Thursday, April 9, 2015

REVIEW: 'The Comedians' - FX Orders a New Sketch Comedy Series Starring Billy Crystal and Josh Gad in 'Pilot'

FX's The Comedians - Episode 1.01 "Pilot"

Billy Crystal and Josh Gad are reluctantly paired together for a sketch show on FX.

So, The Comedians is a inside showbiz story being told as a documentary behind-the-scenes telling of a fictional sketch series starring heightened versions of Billy Crystal and Josh Gad. It's a rather awkward premiere in that it takes awhile to actually establish what the comedic sensibilities and style of the show actually are. As it is, it seems to be about two comedians who agree to do a show together even though they don't exactly like each other. Both Crystal and Gad are playing fictionalized versions of themselves. Crystal is presented as the only sane realist in the room who gets respect for being a comedic legend even though no one listens to his actual words words of insight. And then, Gad is a douche who is wildly more approachable and gets in the way of Crystal and his vision of the show.

It's all very weird. For the majority of the premiere, I was trying to figure out how to react to the story. I don't think the documentary angle of the show really works all that well. Plus, there's stuff that various characters say that would in no reasonably way make it into a documentary. So, either this is largely just unedited footage or I should just accept it as a storytelling device but not think too much into it - much like Modern Family or Parks and Recreation. That way I might be able to better enjoy the show for what it is. At times, the premiere actually is very pleasant. When Billy and Josh aren't presented as opposites and they reach some kind of common ground, it gets closer to achieving what it aspires to be. Presenting them as a new odd couple who aren't really friends but who have to work together isn't that strong of a storytelling device. It limits the amount of comedy. The premiere isn't really able to develop the show around Billy and Josh because it's so focused on their partnership. All the other characters pop up for a second. They get a title card explaining who they are and that's largely it.

The whole premise of the opening episode is to make things awkward. You're not sure how to react to things as they are presented. You just have to accept them the way that they are. Those are the lessons that Billy and Josh have to learn in order to do this job as well. Billy was content in just doing The Billy & Billy Show. That pitch felt odd coming from the version of Crystal in this. He's not that self-obsessed kind of man. He is down to earth. And yet, presenting a show that features Billy Crystal playing all of the roles seems too indulging of his ego. Billy doesn't really have an ego in this. He's proud of the fact that he plays wacky grandpas now and that he has four grandchildren. He's embraced his new comedy brand for the time. He and Josh do have a similar comedic sensibility. When they actually agree on a joke - whether it's good or bad - the plot of the show is actually able to move forward in a meaningful and humorous way. I didn't especially laugh at anything either one of them did. There were references to their previous work that made me smile - Billy plugging his Tony-winning one man show and Josh bringing up his failed NBC sitcom 1600 Penn one too many times. And yet, referential humor can only go so far.

The actual story of the first episode is all building to the punchline that the person Billy wants to hire as a replacement director for Larry Charles is actually now a women. It's unexpected and Billy and Josh simply don't know how to react. They eventually take it as both of them getting what they wanted without actually getting what they wanted - which was honestly just too weird in order to be effective comedy. I'm hoping all of this is just awkward beginnings. Once the show settles into its groove, it won't have to rely on the basic setup established in this premiere. Crystal and Gad are great performers. They do have good chemistry on screen. The show just needs to better understand the dynamics amongst the various performances both on the show and the show-within-the-show.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Pilot" was written by Ben Wexler, Matt Nix, Larry Charles & Billy Crystal and directed by Larry Charles.
  • I enjoyed Stephnie Weir's one to two minutes of screen time more than anything that Crystal or Gad did. She is just allowed to be slightly weirder. Sure, the joke about the noises her stomach make didn't really go anywhere. But her reactions to Billy wanting to hire Jamie as the new director were fantastic.
  • Also, all the cock jokes didn't really work for me either. I guess that makes me like Billy in thinking that just saying cock doesn't inherently make all things funnier. When you use that word, it has to be a very smartly designed joke with a clear set up and payoff.
  • And yet, Billy also thought having his cannibal sketch character also be a pedophile ruined the integrity of the sketch. I would think it would have just made the character weirder. And sometimes weirder is better when it comes to sketch comedy.
  • The sailor bit did pay off in the end. And yet, are we just going to see bits of the show-within-the-show with absolutely no context? Wouldn't any of the crew have had a reaction to Billy and Josh both agreeing that the bit was dumb?
  • Billy also wants there to be no hard feelings between him and Larry. That whole plot point felt unnecessary. It only happened to allow the episode's director to make a cameo appearance.