Well, well, well, The Comedians, we’re getting a little introspective, eh? This week’s “Celebrity Guest” isn’t quite as funny as last week’s “The Red Carpet”, but it definitely has a lot to say about itself: Start with Denis O’Hare’s opening sentiment and end, chapter by chapter, with multiple guest appearances by the legendary Mel Brooks. “A show needs to find itself here at FX,” O’Hare tells us. “We’re interested in getting it right.” Is that so? How very meta of you. There are missed opportunities for FX to make a few self-deprecating jokes at its own expense here, but maybe the writers are trying to tell us something. “We’re doing our best. Thanks for sticking with us while we find our groove.”
“Celebrity Guest” suffers and benefits from its soul-searching. In the department of good news, Billy and Josh are still in some kind of pickle after the events of “The Red Carpet”, with their comedy program on the back foot following a shifted premiere date. If you ask Josh, everything is coming up Gad. If you ask Billy, O’Hare is about to take him out back and shoot him, like Travis Coates mercy killing poor Old Yeller. So the two co-stars each go about trying to save The Billy and Josh Show in their own ways. Josh looks for guidance from his agent and from his Hollywood buddies (Frozen songwriters Kristen Anderson Lopez and Robert Lopez). Billy, meanwhile, brings his crisis before a higher authority, calling on his old pal Brooks to weigh in about the show, Gad, and, well, mostly just those two things.
They do reminisce and gab, of course, because what the hell do you expect when you put Brooks and Crystal together for a couple of scenes? Their meeting causes a behind the scenes kerfuffle; Josh unsuccessfully persuades Billy to get Mel on their show, but like an idiot he tells the rest of the staff otherwise. In a way, the brouhaha over Brooks trips the episode up. Except for a sketch from The Billy and Josh Show (an escalating game of “stop copying me” that winds up being one of the episode’s best gags), our leading men don’t have much to do with one another. After their recent sky high bonding session, you’d think they’d spend more time on screen together, not less, but the story demands that they work at opposite ends from each other. There are worse crimes a show could commit. If you can believe it, this outing’s most significant infraction is spending so much time with Brooks, but only in light of his climactic warning to Billy. “A guest star would only interfere,” Mel admonishes. “Trust each other.”
Sage advice. A cameo by Brooks would be manna from heaven for any production. On The Comedians, his presence just draws attention to the series’ dearth of self-assurance. If you put Billy and Josh in a bona fide comic situation, they’re great: See the musical number that brings “Celebrity Guest” home, or that aforementioned copycat skit, or even Josh’s failed attempt at riffing with Billy for evidence of how good they are as a team. The Comedians needs to be more okay with leaning on that chemistry. Let Josh go behind Billy’s back while Billy goes behind Josh’s, but just make sure that the divide between them isn’t just artificial.
At least the supporting cast is coming to the forefront more and more as Billy and Josh sort their stuff out. Matt Oberg in particular is given a chance to shine thanks to his embarrassing overconfidence, whether in his writer’s room interactions or his grandly unobservant proclamations to Megan Ferguson’s Esme, whose constant struggles with that goddamn copy machine are wordlessly hilarious. Meanwhile, Stephnie Weir has managed to turn “bundle of nerves” into the basis for an actual character. (Please, let things eventually go her way. She goes from zero to “verge of a nervous breakdown” in mere seconds, and it seems unlikely that her poor heart can take it.) On top of that, it’s heartening to see The Comedians look inward. Here’s hoping that means the show has found itself.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% Vermont craft brews.