Summary: Had the right ingredients and actors to be a very funny show that could have provided insight into comedy writing, but lacked the proper portions, lacked good writing and only offered cliched takes on themes already examined in depth by better shows.
In researching this show I just read it was cancelled two days ago. Not surprising. The two key stars were Josh Gad and Billy Crystal, and it was directed by Larry Charles (writer, Seinfeld, 5 seasons). Some solid entertainment and comedic experience, so what happened?
I watched every show and rarely chucked. I did chuckle, but mostly just sat and experienced something that should have succeeded, and turned out to hold my attention only because I wanted to understand what wasn’t working. It’s an effective study on how not to do comedy. It should not have been surprising because in my opinion most comedy shows are not funny, are formulaic, and sometimes only appear to be funny because of a laugh track. For an interesting take on this, search for Big Bang Theory and “no laugh track” on YouTube. Watch that video. I don’t like Bing Bang Theory, despite it being hugely popular, because a) it’s not funny, b) is often lazy and hits obvious comedic marks, and c) it portrays “geeks” as others want to see them. It’s not even a good homage. But that’s another review.
The premise is that Billy Crystal (Soap, Monsters, Inc, When Harry Met Sally, and on and on) and Josh Gad (Frozen, Book of Mormon) are fictional versions of themselves and are uncomfortably partnered in a new TV sketch show. The first episode starts with the firing of Larry Charles as a director (fictionally), and Crystal’s discomfort of having to work with someone who does not share his sense of comedy history; someone who has not had the accolades that Crystal has earned. Then add the wacky (yes..) people on staff and some surprisingly blue comedy. As the show goes on, predictably, Billy starts to warm to Josh, and Josh starts to understand the historical importance of comedy legends like Crystal, and the develop a mutual respect.
One standout on the show for me was Stephnie Weir (Mad TV). Her manic, Kristen character nearly always delivered lines perfectly and made otherwise bland material hit its mark. I recently saw her on a Key and Peele as Hillary Clinton’s anger other and it didn’t click that she was likely not on the Comedians anymore (due to cancellation). Another was Matt Oberg as the head writer, high on himself, vulnerable, but not able to earn the respect of his writing staff nor Billy and Josh. Megan Ferguson played Esme on the show, a personal assistant to the others, and her character was copy-cat character of the young, disaffected, somewhat promiscuous staff member who didn’t like her job, rolled her eyes a lot, but had to answer to the whims of the more important cast members.
I watched every show, much to the surprise of my family, trying to figure out what the heck wasn’t working. They even commented “isn’t this a comedy? why aren’t you laughing? why do you keep watching this?” Bottom line is that it should have worked. Here’s my take on it, in a nice bulleted list –
- Sort of a rip off of Curb Your Enthusiasm – but while that show is mainly improv, this show, I believe, was written to look like improvisational dialogue but felt like it was scripted.
- Josh Gad always plays a somewhat bipolar, loud, crazy character with an attitude. In the new movie Pixels (which I have not seen yet), he seems to play the exact same character. Maybe Gad is a one trick pony, though certainly talented.
- Billy Crystal is funny, but he is given material that is not funny. Just not funny. The few times I laughed, it looked like some improvisation that Billy and Josh were doing (sitting on the floor of a grocery store, eating from cereal boxes after a drug-induced manic run through the store, Josh says to Billy quietly “you scare me”, which made me laugh, and you could see Billy genuinely laughed at the comment). More moments like that would have been wonderful.
- Billy is gifted enough to shift from slapstick humor to speaking poignantly and seriously about some heartfelt topic. In one scene, he discusses his childhood and his nervousness about his career, even now, and his need for positive reinforcement. It’s about an 8 minute speech to Gad and was wonderful. Was it written or improvised? Can’t tell. More of this sort of thing would have balanced the show and provided the insight that I expected from this “insider’s look at comedy”.
- The very first show, they fire Larry Charles and bring in Steven Weber (Wings). I was excited as Weber has great comedic timing and is a solid actor. But rather than use him as the glue between the two leads, they make him into a transgender who used to date Stephnie Weir’s character – for ONE show – and then he is fired. The first part of the show is Weir trying to avoid Weber due to embarrassment of the previous relationship. What if they had fallen for each other as lesbians? I dunno, Weir sort of acted like that could have been a possibility. All we saw was a one or two line tease and Weir’s odd reactions.
- The fictional skits on the show were not funny.
- The show quickly moved to blue. Gad was usually quick to move to dirty language, humor, inappropriateness. Now it was a clever idea to have Crystal uncomfortable with this and even comment on it, but though the writers understood people’s dscomfort with it, they continued to make it a key part of the show. “I Want to Lick an Old Man” (or something like that) was a show tune sung by Gad to Crystal as an old man, which culminated in Gad (you guessed it) licking Crystal on the face. A well written, well sung song that at its core was not funny and really just uncomfortable.
- Continued references to pot smoking, being high, etc. And while part of culture these days, and certainly part of entertainment culture, it showed up too many times for no apparent reason other than maybe to appear “hip”?
- The now cliched lingering camera shot, where the dialogue ends with some line that is supposed to be funny, and the camera either lingers on the person who said the funny line, or moves to the reaction shot of the other person and stays on them for about 10 seconds in an effort to milk an emotional response. When done well, works well, but used excessively on this show.
Toward the later part of the season, a thread developed that was interesting where Gad and some of his slacker friends, while smoking pot in Gad’s dressing room, made hurtful comments about Crystal being old and washed up. Crystal enters the room unexpectedly and you don’t know whether he heard the conversation or not. And then he may have not, but then he maybe he did. Gad panics and engages Weir, who, in her classic way, panics and they come up with a scheme to figure out whether Crystal heard this or not. The whole setup was well written, the emotions both Crystal, Weir and Gad went through were good ones. It spilled into the season finale and you didn’t know where it was going – and then was wrapped up well. So maybe this show would have morphed into something better? Unless it’s picked up by another network, we’ll never know.
And as mentioned, Stephnie Weir is comedic gold. Her character, a very odd mix of insecurity and depression, was played perfectly. In one episode there’s a clever bit where her dog dies and she is very sad because the dog has been around for a while. But then as talked about her dog to the camera, she starts to realize that the dog has had terrible incontinence for a long time and has been tearing up her house and making her life miserable. Thus she’s crying at the beginning of the dialogue and then realizes it’s quite a relief to have lost this pet. And in fact, she further realizes that the dog was given to her by a former flame, so not having the dog will remove the painful memories that she went through during their breakout. She ultimately is happy that the dog died, and relieved not to have it or any pet around anymore. And the end of the episode, Gad and Crystal buy her a puppy as a thank you gift. The camera lingers on Weir and her reactions (up and down, and crazed glances, and laughing but then her eyes show pain) are funny and heartbreaking at once.
There’s an interesting episode, though again a bit cliched, about a black writer being brought on the show and suggesting some pretty potentially polarizing skits about the KKK and using the “N” word. They eventually pass on this writer, who uses the same skit on another show, and it kills. But the premise was interesting if it had been played out better.
Thus, after all this, the Monkey has to give this show 2.5 stars out of 5. It’s watchable and interesting, but haphazard and not funny. If anything, for future comedy writers, it’s a study on why just putting two funny people together doesn’t result in effective comedy.