The two stars of “The Comedians” are mighty good. The premise they’re given to work with, though, has its limits.
In the show, which begins Thursday night on FX ahead of “Louie,” Billy Crystal and Josh Gad play versions of themselves in a fake story line: FX pairs them against their will in a new comedy show. Filmed partially in mockumentary style, “The Comedians” depicts the behind-the-scenes process of creating the sketch series “The Billy & Josh Show.” (And yes, the order of the names becomes a point of contention.)
Crystal has worn so many hats – stand-up comic, awards-show host, monologuist, voice artist in animated films – that we sometimes don’t think of him as an actor. But he can be a skilled one, and he is here, playing a legend whose best work is perhaps behind him.
As “The Comedians” opens, this semifake Billy is hoping to sell FX a one-man series, which we see just enough of to realize that it would be embarrassing. In rejecting that pitch, network executives suggest he team up with a younger actor, Gad.
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That’s insulting enough, but the unkindest cuts come when Josh meets Billy.
“When I found out Billy Crystal wanted to work with me,” he tells Billy, “nobody was more excited than my grandparents.”
Gad made a name for himself as part of the original Broadway cast of “The Book of Mormon,” then as the voice of “Olaf” in “Frozen,” with a stint in the failed NBC sitcom “1600 Penn” along the way. Crystal, of course, has extensive credits that also include a Broadway hit, the one-man show “700 Sundays.”
Semifake Billy and semifake Josh drop references to these real-life résumés constantly in “The Comedians” as they try to one-up each other while battling over the show they’re supposed to be creating together. They agree on almost nothing, and the support staff – the director, the costume designer and so on – pay the price, collateral damage in an ego war.
This works best for Crystal’s character, who has a believable sense of entitlement stemming from all his career accomplishments and a corresponding indifference toward office receptionists and such. It’s less successful for Gad’s version of himself, because this Josh never seems to learn how to keep his foot out of his mouth. You’d think that after inadvertently insulting his new partner two or three times by being unaware of his credentials, Josh would edit himself a bit.
So the Josh half of this show’s central joke grows a little tedious. In truth, so does the Billy half; he’s too resistant to too many things for scant reason.
But Crystal and Gad play it gamely, and the proceedings are enlivened by an enjoyable collection of guest stars, like Steven Weber, Joe Torre and Mel Brooks. How meta is this show? Brooks, in Episode 4, advises his friend Billy not to try to book a big-name guest on “The Billy & Josh Show” because it would distract the audience from the title characters. Brooks, of course, steals the episode.