TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Tomorrow night, the FX cable network presents the return of Louis C.K.'s comedy series "Louie," along with the premiere of a new mockumentary comedy series called "The Comedians," starring Billy Crystal and Josh Gad. Both series are unusual and ambitious and both feature celebrities playing exaggerated versions of themselves. But according to our TV critic David Bianculli, only one of them really hits the ground running. Here's his review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The idea of comedians playing themselves on TV, but outrageous, cartoonish version of themselves, is as old as television itself. Actually, it's as old as radio because both Jack Benny and George Burns made fun of themselves as themselves on radio long before shifting to TV in 1950. Jack Benny's comedy program, on both radio and television, was the "Seinfeld" of its day, a hit show about nothing, following a star comic as he made people laugh on stage and dealt with everyday life the rest of the time. Larry David, as co-creator of "Seinfeld" and the creator and star of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," is the modern master of this genre, but there are plenty of others. This week, FX unveils a new one, "The Comedian," starring Billy Crystal and Josh Gad, and begins season five of Louis C.K.'s "Louie." These shows are paired together on Thursday night, but like the two central characters on "The Comedians," they don't really mesh well together. "The Comedians" is based on a Swedish show about comics of different generations forced to work together. For FX, Crystal and Gad play themselves and the wonderful Denis O'Hare plays the fictional FX executive who pairs them together after the pilot for Crystal's one-man sketch series, "The Billy And Billy Show" runs into some problems.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COMEDIANS")
BILLY CRYSTAL: (As himself) What do you mean I didn't test well?
O'HARE: (As FX executive) No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, you tested great. They love you, all right? The show tested poorly, somewhat poorly.
CRYSTAL: (As himself) How is that possible? I am the show.
O'HARE: (As FX executive) And I think that maybe that's where we are running into a little bit of trouble. You're playing all the characters. You're in every scene. We're worried that we run the risk of too much you.
CRYSTAL: (As himself) (Laughter) So, OK, what are you proposing?
O'HARE: (As FX executive) Are you familiar with Josh Gad?
BIANCULLI: Crystal meets Gad with for a drink to feel him out in a wonderful scene that shows what "The Comedians" could've been and might still become. In most of the early episodes, their scenes together feel little a forced, but the tension here is perfect and perfectly natural.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COMEDIANS")
CRYSTAL: (As himself) I just want to tell you I saw "Book Of Mormon" three times.
JOSH GAD: (As himself) No, you're kidding me. You must be very wealthy.
CRYSTAL: (As himself) Must be - must be - oh, fantastic.
GAD: (As himself) It is such a kick. You, sir, have got to do it. You've got to try Broadway. You would get the bug. It is - it is so much fun.
CRYSTAL: (As himself) I did Broadway with my one-man show "700 Sundays." We won a Tony, and it's pretty much one of the highest-grossing nonmusicals in Broadway history.
GAD: (As himself) You're kidding me.
CRYSTAL: (As himself) No, no, no...
GAD: (As himself) Congratulations.
CRYSTAL: (As himself) Yeah. It's OK.
GAD: (As himself) No, I don't - I don't even know why I never even...
CRYSTAL: (As himself) It's all right.
GAD: (As himself) What was it about?
CRYSTAL: (As himself) It's a story that my dad died when I was 15.
GAD: (As himself) (Laughter) Wow, that sounds so powerful.
