Many TV shows and films have attempted to capture the comedy and misery of being a writer. Some have nailed it (Barton Fink, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle), many others missed their target entirely (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip). Add to the former list this week’s episode of Difficult People.
When faced with the challenge of putting together a timely packet of monologue jokes and hashtag games for a potential talk show writing gig, our heroes Billy and Julie do what so many of us scribes do: they procrastinate. They look at Twitter for ideas. They try to watch old episodes of Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, give up, and go to the movies. They consider buying a ping-pong table to make Julie’s apartment more like a TV writers’ room. They push off the work until the very last minute, when frustration and desperation kick in, and then stay up all night getting it done. Unless you are one of those massively self-motivated War Of Art folks who can sit down and knock out a term paper, article, or chapter, you’ll recognize this practice.
That framework that Julie Klausner provides in watching her and Billy’s self-administered distractions and eventual triumph is great; it’s just everything she dresses it with that feels frothy, sometimes unnecessary, and fitfully funny. There were nice cameos by Amy Sedaris and Ana Gasteyer, but a rather silly one from Debbie Harry. And the conclusion of all of their random run-ins, which helped them to turn down the writing gig because they would have only been diversity hires, felt good, but not as satisfying as it could have. Strangely it was their subtle smacks at the straight, white male domination of late night TV that had the biggest impact.
As exciting as the news is that this series was picked up for a second season, Difficult People lands squarely in the world of what Grantland writer Andy Greenwald calls the “swollen middle” of our current TV glut. It’s the kind of sitcom that isn’t transcendently funny or completely unwatchable. It serves its purpose of giving us some stare at and laugh with for a half-hour before we move along with our day. I’ve been enjoying the series, for sure, but I haven’t had the desire to swing back and rewatch any of the six episodes available. Where I do refer back to the show in my off-screen life is in some of Billy and Julie’s wittier remarks about pop culture and celebrities. Then again, that seems to be what their Twitter accounts are for.
The moments I keep coming back to in this episode were those occasions when the pair were both silent or trying out really terrible monologue material. They didn’t elicit laughs but they were the opposite of TV’s constant stream of retweetable jokes or GIF-worthy scenes. That’s the stuff that shows how smart Klausner, Eichner and the show’s writers are. They are well-versed enough in comedy to know when to hold back and let a moment rest, so that when a zinger or gag follows, it’s that much funnier.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.