By Dan Snierson
April 07, 2015 at 12:00 PM EDT
Frank Ockenfels/FX

Tonight on FX at 10 p.m., Billy Crystal and Josh Gad will each tackle the role of a lifetime—or certainly their lifetime. That’s because Billy Crystal and Josh Gad star as Billy Crystal and Josh Gad in The Comedians, a mockumentary series that follows the two actors in their possibly ill-fated attempt to headline an FX sketch show. Here, the 67-year-old and 34-year-old funnymen talk about bridging—and widening—the generation gap.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your first meeting on the show doesn’t get off on the right foot. What do you remember about the first time you met in real life?

BILLY CRYSTAL: Josh, was that when you slapped me?

JOSH GAD: It was amongst the many times I hit you, but that was the first.

CRYSTAL: You said, “What’s this on your shirt?” and then I looked down and you hit me in the nose. You’d think a wily veteran would know better.

GAD: Billy came to see The Book of Mormon. He didn’t have the courage to come backstage and say hello to me.

CRYSTAL: I had a reservation!

GAD: Sushi always takes precedence over meeting me. I then performed at an event honoring Billy and we completely hit it off. I came backstage and we started talking. And then he sent me this DVD of the Swedish show [on which The Comedians is based]. And the next day, I came into the office…

CRYSTAL: What was supposed to be a half-hour meeting, maybe 45 minutes, was, like, three hours. It was Josh, [executive producers] Larry Charles, Ben Wexler, Matt Nix. By the time he left, we were doing bits together. We were improvising, we had ideas—it was just infectious. The playing off each other seemed so natural that we just said, “Cancel the call to Jack Black.”

GAD: (laughs) By the way, so many of my jobs have begun with that sentence, “Cancel the call to Jack Black.”

In one episode, Billy, you joined Josh for a pot-smoking session and ended up stirring up trouble in a supermarket. Did you guys do any “get to know you” bonding outings together?

CRYSTAL: (to GAD) Did we do a weekend?

GAD: We didn’t do a weekend. I tried to recruit you to do a trip on horseback. I watched City Slickers, and I thought maybe that was a documentary that you might want to relive—and you told me no.

CRYSTAL: No, I said, “As you get older, the horse seems higher.”

GAD: The sort of “get to know you” honeymoon period was actually right before the summer started and I went off to do Pixels. Billy, myself, Wexler, Matt Nix, and Larry Charles all got together, pretty much everyday. We went to Billy’s house, and we dissected what we wanted the show to be and how we wanted to play on the dynamic of these two guys. Early on, we decided that we were going to stick to the idea of playing ourselves, so that we could really go meta with it, and so we could really explore the idea of juxtaposing what people projected onto us [with our true selves], that these two guys that you think might be really like us, but they’re not really like us. That process took a couple of weeks, and that’s where we really got to know each other.

CRYSTAL: You used “meta” and “juxtaposing” in one sentence, and I broke out into a sweat. It was during that time of exploration that the really strong pillars for the show got put in place. We said, “We’re going to play ourselves,” so that comes with added responsibility to be willing to make fun of yourself, your persona—whatever that may be to people—and make yourself more vulnerable that way. It really works great in the show. I think that wooing period was essential to us getting off on the right foot. 

What was your biggest fear about working with each other?

GAD: My biggest fear was not living up to Billy’s expectation of what Jack Black could have done with this role. [Laughter] Honestly, my biggest fear going into it was twofold. It was, “Am I worthy of sharing this screen with a legend I grew up admiring?”

CRYSTAL: Oh, come on…

GAD: My second biggest fear was, it is a very daunting task to play a version of yourself that has a lot of warts and that feeds on certain insecurities, certain elements that people have projected onto you over the years. You’ve got to double down on that concept if you’re going to do this and be fearless. Because we do do things that are a little bit dangerous, we do do things that are sometimes not as likable as we are in real life, that was always in the back of my mind at the beginning of the process. And by the end—I’m sure for Billy as well—it was second nature. We understood that what we had committed to required us to just jump fully into it. So those were my big fears. Billy, you were terrified that the checks weren’t going to come in every week, right?

