In a recent Salon interview, Bob Odenkirk warns aspiring writers to “get out of comedy, because it’s about to collapse.” Sketch comedy, he says, is having its time in the sun now – what with YouTube, Comedy Central’s burgeoning lineup and the legions of theater sketch teams popping up all over – but the market is becoming saturated. What’s next then? He suggests that once the market tires of short sketches, it may turn to more long-form, dramatic material. “I do think that after sketch comes story,” he speculates.
And when you look at the TV landscape, that makes sense. (Plus, Odenkirk’s been ahead of the game for years. Why wouldn’t you listen to him now?) Louie and Girls, two shows that are nominally considered comedies but regularly flirt with drama within their svelte 30-minute timeframes, are setting the tone for many of the new comedies cropping up everywhere. Some of that influence manifests itself in different ways, whether it’s other series copping their surface premise (Maron), their intimate, semi-vérité style (Broad City, Looking) or their personal, insular subject matter (Transparent, Hello Ladies).
But regardless of exactly how each show borrows, the bottom line is that all these series are following Louie and Girls’ lead by digging beneath the obvious elements of comedy to explore the uncomfortable or painful issues that lie beneath any good punchline. In short, they’re acting more like dramas. So that begs the question: are we entering some new era dominated by that nebulous thing known as the “comedy-drama”?
Well, I’m not sure. Given the proliferation of these comedy-dramas, it sure would seem like it. Yet while we’ve started heading in that direction, I don’t think we’re quite there yet. As influential as Louie or Girls are, it’s not like they are ratings juggernauts or anything. The crossover between fans of Louis C.K.’s standup and his show is surprisingly small. Granted, neither of those shows are trying to court a wide audience, both because of their placement on cable and because their sensibilities can be deliberately alienating, as the many, many, many thinkpieces written about both shows make perfectly clear. What’s just as clear, though, is that writers and network heads are learning from these shows and applying them to their own, possibly more accessible, series.
Now, I’m not suggesting that comedy-dramas will replace typical, jokes-first sitcoms. Those will continue to thrive as they always have and always should. But I do think that, if we’re really going to move forward, we need to embrace a broader idea of what comedies are capable of. If you think that isn’t a big obstacle…well, how many times have you seen someone complain an episode of, say, Parks and Recreation was terrible because it “wasn’t funny enough” when it really just dealt with weightier material or took a breather to develop its characters?
Part of the problem in overcoming that obstacle has to do with the comedy-drama label itself. See, dramas never have to prove they’re dramas. Jesse Pinkman can say “yeah, bitch!” and we all giggle, but we never question if Breaking Bad is moving into sitcom territory. Comedies, on the other hand, don’t have that luxury. They have to remain funny at all times to prove their worth. And if the jokes don’t come fast enough, if two characters spend a scene having a long, laugh-free conversation, or if, God forbid, no one’s sarcastic for 30 seconds, you’ll inspire the wrath of internet commenters just looking to laugh. Do that for a couple episodes, and suddenly you’re a comedy-drama…or at least you’re going to be saddled with that designation on your Wikipedia page. Your perception as a funny comedy is gone, and there goes a lot of your audience with it.
In a sense, that’s a completely understandable reaction. When sitting down to watch TV, not everyone’s looking to be challenged or concerned with serialized character development. A lot of people watch comedies because they want to laugh, period. You’re in a bad mood because your had a tough day in the coal mines or whatever, and you don’t want to see your happy-go-lucky TV friends go all contemplative and dark on you. There’s nothing wrong with that. But that shouldn’t necessarily be grounds to dismiss or avoid a show either. Because they look and move (and, to be fair, are sometimes marketed) like dramas, as soon as something is slapped with the “comedy-drama” label, comedy fans tend to run screaming, when really they are often missing out on some of the best comedy around.
This goes double for shows that operate outside of the normal comedy community, where Paul Rudd or Kumail Nanjiani could be waiting right around the corner with a wink and a cameo. For instance, I always remembered Gilmore Girls being funny, but recently rewatching it since it arrived on Netflix, I was struck by just how funny it is, how rapid-fire its wit and dialogue are, how it tosses off as many odd pop-culture references as MST3K or Community in their respective primes.
And while it’s long been acclaimed as one of the best shows of the 2000s – even showing up on TIME’s Greatest Shows Ever list a few years back – it’s rarely brought up in the context of great comedies. But when it arrived in 2000, what else were most people going to think? It was a series airing on the same channel as 7th Heaven and competing with Friends in the same timeslot. So most comedy fans weren’t flocking to see it then, and it’s still largely thought of as a cutesy drama by the uninitiated. In actuality, though, it was frequently hilarious on top of intelligent and moving, enough so to attract guest and recurring spots from future comedy stars like Nick Offerman, Jane Lynch, Nasim Pedrad, Danny Pudi, Adam Brody, Seth MacFarlane, Max Greenfield and more.
Same goes with Slings & Arrows, the Canadian show about a flagging Shakespeare festival, and that one had an even bigger comic pedigree behind it, starring and co-created by Kids In The Hall and SNL veteran Mark McKinney. Now, it’s understandable that most Americans haven’t seen this show. It only ran on Sundance Channel in the mid-2000s, which may as well have been C-SPAN 2 in 1937. But every time I explain the show to hardened Kids In The Hall fans, I’m usually met with indifference at best, even when the show was fully streamable on Netflix and Amazon (it isn’t right now, but it goes back and forth).
Yeah, the phrase “about a Shakespearean theater” isn’t exactly nectar to a lot of people, and the series does concern itself with Big Themes of mortality and the search for meaning. (Case in point: my sister tried to get me to watch it for a long time, and it took years for it to take. But what happened as soon as I started? I was instantly hooked.) Yet while Slings & Arrows can be complex and deeply sad, it’s also a wickedly funny satire and loving tribute to artists of any stripe, and Paul Gross’ mad genius theater director Geoffrey Tennant is one of television’s great comic creations of the last decade.
Really, Freaks And Geeks is one of the few hour-long comedy-dramas I can think of that has wide acceptance as a standard in the comedy community, and that has a lot to do with the careers its cast and crew went on to have. Because while, sure, NBC didn’t give it the chance it should have, it’s also true that it was cancelled in part because Paul Feig and Judd Apatow refused to tidy up its more tragic and troubling elements, so no one watched it. Now, of course, people can’t believe it was ever cancelled. Who knows what other great comedies you or I are missing right now because they’re a little more subdued and require a bit more effort on our part?
I’m not putting myself above anyone here. I also have a ton of trouble beginning comedy-dramas I’ve read about because it’s so much easier to zip through an episode of a half-hour sitcom, even the really smart, dense ones, than a more languid, hour-long one. Certainly, if you’re looking to laugh, some comedy-dramas like Orange Is The New Black or Transparent are far more drama than comedy, but not all of them are – far from it – and plenty of them are rewarding in different ways than a traditional sitcom.
With any luck, some day we won’t need the comedy-drama label. We’ll learn that when we hear the word “comedy,” we can expect there might be lulls in the comebacks and punchlines, and that clever, light-speed absurdism can sit comfortably beside something more grounded and sobering. Till then, if you think comedies should only occupy themselves with being funny, that’s fine and all, but you’re selling yourself short, and you’re selling comedy short.
Chris Kopcow is a pop culture writer and sketch comedy guy based out of Boston. He recently started linking to his Twitter out of compulsive need.