2015 was a year of quantity, but it was also a year of quality: with Peak TV in full swing, there was not only a lot of TV comedy, there was also a lot of good TV comedy, and – further complicating matters – there was a lot of good TV comedy coming from pretty much everywhere. Cable networks continued to proliferate (Fusion! Pivot! truTV! IFC!), making space for niche-y comedies designed for niche-y fans, streaming services got even more crowded, and comedy got emotional in unexpected places.
The Best New Network Comedy Was an Hour-Long Musical
It was yet another relatively rough year for network sitcoms. ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat and Black-ish continue to thrive, getting even better in their sophomore seasons, and Fox still has Bob’s Burgers and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but in terms of new stuff, the landscape was… bleak(-ish?). It was not, however, without bright spots. NBC lost a legend in Parks and Rec this year, but found success with the well-reviewed The Carmichael Show; Fox may have had the most fall 2015 success by figuring out what to do with comically handsome gentlemen Rob Lowe (The Grinder) and John Stamos (Grandfathered). The main lesson of fall 2015: when in doubt, make a zany multi-generational family sitcom. Fox also introduced us to The Last Man on Earth this year (incidentally, the only network show to get a WGA new series nomination this year).
But the most exciting new network show this season didn’t fit that mold, and it didn’t really fit any other molds, either: the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend emerged as an hour-long, manically cheerful, emotionally complicated musical comedy, and its presence on network is almost as amazing as how good it is. While Crazy Ex-GF helped establish the CW as a place for ambitious, female-centric comedy (at least on Monday nights, when it pairs with Jane the Virgin), and it helped establish co-creator/star Rachel Bloom as a comedic force (and Golden Globe nominee), it was and remains insanely under-watched, and the current ratings don’t bode well for its future.
Let 100 Comedies Bloom (on Cable)
Last year, we said 2014 was a banner year for comedy on cable, and this year, the list of channels betting on laughs has only gotten longer: IFC added the hyper-niche, hyper-funny Documentary Now! to their already strong, comedy nerd–y roster; USA kept Playing House; FX and FXX have Louie and You’re the Worst, respectively; Bravo’s first scripted comedy Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce came back for a second season; TV Land debuted the weirdly-difficult-to-say Younger; Fusion picked up The Chris Gethard Show for a 10-episode run; and truTV had two different entries into the exceedingly fruitful “real male human does stuff” category with new-to-the-network Billy on the Street and new-to-television Adam Ruins Everything. Meanwhile, HBO continued to be a home for high-brow comedy staples, nailing politics (Veep), medicine (Getting On), and Silicon Valley (Silicon Valley) while also cornering millennial angst with Girls and too-lovely-for-this-world melanchomedy Looking.
That’s not even to mention the most obvious comedy powerhouse, Comedy Central. This year wasn’t a great a year for brand new Comedy Central hits (late night excepted; more on that later), but Review, Key & Peele, Nathan For You, Broad City, and Inside Amy Schumer continued to define what comedy was in 2015.
Comedy Got Depressed
If there was a single trend that defined TV comedy in 2015, it might be the rise of what Vulture’s Jenny Jaffe called “the sadcom” – comedies that stare into the abyss and then refuse to look away. Life is a disaster, sadcoms say, but the twist is that it’s still worth trying. People can be awful, difficult, selfish, self-destructive, and cruel, but they don’t want to be that way; it is, she argued, a quietly optimistic genre, not a cynical one. Transparent, You’re the Worst, Casual, Catastrophe, and Togetherness all belong under this depressive umbrella (streaming is sadcom central), and Netflix’s BoJack Horseman – an animated comedy about a washed-up sitcom star who is also a horse – emerged as one of the clearest (and unlikeliest) examples.
The Continued Rise of Laptop Television
Streaming isn’t new this year – we made a similar observation last year (the year before that, I think I spent a lot of time defending Amazon’s startup comedy, Betas. How far we’ve all come!) – but not only is it better than ever, there’s more of it than ever. Most notably, Hulu found their original content groove this year, between Julie Klausner’s hilarious, hits-too-close-to-home-if-you’re-a-certain-kind-of-person Difficult People, and Casual, an atmospheric sadcom that finally gives Michaela Watkins the leading role we’ve all been waiting for. Amazon had Transparent, Mozart in the Jungle, and British import Catastrophe. And Yahoo! Screen is also a thing that existed (and found some critical success with Other Space). Meanwhile, Netflix doubled down on new vision-driven series (Master of None, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), while also pumping up their roster of original comedy specials.
