A few years ago, my best friend, who happens to be a gay man while I am a straight lady, showed me a web video. It was about another gay man and his own straight lady friend: their bitchy comments, their vivid crassness and lack of shame, their indefensible rudeness to anyone but each other. And I thought, “hahaha, how relatable.”
And then The Guy showed up – because it was High Maintenance, specifically, the episode Olivia, which the best episode of the best show, so you get this reference – and he had them saved in his phone as “Assholes.” And I thought, “Oh… huh.”
Difficult People is that episode of High Maintenance as a whole series, with slightly more likable protagonists. But only slightly. Which is a great idea, because these mean, trivial, ridiculous, difficult people are the funniest people, and we don’t see as much of them of these days.
Sometime after the premiere of Will & Grace in 1998, but paradoxically possibly due more to the success of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy in 2004, the whole idea of a gay dude/straight ladies having a “special bond” got super-duper ruined. Everyone knew what a “fag hag” was and no one was too appropriately-embarrassed to say it out loud. Teen girls assumed boys who weren’t into them would be great at judging outfits, Williams & Sonoma store clerks got more middle-aged lady phone numbers than they ever wanted, and a lot, a lot, a lot of bachelorette parties were held at bars with names like The Cock.
But the fact is: there is a special bond between two people who want to talk far past the point of anyone else’s interest about what Goldie Hawn’s living room looks like, or what Anjelica Huston would make if you invited her to a potluck, or if Captain and Tennille were ever cruise ship entertainers. And a special bond exists between two people who share an instinct to say the vilest thing that comes to mind immediately after leaving the company of an unattractive baby. And a special bond exists between two friends who are able to share pettiness and narcissism and jokes and gossip without any fear of sexual interest or my-life-should-look-like-that jealousy. And for whatever reason, historically, these pairs of people have often been, but of course do not have to be, straight ladies and gay men.
Billy Eichner and Julie Klausner play Billy Epstein and Julie Kessler, two self-involved New Yorkers who are only fully appreciated by each other. They’re both struggling to make it, as storytellers, as performers, as writers, as whatever you’ll give them, because no one else can see how special they are.
In the first episode, Billy and Julie have a brilliant idea while settling into a matinee of Annie: bottle and sell delicious library water. You know, from the library water fountain. Or maybe you know what they’re talking about, because I was a total library nerd who spent most lunches flipping through back issues of People magazine looking for stories about the Heaven’s Gate Cult, and I have no idea what they’re talking about.
My sentiments are echoed by the jockish professional water boxer with whom they meet to discuss bottling the library water (although, as implied by his title, he only boxes water, he does not bottle it). When faced with his confusion, Billy and Julie hilariously but kind of insanely mock the man, his water boxing company, and his children’s names.
This is what life is like for Julie and Billy: finding small, particular moments of communion with each other, assuming the world will be the same, and being surprised, disappointed and inordinately hostile when it’s not.
The show, like their friendship, can be so specific as to be almost unrelatable in the first two episodes, especially if you’re not predisposed to enjoy this dynamic. The pilot, while very funny, has moments of “hey, guys, are we still on library water?” Meanwhile, episode two concerns a “devil’s threeway,” which, not to sound old fashioned, might just be funnier once you know a character a little better? (It’s like, “here’s Julie, what we know so far is she’s makes a solid 9/11 joke, LOVES library water, and will happily bully her boyfriend into a surprise threesome” which… okay, carry on.) But the show hits its stride in episode three: Billy dates a cute guy with a perfect downside (he’s a participator, ew), and the show finds a semi-decent use for Julie’s boyfriend, which is lots and lots of PBS jokes. And you can see what the show will be: two very funny people in a fortunate bubble talking nonsense that starts to sound like cruel, true, funny sense. If you’re willing, the show puts you in that bubble too. And it’s so much fun in that bubble.
Eichner and Klausner have the kind of chemistry that can only come from living it (or being good at acting, I guess). If you don’t like them and their self-absorbed whining and their total bald-faced rudeness, then you probably aren’t fun at parties, even if you definitely think you are. Klausner is incredibly appealing while saying horrible things, and also has great dresses. It’s exciting to see Eichner doing only 40% yelling, and it turns out he is also very funny at just plain-old-saying words. They’ve surrounded themselves with an intriguing supporting cast, including Gabourey Sidibe, Cole Escola, Andrea Martin, Derrick Baskin, and James Urbaniak. It’s great to see Sidibe, especially being mean to Eichner. Escola is a welcome target for NAMBLA jokes (and still gives the funniest line delivery I’ve ever heard in this video). Martin is a Canadian national treasure who we have apparently all agreed is not too broad, Baskin is very winning, and well, I don’t really get Julie’s boyfriend Arthur, but I do recognize James Urbaniak as embodying a very real type of human man living in Brooklyn. The characters are all incredibly particular, a level I’ll call Library Water Particular, and from specificity comes great comedy, or something. It gives me hope that future episodes of Difficult People will reach episode three level highs again and again.