Monday, April 6, 2015

FX Books THE COMEDIANS

Billy Crystal annoyed the heck out of me in two of three interviews we did.  That aside, he is a master at making people laugh.  He's a TV, film and Broadway comedy performer beloved by millions.  The late 1970s sitcom star returns to TV in a new sitcom for FX.
Crystal plays a fictionalized version of himself in THE COMEDIANS.  The other half of this unlikely comedy duo, also playing a fictionalized version of himself, is JOSH GAD.  Kids all across the country know his voice.  He did Olaf in Disney's Frozen.  Billy and Josh are comic actors from two different generations who must work together on a weekly sketch comedy series or else the network won't greenlight 13 episodes of the new show.  The Comedians is a mockumentary sitcom.
I was very excited to meet Billy Crystal when I was new in my professional TV career.  I worked on the ABC affiliate in Milwaukee as the co-host of a live weekday magazine show.    Crystal was on tour in Milwaukee in the summer of '84 and we taped an interview while he was in town.  He was terrific on the ABC sitcom Soap as one of network TV's openly gay characters.  I had a great appreciation for his Soap work because I am...shall we say....heterosexually-challenged.  Jodie, the name of the character Crystal played, was very significant.  He was a complicated sitcom character who evolved.  He wasn't a one-note caricature.  Crystal was excellent in the role.

In person, Billy Crystal was funny.  But he was also cranky and self-absorbed.  I couldn't get to what I wanted to -- the groundbreaking importance of his Soap performance.  He seemed reluctant to talk about it.  He was "on" and doing one-liners (peppered with insult comedy jabs at me), which was fine for the Milwaukee TV audience.  He went on to bigger stardom as a Saturday Night Live regular.  I went on to a TV career in New York City and eventually landed a gig on VH1.  I interviewed him again, this time for VH1 in 1988.  The second time was like the first time, only he was even crankier and more annoying.  By the time our third interview took place, he'd received a standing ovation for his work as host of The Oscars®.  That apparently calmed his soul down considerably.  Our 1997 interview went smoothly.

His When Harry Met Sally (1989) and City Slickers (1991) were hit movie comedies.  He was younger then.  In 2012, the last time Crystal hosted the Oscars, he opened with a montage and his work played a bit dated.  On Twitter, young viewers were angry that he did blackface.  I winced when I saw it too.  I knew he was doing his Sammy Davis, Jr. imitation, as he'd done on SNL in the 1980s.  Today's younger viewers probably didn't know that.  It was a very "Old School" host job.  Over the years, I found myself wishing Crystal would exercise some new muscles in his films.  Try something dramatic like Red Buttons did They Shoot Horses, Don't They?  Buttons' supporting performance as the aging sailor trying to win a grueling Depression Era dance marathon is one of the best in that 1969 Sydney Pollack classic.  Or do a role like the late Robin Williams did in Good Will Hunting.  Plus there's the diversity aspect.  Audiences are diverse and now demanding diversity.  Crystal loves famous black entertainers and famous black athletes but he hasn't really geared his work to attract black and Latino people into his audiences.  Compare his material to that of, say, Louis C.K. or Ellen DeGeneres.  Crystal's audience is predominantly white folks, most of whom may now be AARP cardholders.  You never saw guys like Key & Peele or comedian/actor Craig Robinson (from NBC's The Office) as the best buddies in a Billy Crystal comedy.  In a Seth Rogen comedy like This Is The End, you see Craig Robinson and Aziz Ansari in the mix.

Those are points to remember while watching The Comedians.

Crystal is fresher here.  By lampooning himself as a veteran funnyman who is no longer relevant, he becomes more contemporary than he's been in quite a while.  He plays a comedian of a bygone era -- one who is forced to team up with a young actor who wants "Latinos and blacks" in his audiences.  The older comedian likes to really punch a punchline and, like a 1950s Milton Berle-type TV comic, he'll do drag in a heartbeat for a laugh.  When Josh and Billy have an awkward dinner meeting in a Beverly Hills restaurant, Billy does imitations of Jerry Lewis at the table.  The humor is lost on the politely clueless Josh.  Billy fakes sincerity and compliments Gad on his performance in the Broadway hit musical comedy, The Book of Mormon.  The flattered young actor tells Crystal that he should try Broadway some time, not knowing that Crystal won a Tony for his one-man autobiographical show, 700 Sundays.
This is an Old School vs. New School odd couple.  The Comedians is the best TV use of talented Josh Gad I've seen so far.  NBC's 1600 Penn, a sitcom about a wacky White House family, lasted about a month.  Gad played the dorky White House son.  His best big screen assignment so far was voicing Olaf in Disney's Frozen.  He was in the awful comedy, The Wedding Ringer, opposite Kevin Hart.  You could see Gad's theatrical training and stage experience as he worked hard to lift that deadwood script.  The Comedians is a good showcase for his off-center comedy.

It's a welcomed sight to see Crystal stretch.  He plays the unflattering yet human side of a character who wrestles with a demon many do whether we're famous or not -- and that is how to remain relevant and employed when we get older.

On the diversity side, the second episode centers on Billy reluctantly inviting Josh over to his home to watch a baseball game with the boys.  Crystal's one black friend?  The famous former boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard.  In the writers' room scenes, there's not one black person on the sketch show's writing staff.   Dana Delany plays Mrs. Billy Crystal.  I totally dig Stephnie Weir as the neurotic and nervous Kristin, the show's production exec who once had an intense sexual relationship with the director when she was a production assistant and the director was a married man.  Steven Weber also co-stars.  He's quite memorable in the second episode.

As Josh Gad says in the premiere half-hour, "Comedy is like heart surgery.  It gets botched.  All the time."  Botched comedy could be lots of laughs on FX's The Comedians.  We'll see.  The first episode was good.  The second was even better. The Comedians premieres April 9th at 10pm on FX.

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