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Josh Gad on 'The Comedians' and why he almost turned down 'Book of Mormon'

A still from
A still from "The Comedians" episode "The Red Carpet."
Ray Mickshaw/FX
A still from
A promotional image for "The Comedians."
Frank Ockenfels/FX
A still from
A still from "The Comedians" episode "Celebrity Guest."
Ray Mickshaw/FX
A still from
A still from "The Comedians" episode "Celebrity Guest."
Ray Mickshaw/FX
A still from
A still from "The Comedians."
Ray Mickshaw/FX
A still from
A still from "The Comedians" episode "Celebrity Guest". Pictured: (l-r) Robert Lopez, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Josh Gad as Josh.
Ray Mickshaw/FX

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Josh Gad is one of those performers with funny in his bones. The "Book of Mormon" and "Frozen" actor plays a version of himself on FX's "The Comedians," whose failures are heightened and negative traits multiplied to create a tough take on both Gad and co-star Billy Crystal. The show is based on the Swedish show, "Ulveson & Herngren."

"That show was revelatory and so unbelievably inspired in its approach to its comedy that Billy [Crystal] got a copy of it," Gad says.

The Comedians promo

Gad met Billy Crystal when he was presenting him with an award, and Crystal asked if he'd be willing to come back to television after several failed shows.

"I was very frank with him, that I've sort of been unlucky in love with television, and I wasn't really actively looking to go back to TV. And I watched the first episode [of the Swedish show], and I was immediately smitten, and I said 'Oh s---, here we go.'"

Gad had previously worked on "1600 Penn," which got a high-profile debut but didn't last, and "Back To You" — the show created by the "Modern Family" team before "Modern Family."

"Where was that success when we needed it? Thanks guys," Gad deadpanned. "I had been finding a modicum of success and opportunity in film, and I still harbor a dream of going back and doing another [Broadway] show eventually, and I just, I wasn't sure about the time commitment that television requires."

1600 Penn clip

Gad says he also wasn't sure about navigating TV ratings again — and about being so exposed.

"From a creative standpoint, I was a little terrified to own all of my insecurities and play a version of myself," Gad says. "Fake Josh Gad is much more of a man-child than real Josh Gad. And I was a little concerned about some of the unlikable traits that I would have to wear on my sleeve."

Still, Gad decided to take on those traits head on.

"I don't think you get around them, I think you own them. I think that you double down on them," Gad says. When he met with the creative team, "I said, if I'm going to do this, I'm going to do it warts and all. So I give you the liberty to skewer me, to own all of my failures, like '1600 Penn,' and celebrate them with this bombacity of ego that we approach it with."

Getting awkward with Billy Crystal

Playing themselves led to a particularly awkward episode near the end of the season, where Gad had to say things about Crystal that he didn't particularly want to say.

"[It] requires Billy to overhear some very insensitive comments that I make about him, and his approach to comedy. And I think it hit a little close to the bone for both of us, and I didn't want to neuter it, because I felt, if you weren't going all the way with it, the audience would see through it. But it required a very sensitive conversation with Billy and the creative team to just make sure that we were all on the same page...'Fake Josh Gad may think this way about fake Billy Crystal, but real Josh Gad cares very much about real Billy Crystal,' and then you hug it out and you have a conversation."

The show requires Crystal and Gad to do the emotional equivalent of full-frontal nudity.

"As an actor, your safety net is that you are playing a character. Well what do you do when that character shares the same DNA as you and has the same name?" Gad says. "It's confusing sometimes. It's dangerous, oftentimes."

FX appears to be getting into the business of having actors play different versions of themselves, following on the success of "Louie." But Gad says the show differs from others that send up reality like "The Larry Sanders Show" and "Episodes."

"On the surface, it may seem like inside baseball, but that's really not what the show is. It's really much more about two guys trying to figure out the other one, and what drives them, and what sort of gives them their distinctive tone based on their upbringing, based on when they grew up, and the world of comedy that they grew up in."

SNL and the Daily Show

Crystal comes from a more traditional background, while Gad comes from a generation which he notes includes a lot of comics dissecting comedy. Still, funny is funny — Gad says that he learned a lot from watching "Saturday Night Live's" 40th anniversary special.

One of Gad's favorites: the "Word Association" sketch with Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase, which includes Chase using the N-word.

"Which, by the way, you could never do today," Gad says, "but yet it still got the biggest laughs 40 years later in the room that I was sitting in. And I think that what it comes down to is, funny is funny by nature of truth and by virtue of the experiences and the baggage that you bring as an audience member to said comedy. And the reason that I think Louis C.K. is so relevant and so brilliant is that we all relate to his stories."

When Gad got out of college, he wanted to get on SNL, but he thinks his career did work out for the best.

