THE BOOK OF GAD
How ‘The Comedians’ Star Josh Gad Became Hollywood’s Favorite Manchild
From Book of Mormon to Frozen, Josh Gad has created a monopoly on naïve sidekicks. Now he’s skewering that reputation, playing himself in the new FX comedy The Comedians.
When Josh Gad arrives for our breakfast, his shirt is pressed and tucked in. From my vantage point, he hasn’t sweat through it—at least not yet.
At no point during our time together does he seem to be distracted by shiny objects, accidentally trip a waiter, stutter, or put his foot in his mouth, having haphazardly offended me. I look up, and there does not appear to be a cloud of snow flurries following him around to keep him from melting. Oh, also he does not seem to be a snowman.
The poised professional father of two is, really, nothing like the anxious goofballs, good-natured bunglers, or simple, hapless sweethearts he’s made a career out of playing: Elder Cunningham in the Broadway smash Book of Mormon, Jake Gyllenhaal’s Peter Pan Syndrome-afflicted brother in Love & Other Drugs, or the veritable Kevin James to Kevin Hart’s Will Smith in the recent Hitch-like suave love doctor comedy The Wedding Ringer. Then, of course, there’s his scene-stealing work as Olaf, the often confused, always adorable snowman in Frozen.
It’s especially important to note that he is nothing like these characters because of the project Gad and I have met to discuss, his co-starring role opposite Billy Crystal in the new FX comedy The Comedians. In the grand tradition of Jerry Seinfeld in Seinfeld and Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Comedians has Gad playing himself. Or, as he explains, it has him sending up the public perception of himself, which he is well-aware has been formed by these manchildren he’s been known to play.
“I love the manchild,” he says. “I’ve sort of created a monopoly on naiveté and characters that are driven by obliviousness and child-like wonderment.”
That monopoly is skewered brutally in The Comedians, an uber-meta new series that premieres Thursday night. The plot of the first episode basically mirrors the real-life situation behind it: Billy Crystal and Josh Gad are teaming up for a new comedy series on FX. “I call the show a wormhole at the center of a rabbit hole,” Gad says, “meaning it’s about as meta as you can go.”
The rest of the series—which is funny and twisted enough to be a worthy time slot companion to FX’s crown jewel, Louie—eschews the tired making-of-the-Hollywood-sausage trope of what it’s like to put on a show, and instead explores the comedic disconnect between these two actors of very different generations, temperaments, and levels of fame as they collaborate on a daily basis.
“With Billy, people have 50 years of experience with his comedy,” he says, then laughing. “Or maybe 40 years—Billy always gets angry because I always age him up in interviews and he comes off as 160 years old.”
But it’s that legendary status of Billy Crystal contrasted with the “who’s that again?” rise of Josh Gad, and the disproportionate egos that go along with both, that not only sets The Comedians up to land the jokes, but is also what both stars had to grapple with before signing on.
“For him, it was the dilemma of, ‘Everybody thinks they know me and now I’m going to subvert that,’” Gad says. “For me, it was the dilemma of people are just getting to know me and now I’m going to subvert that.”
That the two actors are subverting anything, that they’re starring in The Comedians at all, is nothing short of a Hollywood miracle.
Gad vividly remembers the night that Crystal came to see The Book of Mormon, as one does when one of their comedy idols is in the audience of their star-making, Tony-winning Broadway show. He was in the second row, aisle seat, Gad says. “I was doubling down on everything, where I’m like, ‘I need to impress this man, because he’s an idol and I admire the hell out of him and this is one of those opportunities to perform for one of the people that I looked up to my entire childhood.’”
Fast-forward two years: Crystal is being honored by the Geffen Playhouse and Gad has been invited to perform the opening number at the tribute. “It’s the only way you get to meet Billy,” Gad jokes.
Backstage, the two got to talking, and Crystal brings up a TV show he’s been working on. “My heart sinks,” Gad says. “I was like, ‘Oh god, I don’t have the courage to tell this living legend that I love that I have no interest in doing anything related to TV.”
Gad’s relationship with television, you see, is a bit tortured.
Back in 2013, his career red-hot after two years of starring in Book of Mormon, Gad co-created, produced, and starred in the NBC sitcom 1600 Penn. It was a dream situation: his project, a starring role, and all suited perfectly to his talents. He’d be playing Skip Gilchrist, the Chris Farley-esque black sheep of his family, which just so happens to be the First Family of the United States.
