The series premiere of “The Comedians” was provided for review purposes prior to broadcast.
Tonight on FX you can catch the premieres of two very different shows about deprecating comics. One is Louie, returning for its fifth season, a rough gem made brilliant by the humor and empathy creator/star Louis C. K. can generate by examining his life with as much specificity as vulnerability. Before Louie is the series premiere for The Comedians, which tries to make you laugh using the same kind of faux humility you expect out of a Comedy Central roast. “Look at how cool I am with sending up my celebrity persona!” The Comedians screams loudly through its premiere, though rarely at a frequency that will get your funny bone to vibrate much.
If nothing else, the show is pretty timely. In just the last two weeks, we’ve seen Trevor Noah go through the social media crucible after being hired to replace Jon Stewart on the Daily Show beat, and Patton Oswalt once again make his distaste for the PC-ification of comedy publicly, lengthily known. The culture clash at the center of The Comedians – which stars Billy Crystal as a vanguard of the old school, and Josh Gad as the smutty upstart – makes for territory well worth exploring, as conversation about the difference between what’s funny, and what you can laugh at has never been more open.
What’s less timely about The Comedians is just about everything else. Based on a Swedish comedy from 2004, the show stars Crystal and Gad as slightly fictionalized versions of themselves. Crystal’s still a household name, but in the universe of The Comedians, he’s been far less selective with his career choices of late (fake projects include a film series called Wacky Grandpa, and a sketch show where Crystal plays all the parts in scenes from his most famous movies). Gad, meanwhile, is still known as the star of The Book of Mormon and Frozen (and the short-lived sitcom 1600 Penn, referenced multiple times), but is presented as a cash-strapped up-and-comer desperate for a gig.
The pilot follows Crystal and Gad as they begrudgingly work together on a sketch comedy show for FX, with handheld camera work and talking head interviews presenting The Comedians as a documentary. It’s a little bit The Office, a little bit Curb Your Enthusiasm (which adaptor Larry Charles directed many episodes of, facilitating his meta-appearance in the pilot as the show-within-a-show’s director), and a little The Larry Sanders Show. So far, that’s the biggest problem. The Comedians uses the occasional shot at the careers of its stars as an excuse for laurel resting on the familiar stereotypes and tropes that come with venal show business-types.