Pair Billy Crystal with Josh Gad in a sitcom called The Comedians and you end up with two funny guys from different generations and approaches to funniness, right? Yep — and those two factors are the central premise and tension of this new series premiering Thursday night. Sometimes not in an especially funny way, but I have to say, after gulping down multiple episodes, always in an intriguing way.
Gad and Crystal play themselves — two performers asked by FX to team up for a show. The format is a sketch comedy, and we watch as the two are paired up, circle each other warily, agree to do a pilot, and then endure all the anxiety of getting a new show off the ground.
One theme of The Comedians is that, on his own, Gad isn’t quite enough of a “name” to carry his own series, while Crystal is — well, why mince words when no one else on The Comedians does — too old for the demographic FX seeks for its advertisers. Pairing them up, both in the context of this show and in the real world, makes the kind of show-business sense that doesn’t always translate into pleasure for either performer’s audience.
The showrunners for The Comedians are Matt Nix (Burn Notice) and Ben Wexler (Arrested Development), with executive producer Larry Charles (Seinfeld) directing at least a half-dozen episodes. This motley assortment of sensibilities, when combined with the oil-and-water intentional-mismatch of Crystal and Gad, makes for the kind of awkward comedy that some people (including me) enjoy watching. The gimmick of having cameras following around performers constantly in the process of creating a TV series recalls everything from The Larry Sanders Show to the Matt LeBlanc sitcom Episodes.
The anti-chemistry between Gad and Crystal, though played for laughs, doesn’t often result in them. Instead, my interest was held by the opportunity The Comedians provides to think about why there’s such a widening gap between Crystal’s kind of big-gestured, boisterous comedy style and Gad’s quieter comedy of sweaty desperation. Gad has had success on Broadway (The Book of Mormon) and in movies (as Olaf in Frozen) but in this show, there’s a poster on the wall for one of Gad’s sitcom flops, 1600 Penn. And while Crystal is adored by many for his hosting of the Oscars, his performances in movies ranging from The Princess Bride to When Harry Met Sally, you realize he hasn’t been in a sitcom since Soap.
So neither of the comedians in The Comedians is a star in the format they’re now attempting. This makes for pleasing friction; it also makes you wonder whether FX is worried that the lack of comic attraction in the storylines will spill over into silence among viewers. By the end of its season, The Comedians may find itself considering something as un-cool as adding a laugh-track to this thing, in the hope that it might help elicit what everyone involved wants.
The Comedians airs on Thursdays at 10 p.m. on FX.