Comedy has thankfully evolved from its universally beloved origins as Milton Berle one-liners and saucy harlequins. Broadly put, comedy at its best is a patient, pointed examination and calling out of the absurdity of human existence. Narrative comedy, from Shakespeare to M*A*S*H, takes that conceit and adds “making the best of it” to the mix.
As our social mores and collective existential despair change, so does the style of comedy we produce and consume. In the ‘80s, the Reagan-fronted superficiality and “America is perfect” attitude meant the dominant comedy of the day was gentle, listless sitcoms about upper class families. The Nietzschean depair of post-9/11 gave way to a “who gives a fuck, nothing makes sense” nihilistic comedy, in things like Jackass and Bam Margera torturing his stepfather on the toilet. In the afterglow of the first election of Barack Obama, a “nice comedy” movement development, as exampled by shows like Parks and Recreation.
In 2012 (ish), a lot of the comedy people got together and decided that the broad cultural idea they were going to reflect in their work was going to be (because that’s how it works) People Who Are Young, But Already Broken Trying to Heal.
Today’s younger people, whose stories dominate TV and movies, were raised by Boomers and as such endured their constant reflection, self-indulgence, and record high divorce rates and abandonment…and then a self-help culture that tells everyone they are emotionally fractured or unprepared for adulthood (and a great many of us legitimately are). At the same time, we’ve got down the concepts of extended adolescence and a collective examination and redefinition of roles. The result is that we’re all left questioning who we are, all the time, and trying to get out from the under the weight of all the pain we’ve already experienced. That’s the absurdity of human existence, and we use comedy to cope.
New Girl. Zooey Deschanel heading the cast of this show, a modern update and emotionally honest version of Friends, is quite ironic, as she is the poster child for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the whimsical woman-child. But New Girl this season is about her character, Jess, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl who has to grow up and face a harsh reality—her romances have ended, and her dream job ideal career as a kindergarten teacher has ended, too. (Nor has she ever quite gotten over her parents’ divorce.) The show is about Jess discovering her real identity and worth beyond those things, which includes crafting a support system or a modern family made up of people on the same journey. Nick is probably an clinically depressed alcoholic too afraid of failure to get his life started, Winston is trying to figure out what to do after a failed basketball career, and Schmidt is learning that it’s okay to expose your heart to a woman.
The New Normal. At first this show looked like the new Will and Grace — hacky gay jokes and relatable only to the person who created it, in this case Ryan Murphy. It’s not that at all. Each episode is a meditation on a specific aspect of their lives the main characters are trying to make right so as to welcome their new baby into as perfect a family as possible. One episode was about daddy issues, one episode was about the expectations and image of a gay man in modern society, one episode was about each character’s painful rejection by each of their biological families. The title refers to the makeshift family of two gay parents, a surrogate mother, her daughter, and close friends. Exploring similar themes with similar plots, but with better jokes and a goofier touch, is Ben and Kate, which is about a brother and sister with a brutal childhood now raising the sister’s young daughter together.
Go On. Each week, people who cannot get over traumatic loss meet at a support group in an effort to connect to other people and boost each other up. The purest example of this theme in action.
Two Broke Girls. All the other shows here are single-camera, laugh-track free, and treat their characters with sympathy and dignity. 2 Broke Girls does none of those things, but it’s about the same stuff. The broke girl Caroline is a former rich kid who lost all her money, dignity, and friends and meets broke girl, Max, foul-mouthed and street smart who has always had to scrape by, and whose jokes about her own history of poverty, abuse, and addiction (the only window into her backstory actually) seem too dark to be in jest.
This is happening in the movies, too, albeit mostly in introspective and thoughtful “mumblecore” films like Jeff, Who Lives at Home and Safety Not Guaranteed. The way these movies are made makes sure that the characterizations are relatable, real, and deep — it’s collaborative, with largely improvised dialogue built out of conversations, riffing, rehearsal, character sketches, and scene outlines. Whether it’s the pothead slacker in Jeff who ultimately makes good on a premonition in the film’s moving final act, or the mentally ill would-be time traveler in Safety who finds someone someone as hurt as he is to love him, these movies, too are about longed for personal connections and self-acceptance.
Much of this authenticity and relatability must come from the improv training necessary for today’s comedy professionals. The long-form style is about elevation and listening so as to perpetuate a scene through a natural, compelling story arc…while being brutally funny at the same time. In the same way the Lampoon once created a generation of acerbic social satirists in the ‘70s, when acerbic social satirists were needed, improv has helped develop writers and performers who care about the emotional weight of the material and bring personal experience and humanity to the table on the shows and movies that are being accepted by audiences for their realness, which only makes them more funny.
Brian Boone makes tweets and comedy.