In the season premiere of Difficult People, aspiring comedian Julie Kessler (creator Julie Klausner) concludes a half-hearted hiatus from Facebook, Twitter, and reality television with a torrent of half-formed ideas: “American Horror Story: We Promise We Thought It Through This Time,” “CSI: Provincetown, and there’s, like, a ton of piss play,” “something with Annette Bening.” Meaning to impress an influential showrunner (guest star Sandra Bernhard), Julie discovers instead that she’s diminished her chances. These aren’t premises, they’re provocations—of the sort one finds in comment sections, confessional essays, and the Borowitz Report, if the Borowitz Report appeared on TMZ. “That sounds like a sketch, not a show,” Bernhard’s bigwig remarks, though of course it is a show. It’s Difficult People, a mordant portrait of modern entertainment in 140-character installments, a showbiz sitcom for the age of social media.
Nestled at the intersection of jaded Jewish comedies (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm), backstage comedies (The Larry Sanders Show, 30 Rock), and comedies about comedians (too many to name), Difficult People is, on the face of it, so familiar it might appear uninspired. As Julie and her best friend, Billy (Billy Eichner), struggle to break into the New York scene, they’re beset by indignities large and small: bombed auditions, feckless agents, mercenary producers, SantaCon. With a supporting cast that includes James Urbaniak (as Julie’s doting boyfriend), Andrea Martin (as her overbearing mother), and the misused Gabourey Sidibe (as Billy’s one-note boss), the series still reads, at times, as a comedy uncomfortable in its own skin, poised between its rat-a-tat patter and its penchant for zanier situations—particularly in the second season, which features forays into faux charity work and the caricatured wilds of Hoboken, New Jersey.
What distinguishes Difficult People is Klausner and Eichner’s fluent, acerbic approach to the nebulous substratum of pop culture that Susan Sontag might, with a bit of prodding, call twenty-first century camp. I prefer to see it as a kissing cousin to “gay Twitter,” situated at the center of a voluminous Venn diagram that includes gossip rags, E!’s red carpet coverage, reality shows, Broadway, old Hollywood, and what Netflix categorizes as “dramas with a strong female lead.” It’s the TV equivalent of #AskTheGays, the bitingly funny torching of Donald Trump that bubbled up online after the presumptive GOP nominee described himself as a “friend” to LGBTQ Americans. Along with the classic points of reference (Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli), Difficult People draws from the margins of the media firmament, with an eye to names recognizable from the pages of US Weekly and the far reaches of cable: Chrissy Teigen, Bethenney Frankel, Giuliana Rancic, Maria Menounos. The series is the deepest of cuts from a small slice of the zeitgeist—one of my great gut laughs in recent memory came in the first season’s finale, as Julie rapped a synopsis of Capturing the Friedmans for a Park Avenue ice queen—but this precision is the key to its caustic charm. It has the feeling of a time capsule in the process of being assembled: If I watch this again in five years, or ten, will it all be Greek to me?
In this, of course, the series owes other debts, too. Klausner and Eichner’s rapport suggests a raunchier Will & Grace, with the winks and nods of the network era replaced by forthright sex fantasies (the Hemsworth brothers) and foul mouths (“I’m reading Homeland fan fiction and Carrie and Saul are about to cry-fuck); their subject, the cruelties of “the industry,” recalls Lisa Kudrow and Michael Patrick King’s The Comeback, though it’s neither as excruciating nor as electrifying to watch as that astonishing mock-doc experiment. But Difficult People, for all its ancestral ties, still manages to offer a fresh perspective on stardom, recognizing that fame no longer accrues in the manner it once did. Beneath the surface of the writing’s allusive thickness, replete with digs at prestige comedies as “30-minute dramas,” there’s a frank, darkly funny ambition. “You’re going to have to eat shit no matter what,” as Billy says. “It’s about figuring out what type of shit you want to eat.”
The insight of Difficult People is to translate this common premise—show business as another form of shit-eating—into a timely provocation, one in which the type of shit one’s forced to eat evolves with the culture itself. Stand-up routines become story slams. Performers’ reels become YouTube channels. Podcasts, Vanderpump Rules recaps, and Huffington Post columns promise “exposure,” that hollow replacement for cold, hard cash. In life, Klausner and Eichner have forged successful careers from such slight beginnings, but in the series their shrewd, rancorous humor bears more than a few marks of the struggle to get there, including the unseemly creation of what’s now known as one’s “brand.” Though Difficult People frames Julie and Billy as selfish, insensitive nightmares—often in a way that feels forced—it reserves its sharpest knives for the snark, or spite, of their online personas: “Mean people are the ones you remember,” Julie says in the first season, defensively, though there’s no doubt that she’s right. On the Internet, or so it often seems, it’s the difficult people that win.
By satirizing the social web’s rules of engagement, the series expands its slice of the zeitgeist to capture an aspect of our historical moment more memorable than any Real Housewife or Times Styles trend, which is the strange truth that the “people” we are and come to know in the realm of the digital are subject to revision. This shit isn’t new—the distance between persona and person didn’t emerge with the advent of Twitter or reality television—but the mechanisms for eating it are more accessible, more ubiquitous, than ever. “Lying about who we are made us accept who we are,” Billy quips in the new season. “After we changed it.” This isn’t to say that Difficult People is ever “serious,” exactly, only to suggest that its bubblegum gloss stumbles onto the terrain of “30-minute dramas” more often than Klausner and Eichner might admit, at least if you live on the Internet. The series’ cutting comic posture approximates, and lampoons, that of the heckler, the fanboy, the troll. If that’s not your bag, Julie and Billy have but three words of advice for you.
Delete your account.
New episodes of Difficult People stream Tuesdays on Hulu starting July 12.