There seems to be no limit to the number of shows that comedians can make about themselves, and “Nobodies,” premiering Monday at South by Southwest and later this month on TV Land, is yet another variation on the theme. In this case, though, the meta-textual tweaking of the premise is a bit more earned: The leads Hugh Davidson, Larry Dorf, and Rachel Ramras really are alums of the improv comedy group the Groundlings, and unlike many of their friends, they’ve so far failed to make it big — stranded, instead, writing for a Nickelodeon show called “The Fartlemans,” which apparently does quite well with boys aged 2-6.
The series revolves around the three trying to sell a movie script, absurdly titled “Mr. First Lady,” by attaching their real-life friend-turned-success, Melissa McCarthy, to the project. This involves some less-than-comfortable wrangling of the complex and very Hollywood variations of friendship, in which our self-absorbed trio tries hard to finesse a blatant ask for money and influence into a delicate favor between friends. It’s mostly funny in the broadest perspective: McCarthy and her husband, Ben Falcone — depicted in “Nobodies” as a sidelined husband looking for his own spotlight — really have thrown their weight behind the project of their less-successful Groundlings friends. That McCarthy and Falcone would both be so comfortable with being pawns for the characters — in a show where the line between reality and fiction are especially blurred — is an added layer of self-referential humor to a show that, while full of awkward, self-abasing comedy, is already rather self-referential and niche.
Still, if you’re interested in the specific arena of comedy about comedians — and of shows about making shows — “Nobodies” is a nice example of how to go about it. The show succeeds because of how fully it comes down on its three leads, who separately and together are not much above using any possible in to get their projects made. In addition to shamelessly name-dropping McCarthy during a meeting with Paramount execs, they try to corner Jason Bateman during a casual pick-up basketball game; Larry, sweating profusely, tries to pitch Bateman the script while guarding, with disastrous results.
Rachel, the only woman in the lead trio of characters, is an exceptionally awful person, and as a result, especially difficult to stop watching. In the third episode, an extended bit where she leaves a voicemail on Falcone’s phone is so misguided, and so wince-worthy, that it’s hard to not want to scold the character through the screen. In one of the show’s least self-referential and most intriguing twists, Rachel and Hugh sleep together, for what we learn isn’t the first time. Buried in the midst of a lot of cringe comedy is a rivulet of relatable characterization, as the two longtime collaborators and current coworkers have to find some kind of way to come to terms with whatever their current situation is. Of course, these people being who they are, they alight on the worst possible solution: Couples therapy for the whole trio, with a vibram-clad provider who assumes they’re in a polyamorous triad.
“Nobodies” is funny, and in a few specific details, it’s quite original. In others, it does unfortunately fit a template that seems difficult to escape in the current cutting-edge comedy scene — self-conscious but deliberate navel-gazing, accompanied by the proper nouns of Los Angeles institutions that locals and industry viewers will no doubt delight over. It would be nice to see what these performers could do outside of the bubble of comedians making comedy about being a professional comic. As it is, “Nobodies” could be easily confused with other shows on the same subject.