How Showtime Became the New Source for Black Comedy

Do you laugh when a kid falls down? Does Law & Order SVU make you snicker? Do you find it funny when a UCLA student goes on an anti-Asian rant the week of the Japanese earthquake? Then you should probably be watching Showtime. Black comedy is a fine art, and few people are willing to take the risks to make it. Most people equate laughter with comedy, so it makes sense to look for jokes and funny situations in comedy shows. Shows like Community, 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live are hilarious, and filled with laugh-out-loud moments. And they do well. But somehow, Showtime has risen above the odds and created the perfect lineup for those of us who find comedy in the bleak. With shows about serial killers, cancer patients, drug addicts, dealers and thieves, Showtime has embraced the darker side of comedy. And it’s succeeding.

Mel Brooks is famously quoted as saying “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” For those who agree with this statement, you can rejoice that there is now an entire network seemingly designated to that simple concept. Showtime’s shows are a perfect hybrid of drama and comedy, finding humor in serious situations. Subscribers to Showtime have reached 19 million viewers — a new record for the network. So why are so many people tuning in? Are we looking for more relatable people to watch on television; people who are not good or bad, but the perfect in-between? Showtime’s lineup consists of Dexter, Weeds, Californication and newcomers Shameless and Episodes. So what do all of these shows have in common? They all center around what should be an unlikable protagonist. And none of these shows would ever be picked up by network.

CBS, NBC and Fox — all of these networks have popular sitcoms. And they all have laughs. Can you imagine turning on NBC on a Thursday night and not laughing once? Tragic! But that’s the difference between the comedy execs at Showtime and nearly every other network: they seem to understand that you don’t need laughs to be funny. I’ve rarely laughed out loud while watching Showtime. But after each show, I can’t help but think, “That was hilarious.” But what makes these dark shows funny? Let’s start with the funniest new show on Showtime: Shameless.

Last week, I tried explaining the plot of Shameless to some of my friends. “It’s about a family without a mom, the father’s a belligerent drunk, they’re all con-artists, the main chick is dating a car thief, one son is gay and in the closet, but sleeping with his boss at the convenient store, one is a sociopath, and one cheats on the SATs, the younger daughter stole a baby and there’s a half black kid. Oh, and Joan Cusack has a crippling case of agoraphobia.” Somehow, they failed to see the humor.

What makes this show so great? With a phenomenal cast that led by William H. Macy, the Gallaghers’ are a family you want to watch. The show delves way beyond blue-collar. The Gallagher family is downright poor. Stealing milk and toilet paper poor. And while they may not be sweet, they are hilarious. It was hard to defend my explanation of Shameless to my friends; it shouldn’t be a funny show. And not in the same way that I Didn’t Know I was Pregnant shouldn’t be funny (although it is). Shameless shouldn’t be funny because it’s about depressing people, and yet it is. But it’s not without its more obvious jokes. Last Sunday, Macy played his own twin brother, not original in comedy television, but in Shameless, the whole joke only lasted about a minute, and it was on to the hilarious scene of depravity. Writer/Producer John Wells is known for his dramatic series; ER, The West Wing and Southland. And with subplots like child abuse, emerging sociopathic tendencies, fundamentalist Mormon refugees and cheating spouses, Well’s experience in drama has proven very useful.

But maybe that’s what makes the show work; it takes dramatic characters and situations, yet tells its story with humor. Perhaps the reason I love Shameless so much is that it reminds me of Arrested Development. Both shows center around dysfunctional families, have no likeable or relatable characters and both successfully layer joke upon joke in such quick succession that you can’t turn away for a minute. It’s fitting that David Nevins, the new president of Showtime Entertainment, used to work for Imagine Television, the company that developed Arrested.

Showtime started to thrive in the dark comedic arts in 2005, with the premiere of Weeds — a show about a drug dealing mother in the suburbs. But Weeds certainly wasn’t the cable channel’s first dip into the black comedy pool. Showtime began airing original television shows in the early 80’s. And in 1986 it premiered It’s Gary Shandling’s Show. Pre Larry Sanders, It’s Gary Shandling’s Show started Showtime’s dive into less conventional comedy. Super Dave further confirmed the channel’s attempt to break out of the norm. Showtime didn’t invent the dark comedy, and it’s certainly not the only network to air black comedies today. No one can deny the dark brilliance of Louie. And Showtime’s main competitor, HBO, has the phenomenal Curb Your Enthusiasm and Eastbound and Down. But these shows differ from the shows on Showtime in one big way: at their heart, the concepts of these shows are funny. An egomaniacal baseball player teaching gym, a writer with no filter interacts with his friends and colleagues, and the life of a comedian. These shows are more subversively funny than your average sitcom, but Showtime takes it one step further. They take away the funny premise, replace it with a serious subject, and keep the dark, subtle humor. And what’s less funny than a serial killer?

Dexter is as dark as it comes. Centering around a serial killer born from the murder of his mother, with no human emotions or ability to connect with others, Dexter could be interpreted as a drama. In fact, it’s constantly marketed and reviewed as one. But with a main character who is constantly calling out ridiculous social norms and saying what we all wish we could, Dexter is a fantastic comedic character. Granted it’s not always the funniest show, but its absurdity is part of what makes it fantastic. It is morbid humor at its best, full of jokes about body parts and murder weapons. And Michael C. Hall plays the part with amazing levity and humor. Turns out the sad undertaker from Six Feet Under has amazing comedic timing. Dexter is cunning, smart and completely unsure how to act around normal people, much like Larry David. But if you like your comedic characters to be a bit more obvious, there’s always Vince Masuka — a creepy pervert who works in a crime lab. Obsessed with whores and porn, Masuka is not exactly the type you’d see on CSI.

Every series on Showtime has a lead character you don’t know if you should like. Californication’s last series was all about David Duchovny’s Hank Moody facing statutory rape charges, which he is clearly guilty of. Sleeping with a teenager, and yet, funny! Nurse Jackie is a cheating, drug abusing nurse, but you love Eddie Falco anyways. And from United States of Tara, which Tara is your favorite? The teenage sexpot, the drunk misogynistic truck driver, or the bitchy housewife? In The Big C, you don’t pity Cathy Jamison and her battle with cancer, you laugh at her oblivious husband (Oliver Platt). And Episodes; what’s sadder than Hollywood? Every show on the network centers around the sad, the bleak and the depressing. Yet every show brings its own sadistic brand of humor to the darker side of life. Showtime has found its niche, and it’s filling it perfectly.

Joey Slamon lives in Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter or read more from her here.

How Showtime Became the New Source for Black Comedy