CRYSTAL: Well, they said every two weeks. With an Internet gambling problem, you need the cash…. My biggest fear was “Can I keep up with these really tremendous people in the cast? In playing myself, would I go too far? Am I doing the right things by what I’m allowing this version of me to do?” Otherwise, I had such a wonderful time that when we were done, I was sorry that we ended. And you know, you don’t feel that way very often.

You guys take a few shots at each other and your careers on the show. Did any of them cut a little too close to the bone, where you had to ask the other person, “Is it okay if I say this about you?”

GAD: Absolutely. There was one episode in particular toward the end of the season that called upon all of our insecurities and all of our greatest fears and required us to feed into them, and to project those images onto each other. That was, I would say, a season-long process, building up to that episode and constantly working our way into it and looking at each other up until the moment they called “action” and just basically saying to each other, “I trust you. Let’s take this proverbial leap and let’s go for it, because we have built to this.” If you cheat it in any way, and you kind of do a soft version of it, the audience will see through that.

CRYSTAL: Mmm-hmm.

GAD: So, we had to really commit to it. And again, Billy was an incredible team partner. We really had that camaraderie where we could come up to each other before we started shooting, and we could have a conversation about it, and after it was done, hug each other and say, “I love you. None of that is real, even though our names are exactly the same as they are in real life and I just said horrible things to you.” (Laughs) That was, for me, the most challenging, but also the most rewarding part of the whole thing, because it is jumping into the abyss.

CRYSTAL: Sometimes when we have a read-through of a new script which we haven’t seen, and we have a pretty big audience of crew and network people and so on—there’s maybe, 50, 75 people at a read-though—I’ll read, and then there’s a joke about me, and there’s another joke about me. And we’d look at each other after we’re done, and we’d go, “Is this what they think about me? Who wrote this?” You’d get the suspecting thoughts in your mind going, “Jesus, they think I’m this?” and then they go, “No, no, no! We’re just writing!” “Yeah, but you wrote it.” (laughs) You have to modify it or say, “I get why that’s okay, but here’s why it’s not okay,” and you go back and forth. That was kind of daunting at times, what you would allow in. In my case, audiences may be more familiar with me… Josh started making fun of me from the time I first met him, which I always thought was funny and okay. Not many people do that. Sometimes I’m worried the audience will go, “Why is this guy saying this to Billy?! Why is Billy taking this?!” But that makes the show edgy and real and great that way…. There’s a whole show that comes up later where I overhear him and his comedian friends taking shots. There’s little barbs. He imitates me.

GAD: I think I do a pretty spot-on imitation, Billy.

CRYSTAL: It’s so grotesque and bizarre that it sort of works; I don’t know what it is about it. Those caricatures that they make of you on the pier?

GAD: That’s exactly what it is! It’s the essence of Billy.

Billy, you hadn’t done a weekly TV show in about 30 years—since SNL—and this show has a sketch component.  What was your mindset when this came along? Were you looking to do TV again or was that not on your radar?

CRYSTAL: I wasn’t thinking about anything at the time. I really wasn’t. I just was preparing to go back on Broadway, and I had written a book, and I was very content with what I was doing. Then this thing came out of the blue, and it was like, “Wow, I could like this.” It was a wonderful surprise. It was like finding that little baby on your doorstep with the note saying, “Please take care of me.”… I was sent this Swedish show, and I said, “All right, let me look.” You have to watch with subtitles, so that made it even more interesting, so I felt like I was watching a foreign film, and I loved it. At first, again, it was the relationship, so I knew that right away. But then, there was the thought: We could have a live show in front of an audience. We could do sketch pieces that we throw in like they did. But we could really, in the Americanizing of it, lift it up even higher than the Swedish show was and make it about bigger things. And I thought, “I could really have fun with this.” To me, it was a chance to plug into stuff I did at SNL and stuff I do on stage my whole life. At this point in my career, it’s a blessing to have that kind of character to play.

