There are a few things that are confounding about the minor controversy that erupted (but quickly faded) last week surrounding the joke made at the expense of Beyonce’s daughter, Blue Ivy, on the new Amy Poehler produced sitcom on Hulu, Difficult People. First, it’s weird to target Amy Poehler for a joke made in a sitcom that she neither wrote nor delivered (Julie Klausner was responsible for both writing and delivering the joke). Second, Difficult People premiered on Hulu on August 5th. Why did it take another two weeks for the controversy to erupt? And most perplexing is whether any of the people responsible for creating the firestorm (or even those of us in the media who propagated it) actually saw the episode, because if they had, this would be a non-issue.
I hadn’t seen the show, but now that I have (thanks to the publicity generated by the controversy) I now understand how foolish the controversy was. It’s difficult to explain why this was a ridiculous nothing of a controversy unless you’ve seen the pilot episode of Difficult People, but suffice to say, it was a horrible thing said by a horrible person that was roundly criticized by the other (mostly horrible) characters for being horrible. It was supposed to be in bad taste. It’s like getting mad at Tony Soprano for whacking a police informant: Yeah, he did something terrible, but it’s not like the show is endorsing murder, and it’s not like it makes any of us terrible people because we like Tony Soprano. The character who made the joke on Difficult People is an asshole, because only an asshole would make a joke so tasteless.
The joke, however, highlights the major issue I had with Difficult People: As much as I might like Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner, their characters here are awful, and while some shows can get away with intense levels of misanthropy (It’s Always Sunny, The League), there’s not as much payoff here. Difficult People is more like a contemporary Seinfeld: A show about nothing featuring (often very funny) sociopaths. Billy and Julie are emotionally divorced from the rest of humanity; they’re like Dexter without the homicidal impulses (or at least, they have enough restraint not to act on them). They hate everyone and everything, and while their mean-spiritedness is often hilarious, it makes it challenging to care about the characters. This could also be said of Seinfeld or Sunny, as well, but the writing and structure of those series is so terrific that unlikable characters can be forgiven.
Difficult People, on the other hand, is mostly a series of mean jokes tenuously grafted onto a nominal storyline. In Seinfeld, the jokes grew out of the situations. In Difficult People, it’s like they came up with the jokes and then looked for a situation to unfurl them. In other words, it’s not a very good show, but it is scattered with very funny jokes (although, the Blue Ivy joke was not funny, but in the context of the episode, that was the point).
That Billy and Julie are also self-absorbed, hypocritical characters is also the point; we’re supposed to hate them, just as we’re supposed to hate many of the actions of Lena Dunham in Girls. But like Girls, it’s sometimes hard to see the line between satire and reality, and Difficult People leaves you more disgusted with the characters than amused.
On the other hand, there are enough hilariously nasty jokes at the expense of celebrities, millennials, white people, mommies, bloggers, old people, PBS, optimists and “participators” to make it worth watching for the, “Holy Shit, he/she didn’t just say that, did she?” moments that erupt occasionally. But don’t expect to feel good about yourselves afterwards.