FX's new series The Comedians, debuting Thursday, April 9, at 10 pm Eastern, is a crazy hybrid of TV styles.
Based on the Swedish series Ulveson & Herngren, it has the shooting style of a mockumentary like The Office, but also incorporates elements of sketch comedies like Saturday Night Live. And in its best moments, it has the feeling of a poignant drama about the pains of getting older and watching the world pass you by — or of being a young up-and-comer who doesn't yet understand how things work.
FX is primarily selling the series, understandably, as Billy Crystal's return to television. Crystal, who was a cast member of both the legendary '70s sitcom Soap and one season of Saturday Night Live, in the mid-'80s, has gone on to considerable success in films ranging from When Harry Met Sally ... to City Slickers to Monsters, Inc. (where he offers a voiceover performance). In The Comedians, he plays a version of himself who is desperate not to slide into irrelevancy as he ages, to the degree that he agrees to work with a young comedian named Josh Gad (played by the real Josh Gad) on a new sketch comedy series for FX. On the show, the two don't get along. In real life, their camaraderie is notable.
The Comedians is a long series of funhouse mirrors, with Billy Crystal playing "Billy Crystal," a character who has elements of the real actor but also plenty of chances to goof on Crystal's less impressive career decisions. (This choice is similar to programs like Showtime's Episodes, which features Matt LeBlanc as "Matt LeBlanc.") The same is true for Gad, who gets lots of jokes about his high-profile NBC White House–set sitcom flop 1600 Penn. I talked with the two at the January Television Critics Association winter press tour about the divide between fiction and real life, as well as what's changed about television between the 1970s and now.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Todd VanDerWerff: People in the show often laugh immediately at what you say, and you can't always tell how genuine they're being in that regard. How have you dealt with that very thing in your careers? How do you know they're not just being passive-aggressive, which comes up in the show?
Billy Crystal: I don't know how to answer that! Are you being passive-aggressive? [Laughs.] As you get older and around it more, you start to realize, "Oh, that wasn't good."
Josh Gad: You can read between the lines a little bit.
BC: Yeah. And consider the source.
JG: And what we do as actors is generally study human behavior. So you sort of have an innate ability to know when somebody's being honest.
But I actually see it as more of a show that's about the generational disconnect between two guys approaching the same vocation from completely different styles. And what attracted me to it is this idea that it's called The Comedians, but it doesn't necessarily have to be "The Comedians." It could be The Tailors. It could be The Butchers. It's about these guys who come from different eras who are forced to work together.
The other stuff is the icing on the cake. The idea that it takes the piss out of the entertainment industry is the backdrop to what this is.
TV: What do you see as the biggest divide between your characters?
JG: My generation approaches comedy from a very ironic standpoint, and Billy ...
BC: Meat and potatoes. We talk about it in the pilot. Setup. Punchline. How to craft a sketch. You risk sounding like somebody who sits at the bar at the Friar's [Club].
But I think if you watched us on the set, you'd go, "They're totally in sync with what they're doing." Honestly, most of the edgier sketch ideas have come from me as we get going.
JG: Sometimes I'll look at Billy and be like, "Wait. We're really going to ..."
BC: Creating the show was to create this divide between us that makes it understandable how we would behave in other situations with each other, because it all comes from some place going, "Oh, he's old, and [Gad] doesn't know yet." That makes for interesting conflict, and you have to have conflict in order to be funny.
TV: You're both playing versions of yourselves. What do you see as most different about your fictional selves?
JG: I hope to God I'm not this cocky and arrogant in real life.
BC: [Whistles playfully.]
JG: I'm not as universally known as Billy. So I was able to have a lot of differences in my character's life from my real life, like I'm not married on the show. I'm a bit of a philanderer. I have all of these attributes that are not very close to who I am, and I can play those up.
BC: And I'm jealous! [Laughs.] I pretty much maintain what I have and am, but we stretch it out where it gets a little bit more threatened. A little bit more intuitive about things than I really am, also.
What I love about it is it's so creative. It reminds me so much of when I was on SNL. When I was doing the show, I lived on 13th Street off Seventh Avenue. And 30 Rock is 50th and Sixth. I would walk to work often, and by the time I got there, I'd have three or four ideas for a sketch, because I'd heard somebody on the street or something. It's that thing New York gives you. This show gives me that, even though it's a 10-minute drive from my house to the studio. I come in all excited to find stuff for us to do together.
TV: There are elements of sketch comedy in the show. What's appealing about working that format into a sitcom?
