The new Hulu show from comics Julie Klausner (host of the “How Was Your Week?” podcast) and Billy Eichner (of “Billy on the Street”) gives full-throated voice to a very particular sort of New York malcontent. I’m sure this life form can be found outside the city, too; I just never have.
Misanthropy and narcissism are the building blocks of much of our current comedy, but “Difficult People” goes the extra mile of not softening its lead characters for easy viewer digestion.
Playing caricatured and earlier versions of themselves in a show written by Klausner and executive-produced by comedy godmother Amy Poehler, Klausner and Eichner are a pair of struggling comedians. Among other things, they’re coping with the indignities of seeing their friends succeed, getting trashed online (and sometimes in the flesh) for crossing the good-taste threshold and generally not being able to comprehend the idea that some people might not want to hold a never-ending running commentary on — to paraphrase “Heathers” — the many ways that life can suck.
If there’s a founding philosophy for the show, I imagine it’s the old line often attributed to Dorothy Parker (possibly erroneously): “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.”
The show begins with an homage to “Billy on the Street,” in which the pair leave their apartments, running to meet at an “Annie” matinee on Broadway. They’re both waylaid by various clueless tourists asking for help (“How do I get to 9/11?” one woman asks Julie, whose Borscht Belt-inspired comeback is “Practice!”). When they’re seated at the theater, they proceed to have an obscenity-laced conversation about the fact that there’s an understudy, until the mother (Beth Dover) of a group of kids snaps at them to shut up. They respond not by apologizing but by telling her they can’t — and then informing her kids that “understudy is a fancy word for disappointment.”
Julie makes a living recapping reality shows; Billy waits tables (badly) at a restaurant where he’ll insult a group of hipster customers by referring to them as “The Traveling Wilburys” and where his two younger, bitchy co-workers (Gabourey Sidibe and Cole Escola) are constantly calling attention to the fact that he’s in his mid-thirties and still a waiter. Basically, our leads embody the reality of many creative types, at any age, in the current economy.
They also exemplify the self-absorption that dominates our social media, which is where Julie and Billy seem to spend more of their time than in the real world. Billy likens his need to constantly refresh his feed as “pressing for medication in a hospital,” while Julie explains her relationship to Twitter (and most comedians’, I imagine) as being at a party where she can say something outrageous and then leave the room — unless people like what she’s said, and then she’ll stay.
Klausner, who writes the show, keeps it sparkling with constant pop-culture references and snappy banter. She and Eichner have a natural rapport stemming from their offscreen friendship. In the show, they’re honing a storytelling act that reliably bombs when they try it out for an audience, while their best material is always reserved just for each other. Their partnership here has been compared to the one in “Will and Grace,” but that sitcom feels like ancient history compared to the New York of today, in which Billy’s gayness is a non-issue (unless he’s being offended by a co-worker, in which case he’ll deploy faux-homophobic slams like “Sometimes when I hear you speak, I think I should join the Westboro Baptist Church”).
Possibly thanks to Poehler, the show’s got a parade of terrific female cast members and cameos. Theater mainstay Andrea Martin plays Julie’s mom, who’s getting certified in hypnotherapy. (Worryingly, she assures Julie multiple times that she’s not going to make her act like a chicken.) Meanwhile, Sidibe plays Billy’s manager at the restaurant, who takes umbrage every time he tries to call her “girl” in a playful way. Kate McKinnon of “SNL” pops in as “Williamsburg’s premiere sober magician,” and Rachel Dratch is a restaurant customer, wantonly ignored by Billy, who pleads that she’s late for chemo.
I was a big fan of Klausner’s 2010 memoir “I Don’t Care About Your Band,” in which she chronicles her various romantic misadventures and lessons learned. In “Difficult People,” it seems she’s writing a subsequent version of herself, one who’s been around long enough to know a good guy when she sees one — her live-in boyfriend on the show, played by James Urbaniak, is a mild-mannered NPR staffer — but is still going strong in the kvetching department.
There are a couple of ways to process the constant stream of mostly critical commentary from our leads: First, that it’s a defense mechanism used, unwisely, to insulate themselves from otherwise having to engage with the world on a more serious level. Second, that it’s an understandable refuge from the never-ending struggle that is daily existence in New York as an artist, aspiring or otherwise.
Admittedly, as someone with a like-minded group of friends, I’m biased toward the latter. The tagline for “Difficult People” is “They mean well.” While I’m not entirely sure that’s true, I do appreciate this unvarnished look at the Lifestyles of the Petty and Hilarious. (And would like to invite them to sit by me.)