The Comedians Review: “Pilot” (Episode 1.01)

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<i>The Comedians</i> Review: &#8220;Pilot&#8221; (Episode 1.01)

“When I found out Billy Crystal wanted to work with me, nobody was more excited than my grandparents.”

If you’ve seen any kind of advertising for FX’s new “inside baseball” comedy series, The Comedians, you’ve almost certainly heard this particular line spoken from the mouth of Josh Gad, one of its leads. The joke appears to be on Crystal, a living legend who is today reputed as an old folks’ entertainer. Turns out that we’ve been had; the joke is really on Josh’s grandma and grandpa, who would likely find the idea of him teabagging their beloved celebrity during a weightlifting session absolutely appalling. The unspoken message is pretty clear. FX didn’t make The Comedians for your elders. They made it for you.

More specifically they made it for a contemporary audience that’s long been weaned on a steadily growing diet of cringe comedy, a la The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. If you watch The Comedian’s pilot episode and you never laugh above a chuckle, that’s the point; you’re not supposed to guffaw at this sort of material as much as you’re supposed to titter and snicker. From the outset that mentality makes the show a flawed enterprise. Neither Gad nor Crystal really “fit” into that sort of mold. They don’t have the sensibilities of a Ricky Gervais or a Louis CK, or maybe we don’t commonly associate them with those sensibilities. Be real. When you hear “Josh Gad”, you don’t think of Josh Gad, you think of Olaf the Snowman singing about the joys of summer.

Here, he’s kind of an ass. It’s a remarkable change of pace for him, though it might take more time for the transition from “huggy bear” to “edgy punk” to really take. The premise is simple: Billy has an idea for a sketch comedy show where he plays every character (including in an homage to When Harry Met Sally), but the network suits (led by a perfectly dry Denis O’Hare) think he needs someone young and fresh to bolster his appeal. Thus they call on Gad, and thus does friction arise between he and Crystal as they work toward bringing “The Billy and Josh Show” to television while a wandering documentary crew captures their efforts on camera.

The Comedians starts off as commentary and doesn’t quite arrive at the finishing line of comedy. To an extent this is okay; the observations made through the plot are typically sharp, whether they’re about the effete kvetching of outrage culture or the shameless fakery that lubricates the engine of the entertainment industry. After their preliminary dinner together goes less than stellar, Josh and Billy walk outside and engage in a quip-off over the exaggerations their agents will wield to bullshit them about how great the meeting went. “He said he doesn’t know where he ends and you begin.” “He wants to tattoo your face onto his face.”

This is where our stars really get to be who they are, and it’s in moments like this that the show inspires worthy chuckles. Watching Crystal act curmudgeonly toward his peers is good fun on its own merits, too, but the tug and pull that should supply The Comedians with its central conflict doesn’t have the necessary inertia behind it, and neither do most of the gags. Arguably, this is more troubling, but the illusion the show demands we accept doesn’t quite wash, either. Is Crystal this much of a desperately pathetic egotist? Is Gad? If The Comedians can smartly build off of their generational dust-up, these questions should become moot, but that means the show has a lot of legwork yet to do.

Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film for the web since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. Currently he has given up on shaving.