"That world most likely would have prevented me from doing 'the Book of Mormon,' which I think was an essential part of my career and my creative journey," Gad says. "I had been sending audition tapes [to SNL] starting in 2003 after I graduated college, thinking, 'Oh I can get in 'Saturday Night Live,' because I think I'm funny, without actually doing the work.' And then it wasn't until around 2006 or 2007 when I got 'The Daily Show' that I actually got a call saying Lorne would love for you to come in and audition."

By that time, he was on his way to "Book of Mormon." Gad says he would have loved to be part of SNL's legacy, but he's also proud to have been part of the legacy of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart."

"That that was an enormous training ground for me, an incredible opportunity to work with not only some of the best correspondents, and some of the best comic minds out there, but a man who will be studied in satire classes for years to come."

How someone else's voice got him "Book of Mormon"

Things could have gone yet another way — the voice that one of the writers from "Book of Mormon" heard while casting the show wasn't actually Gad. Bobby Lopez, who co-wrote the musical and later wrote the music to "Frozen," asked Gad if he'd be interested before they knew if it would be a Broadway show or a movie, and Gad said 'absolutely.'

"I found out like a year later that Bobby had been inquiring about me and wanted to know if I could actually sing the songs, 'cause they were pretty high, and so the music director of 'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,' which was my first big break on Broadway, sent him this recording that we did for a benefit. And so on the recording, there is this voice that sings really high, spectacularly high, that was actually Barrett Foa." 

Lopez thought it was Gad — so Gad says he owes Foa a big thanks for what would become the turning point of his career.

How James Cameron played with his heart before "Avatar"

One hard truth discussed on the show is the idea that when someone in Hollywood tells you you're the only choice for a part, that actually means you're the second choice. Gad says that's based on his own life, when James Cameron asked to fly him out to audition one-on-one for "Avatar." They even had Gad work with a dialect coach to learn the film's alien Na'vi language.

"He's got the biggest smile on his face after my 30-minute audition, and he goes, 'You are going to kill this. And what I love about you, and the fun that we're going to have on the set, is that you, being a theater actor, are going to be able to imagine all of the elements of Pandora, because you can picture it. And that's going to come in handy, because of all the green screen. I can't wait to work with you.'"

Gad was ecstatic, calling his agent and telling him "I got the role! I got the role! I'm so excited!" The call he got the next morning: "So James went in another direction." Gad says it's still heartbreaking to this day. But hey, they're making more "Avatar" movies.

"Hopefully [James Cameron is] listening to the show today and he remembers how much he devastated me."

Almost saying no to "The Book of Mormon"

While there are challenges to all forms of acting, Gad says that stage is both the most rewarding and the most difficult — as well as being the most vulnerable.

"You have an audience, you have a singular moment that will never be repeated, and you have two-plus hours with which to take them on a journey and do so without ever stopping that process or saying, 'you know what, we need a water break,'" Gad says.

"And that to me is exhilarating, and... even talking about it, exhausting. Eight shows a week — doing that for a year and a half on 'Book of Mormon' was both the greatest experience of my life, and in many cases, the most tiring."

Gad scored a Tony nomination for "Book of Mormon," but failed to win. Still, his carer hasn't suffered — he notes that his one co-star who did win, Nikki James, always tells him that while he's getting job opportunities, she's sitting in her apartment auditioning for other theater work.

"It's not really about the hardware. The hardware rusts and it becomes a distant memory as new nominees are announced and the excitement of a new group of who will win come about, but for me, what I took away from 'Mormon' was this profound opportunity to do a show that, in many ways ,changed the face of musical theater comedy."

"I would have a different answer, by the way, had I won," he says.

Taking his role in "Book of Mormon" gave Gad some hesitation. He loved the songs, but when he was listening to demos and got to "Hasa Diga Eebowai" (which ends up translating to "F--- You, God"), he called his agent.

"I said, 'So, turns out I can't do this show,' and he said 'Why,' and I go, 'Because I will get f---ing shot. I will be killed for having very choice words about God. This belongs in cartoon figures' mouths, not in mine. I really like my life too much.'"

Clips from Book of Mormon

But after having that discussion and thinking about it more, he felt that the show was so special that he had to do it. Throughout it all, Gad says that the minds behind it, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, never had any doubts.

"Now 'Book of Mormon' seems like a sure thing, but at the time, it really wasn't," Gad says. "They approach their comedy from an element of truth, and that truth that is the backbone of 'Book of Mormon' allows for all of the insanity and craziness that follows for two-and-a-half hours. And because it's grounded in these human truths that all of us know to be factual, that people in the middle of Africa are indeed suffering, and there are babies being raped, and there are these horrible tragedies occurring every day, Trey and Matt not only don't shy away from it, but they embrace it. They double down on that, because they know that that's the only way that they can tell their story."

Gad says that courage has been an inspiration for his own career.

"While the rest of us were sort of scratching our heads going, 'Can we do this?' They said, 'Not only can we do this, but we are going to change the world by doing this.' And they were right, and I was wrong, and that has definitely stayed with me in everything that I have done since."

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