There have been many behind-the-scenes-of-a-TV-show series—Larry Sanders30 Rock, Episodes. What ws the appeal of this genre for you? Did you see some previously unexplored territory?

CRYSTAL: What attracted me was the relationship of the two guys. They were teamed reluctantly with each other, forced upon each other, which I thought was really fresh. Yes, the setting is a television show, but the real story is their relationship. 

GAD: At this point, every show has exhausted every format. What was unique about this, to me, was this generational disconnect that exists between two people who are pursuing the same job, but coming at it from completely different eras, from completely different perspectives. That was a very unique point of view that I hadn’t really seen. I always joked that the show could just as easily be called The Lawyers or The Butchers. It happens to take place in the world of comedy, because Billy and I have chosen to play ourselves. But it’s really about, How do you bridge the gap between somebody who grew up 30 years before doing the very same job that a young gun is doing now, but coming at it with a completely different point of view? When you’re forced to complement each other, but you have very different ideas of what that job requires, that’s what will connect this to audiences, and not make it feel too insidery. And not make it feel like, “Oh, it’s another show about the behind-the-scenes,” because it’s really not. What’s really going on is an exploration of these huge egos who both desperately need each other and at the same time want nothing to do with each other.

You’re both serving as producers on the show. How much mining have the writers been doing into your real lives and asking you for stories?

CRYSTAL: When you see the breadth of the 13, they were all very interesting, and they’re all really rooted in a truth, and it’s situations that Josh and I have been in in our careers.

GAD: There’s not a day on set that doesn’t begin with, “You won’t believe what happened to me today!” and doesn’t end with an outline of the next episode. That’s the god’s honest truth. Everyday, we are collecting personal, embarrassing stories and flipping them on their head. For instance, Billy and I were both nominated for the same award at the time of Monsters University and Frozen. So we played on that idea, and it spiraled into something else. It’s taking those little tidbits of reality and layering them with these larger-than-life circumstances that  you’ll see elements of in every single episode. Each episode has at least one to two stories that are based in some sort of truth.

Can you give us a few teases about what to expect this season from “Billy Crystal and “Josh Gad”?

GAD: You’ll see Billy Crystal and I singing a brand new song by the writers of Frozen.

CRYSTAL: I slap Josh, he slaps me.

GAD: You will see one of the greatest slap fights in modern history…. You will see me with cold sores, the likes of which have never been shown on network or cable television.

CRYSTAL: We make a national apology on Jimmy Kimmel.

GAD: My b—s in Billy’s face.

CRYSTAL: Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Vivien Leigh!

GAD: Get ready for Daryl Hannah and Tom Hanks to be reunited again in the form of Josh Gad and Billy Crystal.

CRYSTAL: I’m the Man in the Yellow Hat, dealing with a monkey with a drinking problem.

On a Venn Diagram of comedy/pop-culture influences, where did you guys overlap? And which of the other person’s taste did you not get at all? 

GAD: [laughs] I’m laughing, because there’s so many instances that come to mind. Let’s start off with the fact that we crossover in so many ways and we share so many similarities that at times, it becomes very difficult to play such diverse characters on the series. For instance: When I first saw Billy perform his brilliant one-man show, 700 Sundays, one of the things that startled me so much was he tells the story about the first time he ever knew he wanted to be a comedian, sitting in this comedy nightclub, seeing this Borscht Belt comedians in the Catskill Mountains do his shtick. What startled me about that was I was 4 years old, and we were celebrating my grandparents’ 50th anniversary—I guess it’s sort of a rite of passage for young Jewish kids to go the Catskills.

CRYSTAL: That was the only time I went, by the way. The only time I went until I performed there. It’s true!

