Billy Crystal tried to explain to TV critics why he’s starring in a new FX comedy series based on a 2004 Swedish series Ulveson And Herngren, that starred comedians Felix Herngren and Johan Ulveson as they put together a sketch program – rather than start from scratch. Crystal, who’s also one of the writers and EPs on The Comedians, explained it’s because he hadn’t had any thought of doing a TV series “and then this show came along and there were 12 episodes” and it was “such a beautifully constructed situation.” He said he was “bowled over in the first five minutes” and allows him to play an extended version of himself while doing live sketches in front of a studio audience, as well as filmed pieces. “It reinforces and reinvigorates everything I love to do,” Crystal said, calling it “a total package.”
And yet, EP/writer Ben Wexler said it was a “tear down” – very L.A.
In The Comedians, Crystal plays a superstar veteran comedian who is reluctantly paired with a younger, edgier comedian who’s not necessarily wild about being partnered with the old guy, for a late-night comedy sketch show. Josh Gad plays the younger guy.
EP/writer/director Larry Charles likened the adaptation process to performing jazz. “Billy knows it’s like jazz. We had these incredible melodies, and Ben was primarily responsible for that. And then we all did our solos on that…We were jamming, and that was incredible fun.”
“When we were all unanimously excited about an idea it almost always means the idea is really great,” Wexler said of the adaptation. “Sometimes it’s hard to get to that point. Generally, we don’t stop until we get to that point on everything.”
Charles directed the first nine episodes and was “at the forefront of making the set laughably uncomfortable” by keeping the cameras rolling long after they’d finished shooting the script, Crystal said.
Because Crystal and Gad play versions of themselves on the show, “This was a situation where we had to know your ego is going to get bruised, and some of it would get ugly for all the right reasons,” Gad said. “We have to do dangerous things to each other.” He called it “amazing to have a sparring partner like Billy because I inherently trust him,” adding, “Usually if Billy doesn’t punch me, we’re okay.”
Crystal said he hopes viewers will watch and react with, “Oh, why did Billy say that to this guy?”
“It makes for great television and, as an actor and a comedian, it’s fun to play with that,” Crystal said.
Because The Comedians, which debuts April 9, marks Crystal’s first TV series since playing a gay man in the late 70’s comedy Soap, Crystal got asked about that experience. “It was very difficult at the time,” Crystal said of that groundbreaking role. “It was awkward,” he said of the studio shoots. “I would say ‘I love you’ and the audience would laugh nervously. I’d feel this anger,” Crystal said. “I wanted to stop the taping and say, ‘What is your problem?’.”
The Comedians will not be littered with guest actors, the EPs said in response to a question, though Mel Brooks plays himself in an early episode, giving his real-life friend Crystal advice about his late-night show-within-a-show, and warns against having guest stars on the show.
That kind of “meta level” runs throughout the show, Charles said.
Beauty pageant question alert: Panelists got asked to recount when they realized they wanted to do comedy. Crystal said it’s the old story: he liked performing for laughs in front of his relatives as a kid and got “hooked.”
“Fear very much drove me; in order to get out of getting my ass kicked, I had to develop verbal skills,” Charles recalled.
“I had a beautiful and smart sister so I had to pick funny,” said Stephnie Weir, who plays an anxiety-ridden producer on the show-within-show.
Gad began to explain that his penchant for comedy “came out of a place of tragedy” and launched into a story that may have had to do with his parents divorcing or something like that or some thing along those lines – it was hard to hear over Crystal’s snoring into his microphone:
“…comedic force …”
“…guided me to take away the pain…..”
“…knew that was something I was good at…..”