A few former network series also found new homes on streaming this year: Yahoo! Screen gave Community a sixth season (a creative success, if not a financial one), while The Mindy Project has been flourishing on Hulu after being abandoned by Fox. Initially, I’d been skeptical of the moves, worrying that it would turn streaming into a graveyard for the undead. Obviously, it did not – and the story of Kimmy Schmidt getting picked up Netflix when NBC demonstrates how streaming can actually be a better home for some comedies than networks.
Presidential Candidates (Tried To) Have Comic Moments (With Mixed Success)
With the election a mere more-than-a-year away and an unprecedented number of… colorful candidates running, Fall 2015 Late Night was overrun with aspiring leaders of the free world. Presidential hopefuls on late night aren’t new – Bill Clinton famously played the sax on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1992, Ralph Nader less successfully did a thing with a rubber chicken in 2000 (lost to history) – but the volume of appearances is unprecedented. Among the more notable to date (there’s still so much time!): Carly Fiorina sang about her dog on Fallon, as one does, Colbert had an intense heart-to-heart with not-actually-a-presidential candidate Biden, and Larry Wilmore did a Soul Food Sit-Down with Bernie Sanders. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – who’ve both been all over the place – took turns appearing on SNL, Clinton with a cameo (opposite doppelgänger Kate McKinnon), and Trump as a disastrous full-on host. But the star of the 2016 electoral comedy cycle so far is Larry David, whose inspired appearances as Bernie Sanders have made it all (almost) worth it.
We Said Goodbye to Jon Stewart, Goodbye to David Letterman, Hello to Trevor Noah, and Hello, Again to the “real” Stephen Colbert
2015 was a roller coaster of a year for late night: in May, David Letterman gave his last monologue as captain of The Late Show; in August, Jon Stewart bid us farewell from the desk of The Daily Show and went off to save the animals/do mini-segments with HBO. But, as inspirational posters assure us, every ending is a new beginning, and this fall, Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah took up the reins and started to settle into (and reshape) their respective shows, while Larry Wilmore took over Colbert’s old Comedy Central slot with The Nightly Show, a show that keeps getting better in its second season. So far, the still-very-new Daily Show has capitalized on Noah’s “outsider” status while making the most of its correspondents, while Colbert – who’s dropped his blowhard character to play some version of himself – stands out for his consistently intriguing roster of non-Hollywood guests (the real hero of late night: The Late Show’s co-executive producer/head of talent booking Emily Lazar).
But while everything changes – and it’s worth noting that James Corden (The Late Late Show), Seth Meyers (Late Night), Jimmy Fallon (The Tonight Show), and John Oliver (Last Week Tonight) are all relatively new to their current gigs – everything also kind of stays the same. In 2015, late night monologue universally lived on (even if Seth Meyers sat down for it); more troublingly, the new crop of late night hosts remained very, very male.
The Nostalgia Wave
Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it, and those who study history really, really carefully seem destined to revive it on television: this year we saw a lot of reboots and reunions, with high-profile plans for more on the way. It’s tempting (I am tempted) to get frustrated with this (arrested) development – reviving dead shows, even beloved dead shows, feels both irritatingly safe and like a recipe for disappointment – but, as Chris Kopkow argued here earlier this year, a) there’s still a genuinely shocking amount of original programming, b) it’s not actually that safe, and c) while revivals may play to a pre-existing fanbase, there’s no reason they can’t use familiar raw materials to grow and change and become great in themselves. ABC’s wink-wink-nudge-nudge reboot of The Muppets was not necessarily an example of this (and is already being re-rebooted, with a new showrunner for the second half of the season), CBS’s The Odd Couple revival wasn’t a ringing endorsement, either (though it’s been renewed), and NBC ditched Coach mid-production. But there were moments of hope with revivals of cult hits on Netflix: Mr. Show semi-reunion W/ Bob and David was solid, and Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp was wet and hot enough to please pretty much everyone. In conclusion, Fuller House, anyone?