Everything old is new again, they say. You see it each year as film, slang, fashion, and politics – especially politics – recycle themselves from previous incarnations. If ancient Greek poets commented about pleasing the audience with the same old routine, you have to assume that shit was stale by the second day man learned to communicate.
And recycled or not, the art of comedy constantly moves through phases. For one year, gross-out comedies are king. A few months later, it’ll be talking heads on VH1. After that, it’s Borat-style “Gotcha Comedy.” And twenty years down the line, we’ll start all over again.
But to its credit, 2010 had much to celebrate in the way of new comedy styles. Movies, not so much, as Splitsider’s Joe Berkowitz pointed out. But there were more than a few people picking up cinema’s slack and revolutionizing the genre from a different medium. And with revolutions come trends. With trends come power. With power comes responsibility.
And with that, I give you the Comedy Trends of 2010.
The Rise of the Bitter, Older Man
This was Louis CK’s year and don’t let anyone tell you different. Releasing an incredible stand-up special, creating a television series unrivaled in its tone and unique voice, and dropping by a handful of late night talk shows to casually blow away the crowd, Louis owned 2010 – lock, stock, and barrel. Through exhaustion, sacrifice, and utter defeat, nobody skewers the time-honored conventions of fatherhood and being a man quite like him. But that isn’t to say he’s in a class of his own.
As Louis and his peers have matured from 20-something wiseacres to seasoned vets in their 40s grappling with divorce and kids, our favorite and most respected comics have grown darker. Much darker.
Paul F. Tompkins spoke candidly about his mother’s death in You Should Have Told Me. David Cross related the effects of what decades of drug use had on him in Bigger and Blackerer. Marc Maron shares a wealth of personal demons in every episode of his WTF Podcast. Dreams are dashed and hope is lost on a level that no 23-year-old punk could ever fully convey. And yet, the older generation still knows how to make it so god damned funny.
The tragic humor of an aging comedian being past his prime also extended this year into Eastbound and Down, Men of a Certain Age, Breaking Bad, and Greenberg – proving that stage time isn’t required to mine a despondent middle age for laughs.
Twenty years ago, it was the gang of kids on SNL who left everything in their wake. But in 2010, it’s comedy’s bitter elders who are truly pushing the envelope.
Comedy Becomes Hyper-Aware
In May, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim closed up shop in the fifth and final season of their whacked out, yet surprisingly disciplined, Adult Swim series. In the three years since its debut, the show possessed an almost encyclopedic knowledge of public access television and local cable ads to create a production value not seen outside a UHF station. Beneath their id-laden performances laid a deep understanding of the subject. It’s not enough to see a man sing through a grotesquely horrifying puppet unless it looks like something you’ve flipped past on cable in the ‘80s.
And it’s that extensive familiarity with styles and tropes that has propelled Community from a quirky sitcom to a boundary-busting series.
Rather than basing the comedy around a single reference, the show tackles entire genres and the tropes within. Community doesn’t settle for, say, a simple SpaceCamp parody in this season’s “Basic Rocket Science.” The episode covers every “space trip gone awry” flick and their respective setpieces. And at the end of last season, once Professor Chang stepped into the study lounge wearing a pastel suit and brandishing an automatic paintball weapon in “Modern Warefare,” we were no longer noticing the references. We were marveling at the tropes.
It’s clear that creator Dan Harmon and his writing staff have watched their fair share of television and films. But they’ve also retained it all and, like Tim and Eric, are able to dissect the look and feel of thousands of hours of programming.
And to that we say, “Awesome show. Great job!”
Our Whining Has No Follow-Through
This year, comedy nerds were a bunch of petulant brats. More so.
Like a child faced with giving a cherished toy away to charity, we screamed. We thrashed. We couldn’t bear the thought of losing this treasure, this tiny bit of personal happiness, even though it had languished in the attic for years, alone and forgotten. But once our parents rolled their eyes and returned our beloved heirloom, we rejoiced, played with it momentarily, then soon tossed it back into a dusty pile of abandoned playthings.
