Interview: Josh Gad Talks ‘The Comedians’, His “First Love” Theatre and Playing a Fictionalized Version of Himself

"I cut my teeth doing theatre. I went to Conservatory at Carnegie Mellon for four years. I trained to be an actor first and foremost, theatre will always be my first love" - Josh Gad

Josh Gad in The Comedians
When I saw Josh Gad come on stage in The Book of Mormon, he was like a big ball of energy. Everything he did on that stage was note-perfect he made that show one of my top theater experiences ever.
Since then, he’s appeared a bunch of films, including The Wedding Ringer, Jobs and Frozen, where he voiced the snowman Olaf. Now, he’s starring opposite Billy Crystal in FX’s The Comedians.

In the show, Crystal  plays a comedy legend who is reluctantly paired with Josh Gad, an edgier up-and-coming star, in an unfiltered, behind-the-scenes look at a fictional late night sketch comedy show where their egos and generations collide. I’m enjoying the show and it’s tons of fun watching Crystal and Gad interact with each other.

Gad recently jumped on a conference call to a handful of reporters where he talked about his career, how he honed his comedic timing, theater, working with Billy Crystal and playing a fictional version of himself.

The Comedians airs on Thursdays at 10pm on FX

You have such great comedic timing. Is it something that’s always come natural to you, or have you had to hone it at some fashion?

Josh Gad: I got a book called Comedy for Dummies, and I just read it front to back and I was— no, it’s something that I think, I think we’re all born with an innate sense of what is funny, right? I was fascinated watching the SNL 40th anniversary special because there are these sketches that are 40 years old, which feature the likes of John Belushi and Richard Pryor, and all these different people that are still funny to this day.

And I think taken out of the context of any period will remain funny, i.e. Charlie Chaplin. I still revel in how a movie like Modern Times holds up and feels, for lack of a better word, as modern and fresh as ever before. So I think that comedy is something that’s innate in all of us and understanding what is funny.

And then you hone that skill like you would any other by getting the proper training. And for me it was going to Conservatory, and not only learning how to be funny, but learning drama techs, and learning how to do theatre and all that stuff. And then going to places like The Groundlings.

And then—I’ve been fortunate enough to work with people like Jon Stewart and Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and now Billy Crystal, and that continues to be a master class education in comedy.   And so you keep picking up new things along the way and you keep learning. And you’re always growing, hopefully, as an artist and as a comedian.

What was your first impression when you met Billy Crystal?

Josh Gad: My first impression was, oh my God, I’m in the midst of not only a brilliant comedian, but an icon who I’ve looked up to my entire life. I can vividly remember wearing out the VHS tape of Princess Bride growing up and City Slickers. And watching Comic Relief as a ten-year-old, and being like, oh my God this is one of the greatest performers I’ve ever seen.

So you’re awestruck.   But at the same time you just jump into it because you want to leave a good impression on an idol, and you want to be worthy of sharing that billing with him. And so for me, it was like I said, a master class education in comedy. But also the foundation of a friendship that I’m beyond honored to have, and to be able to call Billy Crystal your friend is a dream come true for me.

Is it fun, or scary, or both to play a version of Josh Gad, this is vain as needy, as self-loathing, as screwed up as the one we see in The Comedians?

Josh Gad: Absolutely terrifying, probably the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. Anybody who knows me will hopefully tell you that I’m much more modest in real life that I am on the TV series. And for somebody like Billy, I think it’s slightly easier to play on preconceived notions about him because he has such a story to history with audiences.

I’m sort of newer. I’m a younger guy. I’m just developing that relationship with my audience, with my following. And so to trust the audience enough that you figure they’ll be in on the joke is something that requires a leap of faith, especially when you’re playing some of the ugly colors that I get to play on this series.

Having said that, it’s also exhilarating to keep the audience guessing as to what’s real and what’s not. I like to joke around that there’s probably like 8% to 10% of similarities that fake Josh Gad and real Josh Gad share, and those 10% are absolutely heightened beyond belief. So what you’re seeing is a very meta-heighted version of who I am really am in real life, and that’s both exhilarating and terrifying.

Do the writers conjure up all of these character flaws for fictional Josh Gad and you take it and run with it? Or do you sometimes go to them and go, hey guys, here’s another of my shortcomings that you can work into the show. How does it work?

Josh Gad: I think it’s a mixture of both. The writers will come up with—the writers came up with—the creative team came up with the foundation for what they wanted this character to be in order to service a relationship with the heightened version of Billy’s character. And to give the show enough conflict that it wasn’t just two guys kissing each other’s a** for thirteen episodes.

In doing that, a lot of times I’ll get a script and I’ll be like, “Wait a second, is this really what you think of me?” You don’t have the safety net of having a different name, you’re literally getting lines as Josh Gad and you’re like, “Wow, these guys must really think I’m an ***hole.” And that is always a terrifying thing because you’re not sure what their perception is of you, or if they’re just creating these conceits from scratch just because this is what’s going to service the show best.

Do you think of yourself primarily as an actor, a comedian, or singer? You wear a lot of different hats.

