FX has given up Thursday night to two very different giants of comedy. Louis CK returns in his comedy Louie, which CK writes, directs, and edits, for a fifth season. Billy Crystal and Josh Gad (check out those box-office returns on Frozen and Book of Mormon and try to debate Gad's cachet) will begin in their own attempt with The Comedians.
Both Louie and The Comedians are really about what happens backstage, after the lights go down and the audience goes home. These shows are about what happens when these people step offstage and into their real, or "real," lives.
Where Louie revels in its own natural awkwardness, The Comedians feels more labored, by design and in spite of it.
Of the two, The Comedians, premiering 10 p.m. Thursday on FX, is more emphatically a backstage comedy, a meta-show. Based on the Swedish comedy Ulveson & Herngren, it centers on Crystal and Gad as they create a sketch show for FX. Hoping to go solo, Crystal instead is paired by studio execs (led by the always welcome Denis O'Hare) with the younger Gad. The comedy derives from the friction created by their dueling personalities and outsize egos.
The Comedians is supposed to be rooted in the hyper-awkward wave of comedy that cocreator and director Larry Charles (who makes a cameo in the first episode) helped pioneer during his tenure at Seinfeld and perfect with Curb Your Enthusiasm. But there's a decided difference. Curb star Larry David's inherent misanthropy comes from such a natural place that you sense his on-screen and offscreen personas are not that far apart. Not so with Crystal.
The Comedians feels much more like a barbed 2015 version of Vaudeville duo comedy. Crystal and Gad put on a mantle of unpleasantness. They snipe and gripe at each other as the show's concept dictates, but what's ironic is that they, like The Comedians itself, are best when working together.
In the third episode, "Red Carpet" (airing April 23), Crystal and Gad start off, as they customarily do, as rivals and end up working as a team. They have a sweet, goofy chemistry together, and it's comforting to see them in friendlier roles.
Crystal has invested much on-screen capital in an affable-guy persona. He feels much more natural in this state than when he and Gad are pitted against each other. For his part, Gad, who starred in NBC's short-lived White House comedy 1600 Penn, has, from Book of Mormon on, built an annoyingly-unaware-guy persona. This shtick works considerably better in The Comedians than in 1600 Penn, although it can still grate.
Alas, Crystal just seems too nice to be big-timing a guy like Gad, no matter how much Gad revels in his own ability to annoy.
Where The Comedians feels forced, Louie, premiering 10:30 p.m. Thursday on FX, is at once more natural and more surreal - and one of the best comedies on television.
Louie's opening credits show Louis CK walking into Manhattan's Comedy Cellar - but slices of life follow that lead us into the psyche of one of the best stand-ups currently working. The comedy is painfully awkward, not because Louie is thrown into awkward situations, but because awkwardness is his natural state.
Where season four of Louie was darker than previous iterations, it seems as if this season CK is trying to move back into lighter comedy. The second episode of the new season, "A la Carte," in particular, opens up with a stunningly funny scenario that is both scatological and familial. It's oddly lovely.
Light or dark, Louie's power has always derived from its ability to make you love a guy who many people would find unlovable. But in Louie, even the unlovable get some empathy.
The Comedians wants you to be put off by its leads because of their actions toward each other and others. Louie wants you to love its lead for the exact same reason. It's the latter that succeeds.
The Comedians Premieres 10 p.m. Thursday on FX.
Louie Premieres 10:30 p.m. Thursday on FX.EndText