Andrea Martin’s scene-stealing performance. An admirable commitment to overwhelming self-absorption. An authentic portrayal of the hardships of TV recapping. There are many great things about Julie Klausner’s unashamedly mean-spirited Difficult People. But it’s the rapid-fire, and often brutal, takedowns of contemporary pop culture that leaves you gasping for air in simultaneous shock and laughter.
Indeed, the Hulu comedy—which sees Klausner and Billy Eichner’s jaded New York comedians attempt to climb the showbiz ladder they spend almost the entirety of each episode ruthlessly mocking—often goes where no other sitcom would legally dare to go (Kevin Spacey’s lawyers, in particular, must surely be on standby every season).
It also makes no apology for cramming in so many niche showbiz references that even Eichner’s celebrity-obsessed persona on Billy on the Street would need a CliffsNotes to decipher them all. Here’s Paste’s look at ten of its best:
10. Julie, “Hashtag Cats” (Season Two, Episode 8)
“Billy, I promise you, there is no such thing as being friends with someone you are employing. Have we learned nothing from Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes?”
As you’d expect from a show whose sole objective is to skew celebrity culture—and one whose leading man once made Rachel Dratch tackle a themed obstacle course in which she had to ‘Find Shelly Miscavige’—Scientology doesn’t get away lightly. Indeed, Klausner and company certainly don’t appear too concerned at being labelled the ultimate Suppressive People. One of the cult’s most high-profile marriages is a regular source of amusement (“OK, we can do this. Now we’re just gonna put on our wigs and play make-believe. Just as John Travolta and Kelly Preston say to each other every morning.”) Here, the nuptials between Hollywood’s premier couch-jumping anti-antidepressant activist and his one-time sweetheart are also called into question.
9. Billy, “Cedar Cove” (Season Two, Episode 9)
“We learned when Scarlett Johansson recorded an album of Tom Waits covers that literally anything is possible.”
Anywhere I Lay My Head, Scarlett Johansson’s better-than-you’d-expect 2008 album of Tom Waits covers, was indeed one of the most random moments in the chequered history of actors-turned-musicians. (Even Johansson’s most ardent admirers would probably struggle to remember it exists.) But in the world of Difficult People, the more obscure the reference, the better. Billy’s response to Julie’s disbelief at his new children’s entertainer job (“Well, I sang about using the toilet to a bunch of children all day, which I think means I’m now OT VII”—another Scientology jab) may not be one of his most scathing putdowns. But it’s a prime example of how the show refuses to pander to the uninitiated.
8. Method Man, “Hashtag Cats” (Season Two, Episode 9)
“So, what kind of TV you guys want to do? Sitcom? Talk show? Maybe one of those streaming joints that claims to be a comedy but no one on the staff truly knows how to write a joke even if you put a gun to their head?”
One of Difficult People’s finest running jokes is Billy and Julie’s immense disdain for the current proliferation of dramedies. Who knows which particular navel-gazing exploration of first-world problems the show is referring to here. Netflix has several, with Flaked and Love perhaps the most contrived culprits. Perhaps it’s Transparent, the acclaimed Amazon series that Difficult People has referred to on many occasions. Or maybe it’s the relationship woes of Casual, which shares its Hulu home with Difficult People. The fact that this takedown is randomly delivered by none other than Wu Tang Clan’s finest, Method Man—who also finds the time to take a pop at Shonda Rimes’ fondness for implausibility—makes it all the funnier.
7. Marilyn, “Patches” (Season Two, Episode 5)
“I treat a lot of gay men in my practice, that’s all they can talk about. Well, that and how Ryan Murphy even managed to ruin Matt Bomer’s ass and Lady Gaga.”
Ryan Murphy is used as the show’s punching bag almost as much as Kevin Spacey, which makes Eichner’s recent casting on the next American Horror Story all the more intriguing. Maybe Murphy isn’t aware of just how often the anthology has been casually but mercilessly mocked by his new recruit. Maybe he’s able to see the funny side. Or maybe he possesses a self-awareness which leaves him agreeing with the general consensus that AHS lacks any coherence, restraint or narrative structure. Either way, the clients of Julie’s interfering psychologist mother Marilyn certainly don’t appreciate the way he utilized two of their favorite things.
6. Billy and Julie, “The Courage of a Soldier” (Season One, Episode 4)
Julie: “I’ll have to pitch a series to HBO about a network that passed on all the good shows and all that was left was The Leftovers.”
Billy: Or what about a Fraggle Rock reboot except all the Fraggles are trans?”
Julie: “Do you think that’s too close to Looking?”
Difficult People isn’t afraid to take aim at the bigger targets, either. Showtime, PBS and BuzzFeed all get it in the neck at some point, too, while there’s a hilarious pitching sequence in Season Two which surely sets a record for offending the most networks in the space of 60 seconds. Julie and Billy save most of their wrath for HBO—basically because it hasn’t yet had the foresight to give them their own vehicle on a plate. Here, the pair comment on the network’s precarious place in the peak TV landscape in typically catty style. Although they are, of course, dead wrong about both The Leftovers and the distinctly Fraggle-less gone-before-its-time Looking.