Reviews were not kind. “Like a drug-fueled Saturday Night Live sketch that won't end,” read one. “What happens when network executives think a screeching buffoon equals laughs,” said another. Ratings were similarly dismal. The show was canceled after one season.
“I was sort of unlucky in love with TV,” Gad says. “I didn’t have a great track record.” To be fair, the 1600 Penn failure and embarrassment is parlayed for some of the strongest laughs in The Comedians. But the experience nearly scared him off from doing the FX comedy completely.
“I wasn’t looking to go back to TV,” he says. “I didn’t have a reason to. I was happy and comfortable and grateful for my film choices. And I was sort of in a good place creatively career-wise. It was not only not on my agenda, but I was actively not seeking anything.”
Then Billy Crystal—Billy Crystal—hands him a DVD of a Swedish comedy series and says he wants to make an American version of it and he wants him to co-star. Gad politely watched it. “Within five minutes I said the words ‘oh shit,’ because I knew I couldn’t say no.”
Gad says the heightened version of himself he plays in The Comedians shares maybe only 5 or 10 percent of his own personality. “There’s this element of obliviousness, this element of verbal diarrhea, this element of ego on a sleeve,” he says. “He’s terrible with responsibility, terrible with accountability, terrible with commitment—a force of nature that now Billy Crystal has to deal with.”
Yes. You could say that he is, once again, playing a manchild. After all, it’s what he’s good at it.
“Look, we live in somewhat cynical times. People tend to look at everything and shrug their shoulders. That’s not me. That’s not who I am. I sort of resent that that’s what we’ve become,” he says. But then he backtracks a bit. “I don’t resent it, but it makes me a little sad.”
It’s why he’s not worried about being typecast, and is happy to parlay his conservatory education of Spanish Renaissance plays and Shakespeare into occasional pratfalls and erstwhile silliness.
“Any opportunity to bring the wonderment back into the mix, the element of surprise, that excites me,” he says. “Whether it’s Elder Cunningham or Olaf or Skip Gilchrist, those characters entice me so much because a part of me wishes that we still had that innate ability to be like, ‘Wow, the world is full of wonderment,’ even though we’ve seen it all at this point. And I’m as jaded as the next person.”
It’s fitting, given this worldview, that Gad has played a special part in fostering that wonderment, at least for a finite time, for a new generation of Disney fans who helped turn Frozen into a pop culture phenomenon. In fact, his character in the film, Olaf, is so winning precisely because, amid tortured ice queens and romantic betrayal, his entire existence is fueled by an indefatigable sense of wonder.
“I didn’t leave The Little Mermaid and The Lion King and Aladdin as a young boy growing up in South Florida going, ‘Oh my god, that Ariel or that Simba or that Aladdin,’” he says. “I left going, ‘Oh my god that Sebastian. Oh my god that Le Fou. Oh my god, that Gaston or Lumiere or Genie.”
Those characters, Olaf and any of a number of sidekicks that Gad has brought to screen, are the ones we embrace. What is it about the second banana that is so endearing?
“The Genie sums it up best for all those characters: You ain’t never had a friend like me,” Gad says. “You want these guys in your life. You want that little sidekick who’s going to be ever optimistic and joyful. You want the person to lean on when you’re blue, like Timon and Pumbaa saying hakuna matata, don’t have any worries.”
In other words, you want a Josh Gad-type around. Certainly, a history of perfecting that role—the lovable best friend and ultimate consigliere—is what drew Gad to Crystal’s attention, leading to his part in The Comedians.
The series is a change of pace for Gad, who has the Adam Sandler blockbuster Pixels and the role of Le Fou in a live-action Beauty and the Beast adaptation on his upcoming film docket. It’s a TV show about Hollywood, in which he plays himself. It signals that, finally, discussion of him won’t identify the 34-year-old as “Olaf from Frozen” or the “guy from Book of Mormon.” He’s just “Josh Gad.” Well, a version of Josh Gad.
“I don’t think anybody would look at this show and think, ‘That really is Josh Gad!’” he laughs. “And if they do I’m fucked. My career is over. Because I’m such a dick sometimes in that show.”
But not in real life. Definitely not in real life.