“You have to pitch a series to HBO about a network that passed on all the good shows and all it was left with was The Leftovers.”
“Yes! Or what about a Fraggle Rock reboot except all the fraggles are trans?”
“You think that’s too close to Looking?”
If that exchange makes sense to you, you’re probably reading the right pop culture website. And you’re potentially an ideal audience member for Difficult People, the acerbic comedy from the mind of writer and star Julie Klausner. The show follows aspiring comedians, best friends, and all-around terrible people Julie Kessler (Klausner) and Billy Epstein (Billy Eichner) as they try to claw their way to success in New York City. Difficult People’s second season—which is currently being released weekly on Hulu—continues shading in the show’s delicious specific world.
In the second season premiere, “Unplugged,” Julie is desperate to break into “Refutz,” a networking group of successful Jewish TV writers who come together every Friday for Shabbat dinner. “I swear to god if I go to synagogue and I don’t make a show business connection, I’m gonna fucking kill myself with a chainsaw,” she snarks as she and Billy try to stalk some of the group’s members in order to get an invite. Once she’s in with the group, Julie agrees to participate in their observance of a labor/technology-free Shabbat, which they use to recharge creatively. At the end of her “unplugged” experiment, Julie delivers a string of TV show pitches she’s brainstormed:
Glee but with dogs. A Botched spin-off where Dr. Terry Dubrow’s leather jacket becomes sentient and solves crimes. American Horror Story: We Promise We Thought It Through This Time. CSI: Provincetown, and there’s, like, a ton of piss-play. A workplace comedy about lesbian bed death. And something with Annette Bening.
Even more so than other reference-heavy shows like Gilmore Girls, Community, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Difficult People has a phenomenally high barrier of entry. The plot of “Unplugged” demands that viewers be familiar not only with shows like Botched and American Horror Story but also with the basics of both the TV industry and Jewish religious traditions. Similarly, the first season episode “The Courage Of A Soldier” introduces a Yom Kippur-themed plot by having Julie ask Billy if he thinks Real Housewives star Bethenny Frankel is fasting for the Day Of Atonement. “Um, yeah but not because she knows what day it is,” Billy answers. Don’t know about Jewish holy days and/or thin Bravo reality stars? Difficult People is delightfully uninterested in explaining either.
New York City and the LGBT community are presented with the same assumed familiarity. In last week’s episode, “Italian Piñata,” Billy’s self-proclaimed “trans truther” co-worker Lola (Shakina Nayfack) takes offense at his use of the term “guys” and warns him, “With one comment on Candis Cayne Instagram, I can bring you down faster than the second tower on Dick Cheney’s command.” It’s a joke that only works if you’re familiar with both the meme-ification of 9/11 conspiracy theorists and know that Candis Cayne is a famous transgender actress and newfound bestie of Caitlyn Jenner. “Please don’t ruin my life with a hashtag” is all Billy can muster as a response.
While that level of specificity can be alienating for viewers who aren’t in on the joke, it’s even more rewarding for those operating on the show’s frequency. There’s a line in Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys where an English teacher explains:
The best moments in reading are when you come across something—a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things—that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.
That’s a slightly more poetic explanation of the way I felt watching Julie cheerily describe her TV recapping job as “You watch something, you write something about it, 25 weeks later you get a check for $6.” It might not be an observation that lands with most people, but for those it does land with (myself included), it lands hard. That’s also true of jokes about the “Fonda 5000” (“The exclusive camera used by the Netflix series Grace And Frankie”), Chrissy Teigen (“She doesn’t have the astute political mind of a Naya Rivera”), and audience participation (“If nonperformers want to perform, they have karaoke and Halloween to use for act-out and dress-up times”).
When we talk about representation in media it’s usually (and rightfully) about underrepresented groups getting their due. But there’s also a specific joy in seeing the quirks of your life represented in art. If I can’t necessarily relate to the general selfishness of Julie and Billy, as a former theater major and current pop culture writer whose friends are almost all gay, Jewish, or both, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show that speaks to my sense of humor and cultural interests more than Difficult People.
“Italian Piñata” has all the hallmarks of Difficult People’s cultural specificity: Billy and Julie head to Hoboken, New Jersey, to ironically attend the grand opening of Kevin Smith’s Jorts Emporium. (“He’s relaunching Bugle Boy jeans with his own unique denim. It’s all awful. I have to go,” Billy explains.) Once there, they take advantage of their newfound anonymity to try out alternate identities. Openly gay Billy pretends he’s just come out of the closet on National Coming Out Day in order to score attention from the hot gay men eager to welcome newbies into their community. Julie, meanwhile, befriends a group of brassy New Jersey women and quickly comes to realize, “Everything that made me unacceptable as a New York Jew is celebrated as a New Jersey Italian.”
The broad outlines of those plots could easily fit on a mainstream comedy like Modern Family, but it’s the details that transform them into Difficult People stories. The generic sitcom premise is that Julie learns a lesson about being a more supportive girlfriend from her new Italian gal pals. The Difficult People twist is that she’s helping her boyfriend, Arthur (James Urbaniak), impress the “cool kids” at his PBS job. At PBS, the cool kids are the ones who work on Mr. Selfridge. “Oh, right,” Julie says. “The show that asks the pressing question, ‘What if Jeremy Piven worked in a department store in 1910?’” I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed harder at a joke about a PBS period drama.
Difficult People isn’t for everyone. Despite the genuine sweetness of Julie and Billy’s friendship, the show’s barbed humor and unlikable characters are potentially off-putting. In an era when, as Billy puts it, comedies have “become 30-minute dramas,” Difficult People’s broad joke-a-minute style can feel almost old-fashioned. But for the right erudite, pop-culture-obsessed, sardonic audience, Difficult People is the kind of show that feels like it’s reaching out just to them. And mocking everything from Smash to Capturing The Friedmans along the way.