BC: We both are live performers. We both live on the stage. We have a terrific home base, The Billy and Josh Show. It's a great set. We set it up so it's a little bit of 8H [where SNL is filmed] and a little bit of what The Flip Wilson Show was years ago. To me that's great, because then the show's unpredictable. It's always going to be something fresh for them to see. I don't think any episode feels the same.
TV: We're in a wonderful era for sketch comedy. What are some sources from either the past or present that you've drawn from for this show?
When you're getting to work alongside somebody who is synonymous with the greatness of Saturday Night Live, it begins and ends with that as being the anchor for what we do. That's what was so enticing for me. When you think of Billy Crystal, you think, "You look mah-velous." You have all of these memories of what great sketch comedy was, as Billy was going through his year — which feels like an eternity! — on Saturday Night Live.
BC: It was only one year!
There was one on last night I didn't even remember being in the sketch. It was an Eddie Murphy show. Larry David is an extra in the sketch, sitting in a deli reading a newspaper, and there's me, Marty [Short], Chris Guest, and Eddie Murphy. I took a picture of it, and I emailed Marty. I said, "Do you remember doing this?" [Chuckles.]
TV: The legendary TV comedy director Larry Charles works on this show. What did he bring to the series?
JG: He set the tone. He directed nine of the 13 episodes but was involved in every single episode. Even the ones he didn't direct, he was on set. When you have the background of Borat, when you have the background of Religulous, when you have the background of Curb Your Enthusiasm, you understand what it is to thread that needle between bold and funny. He was relentless in making sure this checked both of those boxes. He always pushed us, at times when we didn't want to be pushed, to go to places that are uncomfortable. He understands how to get actors there.
BC: We shoot with two cameras, so the choreography is really interesting to watch. It's set up so we can shoot a lot of material in a short period of time, which is great, because then you can go back and change and play. We're never satisfied.
Larry is close to my age, which is great, because that gives him a vernacular that he and I share of minutiae and trivia, steeped in a show business that doesn't exist anymore. The guys we talk about and the moments we remember, it really helps to infuse the younger stuff we do. It's based on a tradition, and it's based on a thing that works.
TV: There's a scene in episode three where you guys run all over a supermarket. What was it like filming that? It seems like it was a crazy day to shoot.
BC: They let us loose.
JG: It was at that moment that we really understood what we were making and what we were doing. This idea that these two guys, despite the fact that they don't necessarily like each other on paper, they connect with each other in ways that they don't even know.
BC: It was nothing actually very good on the page, so I remember I got out to the Valley, and I just went in. I walked on the set and looked around. It's that awful lighting in the place, sort of a low-scale supermarket. I asked to see Larry, and I said, "You know, why don't we just not do that stuff? Once Josh gets here, just let us go." We knew we had to get to this one thing where I'd get arrested, so we had to shoot that. But otherwise, it was like, "Guys, go and do what you want."
That's why cameras are in weird places sometimes. Whatever people think of me, being stoned in a supermarket and doing dildo jokes with French bread and belting [Gad] with an inflatable whale is a fresh thing. And that's all things we just found.
TV: There are moments of real feeling in this show.
JG: That's what makes this show so distinctly unique. It has the crazy comedy, but you'll see as it progresses it goes more and more into this uncomfortable, almost dark place. It's comedy- and tragedy-adjacent, as are a lot of the great comedies.
In that episode, you see the two of us putting all of our insecurities out there with each other. When I look at him and I say, "I'm scared of you," it's coming from a real place of intimidation — which, by the way, is art imitating life imitating art. Working with Billy Crystal, the first couple of times, if not the entire first season, you're intimidated. You're standing next to a legend. You know you have to keep up with him. That's a scary thing.
BC: I never once felt that from you. That's what I love about you. It was instantly, "I get it!" He'll defer to me on certain things, but I know he has an opinion of his own, because he should. He's really smart.
I felt that way with everybody else. Sometimes I felt like, "All right, the other [cast members] are looking at me like an encyclopedia just walked out there." I tried to spend time with them to diffuse that, because I hate that feeling. I found that they were so good that I would go home and say, "I'd better be sharp tomorrow, because they're very good, these people."
TV: Billy, you worked in television in the '70s and '80s. What's most different about the industry now?
BC: I did a show in front of a live audience, and I was one of a cast of too many. So it was different. Here, it feels like I'm making a mini-movie each week.
Soap was a groundbreaking show, and I was part of that. This, I feel like we're breaking boundaries every second that we're able to say or do something with a subject we could never have done back then. For me, the only difference on this show, comparing it with making a movie, is that the director — and this took me a little while to get used to — is not the only voice on the set. The executive producer in television has a very big role. That took me time to get used to.
And my trailer was smaller. [Laughs.]
The Comedians airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. Eastern on FX.