Watching Billy Crystal Pitch His Comedy Has Never Been Funnier

You shouldn't miss out on the first – and only – season of 'Comedians,' starring Crystal and fellow comedian Josh Gad.

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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Josh Gad (left) and Billy Crystal star in 'The Comedians.' Well worth watching.Credit: Screenshot
Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

Israeli TV providers and programmers – Yes and HOT – know only too well that they are not the only source for local viewing fare, with all the streaming possibilities out there (in the U.S., mainly). They are fully aware that their schedule – which allows for commercial breaks, which means income – is becoming a non-factor faster than you can say “new series.”

That is why, with every high-profile new series or season, like “True Detective” or “Fargo,” they make a point – Yes is much more adept at this than HOT – of running it concurrently with its U.S. broadcast. If this means scheduling the initial show at 04:00 or some other ungodly hour, they also schedule reruns at more reasonable hours.

They don’t go to such lengths with second-tier material, like sitcoms or comedy shows (luminaries like Louis C.K. and rising young stars like Amy Schumer are an exception). Here, they take their time in scheduling it. And that, it turns out with the show I’m going to tell you about, can lead to a somewhat weird situation.

Last Wednesday (September 9), at 22:30, on Yes Oh and Yes VOD we had a chance to watch the first of 13 episodes of a brand-new comedy show, produced for FX, “The Comedians.” And let me tell you, it’s well worth watching, because in its lopsided way it is a tribute to the genre of American comedy, in its “live,” “real” (whatever those two adjectives mean nowadays) and TV incarnations.

First of all, it stars Billy Crystal, the funny, self-deprecating nice guy who starred in “When Harry Met Sally,” “City Slickers” and “Analyze That!” (among many other movies). For Crystal, a simple man’s’ Woody Allen, this is his first time on regular TV since he played one of the first openly gay characters on prime-time television – as Jodie in “Soap,” from 1977 to 1981.

But as the plural of the title gives away, Crystal, a TV, stage and screen comedy icon, who could be resting contentedly on his well-earned laurels by now, teams up with a sidekick, a sort of Hardy to his Laurel. This is Josh Gad, one of the stars of Broadway’s “The Book of Mormon.” Gad is a chubby, up-and-coming comedian, born in 1981, four years after the debut of “Soap.” This concept of the (fatal?) attraction of opposites is supposedly the main asset of the new series.

That, however, is just the beginning. The series is another one in a trend in which the TV camera sort of performs an 180-degree turn and looks behind the scenes and at itself. Like the vintage “Larry Sanders’ Show” and more recent “selfie” series like “Newsroom,” “Episodes” or “UnREAL,” this one is about pitching, devising, writing, filming, producing and marketing a fictional comedy series entitled “The Billy and Josh Show,” starring the “real” Billy Crystal and Josh Gad as their fictional – slightly, but not much exaggerated – selves, as produced by a fictional network called FX, which very much resembles the real FX network that commissioned and produced “The Comedians.” Confused? You won’t be in the next episode, etc.

Icon and has-been

On mentioning Billy Crystal earlier, I’ve used the adjective “self-deprecating,” and this seems to me to be the key concept here. It provides a sort of safety net to the two tightrope walkers of comedy – Crystal and Gad – who venture into the arena up there above our heads from two opposing ends of a timeline.

Billy Crystal plays an icon who is also a has-been (a “Sunshine Boy,” to borrow a nickname from the Neil Simon play about a bickering comedy duo who lived past their sell-by date). He’s trying to pitch a one-man (Billy) comedy show, only to be told (by the fictional FX programming boss, who much resembles – so I’ve read online – the real thing) that there is “too much of him” in it. In the fictional pilot for the “Billy Show” there is a great take-off on the famous orgasm scene from “When Harry Met Sally,” but I won’t tell you about it so as not to spoil your potential fun.

The gist of the series is that Crystal and Gad are forced by the FX programming bosses to work together, to be funny on screen and have fun while doing it. For every gag or funny line by Crystal, we get a reaction on screen in a sort of aside from Gad, and vice versa. In a way, it’s very effective: If we like the Crystal quip, we can look with benign amusement at Gad’s response and tell ourselves “ah, these young comedians, what do they know about life (and comedy)?” When, on other hand, we think Crystal looks like a comic relic (and not a relief) from the past, Gad immediately seconds and voices our opinion, but sort of accepts it and fits it into the overall premise.

Thirteen episodes have them struggling on and off camera, hiring and firing fictional comedy writers, performers and directors – all of them playing themselves, like Mel Brooks and Rob Reiner – and gradually coming to terms with an uneasy relationship, wrinkles and all, each wrinkle magnified and milked for maximum comic effect. It is all sort of through a looking glass (OK, LCD or plasma screen) and what Billy and Josh had found there.

The answer to the question implied earlier is, I’m pretty sorry to tell you, is not much. That is why I wrote that the fact that Israeli TV providers lagged behind FX in scheduling it (it premiered in the U.S. in April 2015) makes it weird. By now we know that the real FX nixed the series and it won’t have a second season, even if part of its plot is about getting a second season.

So, in a way, this is a brand-new series running in Israel, while it is already a corpse, DOA, in TV terms. On the other hand, based on episode one, it’s going to be quite a pleasurable, and sometimes genuinely funny, post-mortem for TV comedy in general, and those comedians in particular. And nowadays, having a reason to laugh a little is not something to be laughed at.