Billy Crystal and Josh Gad plant their flag as TV's newest odd couple for FX's "The Comedians," which premieres Thursday. But these two are doing more than just April fooling around; their pokes at each other cut close to the funny bone — at times uncomfortably close.
Using their real names, Crystal and Gad play skewed versions of themselves. A veteran entertainer with established credentials is forced into a creative shotgun marriage with a hot young performer with a looser approach toward humor. When they team up for a sketch comedy series, "The Billy & Josh Show," it starts off badly and only deteriorates. The behind-the-scene chaos is chronicled by a film crew making a documentary.
It's a premise grounded in ego clashes, insecurities and career mortality that has both stars invigorated — and a little scared. Everything from Crystal's "City Slickers" and Oscar-hosting gigs to Gad's Tony-nominated turn in the Broadway hit "The Book of Mormon," his weight and his short-lived NBC comedy "1600 Penn" is fair game. The language is coarse and the insults — intentional and otherwise — are acid-tipped.
"This show is a chance to do something fun and dangerous," says Crystal, drinking coffee next to Gad during an interview.
"This was something I was eager to do — and terrified to commit to," Gad adds. "We're going deep down the rabbit hole here, and it can get ugly and uncomfortable."
But the battle of wits erupts only in front of the camera. Offstage, Crystal and Gad are a two-man mutual admiration society, feeding off each other with razor-sharp quips and humorous tangents.
Their comic sensibilities are actually in sync: Both have triumphed on parallel paths in different eras; Crystal and Gad have had hit movies, both have scored on Broadway, both have roles in popular animated film franchises (Crystal was the voice of the one-eyed creature Mike Wazowski in Pixar's' "Monsters, Inc." and "Monsters University," while Gad hit gold as the wacky snowman Olaf in Disney's phenomenal animated hit "Frozen.")
"The beautiful irony of this show," Gad says, "is that I always wanted to be Billy Crystal. The whole show is about how I want to separate myself from him because we don't have the same creative inclinations. But we've had the same trajectory in our careers and there's an eerie similarity to our work."
"The Comedians," which is based on a Swedish comedy, "Ulveson & Hergren," marks Crystal's first return to series television since he came to prominence in "Soap," ABC's quirky parody of soap operas that ran for four seasons starting in 1977. Although he has found success in film, stage and comedy specials, going back to the small screen was an easy choice.
"I wasn't really looking to do anything, and I was really content with what I was doing," Crystal says. "But when I was sent this show, I thought, 'I could be happy doing this,' getting a chance not only to do a character, but sketch comedy."
Also weighing on his decision was his experience on his last film, "Parental Guidance," which he helped produce. Although the 2012 film that paired him with Bette Midler was a hit, it was a less-than-smooth project: "It took five years to get 'Parental Guidance' made, and it was a fight every second."
Gad had his own frustrations with 2012's "1600 Penn," where he starred as the ne'er-do-well first son of the first family residing in the White House.
"I had a very bad experience in the television world and I really didn't want to go back," Gad says. "I loved what I was doing, but it didn't really work. But when I was sent the Swedish pilot, I fell in love with it."
Although the setting of "The Comedians" is grounded in Hollywood, the show's central theme — society's broadening generation gap — is more universal.
"You don't often see a 60-year-old working with a 30-year-old — that dynamic is rarely shown," says executive producer Ben Wexler, whose producing and writing credits include "Arrested Development" and "Community." "In this case, we have someone's success who is tied to the success of another person, and these people just don't see the world the same way. Our lens is comedy largely informed by generational differences."
Crystal adds, "On the show, we know we need each other, but it still … us off. There are moments as the season progresses where it gets uncomfortably tense as we go after each other. Those are really fun scenes to do, although it will take some people by surprise."
Wexler developed the show along with Crystal, Larry Charles ("Borat," "Seinfeld") and Matt Nix ("Burn Notice"). Dana Delaney plays a recurring role as Crystal's wife, Julie, and Denis O' Hare plays bearded FX head Denis Grant (real-life FX Networks President John Landgraf doesn't have a beard, but O'Hare does). Celebrities popping in to play themselves include Mel Brooks, former New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers manager Joe Torre and boxer Sugar Ray Leonard.
Gad said he was thrilled to work with Crystal. "The intimidation factor never stops, nor should it. I will always want to impress Billy. That to me is a constant learning process."