FX’s newest comedy series The Comedians is a strange beast. It features Josh Gad, an actor in his prime, and Billy Crystal, an actor potentially recapturing his prime, devouring a concept that is way past its prime, a mockumentary-style behind-the-scenes look at creating a TV series. Nearly every second of it is unabashedly self-sabotaging and rude in some way, and it's an uncomfortable uphill climb to a memory lane that passes through the roughest points of self-mocking celebrity series like The Larry Sanders Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm. But…but…it’s also pretty damned hilarious once you understand how it’s molding itself.
Based on the Swedish series Ulveson and Herngren, The Comedians is the combined creation of Crystal, Curb and Seinfeld vet Larry Charles (who often directs), Burn Notice creator Matt Nix, and Still Standing’s Ben Wexler. Its entertainment microcosm centers on a fictional late night sketch comedy called The Billy and Josh Show being developed by FX (of all networks), which is run here by the extremely grand and underused Denis O’Hare. He’s the guy that pairs Billy and Josh together, and their partnership initially works against The Comedians as much as it later works for it. Also, the fake show that they’re making is way fucking worse and offensively cornball than anything FX has ever run, but that’s sort of the point.
If you’ve been confused by the erratic promos that FX has been running for The Comedians, then the first couple of episodes may not win you over. It absolutely takes time to get used to Billy’s harshly aloof approach to his fame, as well as Josh’s man-childish petulance. The onset of their disgust with working alongside one another puts viewers right in their shoes, making even the funniest jokes feel like they weren’t being earned properly for some reason. Thankfully, the “I’m old/I’m young” gags become less antagonizing, as do the jabs and jolts of the actors’ respective career high points. (Josh’s 1600 Penn jokes are funnier than that show was.)
It is indeed discouraging how disjointed the mockumentary approach feels at times, although it’s inarguably enjoyable to “hang out” with Billy Crystal for a while in any capacity, even if he’s playing a douchey heightened version of himself. (Especially when he’s high.) Considering Charles’ career, one has to wonder why he didn’t force his hand on making this a straightforward comedy; but like other series with this format, it eventually just becomes background noise for the hilarity. As do the questionably placed sketch moments. Still, not to become repetitive, this is one of the rare comedies that feels so much more rewarding with binge-viewing than I can imagine it does on a week-to-week viewing basis.
Let’s get into the cast, because it isn’t just Crystal and Gad here. The standout in the crowd is former MadTV star Stephanie Weir as the overly troubled producer Kristen, whose personal problems are constantly being overshadowed by everyone around her, and she always looks like she’s just one exuberant smile away from slicing everyone’s throats. Also giving enjoyable performances, though extremely clichéd and underwritten, are Matt Osberg as the too-proud head writer Mitch and Megan Ferguson as the too-meh production assistant Esme. Dana Delaney is classy but also underused as Billy’s wife Sharon. I really just wish they had Delaney playing herself as Billy’s wife, which would have added an extra odd touch to things.
When you’re looking for guest stars, you cannot get any better than Mel Brooks, who shows up in one of the early episodes, and his scenes with Billy are goddamned golden. As well, Gad’s Frozen compadres and Oscar-winning songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez come aboard to write one of the sketch comedy’s tunes, which is probably the best of the faux-series’ moments. (Though I was admittedly brought to larger self-hating laughter by the projectile vomiting sketch.) On the opposite side of things was Steven Weber, who plays a completely depth-less transgender director that Billy wants to join the show. Though Weber is technically fine, it feels like a part that should have been saved for the fake show.
Having been granted a whopping nine episodes for review by FX, I’m in a much more comfortable position to critique this show than someone who watches the pilot and considers backing out. Don’t. That’s as simple a form of advice as I can give. The Comedians definitely isn’t for everyone, as it’s a heaping mix of vaudeville styling and gross-out humor that occasionally hits upon social and racial topics, but the actors and performances largely rise above the set-up and take the material to places both subversive and weirdly touching. Oh, and there’s also weird touching involved.
The Comedians debuts on FX on Thursday, April 9, at 10 p.m. ET. Stick with it, people. It’ll take you there.