HBO vs. Showtime: Battle of the Premium Cable Comedies


Earlier this week, Showtime aired the premieres of Californication, now in its fourth season, and the brand new show Episodes. For years, the network barely bothered with comedy, but lately, with the rise of HBO, they’ve been trying to make shows beyond Dexter and The L Word, shows that will actually make you laugh. But how are they doing compared to their main competitor (sorry, Starz)? Let’s pit Showtime and HBO’s current five best comedies against one another and see who comes out on top.

#5. How to Make It in America vs. Episodes

Things start off a little rough here. How to Make It in America hasn’t shown enough to, um, make it past season two, because it’s way too aware of what kind of show it wants to be (and doesn’t succeed). Although it’s a bit too early to fully judge Episodes, we’ll give it the benefit of the doubt. We know what we’re getting with America, and the pilot for Episodes was at least amusing enough to give the show a few chances to find its footing, especially because we only saw star Matt LeBlanc for an all-too-quick driving scene.

Winner: Showtime

#4. The Ricky Gervais Show vs. United States of Tara

As much as I love Gervais, his self-titled animated show, based on a series of podcasts, just isn’t that good — or, more accurately, if you’ve already heard the podcast, as I’m sure most of his fans have, then the point of simply animating the segments (subpar animation, to boot) is lost on me. Plus, The Ricky Gervais Show is nowhere near as good as Extras, Gervais’ finest comedic accomplishment. Tara wins almost by default, although Toni Collette and her six personalities are very good on the show, as is Patton Oswalt.

Winner: Showtime

#3. Bored to Death vs. Nurse Jackie

Most of Showtime’s comedies are barely comedies at all. I guess because they tell the occasional joke and only last 30 minutes, they can’t be considered dramas? As great as Edie Falco is as Nurse Jackie (and she is), her role really isn’t that funny, or at least not funny enough that she deserves a Best Actress in a Comedy award at the Emmys over, say, Amy Poehler or Cobie Smulders. Anyway, this is a long way of explaining that Bored to Death is more of a traditional sitcom, and therefore funnier. Simply the idea of Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifianakis, and Ted Danson together in the same room makes me laugh, and with the addition of Ajay Naidu, the cast has gotten even better. Bored has also featured a who’s who of comedy in its first two seasons, including Jenny Slate, Zoe Kazan, Kristen Wiig, Oliver Platt, John Hodgman, and Patton Oswalt (again!).

Winner: HBO

#2. Eastbound and Down vs. Californication

David Duchovny is excellent as Hank Moody on Californication because he is Hank Moody. We know he’s a bit of a womanizer and drinker, and that he’s an intelligent guy, too. If only the rest of the show could be so good. Actually, that statement could be said about most of Showtime’s shows, both comedies and dramas. The main characters on Nurse Jackie, United States of Tara, The Big C, and (especially) Dexter are what make the shows watchable; in other words, it’s the opposite of The Office. Eastbound and Down, on the other hand, has an excellent main character in Kenny Powers, with a supporting cast nearly as good, especially Stevie, the Robin to Kenny’s Batman. Season two also had scene-stealing cameos from Deep Roy and Don Johnson as a midget Mexican gangster and Kenny’s father, respectively. Eastbound’s real strength is that it succeeds where other shows have failed. It improved on a six-episode first season by retreating to a foreign location, a cop-out for most sitcoms, but without giving up any of the show’s initial story of the rise and fall of Kenny Powers. The writers have never toned down the crassness of Kenny, too, while also making him into some perverse, titty-loving philosophical guru. Who else could say, “The people [in Mexico] aren’t that different from the ones back home — when you get past the lack of interest in real sports and the need to have yellow rice at every fuckin’ meal,” and make us agree with him?

Winner: HBO

#1. Curb Your Enthusiasmvs. Weeds

I’ve written in the past about how the sixth season of Weeds, which ended in November, was one of the better seasons of any comedy I’ve seen in recent years. It focused on Nancy and her family, rather than boring peripheral characters. But was it better than the last season of Curb? No. In fact, Weeds has never been better than Curb, a show that everyone seems to take for granted at this point. It’s rarely mentioned on a list of the greatest shows on TV, even though it is; Curb is basically the TV equivalent of Spoon, a band that keeps putting out solid records year after year, with the occasional masterpiece. For Spoon, it was Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga; for Curb, it was the Seinfeld season. It’s not only that Larry got Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer to reunite (not to mention Newman), but that it was all part of a larger plan to win back his ex-wife, Cheryl. I’d rather watch a dependably funny bald guy over an oddly inconsistent Mary Louise-Parker any day.

We’re just talking about TV, though, right?

Winner: HBO

So, the final tally is: HBO 3, Showtime 2. It’s not more than we imagined, HBO, because we figured you’d win anyway. Plus, if you include older shows from HBO (Flight of the Conchords, Lucky Louie, Extras, Da Ali G Show, Tenacious D, The Chris Rock Show, The Larry Sanders Show, and The Comeback) and Showtime (um, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show?), things get uglier than…well, they don’t get much uglier than Showtime’s past history with comedy.

Josh Kurp is worth the monthly fee.