5. Billy, “High Alert” (Season Two, Episode 10)
“This is so degrading. I bet this is what Kevin Spacey feels like when some hot young Latino guy doesn’t get his Jack Lemmon impression.”
Of course, we couldn’t go without listing one of the many, many jabs at Kevin Spacey littered throughout Difficult People’s first two seasons. Who knows what the Oscar winner did to merit becoming the show’s default punching bag—Klausner freely admits she initially wanted at least two Spacey jokes per episode. But while the star’s sexual preferences may be considered a sitting duck, the jokes about them are still damn funny. Here, Billy adds to the canon on learning that Julie’s screenplay about her post-9/11 sexual adventures is now being co-written by a 14-year-old who found fame Snapchatting food placed on her guinea pig.
4. Julie and Billy, “Blade Stallion” (Season Two, Episode 4)
Julie: “Isn’t it funny how Jimmy Fallon slowly turned The Tonight Show into a children’s birthday party?”
Billy: “Last night he played pin the tail on the donkey with Pussy Riot.”
Who says Difficult People can’t be both salacious and politically aware? Where else would you find a joke about the infantilization of a late-night TV institution and Russia’s premier feminist protest punks? Pin the Tail on the Donkey with Pussy Riot may not be a real thing—although it does indeed sound like the kind of shameless viral-baiting that Fallon would attempt. But Eichner did recently deride the host, whose show he’s appeared on twice, for the childlike manner in which he treated an inflammatory guest. In response to Fallon’s now infamous interview with Donald Trump, the star told Vulture that “you can’t be fluffing a Nazi sympathizer’s hair on television.” Too true, too true.
3. Matthew and Billy, “Blade Stallion” (Season Two, Episode 4)
Matthew: “Ooh, are you talking about porn? I love the cartoon category on those sites. You know, sex should have whimsy. It’s so fun and fanciful to watch Lilo get punch-fucked by Stitch or George Jetson with a mouthful of his dog’s—”
Billy: “Matthew, why haven’t you drowned in Bryan Singer’s pool yet?”
You have to pity the poor legal counsel no doubt forced to work overtime scouring through the scripts checking that each and every near-the-knuckle reference won’t result in a lawsuit. According to Klausner, this particular zinger about Bryan Singer’s alleged fondness for twink-filled pool parties somehow got through scot-free. It is, of course, aimed at Billy’s obnoxious babyfaced co-worker—a man so loathsome he makes Billy want to “forgive Eddie Murphy for everything he’s ever said,” and one who has probably now ruined your favorite cartoon characters forever. Admittedly, it seems relatively tame compared to the comments The Real O’Neals’ Noah Galvin made on the same subject during last year’s jaw-dropping interview with Vulture.
2. Julie and Billy, “Kessler Epstein Foundation” (Season Two, Episode 2)
Julie: “Slam your bare breast in a refrigerator door. I’m tagging you, Regina King!”
Billy: “Scotch tape your wrists together and pick up a slice of ham with your teeth! I nominate you, Barbra Streisand!”
Julie: “Put your foot in a hot toaster, William H. Macy!”
Billy: “Stand in a bathtub and hit yourself with a frying pan! Don’t let us down, Don Henley!”
Julie: “Make out with a garbage can, Tea Leoni!”
The ice bucket challenge may have raised $100 million for a worthy cause. But did it produce anything as entertaining as watching the star of Madam Secretary locking lips with a trash can? That’s just one of the main deranged ideas Billy and Julie brainstorm while trying to create the next charity viral sensation in Season Two. In the end, the unapologetically awful pair decide that ‘sticking your hand in a public toilet’ is the challenge that will send their profile stratospheric. Unfortunately for Nathan Lane, the first celebrity they ambush, it’s also a challenge that results in amputation and eventually death.
1. Julie, “Unplugged” (Season Two, Episode 1)
“Glee, but with dogs. A Botched spinoff where Dr. Terry Dubrow’s leather jacket becomes sentient and solves crimes. American Horror Story: We Promise We Thought it Through This Time. CSI: Provincetown, and there’s, like, a ton of piss play. A workplace comedy about lesbian bed death. And something with Annette Bening.”
After running into Heather—a former TV recapper who has made the leap from snarking to showrunning—Julie tries to follow suit by muscling in on the Refutzers, a well-connected synagogue group who go entirely unplugged each weekend in order to recharge their creative batteries. Sadly, for the shameless opportunist, the digital break doesn’t inspire any ideas as on-trend as Heather’s Netflix series about “a single mom who sells heroin to support her trans child’s horseback riding hobby.” While hosting one of their regular Shabbat dinners to compare notes, Julie instead rattles off a series of increasingly surreal show pitches even TLC wouldn’t touch with a bargepole. Although, to be fair, Glee with dogs would probably be far more watchable than any of the last few seasons of Glee with humans.
Season Three of Difficult People premieres today on Hulu.