"Liza on Demand" is a new situation comedy from YouTube Premium (formerly YouTube Red), which is to YouTube as CBS All Access is to CBS — no ads, with special content added.
Like most of the platform's original productions, including "Foursome," "Me and My Grandma" and "Youth & Consequences," it stars a person who has already made herself famous on YouTube — in this case, 22-year-old Liza Koshy, proprietor and star of two separate channels, "Liza Koshy" (some 15 million subscribers) and "Liza Koshy Too" (nearly 7 million subscribers).
The challenge in these shows is to conventionally frame a personality whose previous work will have been made in three-to-six minute segments, mostly addressed straight to the audience. As with most of her kind, Koshy generally plays herself on YouTube, or some Internet-enhanced version of herself, even as she slips in and out of different voices and characters, Robin Williams-style. Her web shorts feature her running wild through big-box and dollar stores; talking a blue streak as she drives her car; playing with toys she wanted as a child; and doing impressions based on viewer suggestions. (“Mayonnaise” is one.) She favors low puns and what would have once been called "R-rated" humor.
Like the stand-up-to-sitcom trade route that defined much of 20th century situation comedy, the Web creates opportunity for actors that the industrial machinery of mainstream show business might reject as too unconventional. Koshy is a small person, who offsets her diminutive stature with mugging and exaggeration — doing big things with her arms and her eyes and her mouth and her voice — as when an animal rears up or roars to scare off predators. The intensity she displays in her web shorts has been somewhat tamed here to create a character that can sit companionably among other characters, though without losing the sense of an unusual presence.
Appropriate to the target demographic, "Liza on Demand" is a gig-economy comedy, in which Koshy's character, also called Liza, is scraping by with odd jobs. "I'm all side hustle and no main hustle," she observes, ruefully.
"Or that's just an excuse you use so you don't have to commit to anything," says friend and roommate Oliver (Travis Coles), a realtor. Other friend and roommate Harlow (Kimiko Glenn, from "Orange Is the New Black"), is a social media manipulator whose web-famous little dog has just scored a meeting with Nike.
Signed up with an odd-jobs app called Tasket — like the real-world Task Rabbit — Liza determines to concentrate her scattered energy on becoming an "elite tasker," a rating that comes with "twice as much per gig and a 401(k) and health insurance — I don't even know what a 401(k) is." ("Nobody does," says Oliver.) There is something analogous, then, between the premise of the series and YouTube itself, a user-rated meritocracy that can convert individual effort into a company-supported career.
Koshy co-created the show with the team of Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont, who wrote and directed two superior genre films, the teen grad-night comedy "Can't Hardly Wait" and the unexpectedly satirical "Josie & the Pussycats," the best of all rock movies based on a comic book and a film I regularly recommend. Born in 1968 and 1970 respectively, Elfont and Kaplan are not themselves of Generation You Tube, which, of course, does not automatically disqualify them from courting that audience. Nicholas Ray was in his 40s when he made "Rebel Without a Cause," for a not entirely dissimilar example
The first episode, in which Liza is tasked with taking a cat to be put to sleep — the cat will be okay, I feel I must tell you — is not bad. Yet it's also ordinary and a little stiff, with the quest to score a "cupcaken" (a cupcake inside a cupcake inside a cupcake) a weak central thread that feels swept up off the “Seinfeld” writers room floor.
But the second of the two episodes available for review (of eight), which starts with a riff on handymen in pornographic films, is better, as Liza disguises herself as a guy to get a job moving furniture ("Clients look at my picture and think oh she's so tiny there's no way she can lift a car") and later takes on a man (John Gemberling, Beavers on "Broad City") who put her down for refusing to smile. The episode goes to some familiar places — hello, “I Love Lucy” — but to some less expected ones as well and shows off Koshy to good effect, some effective physical comedy included. It made me laugh, anyway. And 15 million YouTube followers can't be wrong.
‘Liza On Demand’
Where: YouTube Premium
When: Anytime, starting Wednesday
Rating: Not Rated