And Another Thing: <i>Difficult People</i> Is Good, Dark Comedy
And Another Thing: <i>Difficult People</i> Is Good, Dark Comedy

Ashley Spurgeon is a lifelong TV fan — nay, expert — and with her recurring television and pop-culture column "And Another Thing," she'll tell you what to watch, what to skip, and what's worth thinking more about.

As with many television shows recommended by trusted friends who possess both innate good taste and sound judgment, it was a few years before I got around to watching Difficult People. Though I possess many idiosyncratic and groundless biases against one thing or another, I actually had a very good reason for putting this one off. “You remind me of Julie,” I heard from more than one person (including Nashville Scene editor D. Patrick Rodgers), “from Difficult People.” 

Spent a few years being quasi-jokingly semi-insulted that a protagonist from a series called Difficult People spurred so many people in my life to be like, “Hey, you’re kind of like that bitch on TV.” (Well, Hulu ... See? That was bitchy.) At least my bias was grounded. But 30-something months later I got over it, and to be fair to my friends and colleagues: It turns out Julie (played by Julie Klausner) is a television recapper, a job I was doing at the time. 

The only thing less respected than TV recapper in the entertainment industry is women over 40, so naturally Julie and her only friend Billy (Billy Eichner), a waiter, want something more, something bigger, more important: They want fame, money and recognition. Living and striving in New York City — hmm, maybe you’ve heard of it? — the pair occasionally work to achieve their shared dream of becoming stand-up comedians. 

Another bias revealed: There are way, way too many shows about assholes and/or losers who want to break into entertainment, particularly stand-up comedy. (The only thing worse than a movie about the magic of movies is a show about wanting a show.) But in my professional opinion, the ones about “losers” (Crashing, Lady Dynamite) are a lot more fun than the ones about the assholes (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, I’m Dying Up Here). Difficult People rides the loser/asshole line quite nicely, but where it really stands out against similar concepts is its creative decision to be a funny comedy. 

Difficult People is still a dark comedy, but not in the “Maybe today’s the day I finally fucking kill myself” style pushed by under-medicated writers’ rooms. Its darkness comes not from inner demons, but the hard and banal facts of life, ramped up to the colorful, bright side of bizarre, without ever going full-on surreal. Julie’s mother Marilyn (Andrea Martin, secret third lead) isn’t just an egotistical, withholding narcissist and master manipulator — a common-enough origin story for aspiring comedians. She’s the best egotistical, withholding narcissist and master manipulator. Billy’s co-worker Matthew (Cole Escola, by far the breakout character of the series) is involved in a March-December-30th romance built on a solid foundation of public perversity, and Julie and Billy, at one point early on, kill Nathan Lane. 

There’s also a pervasive “No, fuck you!” ethos running throughout which I deeply, deeply respect. Julie, in Season 1: “Speaking of Charlie Rose, this isn’t a joke or anything, but he just seems like a really mean pervert to me, like the kind of guy that only likes porn where the lady is getting it from behind and her head is in the toilet.” Rose would work at CBS and PBS for another six-ish years after this, doing stuff like getting staffing recs from Jeffrey Epstein. (Also not a joke!) One recurring punch line was, basically, “Kevin Spacey.” 

So yeah, no wonder Julie and Billy had a hard time breaking into showbiz. To be clear, they are also lazy, and also mean: They basically bullied Nathan Lane to death by forcing him to stick his hand into a toilet (for charity). I’m going to read everything written about what “antihero” protagonists of the past generation have done to the easily swayed American psyche (can anyone point me to a good essay about the rise in fascist aesthetics in white males vis-a-vis hairdos on The Shield and Boardwalk Empire?), but Julie and Billy aren’t really bad so much as they are New York Citiers — and therefore, just drawn that way. 

There’s also a scrappy kind of queerness and in-your-face aggression to the whole shebang, not unlike Billy’s coworker, 9/11 truther Lola. I mean I’m media elite so I like that kind of thing, but it’s not really the kind of attitude that’ll get you in front of a huge audience on a major network like CBS — which could in turn lead to things like Bazinga in the Park With George. But the brutal incision doesn’t just poke outward in bitterness at the rotten ecosystem of the show business world Julie and Billy want to dominate (Eicher is already on his way) — that same attitude is directed inward to build the characters. Comedy is usually its darkest and funniest when you’re laughing at yourself.

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