It’s surprising to learn “The Comedians” was based on a Swedish series, since the execution feels highly personal and deeply rooted in the here-and-now U.S. Yet another program featuring actors as slightly tweaked versions of themselves, this FX comedy deals with Billy Crystal and Josh Gad being thrown together to co-star in an FX variety show — the twist being that they almost instantly can’t stand each other. Dotted with celebrity cameos, the customary exaggerated Hollywood insecurities and an underlying commentary on the generational divide, the show generates enough solid laughs to overcome its arid patches.
Filled with meta references (the FX network president, played by Denis O’Hare, looks and sounds quite a lot like real-life version John Landgraf), the program begins with Crystal learning that his plans for an FX series — one in which he plays all the parts — won’t fly without including Gad, the Broadway star and part-time snowman. (Embracing failure, Gad keeps a “1600 Penn” poster in his dressing room.)
The two meet for a get-acquainted dinner that proves an unmitigated disaster, so much so that the project seems to be dead. Ultimately, however, both sign on, creating a shotgun marriage where almost every attempt to bond goes completely awry — such as Gad, a basketball novice, dropping by while Crystal watches a Clippers playoff game.
To Crystal, Gad can be boorish: The older man is stupefied when he mentions the legendary Ernie Kovacs, and is met with a blank stare. Meanwhile, Gad can’t grasp Crystal’s neediness given all the success he’s enjoyed, and when he learns they’ll be working together says, “Nobody was more excited than my grandparents.”
Along the way (and nine episodes were made available), there are brief but amusing glimpses of the sketches produced for the show, a Mel Brooks cameo and Dana Delaney as Crystal’s wife. In the best half-hour, Crystal and Gad are supposed to attend what’s obviously meant to be the Kids Choice Awards together, only to get insanely high and take an ill-advised detour to a supermarket.
Within the office, there’s the harried producer (Stephnie Weir), equally harried head writer (Matt Oberg) and blase production assistant (Megan Ferguson), who can’t be bothered to do any of the menial tasks that go with the job description.
Format-wise “The Comedians” simply apes the docu-series-spoof we’ve probably seen too much of since “The Office,” complete with direct-to-camera interviews and plenty of fake showbiz smiles. The program also contains a serialized element, with the fate of the show-within-the-show rising and falling along with the network’s faith in the project.
Given how close this all hews to reality — such as Crystal opening up to Gad about losing his father at an early age — viewer reaction will likely depend in part on their tolerance of the stars in general, and Crystal in particular.
Still, “The Comedians” is likely more commercial than the acclaimed but little-watched “Louie,” with which it will be paired, and could even funnel some viewers in that direction. If the show can manage such a trick, these two comics had better get used to each other — in their real guise, if not their fictional one.