Art is a form of communication; a way to express feelings between people in a way that makes sense to the parties involved. This communication does not work without honesty. The paradox that has ailed the media industry is that any time you factor money into something, a certain amount of honesty is generally stripped from it.
Many directors start off so strong and then end up making The Martian, or some self-reflective television show about the life of an aging comedian, which is apparently the peak of success in the comedy world because they keep popping up all over the place. One show in particular stood out to me, a mockumentary styled sketch show, The Comedians, starring Billy Crystal and Josh Gad as themselves.
While The Comedians tries very hard and pulls many teeth in a vain attempt to express the honesty of their true to life performances, its failure rings as a cry for help. Billy Crystal and Josh Gad would love to be real with you, but have no idea how to do so, and it’s fascinating.
I discovered the show from Marc Maron’s two hour interview with Billy Crystal on his podcast. The former regular Oscar host spent a hefty amount of time complaining about how his new FX show got canceled within its first season, and lamented that he hadn’t been catered to how Louis CK was with his show, Louie. Annoyed with the complete lack of humility, I knew at that moment I had no other choice but to hate watch the show.
It stars Billy Crystal as the old, seemingly out of touch comedian, and Josh Gad as the up and coming rising star, hot off Broadway and plowing through Disney tent poles. I wish that The Comedians got picked up for a Season 2 just so we could have a really dark episode exploring the pain of being Olaf, and the shame of having the fruit of your loins, in this case Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, being criticized so universally. I just want it to be a 23 min long wide shot of Josh Gad crying in a corner, tearing his hair out every few minutes. But alas, the network wasn’t “fair” and pulled the plug early.
Having been thrown together by lazy network executives, these two knuckleheads struggle to make a sketch comedy but continuously butt heads at every turn. Hilarity ensues?
As these shows often do, Billy and Josh don’t shy away from portraying themselves as typical show business ass holes. We have Billy Crystal as the guy who wants his protein shake blended with proper amount of whey delivered to him every day at the same time, and Josh Gad as the homophobic and racist egomaniac.
One episode goes as far as to point out how incredibly not diverse their show is, so they hire a token black guy to write for the show, and of course, by the end of the episode, the new writer becomes so frustrated with the casual racism of his coworkers that he quits. Let’s not forget that Billy Crystal donned black face during the 2012 Oscar’s ceremony to remind us of his ‘amazing’ Sammy Davis Jr. impression.
That was the year that Billy Crystal became synonymous with the concept of an unchanging and desperate Hollywood, and it runs as a theme in the show. In one of the final episodes, Billy bombs a stand-up set while performing for college kids. Josh Gad consistently sticks it to Billy that he is washed up and needs to update his humor, and because of this many of Billy’s old tired shtick is blasted.
Yet, the best scene in the show, comes to a screeching halt from a Sammy Davis Jr. joke. As the camera holds on Billy Crystal’s smug face, all the hard work of his character arc comes crashing inward, because while this is supposed to be a show about an old man struggling to come to terms with the fact he’s not at the top of his game anymore, he can’t stop himself.
Because he himself doesn’t believe in the show, whether he grasps that or not.
The first time in the show that we get to see one of Billy & Josh’s comedy sketch, I cringed so hard I broke my jaw. To save you some time, the joke is that Josh makes food for Billy out of a human penis. Upon learning this, Billy vomits all over Josh, and asks to eat something else. The next thing he eats is of course made of another human penis, and Billy l vomits again. Then the scene repeats itself ad infinitum.
The episode continues without really answering the question on your mind: Are we as an audience supposed to find this funny?
Each episode onward begins with a sketch from the world’s most forced comedy duo and you can only assume that you are meant to laugh.
Yet within the universe of the show, The Billy & Josh Show is a failure. The President of FX does not want them to continue it. Few people really believe in them, and their show is so poorly handled it makes sense that it would get canceled.
Essentially, while The Comedians consistently tries to show us how funny it is, they tell us that they are in fact not funny. But the arc of the whole show is that Billy needs to listen more and let go of his archaic humor, and Josh must relax his millennial tendencies and stop yelling “COCKS!” as some minimalist take on humor. Yet they still want us to laugh with them at their shtick because as artists, they have little else to offer. They are unwilling to change which begs the question as to why they even wanted to take on such a meta concept for a show.
When Billy & Josh fire the only black character in the entire timeline of the show, they are not only losing a member of their fictional writing staff, they are literally shutting someone out because of their race and keeping the show as white as possible, and it is the most honest moment in the entire show. While they likely found the scene to be a funny way to explore their inner phobias, the scene speaks volumes of their true character.
These two actors are titans. Billy Crystal’s massive filmography has made him one of the most iconic stand-ups of all time, and Josh Gad’s career has rapidly been picking up speed, from starring in one of the most attended shows in Broadway history to voicing the comedy relief of one of the world’s highest grossing movies.
Neither of them can really be stopped, and due to being white rich cismen, even if something were to injure their career, they would be okay. But they are still terrified. Because deep inside, behind all the fame and glamour, they know that something’s not working, something they can’t make an excuse for.
When the real versions of themselves toyed with the idea of diversifying their own show, they quickly cast it aside as a joke, because if they were to actually hire someone who had a different perspective from them, their egos just might implode.
Yet I still sat down and endured all thirteen episodes and helped them scrape in some of that sweet ad revenue. I found myself lured in by this bizarre dichotomy that was rumbling through an otherwise dumb show. It is as if Billy Crystal and Josh Gad produced the show and guided the story from this very detached view of themselves. They failed to understand that these jokes they performed came from something within them, something ugly that they could change.
The show ends with Billy Crystal and Josh Gad walking into the light for their possible final taping, the fate of the show unknown to anyone. The characters are aware of the problems that might get them canceled, and even as a Creator, Billy Crystal told Marc Maron that he knew the first few episodes of the show were weak and it took them quite a bit to find the voice of the show.
We can only assume that The Billy & Josh Show got canceled, as did The Comedians. Simultaneously in one fell swoop they were destroyed. An act of life imitating art, although Billy Crystal would probably tell you it was the other way around.
But there is hope. We are stronger than them.
Olaf’s Frozen Adventure didn’t get pulled from theaters for nothin’.