Why ‘Difficult People’ works: Some of us actually talk like that

09.08.15 2 years ago

“Difficult People” succeeds where “Looking” failed: It speaks my language.

Hulu's new comedy, which has officially been renewed for a second season, is more than a look at two misanthropic New York comics (played by Billy Eichner and show creator Julie Klausner) as they attempt to succeed despite their burnout instincts. It's also about characters who seem like, um, actual friends, and that means every one of their jokes isn't algorithmically designed to please the most 18-34 demo eyeballs. 

“Difficult People” values the cynicism, sincerity, and pop culture exultation of its characters and chooses to mine those for laughs instead of the same old pile of self-deprecating asides and awkward silences. It's not about easy references to Disney princesses and “Mean Girls” for the clickbait generation; it's about adults who understand (and sometimes misunderstand, in the case of Julie's much-discussed R. Kelly tweet) the merit in their immaturity. 

A new episode goes up on Hulu tonight at midnight. Here's why you should catch up.

It realizes pop culture is good for more than a punchline.

Julie, a professional TV recapper, and Billy, a struggling standup, routinely detour into banal conversations about pop culture, and those moments are the show's most believable. So far the show has turned the following queries into engaged debates: How do you pronounce “Yeardley Smith”? Why did Jon Bon Jovi say his favorite cuss word was “piece of f*ck” on “Inside the Actors Studio”? What's with Susan Sarandon's ping pong fixation, and does Geena Davis have an opinion about it?

Unlike most sitcom characters, Julie and Billy seem human because they enjoy distracting themselves from their problems instead of fixating on them for story's sake. I think it's “YARDley,” by the way.

Eichner's character Billy Epstein is a new kind of gay character: the kind who makes fun of contrived gay TV characters

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Here's what HBO's “Looking” never got right: Gay men, especially those who congregate at hip San Francisco raves in the woods, are not self-serious enough to maintain a sense of humdrum melodrama in their lives. As a scene, twentysomething and thirtysomething gay men tend to be irreverent, gregarious, and happily conspiratorial (with a few resistant “No labels!” types thrown in). Epstein is annoyed by certain gay men like his flighty coworker Matthew (Cole Escola), but he also enjoys an understanding with him. Their rapport is much like Cher and Amber's in “Clueless”: Rancor abounds, sure, but there's also a begrudged sense of empathy that gives their most vicious moments a fraternal twist. 

It constantly slams other TV shows. 

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Whether or not you agree with Julie and Billy's cultural appraisals, it's a thrill watching them discuss the lameness of TV while on TV. They once passed time at a party by agreeing that HBO really messed up in choosing “John from Cincinnati” over “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.” In episode six, Billy made a slick joke at Woody Allen's expense: “He paid so many dues and finally got what he always wanted: an Amazon series.” Don't forget the time they agreed that they don't care about Chelsea Handler's new Netflix show or Daniel Tosh's continued relevance. Nothing is off limits. I wouldn't be surprised if they cracked a joke about Hulu by the season finale. They've taken Liz Lemon's sardonic NBC disparagement on “30 Rock” and shoehorned it into casual plebeian rapport.

It gives worthy guest-stars the perfect opportunity to let loose. 

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So far on the first season of “Difficult People,” we've enjoyed the following guest-star spectacles: Kate McKinnon cameo'd as a proudly sober magician named Abra Cadouglas; Ana Gasteyer appeared as a hyperventilating woman who thinks everyone is fixated on her botched eyebrows; Fred Armisen went quaint as Billy's clean-cut older brother; Amy Sedaris was a delirious Sports Authority saleswoman; Debbie Harry offered up some coke. It's like “Difficult People” created the perfect list of talents we wish starred on everything and let them have as much fun as they wanted.  

Finally: Andrea Martin is Julie's disapproving mother, and oh, how we've missed Andrea Martin.

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Unfortunate fact: Not everyone appreciates or even knows about Andrea Martin's brilliant Brenda Vaccaro parody from “SCTV.” Fortunate fact: She is a timeless great and is fantastic as Julie's grimly dismissive mother. “My daughter is a comedian,” she opines, “And that's part of the reason I don't have grandchildren — and you have to laugh!” She's both no-nonsense and unfair. The perfect mother. 

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