BIANCULLI: For "The Comedians" to strengthen in the future, its show within a show sketches have to be longer and funnier. Like, mini "SCTV" sketches And the behind-the-scenes clashes have to be more unpredictable. The Showtime comedy "Episodes" about the making of a TV sitcom does this brilliantly. In its first laps around the track, "The Comedians" does not. And then there's "Louie." Louis C.K., by writing, acting and directing in this series, is taking on more than just about any TV auteurs this side of "South Park." And he keeps doing amazing work, pulling off the most unexpected twists and turns anchored by his underappreciated acting ability and his eagerness to go where few comics have gone before. In the first few season five episodes alone, his TV character of "Louie" has sex with a very pregnant woman, gender-bending role-play sex with another woman and a panicked moment on the streets of New York when he suddenly has to go to the bathroom. All three of those scenarios ended up making made me laugh out loud, usually with a mixture of shock and awe. But small scenes work just as well. Louis C.K., like Jack Benny and Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, can make a simple trip to the store a very memorable experience. Here's Louie venting his displeasure to a young salesclerk who didn't want to bother unlocking a display of expensive cookware for him because the shop was about the close. Clara Wong plays the clerk, and I love this scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOUIE")
LOUIS C.K.: (As Louie) So you just don't care about your customers.
CLARA WONG: (As salesclerk) That whole customer's always right approach is kind of old school.
C.K.: (As Louie) Oh, is it? Oh, OK then - then - then noted. Thank you very much. In the future, I will take my business elsewhere.
WONG: (As salesclerk) Please do. Please go to Williams-Sonoma. They'll be very indulgent.
C.K.: (As Louie) Wow. Wow, that's a new approach. So you have nothing to learn from thousands of years of human commerce, just nothing. I really hope that works out for you.
WONG: (As salesclerk) Well, I'm 24, and I own my own store in Manhattan.
C.K.: (As Louie) All right then. All right. I will alert my entire generation that your generation needs nothing from us. We will just be on our way.
WONG: (As salesclerk) Well, if you could help clean up the environment you ruined on your wait out...
C.K.: (As Louie) Oh, is there anything else we can get for you, your majesties?
WONG: (As salesclerk) Do you always get uncomfortable around younger people?
C.K.: (As Louie) Yeah. I don't know - I don't know why.
WONG: (As salesclerk) I think I maybe know why.
C.K.: (As Louie) OK.
WONG: (As salesclerk) Because we're the future and you don't belong in it because we're beyond you. And, naturally, that makes you feel kind of bad. You have this deep down feeling that you don't matter anymore.
C.K.: (As Louie) Yeah, that's - that's - that's pretty true, yeah.
BIANCULLI: In that scene, "Louie," like "The Comedians," is deliberately addressing the new generation gap. "Louie" nails it perfectly in a few short minutes. "The Comedians," in eight episodes provided for preview, hasn't fully succeeded, except for one sequence in an upcoming episode in which Billy Crystal asks Mel Brooks to guest star. In a very funny, very meta scene, Mel turns him down. But it's a scene that doesn't involve Josh Gad. Gad and Crystal have yet to convincingly mesh or clash the way "The Comedians" needs them to. But Louis C.K., all by himself, is doing just great.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching, and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, I'll talk with Adam Driver, who's best-known for his role on HBO's "Girls" as Hannah's on-again, off-again boyfriend.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GIRLS")
LENA DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) I know that this is complicated, but I also know that we can work it out.
ADAM DRIVER: (As Adam Sackler) Well, I'm sick of trying to work it out. Can't one thing ever be easy with you?
GROSS: Adam Driver co-stars with Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts and Amanda Seyfried in the new movie comedy "While We're Young." So I hope you'll join us tomorrow. We'll close with a recording by Tony Bennett with a trio led by pianist Ralph Sharon. Sharon often accompanied Bennett. Ralph Sharon died last week. He was 91.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL OF YOU")
TONY BENNETT: (Singing) I love the looks of you, the lure of you. I'd love to make a tour of you. The eyes, the arms, the mouth of you; the east, west, north and the south of you. I'd love to gain complete control of you and handle even the heart and soul of you. Love at least a small percent of me, do. Yes, I love all of you.
This gentleman right here playing this piano is not only a great musician, but he's nice enough to find all my songs all through the years - Mr. Ralph Sharon, ladies and gentlemen.
RALPH SHARON: Thank you very much, y'all.
(APPLAUSE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.