Nice people, to reframe Randy Newman’s thinking on the pint-size population, got no reason to live. Or at least, they’ve got no reason to live on TV comedy. There was a time when nice people — let’s say their last names were Cleaver — were in fashion, but I’ll be honest. They weren’t usually funny, and sometimes, wearing ties and pearls at home and finding “Davey and Goliath” moral lessons in the life of a naughty adolescent, they were flat-out boring. Always, they were unreal.
I’m more of a “Seinfeld” type, and now, a “Difficult People” type. The two sitcoms — season two of Hulu’s “Difficult People” premiered last Tuesday — are solid bookends of the comedy of narcissism, antagonism, vitriol, and unrelenting pettiness. Also on that same awful-people shelf: “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “Veep,” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” the son and father of “Seinfeld.”
Without those progenitors, especially “Seinfeld,” “Difficult People” wouldn’t be as good and nasty as it is. The show thoroughly commits to the cynicism, envy, and crudeness of its two lead characters, played by comedians Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner as versions of themselves. They’re Hades’s own Will and Grace, a pair of ingrained New Yorkers whose kvetching knows no bounds. The scripts operate almost at a “30 Rock” or “Happy Endings” pace, with Billy and Julie’s comic insults and misanthropy constantly in play. They both want to be comedians and actors (in the meantime Julie writes TV recaps of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” and Billy waits tables), and so their bitter banter is filled with specialized pop cultural references. At times, it’s as though they have their own secret language built on celebrity trivia. “I’m like Camille Grammer without the IBS,” Billy says in the season premiere.
“Difficult People” and the other sitcoms are not truly comedies about nothing, a jokey idea generated from a “Seinfeld” meta-story line that had Jerry and George pitching a series about nothing to NBC. They’re comedies that have fun with some of the darker sides of human nature, particularly in urban areas where people are thrown more closely together. They’re comedies of manners that reveal, and satirize, the selfish and stubborn feelings we’ve been taught to hide. When Jerry grabs the marble rye from the old lady, when George uses his dead fiancée to get into a models club, or when Elaine eats the frozen cake from King Edward VIII’s wedding to Wallis Simpson, they’re acting on impulses that all of us fight, all of the time. Even nice people have not-nice thoughts.
One of the best HBO posters for “Curb Your Enthusiasm” summed up the power of this genre: Atop an image of a group of Larry Davids, it says, “Deep inside you know you’re him.”
The cast of “Difficult People” includes Andrea Martin as Julie’s horrible mother, Marilyn, and Martin kills it. She actually manages to seem more awful than Julie; they’re the most twisted mother-daughter team since “Grey Gardens.” How to describe Marilyn best? Well, she’s a therapist who tells a patient with OCD to work out her issues by cleaning Marilyn’s house for free. Maybe that’s where Julie got her taste for doomed schemes, including her attempt to join a synagogue group filled with TV industry insiders in order to get work as a TV writer. In one episode, she and Billy have a fleeting moment of good will and try to create their own charity complete with a viral-video campaign modeled after the ALS ice bucket challenge. Making out with a trash can, anyone?
Thanks to cable TV, dramas have discovered the power of imperfect — even villainous — heroes. Rather than providing escapist fare built around people to admire, our dramas have become more challenging and confrontational. I like it that comedies can go there, too, that we can laugh at the characters’ very flawed choices, their deathly aversion to altruism, and the various ways their ids slip out of their cages and take over their lives.