Inside humor: ‘The Comedians’ falls short of greatness

Comedians_104_20_Thur10_Clean-FX_WEB_1280x720_437271619871By JIM SABATASO

[A version of this review appears in the June 4, 2015, edition of the Rutland Reader.] 

The show-within-a-show is an odd bit of meta-comedy with a rich history. Classic shows like The Dick van Dyke ShowThe Muppet ShowThe Larry Sanders Show, and 30 Rock used the style to comment on the both the entertainment industry and the medium of television itself.

Typically, beloved by critics, these series nonetheless tended to linger just outside the mainstream. For the average viewer, stories about showbiz inside baseball can be inaccessible and alienating. And when overly earnest, unironic, or self-aggrandizing, audiences can quickly sour like they did with Aaron Sorkin’s doomed Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

The new FX series The Comedians is a show within a show within a show, making it the turducken of current sitcoms. It’s an apt analogy since the show is kind of a turkey. Based on a Swedish TV series called Ulveson and Herngren, the series is presented as a documentary about the creation of a sketch comedy show on FX. Billy Crystal and Josh Gad play fictionalized versions of themselves forced to work together by network mandate. (Crystal pitches the show but the network will only green light it if he shares the bill with the younger Gad.)

The Comedians finds humor in the tension created by this unlikely pairing. The generational gulf is wide as the two attempt to find common ground. Their initial meeting is painful to watch as Crystal and Gad’s differing comedic sensibilities clash. Hilarity ostensibly ensues.

Despite its great cast and solid writing, The Comedians has struggled to gain substantial buzz from both critics and viewers. To be sure, this is a good sitcom, but with the surfeit of great TV currently available, good simply isn’t good enough anymore. Several years ago, this show would have might have been considered a triumph. Today, it’s not essential viewing.

Admittedly, I’m not a huge fan of either Crystal or Gad. I think Crystal is a great entertainer — I enjoyed him on Soap and his brief run on SNL — but I’ve never really connected with his comedy. And while I’m not as familiar with Gad’s work, I have found his brand of physical humor to be a little too big and broad for my taste.

Another part of my struggle with the show has been the slow development of Crystal and Gad’s relationship. In early episodes, Crystal comes off as an unpleasant, prideful grouch. He’s often downright nasty to Gad, who plays the bumbling goof constantly seeking Crystal’s approval. All this is deliberate, of course, but it just doesn’t land. The lack of humor at Crystal’s expense also feels disproportionate at times (though this disparity is somewhat more balanced in later episodes).

Crystal and Gad work best when their relationship is more antagonistic than adversarial, and the series starts to find its feet in later episodes once it puts them on the same team. A stoned trip to the supermarket results in some great physical comedy for both. A later effort to bring diversity to the show by hiring a black writer is both relevant and delightfully awkward in the ham-fisted way the duo tries to do the right thing.

The supporting cast is small but solid. Rob Oberg plays the role of beleaguered head writer Mitch well enough, but the show brings nothing new to the table with its depiction the writers’ room as a collection of sad losers and Harvard nerds. It’s something we’ve seen before (and better executed) on The Simpsons and 30 Rock.

Stephnie Weir, however, is the show’s greatest comedic strength. The Mad TV veteran steals every scene as the show’s overanxious, incompetent producer Kristen.

While the series fails to rise to greatness, The Comedians is enjoyable if not particularly unique. After so many years of mockumentary-style shows — The OfficeParks and Recreation, Modern Family — another iteration that doesn’t improve on the form is bound to feel stale regardless of the names attached.

Loose ends:

  • It’s unclear if the occasional sketches we see for the fictional The Billy and Josh Show are supposed to be good or bad, however, a couple of them were better than some of the stuff on SNL this season.
  • Fun piece of meta-humor: The bearded executive producer Crystal fires in the first episode is Larry Charles, one of the show’s actual EPs who’s had a creative hand in everything from Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, to Entourage and Borat.
  • While Steven Weber’s brief arc as a trans woman did not go off the rails as I initially feared it might, it was still bafflingly superfluous.
  • At 88, Mel Brooks proves he’s still a master of comedy. His guest spot in a scene with Crystal is possibly the highlight of the entire season.