There are many levels of friendship that a human adult experiences over the course of their lives, but everyone, if they’re lucky, has at least one person in their lives that they’re prepared to call their best friend. The person they’d call if they were in an accident, the person they can confess the most bizarre of secrets to.
And while other aspects of “Difficult People,” created by Julie Klausner and executive produced by Amy Poehler, might seem alienating, it’s that core idea which makes it an easy show to indulge in. The premise is simple: Like many shows based on the lives of their stars, “Difficult People” is built on the bond between Julie (Klausner) and Billy (Billy Eichner), who play less successful versions of themselves. Julie recaps reality TV shows for websites. Billy’s a struggling actor/waiter. Together, the two of them attempt to break into the New York comedy scene while debating whether or not the struggle for attention is really worth it.
Their close bond and desire for greater success is easy to identify with; their incredibly snarky outlook toward the world — which includes a hatred for reality TV celebrities and the laughter of children — maybe less so. Klausner and Eichner don’t laugh at each others’ jokes, but that’s because they’re fully committed to the bit. The world is their stage, and they refuse to break.
In the very first scene of “Difficult People,” Julie remarks — regarding a compliment from Billy about a recap she just wrote — “I’m so good at writing mean things about TV shows.” Which is almost like a dare for those seeped in Internet pop culture to not like this show, which is alarmingly specific about the mentality that drives Twitter addicts to constantly refresh their browsers and apps.
The plotting is light, with the first three episodes largely structured around Julie and Billy’s misadventures, which always puts extra pressure on the cast and dialogue to perform. But fortunately, this pays off.
Like many comedians, Eichner is less playing a character and more interpreting his persona in a new context. However, “Difficult People” showcases him in a more notably subdued mode than, say, his work as Craig on “Parks and Recreation” or the way he terrorizes the streets of New York for “Billy on the Street.” There’s actual humanity on hand here, especially as he grapples with his romantic life.
And it’s notable that this deviates from one classic trope of a lady and her gay best friend hanging out. While Billy’s attempts to find love (or a non-embarrassing hookup) are front and center, Julie has a live-in boyfriend Arthur (James Urbaniak) who is the very definition of steady.
Arthur is a solid anchor for both Julie and the show, bringing a measured level of nuance to the role of a PBS employee. A familiar face to comedy nerds but a more familiar voice to animation fans (he’s Dr. Venture on “The Venture Bros.”), Urbaniak’s so good at playing very very normal, while yet somehow coming off as weirdly specific.
Meanwhile, as an actor Klausner is a bit more closed-off, a bit more glib, though when interacting with her brutally self-obsessed and nitpicking mother (played by Andrea Martin, a legend), that personality quirk makes sense. And it’s fun to see Klausner, one of those comedians whose great delivery and quipping talents have made her an indelible part of the modern day comedy scene, get a showcase for her talents beyond saying funny things about Real Housewives.
Like all great comedies, there are clear types being played with here, and the real question with “Difficult People” is how deeply by the end of the season the show will have pushed beyond trope. But between the solid banter and one-liners and great guest stars like Kate McKinnon, Nate Corddry and John Benjamin Hickey (not to mention a solid supporting cast including Gabourey Sidibe, Cole Escola and a ton of famous faces playing themselves), the journey to find out the answer to that question should be pleasant enough.
Because despite the title and yes, some self-obsession, Billy and Julie aren’t as awful as they might want us to think. Whereas shows about “unlikable” characters like “Seinfeld” were, by design, about people who the outside world had just cause to consider off-putting, what “Difficult People” highlights is that our best friends are the ones who see us at our most unlikable — and still like us for it.