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.