And if anyone knows this, it’s Conan O’Brien.
After fans unleashed hell upon NBC for forcing Conan to return hosting duties to Jay Leno, they seem to be pretty ambivalent now that he’s back on television. Nearly two months since his grand debut on TBS, the show has settled into the mediocre ratings Conan saw when hosting the Tonight Show. Despite the millions of vocal fans adamant to see the redhead back at late night, much like the reason he was pushed off NBC in the first place, they can’t seem to bother tuning in.
And when it comes to the fury aimed at networks for canceling a show even ardent supporters barely watched, surely the creators behind Party Down, Better Off Ted, Terriers, and the Sarah Silverman Program have an opinion or two.
But unlike Conan, they don’t have a $45 million severance package to cheer themselves up.
If It’s Not Arrested Development, We’re Not Interested
Speaking of canceled series, Mitchell Hurwitz can officially be deemed the modern day Judd Apatow, circa-2001. After the poorly received animated series Sit Down Shut Up, Hurwitz has seen his second attempt to return to primetime destroyed by Nielsen’s fickle finger. Running Wilde, which boasted not only the creator but two of Arrested Development’s most beloved leads, barely made it past its first few episodes before the Sword of Damocles suspended itself over the series. The show may not have hit the ground running like Hurwitz’s sorely missed predecessor, but the promise was there.
Then again, Fox really worked against type for allowing Arrested Development to grow for three seasons.
Similarly, The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret failed to tear up comedy circles. Despite the series being picked up for a second season, critics and audiences were lukewarm about David Cross and Will Arnett’s British experiment.
Fellow alumnus Michael Cera also saw diminished returns without the Bluth name. For a film centered around video games and helmed by the comedy hero Edgar Wright, you’d expect Scott Pilgrim vs. the World to perform much better in the theaters. And yet, be it Cera overload or just more resentment over a delayed Arrested Development reunion, it came and went without much fanfare.
The fact remains, we love our Bluths and we support their personal endeavors. But unless it takes place inside a sinking model home while on call for a Blue Man Group performance, our interest will continue to fall short.
There’s Something to This Here Internet
There was a time, not too long ago, when breaking into comedy took actual effort. It meant meticulously constructing a spec script, frequenting open mic nights, or kissing up to Lorne Michaels. Now, since the advent of this “Internet,” it means merely creating a Tumblr account and compiling photos of Kim Jong-il looking at things to gain a spread in Time Magazine.
At its most benevolent, the web will turn a hilariously profane Twitter account into a watered-down and accessible CBS sitcom. It grants book deals to photos – yes, photos – of hipsters with pithy captions or a thousand rules for one’s unborn son. It turns Ashton Kutcher into a benefactor, allowing him to choose additional CBS programming based around another Twitter account. And it lightens the mood during the BP oil spill by publicizing a writing team’s mockery of the company’s lax response.
But as TV deals and book contracts are being thrust before bloggers and 140-character scribes, comedians are going in the other direction and branching out online. With Twitter already well established, there has been a boom in new podcasts. Paul F. Tompkins, Chris Hardwick, Jonah Ray, Paul Scheer, Cole Stratton, Vanessa Ragland, the Sklar Brothers, and Graham Elwood started up podcasts in the past year. Between hosting duties and frequent guest spots, some of our favorite stand-ups now have a weekly venue for anyone to hear. How friggin’ great is that?
Web series gained even more legitimacy this year. Rob Corddry saw his web series Children’s Hospital expand to network television. Online outlets like Funny or Die and Crackle continue to experiment with scripts from comedians both professional and aspiring. As networks struggle to retain a rapidly diminishing audience, the opportunity for anyone to be seen, heard, or read online has never been wider.
Come 2011, this will no longer be a trend. It’ll be a tradition.