Josh Gad: I think of myself as a guy who’s looking for the next challenge. I think of myself as a guy who’s constantly trying to learn, and constantly trying to— like I said, challenge myself and prove to myself that there’s something else that I can learn from, that I can conquer, that I can accomplish.

In the case of making the distinction between comedy and being a regular actor, so to speak, look, I cut my teeth doing theatre. I went to Conservatory at Carnegie Mellon for four years. I trained to be an actor first and foremost, theatre will always be my first love. It’s the foundation for what I do.

But having said that, I love making people laugh. It’s the ultimate joy to be a part of something where you can hear an audience, you can see what that is doing to an audience. There’s an actual visual and aural sensation that comes along with that. Whereas if you’re doing a drama or something like that, you don’t get that same kind of response. And that to me is always the joy of doing comedy, and it’s why I keep coming back to it.

Do you have plans to direct someday?

Josh Gad: If somebody is foolish enough to give me the power, yes. I would love to. I think that, again, I’m always looking to grow and I’m always looking to discover new things. And hopefully be allowed to screw up and find my way, and discover that path as well.   I would love to eventually down the road.

Billy Crystal is a complete master at his craft. What have you learned from him since partnering for The Comedians?

Josh Gad: It’s an interesting question. I definitely have learned to listen and watch, I mean that’s what I’ve basically learned. Billy is a master at a lot of things. So one thing that he’s really adept at, is he transforms into these characters.

In the series we have the luxury of doing a series within the series where we get to do sketch comedy.   And watching this guy, who I think is one of the most brilliant voices to ever come through the halls of Saturday Night Live, it’s an amazing study developing characters, and character comedy that is so distinct.

To create characters that are able to have catch phrases like, “You look marvelous,” and have that become a pop cultural touchstone, that’s an enormous feat. And so that to me has been, I think the most enlightening part of this process, is just getting to see him do what he does best in creating all of these amazing characters and distinct voices in his approach to sketch comedy.

Your impersonation of Billy Crystal is not to be cheesy, it’s marvelous. And was that something you always had in your bag of tricks as a part—something you just pull out every once in a while? Or was that something you just put together when you started working with Billy?

Josh Gad: That was something that when they said, “Cameras rolling,” literally came out of thin air. I mean, it really was. The beauty of getting to work with Larry Charles, who of course is the mastermind behind Borat and Bruno, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Seinfeld, the beauty of getting to work with him is that he keeps the cameras rolling long after the scripted pages are done. And so you arrive at gems like that where you’re sort of stuck with each other in a car or whatever the situation may be, and all of a sudden that will come out.

You’re a Co-EP on the show, so could you tell us a little bit about how much input you have into the direction of the program? And second, could you tell us a bit about working with FX?   They’ve allowed you to set the show at their network, which maybe sets them up for a little bit of humor directed at them. And can you tell us about that?

Josh Gad: Yes, absolutely. In terms of being a co-producer on the show, I definitely have a voice in the process, but it really is a collaborative effort. Billy, Larry, Ben Wexler, and Matt Nix created the show and brought it to me as something to be a part of, so I tend to defer to them on their vision. And when I agree or disagree, my sentiments are always heard and always listened to.   In the process of creating storylines, I’m always allowed to voice my opinion and be a part of that conversation.   It’s a very collaborative effort.

And then with regard to the FX of it all. Look, I think it’s safe to say that in this golden age of television, they, along with some of their competitors like HBO and AMC and Netflix, are setting the gold standard for what great television should look like. Whether it’s what I think is arguably the best comedy on TV, Louie, or a short-scripted series like Fargo, which I thought was extraordinary, or The Americans, or Justified, there is this incredible lineup, that to even be a part of that conversation is an honor.

And in terms of their collaborative nature on this, they are of the opinion that whatever the creative team wants to do, they trust them enough by virtue of giving them a series to be on their air, that they can make the series that they want to make. And there’s rarely, if ever, any interference, which is very unusual if you know anything about television.

They sort of just let you do it. Even by the way, if it is taking the p*** out of them, which they’ve been very tolerant of.   It’s an unbelievably collaborative network to be a part of and they have gone above and beyond the call of duty with regard to letting us do the version of our show that we all imagine doing.

How much of the show is actually improvised compared to scripted?

Josh Gad: You know, the scripts pretty much always come in very strong, so that’s always a great foundation to go off of. Having said that, I can’t really think of a situation where there’s been more leeway to improvise. Like I said, given Larry Charles’ direction, he sort of set the tone in the pilot and the subsequent episodes that he directed, nine of which he directed, that the cameras stay rolling long after the scripted material is done.

Like I said, he was a part of Curb Your Enthusiasm which has built their entire series around the nature of improvisation. So for us it always comes down to has the scene run its course, or is there more story and more relationship to discover by allowing us to explore without any scripted pages. And usually, in more cases than not, we’re given that freedom and that opportunity to explore.

Do you have a favorite genre to work in, be it theatre, film, television, voice-over work, if there’s something that really calls out to you above everything else?

