It’s not that “The Comedians” got off to a slow start. Billy Crystal and Josh Gad’s new FX comedy has been a richly-layered joke machine since its premiere, but even I — one of the series’ bigger fans — noticed a difference between Episode 3’s supermarket scene and what had come before it. Indiewire’s TV Editor Liz Shannon Miller emphasized the scene’s importance in recounting how FX made sure to screen it at the series’ SXSW premiere, going so far as to show the pilot, skip Episode 2 and cut directly to the third entry so audiences were sure to witness the outrageous, hilarious and heart-warming scene — even if that lead to a little confusion, since some pretty significant plot details were skipped to get there.
No matter how you watch the scene — be it part of a season binge in a few months or on its own online — it’s a comedic moment to savor. So let’s get to savoring.
What You Need to Know
Though they’ve been forced to make a sketch TV series together — “The Billy & Josh Show” — Billy Crystal and Josh Gad just don’t get along. It’s resulted in turmoil for the show itself, with one A-list director getting fired (real-life “Comedians” director Larry Charles) and the production going way over budget after only a few weeks.
Now, both actors have been nominated for the Kid Critics Award for their respective film projects (“Frozen” and “Monsters University”), and the president of FX wants them to walk the red carpet together “as a team” to garner some good press for the show. Eager to keep their boss happy, the comedians set aside their competitive natures, don tuxedos and head to the awards show…after smoking some pretty potent weed.
Spotting a supermarket from the limousine, Josh and Billy decide to stop to get some “snacks.” Instead, the well-dressed pair spend an untold number of hours enjoying every decadency offered by America’s purveyor of bounty. Unbeknownst to their drug-addled brains, they’re in the store for most of the evening and arrive too late to the Kids Critics Awards, thus worsening their show’s chances.
Why It’s Funny
At the construction level, montages are always funny. So are scenes where characters break out of their comfort zones. So is Billy Crystal doing an impression of an old man shopping, it turns out. Frankly, Crystal and Gad are in peak form throughout, playing addictive, baked versions of themselves. Josh is a little more touchy feely, and Billy has a great blank face (watch him when Josh spots the supermarket from the limo). On a character level, both are more accepting of the other’s sense of humor, with Josh laughing authentically for perhaps the first time ever and Billy being a little more vulgar with his jokes.
The pacing works extremely well, too, starting with a bang before slowing down for an honest chat over ice cream and then ramping up when Billy’s prank goes too far. But why is it that funny? The supermarket scene features every element necessary for iconic comedy: quotable lines (“People are just shitting on the street.” “You’re gonna like that.” “I was raised by whales.”), a relatable scenario, timeless humor (with the exception of Crystal’s Sammy Davis Jr. bit) and plenty of heart.
Why It’s More than Funny
Taken as a piece of the larger story, the scene does a lot more than generate laughs. In the second section, Josh and Billy sit on the floor of the supermarket eating ice cream. Josh asks Billy if he even cares about the award they’ve been passive aggressively fighting over. “Sure, I care. I always care,” Billy says. “You never stop caring. That’s weird, right? But that’s the way it’s supposed to be, I think.” The surprising moment of wisdom is enough to sober up anyone, from the viewer to Josh, too, who responds instinctively with honesty. “I’m scared of you,” he says, in a confession of immediacy mixed with long-term intimidation. “I get that,” Billy responds, before the two burst into laughter, united in their moment of clarity even as the pot haze keeps things light.
Why It Works Narratively
As silly as it seems, the duo’s baked grocery store excursion is what gets them to finally come together as a team. They’d tried to work out their differences in more traditional ways, offering formal peace treaties to one another in the form of dinners and party invitations, but those all failed. It took an unplanned drug trip to get them over their insecurities (even if only for a little bit) and into a place where they can excel creatively. This was the moment of bonding they needed to move on to the next thing: making a great comedy together. Lucky for us, we got to watch them do both at the same time.
Why It Works as Meta Comedy
“You really haven’t been to a supermarket until you’ve been to a supermarket with Billy Crystal, and my sense is that Billy Crystal hasn’t been to a supermarket in a long, long time.” What makes “The Comedians” a comedy worth dissecting is its ability to fully exploit its meta nature. Conceptually, it’s funny to think about Billy Crystal and Josh Gad in a grocery store. For most people, that place is the epitome of normalcy — boredom, even. That means the scene would work even if Crystal and Gad weren’t playing characters based on themselves. Adding in the fact they’re doing just that elevates the humor under the same scenario because now we get to appreciate the strange combination of character and setting with them. On top of this well-considered concept, we also get jokes about “Analyze That” being in the 99-cents bin, Crystal pretending a jug of water is an Oscar statue and Gad using his “Frozen” connection to get them out of trouble.
Why It’s Important
Placing big screen stars with big personalities in a place of utter monotony is funny. Placing them there while being high is hysterical. Placing them there while high and at odds with each other is funny and narratively progressive. Placing them there while high and turning the scene into their brotherly bonding moment is pure genius.