Friday, August 14, 2015

Insider Outsiders: Hulu's Difficult People

Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner star in Difficult People, on Hulu.

This past fall, IFC premiered a comedy called Garfunkel and Oates. The short-lived series starred Riki Lindhome ("Garfunkel") and Kate Micucci ("Oates") as a female musical comedy duo trying to make it in Hollywood, one NSFW folk song at a time. Admittedly I came a bit late to the party, only watching the show after IFC had already cancelled it, and only even becoming aware of it because of Lindhome's new Comedy Central series Another Period, which she co-stars and co-created with Chelsea Lately regular Natasha Leggero. (Another Period, a scatological "parody of manners" best described as Downton Abbey meets Keeping Up with Kardashians – and whose cast also includes Mad Men's Christina Hendricks – will finish its first season at the end of the month and is also among the most pleasurable of this summer's guilty pleasures.) Garfunkel and Oates is buoyed by the unassuming charm of its lead players and (unapologetically borrowing from HBO's Flight of the Conchords) provides ample opportunity for well-produced cutaway videos of the kinds of songs that have made the duo famous on YouTube over the years. It also offers a timely glimpse into the pandemic sexism of the internet and the comedy world in general. (Asked by a comedy club owner "Please, no material about your periods," the two acquiesce only to segue into a lengthy on-screen conversation about, of course, their periods.) Garfunkel and Oates – like the act which inspired it – was alternately biting and adorable, and was, for its brief time on our airwaves, always entertaining.

Shows about comedians, with the comics playing slightly tweaked versions of themselves, have long been a TV staple. From Jack Benny to Garry Shandling to Jerry Seinfeld to Larry David to the sublime Louis C.K., the list includes some of the funniest and often most innovative shows on television. (As last year's lamentable Mulaney demonstrates, however, the trope isn't always a guarantee of success: Mulaney felt a little like what I would have imagined the fictional series "NBC" commissioned from George and Jerry in the middle seasons of Seinfeld to have been like.) This past year, along with Garfunkel and Oates, television has added two new shows to that list, both notably about the travails of comedy duos: FX's (already cancelled) mockumentary-styled The Comedians (starring Billy Crystal and Josh Gad), and now Hulu's Difficult People. The latter premiered on Hulu on August 5, and will release one new episode a week until mid-September.

Created by Julie Klausner and produced by Amy Poehler, Difficult People stars Klausner (who hosts the weekly podcast How Was Your Week?) and Billy Eichner (Billy on the Street, Parks and Recreation) as Julie Kessler and Billy Epstein, friends and struggling comedians living in New York City. The two are joined by comedy veteran Andrea Martin (SCTV) as Marilyn, Julie's self-involved mother, James Urbaniak (The Venture Bros.) as Arthur, a PBS host and Julie's devoted live-in boyfriend, and Gabourey Sidibe (Precious) as the co-owner of the restaurant where Billy waits tables.

Like Garfunkel and Oates, the series portrays the current lives of aspiring comedians in America – a fickle 140-character world in which everyone is only one retweet away from breaking into the big time. Julie (like Klausner in real life, who is a regular Vulture contributor) is most famous for writing snarky recaps of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and Billy runs from failed audition to failed audition. The two are as insecure and bitter as television viewers would expect comedians to be in our post-Larry Sanders universe. They are, as the show's title promises, difficult to like. If Garfunkel and Oates owed much to Flight of the Conchords, Difficult People borrows from another HBO series, the cringe-comedy par excellence Curb Your Enthusiasm. Celebrity and pop culture-obsessed, Julie and Billy thrive on mocking the very people they wish they were, and – personally and professionally – are always their own worst enemies.

James Urbaniak, Julie Klausner and guest star Nate Corddry in Difficult People.

Building a comedy series around deliberately unlikeable lead characters is a risk, to be sure. (Unless, as with Seinfeld, it takes nine years for viewers to finally recognize just how profoundly contemptible the characters always were.) In Julie and Billy's case, however, what is initially most alienating isn't so much their misanthropy (which has its own charms), but their ripped-from-the-Twitterverse, celebrity-centred worldviews. The pop culture references fly by with a frequency that would make even Seth McFarlane dizzy, and missing a name drop often has the effect of throwing me out of the show – and making me feel, as I did by the end of the first episode, that perhaps I wasn't the viewer Difficult People either wants or expects. (Are Bravo- and PBS- watching, HuffPo-reading, Real Housewives- and reality show-loving viewers even an attractive demographic?) But the unevenness of the first episode turned out to be just a prelude. The second episode opens with a self-aware admission of this, with Julie and Billy bombing on stage at a The Moth-like storytelling event as they tell a lengthy story about their largely uneventful run-in with Katharine McPhee to an entirely bewildered audience. (You know, THE Katharine McPhee… from Smash?... American Idol? How can you not know who she is?)

To be fair, the two never stop their pathological name dropping (a feature of the dialogue that actually rings true, even as it alienates), but that is the moment that Difficult People begins to find its legs; it is also, non-coincidentally, the moment that the show begins to give us a richer glimpse into characters alongside our co-dependent and dysfunctional leads, namely Julie's boyfriend Arthur and her mother, Marilyn. As Marilyn, Andrea Martin is a delight, and her character continues to get some of the show's best lines ("My mind began to wander when you started to generalize and I dozed off.”). Martin communicates the real and human heart beating under the broad Jewish mother persona that makes her scenes some of the show's most subtle comic moments. As for Arthur (who Urbaniak portrays with milquetoast glee: "PBS viewers love doo-wop. It's like catnip to PBS viewers!"), he seems to genuinely care for and even respect Julie – to the perennial surprise of even Julie herself. The inclusion of at least this one mature relationship brings the much needed weight of reality to the proceedings. Arthur, so far at least, has also generally escaped being collateral damage of the ruin the Julie and Billy inevitably leave in their wake. (Each currently aired episode continually seems to threaten disaster for Arthur – first with an Oscar party at his boss' apartment, the second with a monumentally awkward threesome Julie coerces him into, and the third when Julie and Billy crash his PBS pledge drive – but in every case, Arthur comes out relatively unscathed. Notably, however, an off-camera bicycle-driving David Byrne doesn't quite fare as well.)

Difficult People's humour is biting, but of a different sort than the humour that Billy and Julie pride themselves on. The fragile egos, insecurities, and the other-obsessed lives of a certain ilk of struggling performer in Manhattan is the most regular target. The two seem to have complete disdain for every aspect of celebrity (from PBS hosts to reality TV stars, even and especially to members of the audience themselves), yet wish nothing more than to be lifted to that level, an unapologetic contradiction that the show is well aware of as Julie and Billy continually seek approval from the very people they hold in contempt. From the minor glimpses behind the curtain of self-hatred and sardony we've already been given, I am hoping as the season progresses that we'll get a richer sense of what their genuine artistic ambitions are, if any.

As Billy says, in response to the antics of a sobriety-themed magician (portrayed by SNL's Kate McKinnon) who accosts them at a nightclub, “Is this crazy, or is this good?” Only time, and Hulu, will tell.

The fourth episode of Difficult People premieres on Hulu on August 19.
Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.           

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