to deal with, but they did it really wonderfully, on time and on budget.”

The production was shot under strict protocols — so much so, Hoffman says, that communicating with the cast was sometimes challenging: “Many times I have to give a note, and realize: ‘Oh, wait, I’m forgetting I’m wearing a mask and a helmet. I look like a stormtrooper.’” (Martin, at Short’s urging, does an impression of a director giving notes that involves muffled, garbled speech that sounds a bit like Charlie Brown’s teacher.)

“Adversity can create camaraderie,” says Martin. “The only thing I missed is when you’re rehearsing, you usually hear these titters from the crew laughing. So we were kind of in a vacuum.” The rest of the job was doable if laborious. “We were tested three times a week,” Martin says. “We all were responsible. A couple people on the crew got sick, but they didn’t transmit it among the crew. They were contact-traced; they isolated for two weeks.” The increase in intensity necessarily meant a ramped-up investment from Hulu, including what Hoffman says was more time to shoot the pilot. Notes Erwich, “The mantra has been and will continue to be safety first in an unyielding way.”

Hoffman led the charge in New York. “It was a tightrope walk every day,” he says. “Just in general for the country while we were shooting, we were still in the throes of fear. The part that’s so moving to me about the fact that we got it all is that we had two legends in their 70s and a young woman who has had well-known health issues.” (Gomez, who has lupus, received a kidney transplant in 2017.) “All of them feel like heroes to me because they were game to play and finish no matter what. If I thought about it too much, I would collapse. I would brace myself every morning.”

Through it all, though, the cast kept the mood light. “All three of us like to work in a similar way,” says Short. “As loose as the set is, as many laughs in between takes, equals a better show. Some actors believe you have to create World War III — not us.”

The door is open to more “Murders.” “Ultimately, it’s up to the creative team to lead the way for subsequent seasons,” Erwich says. “The bar is very high.” The cast is optimistic they’ll find another story: “As long as there is murder, we will have another story to tell,” says Martin. The actors’ general mood — speaking as the delta variant begins to spread stateside — is cautious but forward-looking. Outside the world of “Murders,” Martin and Short had been halfway through a U.K. tour when COVID hit. They have U.S. dates on the calendar, but are watching the news closely.

For Gomez, “Only Murders” had meant a way to break away from homebound isolation; the star spent the early COVID era filming an at-home cooking series for HBO Max — one that relatably emphasized her ineptitude in the kitchen — before heading to New York. “I enjoy cooking and making people feel good,” she says. “But after I did a season of that, I was just eager to do something that was going to be interesting to me. I wasn’t going to take a risk on something I didn’t think was worth it.” Gomez’s “Selena + Chef” show had drawn energy from the chaos of remote production. “Obviously, I’m a klutz, and people enjoy that,” she says.

There’s a shagginess to many COVID-era productions — as Martin, a three-time Academy Awards host, noticed in this year’s Oscarcast, which ended with the memorably strange presentation of a trophy to Anthony Hopkins in absentia. “I really enjoyed the last telecast and I thought it was just kind of weird,” he says. “I thought they did a great job. I would see criticism of a gaffe, and I said, ‘Well, of course there’s a gaffe, doing it that way.’ But then, on the other hand, I didn’t watch the Golden Globes — I don’t even know what I watched.”

A lot has blended together during months of isolation. But these three stars understand the power of collaboration. “The reality is, if there’s one bad apple, or one grumpy actor, and let’s say they’re named Steve,” says Short, “it changes the entire dynamic. The only thing you can protect when you do a show like this is the fun of making it. You can’t be in control.”

Gomez, who carries some of the story’s heaviest emotional beats, has the same let-it-go attitude. “I was exposed to people criticizing me as a child, and it was honestly unfair. The older I got, the more I realized that if I do something I really love, people watching will hopefully enjoy it.”

But she’s still trying to get the show in front of as many possible viewers as possible. One day, when the cast was asked to shoot a video for social media, Gomez says she made the actors ditch the script for the planned video in order to appear more casual. “I just did a selfie video where all of us were just being ourselves. That was my two cents I could put in,” says the young woman with some 248 million Instagram followers.

There are lessons in Gomez’s Instagram success for her co-stars — lessons that have nothing to do with social media. “You’ve remarked that when something looks planned,” Martin tells Gomez, “it doesn’t get as much attention as something that looks spontaneous and created right in the moment.” This axiom applies to streaming series as well; for all the work that went into creating the show during COVID, the minor-key notes of emotion that “Only Murders in the Building” hits feel human scale.

It’s reminiscent, perhaps, of classic Martin comedy, the kind that turned Fogelman into a fan. “There were movies I made — a quiet, sort of emotional film like ‘Father of the Bride,’” Martin says. “But that got pushed out by superhero movies. It’s beautiful timing for me now, to find a place for the kind of movie we make, in a different form.

“Television — and I never thought it would happen — became a wonderful place to do gentler stories.”

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