Brow Beat

Critics Panned The Comedians. But, by the End of the Season, It Was Great.

Josh Gad and Billy Crystal in The Comedians.

© Copyright 2014, FX Networks. All rights reserved.

It’s understandable if you didn’t watch Billy Crystal and Josh Gad playing fictionalized versions of themselves on this season of FX’s The Comedians, whose season finale aired Thursday night, for any of the following reasons:

  • You think the gimmick of the mockumentary format is getting a little stale.
  • You think the gimmick of self-aware celebrities cheekily portraying unflattering versions of themselves is getting a little stale.
  • You don’t see how a family-friendly, Oscar-hosting showbiz lifer like Billy Crystal fits among the quirkier, raunchier shows you typically see on FX.
  • You didn’t want to watch an uncomfortable dark comedy about two people who dislike each other, which is how The Comedianspromos depicted the relationship between fictional Gad and fictional Crystal.

Those are the reasons I didn’t have any interest in watching the series, which is in fact a behind-the-scenes mockumentary about a fictional Gad-and-Crystal sketch show, until my wife suggested we give it a try. (Disclosure: My wife works at Henry Holt, the publisher of Crystal’s 2013 book Still Foolin’ Em, and has attested that he is friendly and easy to work with.) And I’m here now to say that—while the mockumentary form may well be played out and the knowing narcissist-celebrity character is grating in many manifestations—Billy Crystal is a perfect fit for the show, which is actually the lightly sentimental (but still generally raunchy, perverse, and very funny) story of a friendship between an older professional and his doofy but respectful younger colleague. In other words, if you’re a fan of edgy contemporary television comedy, you should watch The Comedians.

I know, from having tried to persuade my peers on an individual basis, that this is a hard sell. That’s in large part because of Crystal’s recent track record of schlock. But the expectations the viewer has for Crystal are actually part of the appeal of the show, which places the 67-year-old in improv-ish scenes with jokes and beats that are otherwise characteristic of the style you would expect to see on FX, i.e. the awkward and hostile interactions of pathetic and/or incompetent and/or demented and/or deeply jaded oddballs. Instead of hamming up his out-of-placeness, Crystal is relaxed and amused, both facilitating and participating in the weirdo banter, interjecting seemingly ad-libbed lines that remind you that he is, in fact, someone who has made a living in comedy for decades. (“Michael Jackson slept in one of these things,” he says casually as he and Gad approach one of those horizontal, waist-high, 7-Eleven–style ice-cream freezers during a scene in a grocery store.) It’s a meta-statement—in a show that is itself a meta-narrative—that this old-timer can be as funny doing loose, goofy riffing as he was in the more polished, performative roles that made his name.

That Crystal’s riffing partners are very funny themselves is of course essential to the show’s appeal, and it would be remiss to write about The Comedians without highlighting Stephnie Weir’s fantastically funny and borderline-upsetting performance as an incessantly nerve-wracked, truly insane producer. To wit:

You will observe that Josh Gad is also working at an A-plus level in that scene; his deadpan commitment and comic timing is its own reason to watch the show. But in the end a series about the relationship between Billy Crystal and Josh Gad depends not just on jokes but on the chemistry between Billy Crystal and Josh Gad. And while I have no actual behind-the-scenes information on this subject, it’s hard to watch The Comedians and not conclude that they had a great time working together, portraying a semi-oblivious pair of bickering but affectionate co-workers whose miniature feuds and mutual escapades perplex and confound each other and everyone else around them on a weekly basis:

Gimmickiness and wigs aside, don’t they look like they’re having fun?