[This article discusses 'Louie' season 5, episode 1, and 'The Comedians' series premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
After spending a year on its own, sometimes courting controversy (or, at the very least, an avalanche of think pieces) while airing episodes back-to-back for seven weeks, the often-fantastic Louie returns in all its uncomfortable, dreamlike glory for season 5. The award-winning series written, directed, edited, and starring comedian Louie C.K. has, in the wake of Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The League being shipped off to FXX, become FX's elder statesman when it comes to the network's comedic offerings.
One of the responsibilities that comes with such a distinction is chaperoning the premiere of the new (potentially) funny kid on the block, which in this case is the aptly titled The Comedians, starring Billy Crystal and Josh Gad, an odd couple of sorts divided by a generational gap but united in their pursuit of making people laugh.
At first glance, a comedy about a fake FX sketch comedy show starring Billy Crystal and Josh Gad may seem like an odd pairing for something like Louie. Case in point: in addition to being funny, Louie has made a name for itself by eschewing certain conventions, like continuity, tone, and form. Season 4's six-part storyline 'Elevator' serves as a particularly potent example of just how different the series can be (within its own season, no less) in its approach to both humor and storytelling. There are entire episodes that appear determined to move away from the idea of what makes a comedy a comedy (e.g., jokes, punch lines, etc.), while still finding a way to make things funny.
As a result, making a block of comedy out of the stand-up comedian's personal, sometimes disturbing and irreverent takes on big and small moments of life and…anything else, can be something of a challenge. Before it was sent out to fend for itself on seven consecutive Monday nights in May and June of 2014, Louie was paired with Wilfred, which seemed to match the dark, twisted unreality of C.K.'s vision to the degree the coupling made sense, at least beyond the fact that both series were ostensibly comedies.
The Comedians, on the other hand, is a whole other animal, but that doesn't mean the pairing doesn't work. In fact, by title alone, Louie and The Comedians are paired perfectly. And by virtue of both series being fundamentally different when it comes to something like, say, structure, they act as a sort of palate cleanser – one that, at the root level, is trying to explore the same the same questions: What makes something or someone funny, and how does the humor manifest differently in a comedian's personal and professional life?
What separates them is their breadth and depth. If Louie is inside baseball when it comes to Louie C.K., then The Comedians is inside baseball when it comes to Hollywood's favorite subject: itself. And yet, oddly, given the potential vastness of that subject matter, it winds up feeling more like the exploration of a much smaller, more structured, and all too familiar microcosms – a facet that is then augmented when paired with the unpredictable nature of Louie.
Like Wilfred, the nascent series makes this odd couple hour of comedy work on the surface by virtue of its main goal. Having Billy Crystal on board doesn't hurt either. But at this point, the format – a mockumentary about a sketch comedy series – feels as old and worn out as many of the jokes. And to an extent, that's the point. One of the facets of the series is to show how comedy is mutable, and how it changes over time. As such, the pairing of Crystal and Gad – two comedians separated by more than three decades – should be rife with examples of how generational approaches to humor are different. And through those differences, the show will make the funny, right? Unfortunately that's not the case – at least not in the pilot, anyway.
There are funny moments to be had, but the funniest moments come from Mad TV alum Stephnie Weir, rather than the two leads. The pilot makes a point to underline how subjective comedy is by continually pointing out they ways Crystal and Gad's style of humor don't mix; they're oil and water. The problem is: the jokes pointing out the disparities don't necessarily lead to humorous conclusions. Instead, the pilot often resorts to making the audience cringe, by having Gad's character repeatedly put his foot in his mouth or take a joke too far, or the episode fails by making a joke out of an ancillary character's gender transition.
The obvious question of the series, then, is: Why Josh Gad? As a performer known primarily for his Broadway performance in The Book of Mormon and for voicing a snowman in Frozen, pairing him with Crystal seems like an odd choice. This is especially true given the goal of the show seems to be an exploration of differences in comedic voice, if not intent. In the pilot, the voices of Crystal and Gad are just not dissimilar enough to fully sell the premise or justify its ambitions. Instead, Gad and Crystal's bickering feels like conflict for the sake of conflict, an issue worsened by the lack of true disparity between the two.
Differences in voice are much more apparent when you compare The Comedians pilot to the Louie season 5 premiere, which is the kind of episode you would expect from the series at this point, meaning: it's nothing that you would expect at all. Titled 'Pot Luck,' the premiere is a typically circuitous journey through a series of seemingly unconnected plot points that don't necessarily add up to a grand revelation (unless, like fellow comedian Judy Gold suggests, the grand revelation is that Louie should cut off a certain appendage and then eat it).
But the disconnect between segments never feels digressive, disjointed, or like C.K. has given himself over to non-sequiturs. How does fried chicken, a banjo, a weird spiritual group, and an unhappy and very pregnant surrogate relate with one another? Well, it's sort of like the titular potluck – a series of separate and distinct dishes all brought to the same the table. Maybe that's why so many other comedians tend to pop up on the show, and why their appearances often indirectly demonstrate a difference between their approaches to stand-up.
During the opening stand-up portion of the episode, C.K. jokes about how he no longer cares about unraveling the "wonders of the universe," and that seems true in 'Pot Luck.' He's much more concerned with unraveling the minutia of daily life. The irony is, in picking at the smallness of an individual's existence, C.K. winds up exploring the unifying essence of humanness. He takes the small and makes it undeniably large. The Comedians, on the other hand, takes something comparatively larger than one man, and makes it small – which is great, but only if you're really into familiar satirical looks at the business of Hollywood.
The Comedians and Louie make for an odd but not necessarily interestingly odd couple. The odd part lies in how much a show titled The Comedians seems like it would serves as the perfect complement to a show about a stand-up comedian, but instead makes for a more drastic comparison in terms of intent, composition, and effectiveness.
In that way, looking at the key art for both series sums up FX's new block of comedy. The inverted image of Louie C.K. offers a succinct example of the show's unique perspective, while Gad and Crystal clad in costume below a marquee bearing their names doesn't really tell us anything at all.
There's clarity there to be sure; we know who the stars are, and the premise is neatly summed up in a single sentence, but like the series, there's not enough to suggest that straightforwardness will lead to notable viewpoint. In essence, one show speaks with a clear and distinct voice, and the other is still in search of one.
The Comedians and Louie air Thursday nights starting @10pm on FX.
Photos: KC Bailey and Ray Mickshaw/FX