Josh Gad: Well look, I think they all have their pros.   They all afford an artist opportunities to flex his or her muscles in different ways.   For me, my beginnings were theatre, and nothing will ever replace that as my first love. I think that there’s something very empowering and special about being on a stage without a safety net, and not having editing to fall back on to save your performance, but having to prove yourself eight times a week to an audience who can read between the lines and know if you are phoning it in or not.

That to me is still the biggest thrill. Having that once-in-a-lifetime moment with an audience which night-to-night will never be the same. It’s a very—it’s the foundation for my love of wanting to do this all in the first place.   So if I had to pick one that would be it.

You’ve been a part of a lot of really, really successful entertainment endeavors over the years. But your TV resume is a little hit or miss, as you’ve said yourself in a few interviews.  

Josh Gad: I think you’re being way too gracious.

Well what about The Comedians sets it apart and is such a success?

Josh Gad: Look as I’ve said before, I’ve been very unlucky in love with TV. I think that TV, especially when it comes to comedy is a tough nut, if not an impossible nut to crack especially in the current age of seen it all, been there, done that mentality that viewers approach television with. There’s only so many different ways you can tell the same joke.

Whereas in drama and serialized shows, you sort of have a hook to lean on.   You can hook the viewer in an episode-to-episode, keep them guessing as to what’s going to come next. In TV you don’t necessarily have that luxury.

So yes, it’s been a downhill battle and I didn’t really want to come back to TV. I had no ambition of wanting to return. I’m not a glutton for punishment. But I was really taken by, when I saw the suite of series, they sent me the entirety of that series. I was taken by this storyline of these two guys who had so much in common, and yet nothing in common, had the same goal in mind, but had very different ideas of how to approach that goal.

Again, I’ve had an opportunity to work with a lot of older comedians and learn from them. And the idea of turning that into a series was, I thought, very unique. Other stories have touched upon it, whether it’s The Comeback or Curb, or Larry Sanders, but they’ve done so with the prism of it being about the behind-the-scenes machinations of that.   And I don’t really believe that that’s what our show is.

I think that our show is that on the surface. But really what it’s about is these two guys who are trying to figure each other out, and are coming at it from being colored by their personal experiences and their generational experiences. You always sign onto something with what about it excites me, and what about it intrigues me, and that was the point of entry for me.

And of course working with a master like Billy Crystal is not something you generally turn down, if like me, you’re always looking to keep learning and to keep learning and to keep discovering.

Should viewers expect anything new comedic-wise from you? Are you going to show off any other acting chops?

Josh Gad: Oh, absolutely. Look, as ironic and strange as it is to say, by virtue of the fact that I’m playing Josh Gad on this series, and a heightened version of Josh Gad, you will be seeing a side of me that I don’t believe you’ve ever seen before.

There is a cynical prism that I don’t usually do in my work that is sort of the foundation for this bizarro version of myself. He’s a guy with a healthy ego, he’s a guy who is absolutely clueless when it comes to certain social behaviors. And I’m excited about showing—let’s just say a somewhat uglier side of myself. And it’s dangerous, it’s tricky, but it’s also enormously rewarding. I think that, I do think it’s going to afford viewers definitely some—the opportunity to see me in a different light than they’ve seen me previously.

What about Beauty and the Beast and your role in that. I wanted to know whether or not your kids are excited about it, or what kind of films they’re into.

Josh Gad: Yes. Look, I’ve worn out the Frozen welcome in my house, so I needed something to win back their affection.   And Beauty and the Beast, it’s funny, because it’s just as much for me as it is for the kids. It was my Frozen, I like to call it. I was kind of that age when I first saw that movie, it was everything to me.

And like Little Mermaid and Aladdin and Lion King, it was one of those movies that I saw over and over again in the theater and was mezmorized by the songs, by the storytelling. And so to now bring those characters to life in a way only Disney can do, I’m really excited about it and I’m excited that it’s going to give me the opportunity to do my first live-action musical, which I haven’t been afforded before.

Do you have any fun on-set stories that you can share about your co-stars with us?

Josh Gad: On-set stories that I can share about my co-stars?   You know, I will tell you that my first day on set with Billy was a very strange, surreal one because not only am I acting alongside this guy who’s an idol of mine, but I have to sort of insult him to his face without the safety net of calling him by a different name.

And so on the very first day of shooting the pilot, we had to have a conversation and just be at ease with each other and tell each other, okay so now I, Josh Gad, fake real Josh Gad, am going to say things as fake Josh Gad that are going to be a little bit insulting to fake Billy Crystal, but I want you as the real Billy Crystal to be okay with it. So it was a very surreal first day where we had to make a pact and come up with the rules of the game.

I remember we had this scene that takes place in a restaurant where I come in and I’m sort of like, “It’s so great to meet you.” And I said to him usually when you meet each other, you’re not sure what the other person is going to look like, but I’ve been seeing you a lot on Starz Family lately. And it was this quick zing that wasn’t scripted or anything and I’m like, this is going to set the tone. He’s either going punch me in the face right now or he’s going to go along with it.

And once he went along with it, I knew that I was in a safe zone and that the sky was the limit in terms of what we can do. And the fact that we were going to sort of Thelma and Louise style, take a jump together down this rabbit hole and go all the way.

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