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Television review

‘The Comedians’: a battle of wits with no winners

Ray Mickshaw/FX/FX

It’s easy to see what appealed to Billy Crystal and Josh Gad about “The Comedians,” premiering Thursday at 10 p.m. on FX.

The generation gap comedy, adapted from a Swedish series, is a gold mine on paper. But in the first three episodes available for review, the show turns up only a few precious nuggets.

The super meta premise of the 13-episode series involves the two comedic actors — playing fictionalized versions of themselves — reluctantly forced to work together on a new FX sketch comedy, “The Billy & Josh Show.” “The Comedians” then is a mockumentary that purports to reveal the behind-the-scenes clashes between an award-winning showbiz legend and a brash upstart, as they try to find some common comedic ground on the continuum somewhere between Ernie Kovacs and “South Park.” Along the way, real-life celebrity pals like Mel Brooks and Joe Torre show up to contribute verisimilitude to the yuks.

If some or all of these elements ring a bell, it’s because it has been rung a lot, and successfully, on shows like “Episodes,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “30 Rock,” “The Larry Sanders Show,” “Louie,” “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” “The Comeback,” and — stretching even further back — “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”


But the animosity between Crystal and Gad that is the source of so much of the show’s humor feels too fractious to be amusing. Crystal fares better simply by dint of being the better-known quantity. Watching him behave badly — phony, self-absorbed, superior — but still hit some notes of sincerity isn’t so discomfiting because we feel like we know him.

Gad hits many of the same notes but comes off more detestably. A scene in which the Gad character ruins a playoff game with his excruciating tone deafness is painful to watch.

Both are obviously very funny men; individually, each fires off some pretty good zingers. In a confessional early in the pilot, Gad says when he heard he would be doing a show with Crystal, “nobody was more excited than my grandparents.” When Crystal tells Gad he saw him in “Book of Mormon” three times, Gad replies, “You must be very wealthy.” Crystal lords his Tony Award over Gad with subtle glee. When told by an FX executive — a sly Denis O’Hare — that he sees Gad as the new Crystal, the comic responds “OK, when he’s me, can I be Clooney?” But together they don’t gel, which is, of course, the idea.


Further complicating matters is the stock quality of the supporting characters. There is the anxiety-riddled producer (Stephanie Weir) who tries to accommodate both stars and winds up disappointing them equally. There is the beleaguered head writer (Matt Oberg) who is too timid to make his voice heard. And there is a layabout production assistant (Megan Ferguson) who fails to understand that when the writer says “we should get coffee,” that it’s her cue to head to Starbucks, not put in an order of her own.

The bits from “The Billy & Josh Show” we see are dreadful, with lots of vomit and testicles jokes in an Anthony Bourdain sketch and a bizarre “Lewis Is the New Black” skit that spoofs both the apoplectic comic and the Netflix prison show, but wrings no laughs from either.

The best cringe comedies finely tune the balance between discomfort and laughs. “The Comedians” needs to work on its balancing act, because there is a lot more of the former than the latter, and that turns out to be no laughing matter.


Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeRodman.