Did You Get It? The Year of Inside Jokes and Season-Long Arcs

In the beginning, sitcoms would almost always feature self-contained 22-minute stories, with there never being a consequence to what anyone did or said that would carry over to the next episode. Johnny slipped on a banana peel. And it was good. Eventually that would change: a character began to be able lose or get a job, and pick up a new love interest and maybe someday marry them, and the tired show would be able to sprout some more material. And that was good. Then the meteoric rise of The Sopranos begat the HBO model of airing shows that didn’t have episodes, but installments of an epic story, making banana peels and crazy bosses and a new lay seem inconsequential.

But anyone who watched their fair share of television in this past 2011-2012 season knows this: Comedy has never wanted to be as taken seriously as right now. No longer are all characters suffering from amnesia, and after years of referencing The Wire in their jokes, three network television comedies this year tried to *be* The Wire, writing and plotting multi-layered season-long story arcs, to varying degrees of critical and financial success. (In one case a comedy hired the guy who played the most beloved character just for this past season.) Johnny has been using a leg brace for a month. It makes me laugh every time I see it.

Community’s response to dwindling ratings and requests from NBC and Sony Productions to broaden the show’s appeal for the most recent third season was to be as self-referential and esoteric as they were always accused to be while juggling several season long stories in the air: Chang’s ascent from lowly security guard to leader of the entire college; Troy being recruited to join the Air Conditioner Repair School despite it affectingly ending his innocence; Britta becoming a therapist; Shirley opening a business; Pierce confronting his father and dealing with his father’s subsequent death, and last but certainly not least and definitely not something seen on a comedy every day, an alternate timeline that was trying to destroy the current timeline.

Even more ballsy is the fact that all of those stories were purposely told with the main characters living through the sixth step of Joseph Campbell’s eight step hero journey (conveniently that’s one step for each semester of a four year college), the most perilous and least fun part — paying a “heavy price” for getting what you want. And it wasn’t just the characters going through a hard time — executive producer/show runner Dan Harmon admitted on a writers podcast taped right after “Remedial Chaos Theory” aired that plotting season long stories were a pain and lamented that ultimately it was handcuffing them sometimes from writing an episode with a funny theme that a writer might come up with in a spontaneous moment of inspiration.

Ultimately the experiment was ambitious and predominantly appreciated by the people that watched every episode/installment, but alienating to any viewer who on a whim might decide to watch an episode of the show that their friend breathlessly purported to be the greatest work of art that ever existed, even if they had seen every episode of the first two seasons. They would be left wondering why that Abed guy was wearing a felt goatee (he was Evil Abed from the darkest alternative timeline), or why it was funny that John Goodman was wearing a real goatee (because he always had a different facial hair/haircut combination in every episode he appeared in), or what the hell Troy was humming (“Daybreak” appeared at least three times in season three, once by Annie for a second and a half). As unfunny as those kinds of moments were to some, they were a punchline to a long, well constructed joke to the converted.

Chevy Chase would complain to the public about his character doing the same old slapstick sitcom garbage, but his clueless old man shtick — along with Troy being dumb when a joke required him to be — were a necessary evil to appease the all too occasional casual comedy viewer that can only be reached on the micro level. Even though Chase’s Pierce Hawthorne was a broad boob that at times seemed to come from an old, different, less interesting show, Harmon and his writers still made him the character that cathartically forgave Gus Fring from Breaking Bad for trying to cheat his way to claiming the family fortune and co-starred in Jeff’s very faithful to the real thing 2001: A Space Odyssey inspired daydream in the season premiere.

Community’s ratings remained anemic throughout the year, with one notable exception: after a three month hiatus and with massive promotion, “Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts” was watched by more 18-34 year olds than that night’s American Idol. The C story to the episode was as meta as possible: Troy and Abed attempted to be “normal,” before they snapped out of it and returned back to their own normal, status quo unharmed for next week. Ratings were back to Community’s normal soon after. Most people tuned out, aware that the show was just for the endlessly devoted to appreciate the second clip show featuring all new material (“Remember when we remembered?”) Chase’s complaints that made it sound like he was on an According to Jim, 22-minute story telling kind of comedy are painfully ironic, considering that if Dan Harmon drew inspiration from a mainstream sitcom instead of Breaking Bad he may not have been fired.

Parks and Recreation only juggled one ball in the air during their fourth season, but it might as well had been a medicine ball. The entire year was devoted to Leslie Knope’s campaign to become a Pawnee councilwoman. Inspired by season four of Friday Night Lights, executive producer/show runner Michael Schur aimed for the audience to live through the ups and downs of a political season so that we would be emotionally right with Amy Poehler’s character at the very end when she finds out if she wins or loses. Early in the season finale “Win, Lose or Draw,” Schur and the writing staff prematurely won the second Leslie Knope walked into the voting booth and began to cry upon seeing her name on the ballot. Combined with Poehler’s acting and the fact that viewers had listened to Knope talk about wanting to be a powerful politician at some point in the 67 episodes before it, it was more than earned; a powerful moment full of pathos made possible through serialized storytelling. Ditto when Leslie’s beautiful friend Ann Perkins announced to Knope and Ben Wyatt about the final result of the election. Most dramas this season didn’t provoke goosebumps like Parks and Recreation did at that moment.

Ron Swanson’s attitude that everything should stay the same is the exact opposite of Michael Schur’s, to the faithful viewers’ benefit, but not necessarily to that darn casual viewer. Gerry’s consistent positive attitude is only funny if you’ve watched him get shit on by every single individual in the office every week. Aubrey Plaza allowing herself a smile when she’s petting a dog is only humorous if you know that she pretends to hate everything but her husband. Ron Swanson wearing a red shirt is only for the fans who remember from early on in the series that Swanson rocks a Tiger Woods red golf shirt the night after making love to a woman. The only broadly dumb character is Andy Dwyer, who was given a goal to look into law enforcement next season after pretending for a few episodes to be an FBI agent. Ratings for Parks remained low throughout the year, but Schur got to keep his job.

No show in television history has lasted this long and been so equipped and conditioned to dive into their own universe like How I Met Your Mother. Completing it’s seventh season and possibly heading into its final year, Mother continues to approach telling a story unconventionally, initially relying heavily on flashbacks, with the occasional peak into the future to see things like Ted, Marshall and Lily eating a sandwich at their college reunion. For the last few seasons, however, the show has grown more and more comfortable with giving us glimpses into the future, most notably Barney’s wedding, without necessarily knowing how they are going to get there. Relying on flashbacks in the beginning of the series and turning to flash forwards later on? HIMYM is the comedic version of Lost, right down to the growing frustration from viewers the longer the series goes on to satisfyingly tie up all of the loose ends.

Executive producers/show runners Carter Bays and Craig Thomas are tasked to not only make sure that the characters get to Barney’s wedding organically, but to do so while making a lot of funny jokes. In the season finale “The Magician’s Code,” there were easter eggs for the fans that had stuck through the days of Zoey: when Lily jumps into Marshall’s old Camaro “500 Miles” is playing, the cassingle that was established to continually play in the car back in season two. Robin claimed to be upset because Ted was “busting apple bags,” a strange turn of phrase that was only ever heard once before — from “Drumroll, Please,” the thirteenth episode of the series, in which Ted met Victoria, a character that disappeared for six years before returning this year, including later on in the finale. The return of a character sounds like lazy writing, but it genuinely comes off as the main character needing to remember why all of his ex girlfriends were wrong for him before meeting the titular mother (which will have to happen soon because we saw in “Trilogy Time” that he has a baby with her in 2015. Knowing that it can’t be dragged out forever is important.) Barney Stinson’s ascent from one-note womanizer existing as the comedic relief to reach a specific demographic and be the lusting yang to Ted’s wholesome heart yin to a dude who is capable of marrying into a monogamous relationship has been rewarding to watch.

The show, like any comedy in its seventh season, is not as funny as it used to be, but the ratings have never been better. It says a lot about the power of 1) not being on NBC and 2) reaching 100 episodes and being syndicated, something the two previously mentioned shows have yet to do. Having your characters on television every single weekday has the potential to dig deep into people’s consciousness, to care so much about them that you go back and watch all of the episodes you missed to fill in the remaining gaps and catch up, as if it’s a legitimate concern that you’ll run into one of them on the street and feel like a jerk if you don’t know about every significant event that happened to them. And when Robin makes some apple related comment, or when a yellow umbrella is brought up, it feels just like getting an inside joke, because that’s exactly what it is.

Roger Cormier knows that the party is at the laundromat.

Did You Get It? The Year of Inside Jokes and […]