From the “I wanna be a star” high jinks of “I Love Lucy” to the micro self-absorption of “Seinfeld,” narcissism has always been a key ingredient in comedy. In recent years, however, self-centeredness has become not just predictable, but synonymous with adorable — the internal myopia of lead characters regularly passed off as quirky, or cavalier or even admirable.
We find ourselves rooting for even “Veep’s” Selina Meyer despite the fact that she is, as one character correctly pointed out this past season, “the worst thing to happen to this country since food in buckets.”
Real narcissism, on the other hand, is exhausting, outrageous, often abusive and almost always painful. Hulu’s new half-hour comedy “Difficult People,” which becomes available Wednesday, is about real narcissism.
Julie Klausner, who also writes the series, and Billy Eichner play comedians struggling in New York City with no clue that the biggest obstacle they face is themselves — together and separately. By day, Julie is a television blogger and Billy is a waiter; by night they fight through comedy routines that almost always bomb.
Mostly, Julie and Billy hang out in various venues making evil and often profane fun of other people, who are often within earshot, and then wondering why they can’t seem to get a break.
Though undeniably hilarious at times, it is a difficult show to watch (see title). When, for example, an exasperated mother shushes Julie and Billy in a theater, your sympathies are completely with the mother.
You want to shush them too. Indeed, a TV critic of my acquaintance (OK, it was me), came away from the first three episodes testy and highly critical of everyone around her. (If, that is, members of her family are to be believed, though frankly, they are often far too judgmental and thin-skinned.)
Mood alteration is, of course, one way to judge the effectiveness of a series.
The series is very effective in pointing out how brainwashed we have become by the cute and cuddly narcissists congregating on our various screens. It also shows how easily manipulated we now are into mistaking clever one-liners for proof of humanity.
We cling to the promise that just because characters seem selfish doesn’t mean we, oops, they actually are. Selfishness is just another word for insecure, right?
Maybe. And maybe it doesn’t matter, at least not after a certain age when, even in New York, adults need to pick up their heads and look around once in a while. As “Difficult People” makes very clear.
The show, however, is not quite as effective as an actual comedy serial. Julie’s boyfriend, Arthur (James Urbaniak), is an endearingly weird creation, so button-downed eccentric he works at PBS. But there is not a shred of explanation as to why the two are a couple, while her mother (the always fabulous Andrea Martin) is a rather typical overbearing and vain Manhattan therapist.
Billy has a workplace Greek chorus, including a strangely mean boss played by Gabourey Sidibe. There are some fabulous guest stars, too, which is what comes of having Amy Poehler as one of your executive producers.
But in early episodes, the supporting cast functions more as production elements than characters. This is because the point of “Difficult People” is that the world according to Julie and Billy revolves around Julie and Billy.
Klausner and Eichner are both fine and funny performers willing to go the extra mile to push “funny” to excruciating limits. Klausner refuses to give Julie even the smallest speck of self-awareness; as with most narcissists, she is as unaware of others’ feelings as she is hypersensitive to her own.
Eichner, a maestro of volume and sudden bursts of mania, is more controlled here than in “Billy on the Street” or even “Parks and Recreation.” Though his words are often rude, Billy, with his need for love, is as close as “Difficult People” gets to heart. A bit in which he realizes his date is a “participator” harks back to “Seinfeld” in a highly amusing way.
But “Seinfeld” is not the only show echoed if not referenced. The charm of “Difficult People” is that it refuses to deal in charm. Though witty and observant, albeit in a relentlessly negative way, Julie and Billy are clueless.
They really do live in a bubble of their own making, and it isn’t adorkable or compensatory. Their friendship is powerful but limiting and destructive, their brilliance hampered by their refusal to acknowledge that the world is not their living room.
Which, if Klausner doesn’t lose her nerve, makes “Difficult People” an illuminating sendup of far too many things on television.
When: Anytime, starting Wednesday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)