In 2012, when Billy Crystal returned to host the Oscars for the first time in years, he seemed surprised when so many of his jokes – many of them of the same type he deployed so effectively in his '90s hosting heyday – got a muted response from the audience. Again and again, his face seemed to be saying, They all laughed at this stuff before! What's changed? Crystal certainly hadn't, but the culture had changed around him. What had killed in the '90s was mostly dying in the '10s. Timing is everything in comedy, including the era in which you tell certain jokes.
I thought of that Oscar night a lot while watching “The Comedians,” the new FX comedy (it debuts Thursday night at 10) co-starring Crystal and Josh Gad as fictionalized versions of themselves, reluctantly teaming up to star in a show-within-a-show when fictional FX executives decide that Crystal needs more youth appeal and Gad needs more polish. Despite two versatile comic performers at the center, “The Comedians” comes across as the most cutting showbiz satire of 1991. You get it on the air when Crystal is riding high off of “When Harry Met Sally” and “City Slickers” – and, more importantly, before “The Larry Sanders Show,” “Action,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” (at times), “30 Rock,” etc., etc. – and it would seem really surprising and bold. Today, it's a fairly soft, and extremely predictable, lampooning of the industry, and the neurotics who populate it.
At least in the three episodes I've watched, you will see most of the punchlines coming from a mile away, particularly in regards to Gad's knack for doing and saying the worst thing in every possible situation with Crystal. (If I was to tell you, for instance, that a scene opens with Crystal saying that he and his wife are about to finish binging “Breaking Bad,” how would you guess that the scene ends? Yup, exactly like that.)
And the thing is, when Crystal is just allowed to be Crystal – act charming, toss off one-liners, and bust out unexpected celebrity impressions (he does a remarkably good Lewis Black in one of the “Billy & Josh” sketches) – he's really funny. He co-created the series with sitcom vet Ben Wexler, “Seinfeld” and “Curb” alum Larry Charles (who also plays himself on the show), and “Burn Notice” creator Matt Nix (an eclectic group, for sure), and he still knows how to write for himself. But every time Crystal is building up a head of steam, the script requires Gad to screw everything up for both of them, much to Billy's disapproval; the latter is meant to be the primary source of humor in the scene, and the series, but it's the set-up that winds up being the most appealing part of the show(*).
(*) Second most-appealing part: “Mad TV” alum Stephnie Weir as Crystal and Gad's nervous producer. The character is, like most of “The Comedians,” a very familiar type, but Weir brings so much strange energy to the role that she transcends the stereotype. This is Weir's first series regular role since ABC's real-time wedding comedy “Big Day” back in the '06-'07 TV season, and comedy people need to hire her far more often than they have.
In that way, the parts of “The Comedians” that work help explain why Crystal was so flummoxed at his most recent Academy Awards stint. While a few of his bits (say, his Sammy Davis Jr. impression) should probably be retired for good, he's still got it when placed in the right context, and when given better material than he got at those Oscars. “The Comedians” just doesn't present the best context often enough. The series is presented as documentary about the making of “Billy & Josh,” as we watch its two stars snipe at each other while all around them struggle to do their jobs properly. Watching it, I found myself wishing I could watch a documentary about the making of “The Comedians,” not because I was interested in the process behind the series, but because I wanted to see Crystal and Gad interact – discussing both the things they have in common (voicing beloved animated characters, starring on Broadway) as well as how comedy has changed between their generations – away from the awkward and predictable schtick they're given.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com