The Comedians is rooted in the familiar conceit of a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a comedy sketch show, this one centered on the unlikely pairing of Billy Crystal and Josh Gad. It’s even shot documentary style, with random members of the crew popping up in the background. As written, however, the show is a strangely bittersweet tale of colliding comedic styles. It’s not exactly hero worship that shapes the relationship between Gad, who is fond of cock jokes, and Crystal, who yammers on about building a character in the sketch, but rather the idea of mythical reputation, a classical kind of stature that seems too easily earned these days. Crystal, in contrast, is depicted as an old pro moving easily into the 21st century with an active career, and the sting of the show comes from Gad’s fumbling attempts to learn how to sustain a career while retaining his own sense of humor.
The struggle is between the new, awkward honesty against the old, honed, proven method, and the show leans a little too hard on the awkward, passive-aggressive brand of humor for its first two episodes or so. In the second episode, Crystal and his wife (Dana Delaney) invite Gad over for an L.A. Clippers game on the big screen, along with Will Sasso, Joe Torres, and Sugar Ray Leonard. The entire scenario turns into a group ragging on Gad for being too picky and too coddled, and as the series goes on, there’s never a similar weakness in Crystal, which makes the dynamic feel biased.
The sketches are MAD TV-caliber for the most part, like an early sketch depicting Crystal as Anthony Bourdain, vomiting uncontrollably after consuming human testicles. Like most comedies of this ilk, the sharpness of the sketches in The Comedians are in constant decline, even as the drama takes unexpected turns. The best episode thus far centers on Crystal and Gad getting nominated for the same award, and getting stoned on the way to the red carpet entrance they promised the FX president (played by Denis O’Hare). There’s an air of jovial nonsense in the supermarket scenes and in the limo, and these moments allude to a more emotionally resonant underbelly to the drama, a heartfelt and hard-won study of bonding, and a hesitant kind of mentorship.
The most fascinating thing about the show is the image of Crystal as a workhorse — a decisive and smart careerist in an industry that does not react well to aging. A similar sense of this from Gad (as an intuitive career comedian) is missing from the hash of storylines, but the series’ writers fill out the narrative with some funny, observant, and expressive supporting roles. Steven Webber, Megan Ferguson, and Stephnie Weir give a wider sense of the creative and bureaucratic engines that power shows like this. The world that Larry Charles, Crystal, Gad, and their colleagues have made is quickly involving and occasionally very funny, but clearly needs time to find its foothold. What resonates most prominently from the first few episodes is a dedication to the craft of comedy, regardless of the chosen school of humor, and a convincing sense of wanting to work on the craft of a joke. The Comedians insightfully portrays the world of making people laugh as filled with work and unforeseen compromise, a constant struggle to stay relevant and having to swim with the tide, even when you don’t want to.
The Comedians premieres on April 9th at 10 p.m. on FX.
★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism