When it comes to FX’s original programming, it’s difficult to imagine the bar being any higher than it’s already been raised. Between critical favorites like Fargo and The Americans and absurd, raunchy and vulgar comedies like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Louie and Archer, the cable network has changed the way that this generation looks at television. And even as iconic series like Sons of Anarchy and Justified have come and gone, FX has opened a wide door for smarter, funnier, edgier and far more daring programming like the upcoming The Bastard Executioner and You’re the Worst (which more people should be watching).
Making its debut on Thursday at 10 p.m. EST is The Comedians, a ballsy and meta remake of Sweden’s Ulveson and Herngren that stars Billy Crystal and Josh Gad as a comedy odd couple. They’re also playing fictionalized versions of themselves learning to work together on this FX series within an FX series (the president of FX on the show is even based on John Landgraf), so we’re being offered a behind-the-scenes look at the kind of behavior and celebrity insecurities that can tank a series from within. The men pulling back the curtains are Ben Wexler and Matt Nix, and it’s safe to assume that this show is in good hands.
Nix is the man responsible for the popular USA series Burn Notice, while Wexler has worked on comedy fan favorites like Community and Arrested Development. They also worked together on Fox’s gone-too-soon buddy cop comedy The Good Guys, but now they’ll have a chance to succeed at FX, a network that seemingly has no boundaries. When we caught up with Nix and Wexler, they had just debuted two episodes of The Comedians to a favorable response at SXSW.
Let’s say we’re walking to a Starbucks, how would you pitch the show on that walk?
Ben: Well, first of all, it’s actually a hard show to pitch, but I’ll do my best. It’s a behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of a sketch comedy show on FX starring Billy Crystal and Josh Gad. And that pitch probably leaves a bunch of holes in it. But it’s basically Billy and Josh are playing versions of themselves, and we get to see behind-the-scenes of this show within the show that we also see actual sketches of. I think I just did a horrible job of that.
Matt: No, no, that sounds all right.
Ben: Yeah, we see the documentary footage, the making of the show. We see snippets of the show. And we see little snippets of Billy and Josh’s life outside of the production.
How did you guys come up with the idea for this series?
Ben: It was based on Ulveson and Herngren, a Swedish series that ran about ten episodes a few years ago. Producer Mikkel Bondesen from Fabrik Entertainment came to me actually; Mikkel and I knew each other through Matt (Matt and I are old friends) and said, “Take a look at this show.” Matt and I both looked at it and we said, “We want to do this.” The bones of that show were similar to what we’re doing. We obviously took liberties with the tone and, obviously, with the characters. But that was the show that starred two guys who were kind of famous comedians in Sweden as themselves doing sketches, and we thought it was hilarious. Then, Billy saw it and also thought it was hilarious, and then Larry David, and we all came together.
Matt: We maintained the idea of a generational divide of the comedians from the Swedish show. But I’d say that’s probably, in terms of the real storytelling DNA, that’s probably the biggest thing that stayed.
Creating and developing this series, have you pulled from your own behind-the-scenes experiences, or is a lot of this purely fictional stories that you have floated around in your heads?
Ben: The stories come from various places in our group because obviously Matt and I are not the only folks who work on this show who have experience in Hollywood. Billy has been a treasure trove of not just details from his own life and what it’s like to be Billy Crystal, but places and stories can go on this show. I think the thing that’s fun about doing this version of the show is that we’re working with a comic legend who is a known quantity. And so if we didn’t have Billy as a creative voice on the show, it wouldn’t ring true, because he actually knows what it’s like to put on a tux and have to host an award show, which becomes subject matter on our show.
So, yeah, the amount of material, it feels like it’s a gift that never stops giving because we are talking about a world that we know really well, and we actually have it. I would say the answer to that question is, yes, we do draw on our own experience quite a bit.
Matt: Also, I think one of the greatest things about doing the show, whenever we hit a roadblock or a challenge or we have a disagreement or anything like that, any drama associated with the making of the show, like the end of every one of those conversations is, “We should put this on the show.” A lot of that has actually made it in because every show, you have to hash things out.
Ben: We actually had something happen on set while we were filming Episode 1 that became the subject matter for Episode 10.
Matt: That’s great.
Ben: This crazy thing happened on set, and we all turned to each other and said, “This is an episode.” And I wrote it and shot it. It was both really funny when it happened and I dare say really funny in the show version, as well. You don’t get to work on too many shows where you’re generating material as you’re making the show.
When you developed the idea from this Swedish show, did you already have Billy Crystal and Josh Gad in mind?
Ben: I think Billy was already involved, or I think Billy was already interested when we saw the show. So, I think after Mikkel showed us the Swedish show, the next step was to sit down and meet with Billy Crystal because he’s interested in doing this show. That went incredibly well and was also, for Matt and me, just a lot of fun to meet a guy who we grew up watching and loving. Once that was set, we talked about who the other guy would be. Josh was the first and last guy we met with. He came into Billy’s office and met with all of us on a Saturday. We sat with him for two or three hours, and it was like watching two guys who had known each other forever. It was instantly clear that the rapport between the two guys was just perfect. And this was our guy. It was a remarkably easy casting process.
What is like working with somebody like Billy who is a comedy legend?
Ben: One thing about working with Billy is it’s very difficult to tell Billy Crystal what’s funny. He has pretty well-formed opinions about that. It’s so remarkably fun and gratifying. Honestly, if you put me in a time machine so I could talk to my 14-year-old self and tell him that I even know Billy Crystal, I don’t think he would believe me. Not only does he, as a performer, elevate anything we can write, but also he is playing Billy Crystal, which means he actually knows this character better than we ever possibly could. It’s a mind-bending experience. And it’s a lot of fun.
You also shot an episode with Mel Brooks.
Ben: We shot it. It’s great. We can’t wait for it to air. That was literally the thrill of a lifetime to be sitting in a room with Mel Brooks and Billy Crystal, watching them enter. It was incredible. He was pitching to Billy and Josh that they play Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom in a re-revival of The Producers. He was so gracious and so funny and sharp. It was an absolute thrill.
What was the chemistry like between Billy and Josh in the beginning? And did it take any time for them to get used to each other’s comedic talent?
Ben: I think they’re still getting used to each other’s comedic talent in the best way possible, because they keep each other off-balanced in a way that is really important for our show, because our show is about walking that fine line between the true friendship that these two guys and these characters have, and also the battle for supremacy in the show. I would say not only did they quickly get along when they first met, but it was like watching guys who knew each other for years. They genuinely make each other laugh.
In the show, Josh has this tendency to try to touch Billy or hug Billy or touch Billy’s face, and Billy is genuinely put off and then freaked out by that. There’s a certain dynamic between them that actually does exist, where Josh is constantly pushing Billy’s buttons and pushing him out of his comfort zone that is both natural for the way those guys exist as people and as characters. It’s really one of the funniest things about our show, just watching that friendship happen.
Describe your collaborative creative process.
Ben: Matt and I went to college together at UCLA, and we were roommates right after that. Matt’s one of the few guys who knows what I’m thinking before I even think it. So, I would say our collaborative relationship is steeped in incredibly long friendship and just a similarity of sensibility. Being able to not just work with Matt, but share this experience with him, deepens and makes it a lot more fun for me.
Matt: I’ve been tolerating Ben for years and dragging him along, you know what I mean? Sometimes, you’ve just got to do a solid for somebody who doesn’t have a whole hell of a lot going on. And for me, that was Ben. I was talking to somebody about it the other night. I guess the first time we formally worked together was on humor, like written humor for a magazine in college. But we weren’t even paid for that.
Later, we both went off in different directions. Well, we were roommates, but then I was working in features, and then I was in one-hour dramas. Ben was working in half-hour. It was hard to picture how our paths might converge again. Then, when I was doing The Good Guys, I was like, “You know what I really want? Ben Wexler.” But I was like, “That’s impossible, because he’s a half-hour writer,” and I think, “This is an hour-long comedy.”
Then, I was like, “Well, hell, I’ll just try.” And I was like, “Hey, Ben, will you do this with me?” He was into that. What was great is we had the opportunity to be really close friends for many years, but also have independent careers, so that we were able to bring really different tool sets to the table for this show. Like, I have the tool set of writing things that are good, and Ben is a really good typist. You know what I mean? Ben is like really fast at typing. Between those two things, like with me generating good stuff and Ben typing it, it’s magical.
Ben: You’re leaving out my twinkly baby blue eyes.
Matt: Oh, yeah, he’s also handsome. That’s another thing, so…
Ben: Yeah, yeah.
What kind of shows would you guys say, either contemporary or from the past, are influencing your work on The Comedians?
Ben: Amazingly — I say amazingly because we have the great honor of being paired with Louie — we talked about Louie a lot when we were working on the show. Our show’s not similar to Louie but, and I think I speak for the whole creative team when I say, the thing that we admire about Louie is that you never know what to expect in any given episode of Louie. One episode can be kind of tonally different than the next, and we really admire that. By the way, this wasn’t a directive from FX. This was just our fanboyism and loving that show and aspiring to kind of keep our audience on the balance as much as he does that. So that was a big influence.
Then, I guess obviously The Larry Sanders Show just because that show deals in similar subject matter, that behind-the-scenes, making a a comedy show, and the comedy of discomfort that that show did so well, we aspire to. Those are the two that come to my mind. And obviously, Burn Notice.
Matt: Yeah, clearly that.
Do you think The Comedians would be as funny if it was on a different network?
Ben: No, it wouldn’t. Part of it is FX; not only do they tolerate us pushing the limits, I think they encourage it. The relationship that we have with them creatively really does feel like a collaborative one in that they don’t give directives. They don’t give notes in the sense of, “You’ve got to do this.” They have honestly held opinions, and when they have them, they share them. Sometimes, they don’t have notes. They’ve just been nothing but encouraging of us to do the version of this show that we like the best and that appeals and feels true to us. And literally, their only big directive was, “We like stories that surprise.” That’s pretty much it. “We like stories that surprise and that you don’t feel are predictable.” That makes our job obviously a little harder, because that’s always tough to do, but it’s much more rewarding when we hit the mark, I think. They’ve been great.
You debuted the first and third episodes at SXSW. Scary? Was it exciting? What was your reaction about doing something like that in front of a roomful of people?
Ben: It was just fun because we’ve been laughing at these episodes for months now. Getting them into a roomful of people and hearing the laughter with a packed audience was just gratifying and fun. SXSW is just great. Being in Austin, there’s just a lot of life, and I thought it was a perfect venue to show it to the public for the first time.