GAD: I see this comedian, and I didn’t understand any of the jokes, but I was laughing harder than anybody in the audience. And it was at that moment that I knew I wanted to entertain. To share that pivotal point of introduction and have it be literally the same point of introduction for the two of us was so fascinating to me, because I have grown up admiring the hell out of Billy, whether it was The Princess Bride or Saturday Night Live. So he was one of my biggest influences. Where we sort of diverged is… although I got to tell you, he’s opened up a lot. [to Crystal] I got you into The Walking Dead. But on set, I would always talk about some of the things that I’m watching, and he’d just be like, “All right, all right, all right.” Now he’s opening up to it!

CRYSTAL: I’m binge watching. Like I said, he knows everything. As far as the media goes, I’m driving in the left lane at 28 miles an hour. First it was Breaking Bad, and I watched five years of it in 10 days. Now it’s The Walking Dead; I’m finishing up season 4, which I’ve done in two weeks; we watched three last night. What am I going to watch next, Josh?

GAD: You’re going to watch The Fall. It’s very dark, but you’re really going to enjoy it. You’re going to need to keep the lights on at night, because you’re going to be terrified that a serial killer is going to come to your home, but I guarantee you you’ll be as riveted as you were with those other shows.

CRYSTAL: What about House of Cards?

GAD: You haven’t done House of Cards yet?


GAD: Billy!!! What are you doing???

CRYSTAL: I watch old Truth or Consequences on Hulu. Concentration. And The Match Game with Gene Rayburn. 

GAD: Have you caught up yet on Ozzie and Harriet season 8?

CRYSTAL: Spoiler alert! Spoiler alert! [Both laugh.]

GAD: Do they sleep in the same bed yet? Have you gotten to that episode?

CRYSTAL: No, that they don’t. You don’t even get to their bedroom. I swear to god. There’s that episode where Ozzie buys him a sweater—it’s unbelievable.

GAD: It’s so unexpected.

CRYSTAL: Because it’s a crewneck. Usually he’s in a button-down with a tie—that’s what throws you.

Josh, what is one skill that Billy has as a comedian that you wish you could steal? And vice versa for you, Billy.

GAD: I will tell you right off the bat: His ability to transform is one of the greatest attributes I’ve ever seen in any comedian. That harkens back to his days on SNL. He goes all the way. He will oftentimes sit in the makeup chair for three hours for something that is usually utilized on like a sci-fi film or a crazy biopic, and Bill will absolutely commit to a full-on transformation to get the laugh. Each character that he does in the sketches is so distinctly unique—no two of them are similar to each other. That’s a rare feat to be able to pull that off, because at this point, I’m sure he has hundreds of characters in his repertoire. 

CRYSTAL: I think Josh’s ability to know a menu—he knows every place to eat.… When I saw The Book of Mormon, I went, “Oh, god. This guy is really special,” and I’d seen him a few times as a correspondent on The Daily Show. He writes very well, and he’s very articulate and smart. I mean, he used “meta” and “juxtaposition” in a sentence before. But his integrity in his concentration is something I lack. I crack up. Sometimes it’s hard for me to get through because I so appreciate whatever he’s doing with me. He has this wonderful ability to just know who he is all the time.

GAD: Billy is an encyclopedia of comedy—he has this incredible understanding of the history of comedy going all the way back to the beginning. People like Ernie Kovacs and Laurel and Hardy, I wasn’t that familiar with their work. I was sort of a Marx Brothers guy, a Charlie Chaplin guy. I got this master class during the process of doing the show. All these great comedians I got to experience as part of working alongside Billy and having him become this professor to me and teach me about all of these amazing people. That was an amazing part of the process.

CRYSTAL: Did the cape and the pointer bother you at all?

GAD: I thought it was a little bit obnoxious. But after a while, it just started working for me.

CRYSTAL: When I dropped having you call me “sir,” I thought that was a breakthrough.

GAD: “Mr. Crystal” rolls off the tongue so much easier than “sir. “

Watch the trailer below: