For a streaming-service (read: niche) comedy that’s the product of its co-stars’ cosmopolitan (read: even more niche) sensibilities, Billy Eichner and Julie Klausner’s Difficult People looks an awful lot like a network sitcom. One in particular, actually: with two Jewish comedians not-so-loosely based on their creators as protagonists, Difficult People shares less of its DNA with, say, Girls or Broad City than Seinfeld, the show that did New York-based arrested development first and best. Eichner’s character even shares a romantic MO with his predecessor, if not a sexual orientation; he dumps his first major love interest of the series not for infidelity or commitment issues, but for enjoying audience participation too much.
Call it Grace and Frankie Syndrome. Difficult People, which was created by Klausner and boasts a production credit from Amy Poehler, may be distributed in an unorthodox way (that is, if streaming is still considered unorthodox and not the new status quo), yet it doesn’t attempt to experiment with structure, genre, or even nudity in the vein of other series outside the Big Four. Instead, it embraces sitcom conventions like low-stakes, lettered plots and New York apartments the size and shape of a studio soundstage as vehicles for delivering jokes. And as the thoroughly enjoyable Grace and Frankie proved, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Unlike Marta Kauffmann, however, Eichner and Klausner don’t have a track record of blockbuster network hits to explain their choice of format. Hulu is arguably Eichner’s widest platform yet as a series lead; despite a small yet prominent role in Parks and Recreation‘s later seasons, his game show Billy on the Street began on Fuse and recently migrated to truTV. Klausner, as her character frequently points out, might be better known for writing about TV than working in it, though she’s appeared on and written for everything from Best Week Ever to Mulaney. (Also, her podcast is awesome.)
Difficult People is thus both performers’ biggest scripted role to date, and Klausner keeps the concept simple. Billy Epstein (Eichner) and Julie Kessler (Klausner) are best friends and struggling comics who share an affinity for dissecting celebrity culture and a disdain for pretty much everyone outside their best friendship, Billy’s work bestie (Derrick Baskin) and Julie’s PBS producer boyfriend (James Urbaniak) excluded. Gabourey Sidibe and Andrea Martin round out the cast as the owner of the restaurant where Billy theoretically waits tables and Julie’s pitch-perfect Jewish mother/Billy’s occasional shrink, respectively.
As the series’ title indicates, the hook is Billy and Julie’s reflexive snark. Similar to Gretchen and Jimmy’s dynamic on You’re the Worst, they aren’t really, as a horrified bystander played by comedy cameo ace Beth Dover puts it, “disgusting people”; they’re just better at channeling the judgments we all — and by”we,” I mean Jewish, childless city-dwellers — harbor into Twitter-ready one-liners than those of us who aren’t funny for a living.
The two speak in equal parts bon mots (“You’re playing an adult man with the mind of a 13-year-old boy.” “Imagine being a Comedy Central executive and having a mind like that every day!”) and pure exposition (“When you were growing up in Queens, did you ever think you would be the bartender on Watch What Happens Live?”), and while the latter can be jarring, the former is where Difficult People hits its stride. Even if the premise is generic, Klausner and Eichner’s voices are anything but; no series whose pilot partially revolves around a tweet that reads, “I can’t wait until Blue Ivy is old enough for R. Kelly to piss on her” can be accused of boring its audience.
Difficult People finds its specificity in these kinds of references, which draw on a very different knowledge base than shows, like Community, that have become synonymous with their pop culture literacy. Susan Sarandon’s career choices, Klausner’s beloved Real Housewives, and guest star Marc Shaiman — just one name in a stacked roster that also includes Martin Short and Bridget Everett — all come up in casual conversation, resulting in a vibe that’s as particular to downtown New York as the sitcom is broad.
So while Eichner and Klausner aren’t really trying to reinvent the wheel, they’re also not concerned about alienating those who don’t share their distaste for, say, Daniel Tosh, who’s the butt of one of the pilot’s best gags. Difficult People‘s sitcom structure thus proves itself to be a boon rather than a handicap, freeing its creators to do what they do best: exaggerated self-absorption, PBS parodies, and spot-on analyses of James Spader’s sex appeal.
Difficult People debuts Wednesday on Hulu.