Billy Crystal returns to weekly television in FX’s The Comedians, starring alongside Josh Gad, from Book Of Mormon, Frozen, and (as The Comedians is quick to point out), 1600 Penn. Crystal and Gad play themselves in the series, which follows the duo after they agree to star in a late-night sketch show for FX. Neither is interested in being part of a comedy team, but when the pairing proves to be a deal breaker for the network, they acquiesce.
The series is based on the Swedish comedy Ulveson & Herngren, but it also shares DNA with behind-the-scenes comedies like The Larry Sanders Show and 30 Rock. There’s the finicky stars, the put-upon staff, and the less-than-helpful assistant; clips of the show-within-the-show give a glimpse of what’s produced in all of this chaos. The Comedians starts out well enough, but it lacks the creativity and unique tone of its most successful antecedents.
The odd-couple pairing of Crystal and Gad works well, with their generational divide providing many of the show’s early highlights. The antagonism between their characters feels strained and choreographed at the start of the show, but they quickly settle into a more natural dynamic. The friendly rapport that develops between the fictionalized Billy and Josh allows them to relax a bit and get to know each other better, and the series’ most affecting moments (as well as its zaniest) happen beyond the confines of The Billy & Josh Show.
Stephnie Weir, Matt Oberg, and Megan Ferguson round out the cast, along with prominent recurring players Dana Delaney and Denis O’Hare. Weir layers tense energy beneath the optimistic exterior of Billy & Josh producer Kristen, which chips away as she is put under more and more stress. Oberg’s head writer Mitch is similarly at his best when at the end of his rope, a beat that comes up not infrequently. As for Ferguson, she has good chemistry with the rest of the cast and does well with what she’s given, but her Esme remains underdeveloped, an underachieving and entitled assistant in the mold of 30 Rock’s Cerie Xerox. Delaney brings warmth and good humor every time she pops up as Crystal’s wife, Sharon, and O’Hare is a lot of fun as the show’s stand-in for FX chief John Landgraf.
As is often the case with shows about comedy writing, the actual product from the show-within-the-show is the least entertaining part of The Comedians. Series can approach this issue in different ways: Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip tried to argue that Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford, and team were sparking national debate and defining comedy, but immediately undermined itself when none of its sketches could live up to the hype. 30 Rock went the other way, making TGS With Tracy Jordan’s low quality a given, which allowed the writers to go big and ridiculous with the sketches that made it to the screen. The Comedians gives little sense of how good The Billy & Josh Show is supposed to be, but considering how frequently the series uses content theoretically from the sketch show, it seems to be aiming for somewhere between Studio 60 and 30 Rock’s two extremes.
If so, a couple more hits would go a long way. The few scenes of Crystal and Gad interacting with a live audience and performing a Billy & Josh sketch are great, however, as are the scenes of the pair shooting these taped segments. The glimpses of Billy and Josh working are among The Comedians’ most intriguing, and watching Crystal and Gad toss lines back and forth or seeing the characters debate the strengths and weaknesses of a particular sketch is a blast. Though it has a ways to go before reaching the upper echelon of its subgenre, The Comedians’ likable cast compensates for its familiar premise.