Andrew Nice Clay: Jim Jefferies Shows His Heart, Crudely
FX has explored the poetics of bad behavior with varying results, finding brilliant heights with Louie, and decidedly unimpressive returns with It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Now it's upping, or lowering, the ante with the self-described misanthropic comic Jim Jefferies in Legit.
The series, which premieres Thursday, January 17 at 10:30 p.m. ET, rolls out one character (literally) who's terminally ill and in a wheelchair, as the prime target and subject of a lot jokes. But as low as the comedy sinks, it occasionally hits some surprise tender spots.
The gates of TV sitcom taste opened wide with Archie Bunker's mouth on CBS's All in the Family in 1971. That show, and the same network's M*A*S*H, which followed the next year, rightly opened up television sitcom boundaries that, up to that point, were pretty much out of step with a rapidly changing country.
Since then, it's been somewhat of a race to the bottom. For each series like Fox's The Simpsons (1989 and still going) or Chris Elliot's Get A Life (1990-92), both of which dwelled in the profane to find higher ground, there seem to been even more attempts of late to produce the most offensive material imaginable -- misguided efforts such as Brickleberry, Comedy Central's current idiotic animated venture. (Brickleberry is produced by Daniel Tosh, star of that channel's Tosh.0. He's the so-called brave comic who made news last year with some rape material he thought he'd try out at an L.A. comedy club.)
And now enter Australian stand-up comic Jefferies, presumably (hopefully) playing a hyped-up version of himself and his stage act. The TV Jim, at least, has a predilection for the low-played inappropriate public comments, prostitutes, and liberal doses of pot and alcohol.
In an unexpected turn, "TV Jim" decides to make his mom (who's still down under in Australia) happy: He resolves to stop loafing around and getting high, and pledges to go "legit."
He starts by doing a good turn for his roommate Steve (Dan Bakkedahl, top, middle) by visiting Steve's brother Billy (D.J. Qualls, below right and in the foreground in the photo at top). Billy, who suffers from late-stage muscular dystrophy, is a parpalegic confined to a wheelchair, living at a care facility.
There are startling jokes about Billy's condition, mostly by Jefferies, but with Steve and Billy eventually joining in. (What else is there to do but laugh at death? In Legit, Seems like nothing else.)
In the pilot, Jefferies offers to take Billy, a 32-year-old virgin, to a brothel. Brother Steve adamantly protests, "It will kill him!" "Well, he's going to die soon anyway," muses Jeffries. "This is a good way for him to go. OK, sure, I'll have to answer a few questions..." Whether you find this approach funny, offensive or simply moronic depends on your definition of comedy, and your personal boundaries about what's smart and what's not.
One big difference between Legit and Louie is that Jeffries, complete with hangdog looks and stubbly beard, keeps the fourth wall intact. Unlike Louie, we don't see him in his comedy work -- at least not in the first three episodes, which were sent or preview. And either through craft or verité, you get the sense that he is all that he sells himself to be: an underachieving lout with nothing nice to say, and an entertainer who may not be playing a part after all.
Without that palpable sense of risk and crudity, Legit would just be another Men Behaving Badly (specifically, the 1996-97 NBC remake of the 1992 British series): cartoonish poster-board bad boys reveling in all manners of politically incorrect bad taste. And in Hollywood style, they rise above and do the right thing, although it is soooo against their nature.
Jeffries does have his epiphanies. The road trip he takes with Steve and Billy in the premiere episode is completely, unexpectedly endearing, and full of compassion.
Then there are the recurring refrains of Jim's adolescent and irresponsible relationship with women — those of whom might find the entire venture just too childish to bother. In the third episode, Jeffries, in his put-on, non-accented "American '50s dad" voice, gives Steve and Billy advice about dating. "Women date men on death row because they know where they are every minute of the day, and that makes them feel secure. But what women really want are your soul, Billy. And sparkly things. And plants."
And so, like a snake true to its nature, Jefferies sheds the beautiful moments, just in case we thought he had made any real progress. This is his brand, after all, and the series can't veer very far from the misbehaving depths he trolls. Otherwise, there is no show about his redemption.
Soon enough, it's back to doing bong hits and nodding off to a Toddlers and Tiaras marathon.
That's where Jefferies lives, and that's where we meet and hang with him, on his own terms — a gutter poet at home napping in the middle of the day, with a little something tender to contribute once in a while.
He walks the walk so well, it's almost like he wrote the book. Or at least the comedy act.