The problem with the comedy of humiliation…
No, no, let’s start again. That seems dated. Ever since Seinfeld creator Larry David unleashed his…
No, that’s predictable. Everybody’s gone there already. Might as well be doing riffs on the American Office. Let’s try one more time.
When you’re making a comedy about extremely unlikable people, it’s very, very easy to get it wrong. This is particularly true in the current era of comedy, when a lot of sitcoms — most especially sitcoms based on the public personae of comedians, who increasingly base their appeal on the pretense or not-so-pretense of being completely unacceptable human beings — are predicated on the idea of showing us people being total assholes. We’re supposed to understand that these people are total assholes, and we’re supposed to laugh at them for being total assholes. But, well, they’re still total assholes.
Such is the case with Difficult People, a sitcom born and raised on the streaming service Hulu. Created by Julie Klausner, who is certainly a talented comic, it’s essentially a series of situations involving her and her best friend (played by the acquired-taste comedian Billy Eichner; the two essentially play themselves, although one hopes their unpleasant behavior is exaggerated to a ridiculous degree) as they attempt to find fame outside the confines of their modest internet and comedy-club notoriety. As Julie and Billy are, like the title says, difficult people — horrible would be a better term, if that hadn’t already been used for a much better show — their attempts always end in failure and embarrassment, or at least they would if they weren’t at a level of success where failure doesn’t matter, and a degree of self-awareness where embarrassment is an impossibility.
The show has a lot of problems, though many of them, admittedly, have to do with how much tolerance you display towards its very nature; there’s almost nothing I don’t like about the show that isn’t intentional. Part of it has to do with Eichner, a performer who has always rubbed me the wrong way; his cameos on other shows have never grabbed me, and his stint on Parks & Recreation was a disaster. He’s toned down the manic-yelling routine here and has actually shown a bit of depth, but he’s still Billy Eichner, and if that’s an entry in the loss column for you, it’s going to stay there. A lot of the jokes on the show have to do with the fact that Eichner and Klausner are obsessed with Tweeting and reviewing lousy TV shows and riffing on bottom-drawer celebrity gossip; this is deliberate and meant to establish their pettiness for humor value, but it still doesn’t take the stink off a joke that falls flat if you aren’t involved in their tiny little world of fame-snark. A final factor is that the show is so low-stakes; it’s hard to care whether or not a couple of third-tier New York showbiz types do or don’t elevate themselves to the second tier or piss off enough people that they fall right out of the scene. Again, that’s part of the point, and I guess I can’t blame the show for the fact that I can’t get into its premise, but, here we are.
A much bigger problem is that a lot of the jokes don’t go anywhere. They occasionally get pretty audacious (it’s admirable that Eichner, as a gay man, doesn’t get his sex life completely defanged; if anything, its salaciousness is nicely played up for laughs), but so many of them are built around how into its own low-rent version of Weird Twitter the pair are that the gags just lay down and die. Another extended gag about how podcasters are all asocial, nerdy losers falls pretty flat — it plays like a Revenge of the Nerds-era relic. Even a great performance by Gabourey Sidibe as Billy’s tyrannical fag-hag boss is wasted by the fact that she’s just mean to him for no particular reason.
That performance isn’t alone, though. The biggest problem with Difficult People is that its guest stars, who are frequent and often excellent, steal the show right out from under its leads. Andrea Martin, who’s undergoing something of a career renaissance right now, is fantastic as Klausner’s mother, and even if the gag about her terrible play is recycled from a 30-year-old bit on SCTV, she still sells the hell out of it. Kate McKinnon absolutely steals one episode as a louche stage magician who does absurd gags based on 12-step, and Amy Sedaris, in an amazing cameo, does what Amy Sedaris always does: absolutely murder everyone who tries to keep up with her. James Urbaniak doesn’t have much to do as Klausner’s apparently sexless boyfriend, but he’s good at being appealingly bland, and even Kathy Lee Gifford gets to steal a scene.
With the first season coming to a close and critical opinions generally — if inexplicably — good, it may be worth wondering whether the proliferation of original content on networks like Hulu might be to blame. Difficult People is as thin as tissue even when it’s good; with its generally high production values and ability to pull out a rug-pulling guest star whenever it wants, it could work well as a series of shorts or a recurring sketch-show bit. But in the era of 15 episodes of fame, when pretty much anyone can get a TV show, Klausner has managed to find herself in possession of a full-length series when, like her fictional doppelganger, she clearly isn’t at the level where she can sustain one. One of the ongoing jokes about Klausner and Eichner — and it’s true of many talented, creative people — is that they think they can do anything, because they look at ‘lesser’ people doing it and figure, well, how hard can it be? But the thing is, it can be pretty hard, and if Klausner and Eichner are taking the piss at themselves in fictional form, the fact that they don’t have strong enough personalities to be the leads in their own sitcom is uncomfortably close to reality. The time was that a network would turn down this kind of show, reasoning that the pair just didn’t yet have what it takes to carry their own sitcom. With so many networks, though, that’s no longer a problem — at least for the stars. It remains one for the viewers.