Very often when I get home on the late side, I want to watch something light and fun and funny. It’s only recently that I realized that hardly any of the shows I pick in that mood are currently-airing TV comedies; they’re either comedies that have been off the air for years or some kind of overripe garbage Bravo reality show.
I still watch comedies – still love them! – but they don’t usually serve that particular purpose anymore. You can’t really turn on Transparent when you’re a little drunk and eating six slices of buffalo chicken pizza; it’s just not that kind of show. But where are the drunk buffalo chicken pizza shows? What happened to them?
Here is a short list of some of the best-reviewed or most buzzed-about television comedies of the past few years: BoJack Horseman, Louie, You’re The Worst, Transparent, High Maintenance, Baskets, Girls, Orange Is The New Black, Love, Master Of None, Getting On, Catastrophe, and Atlanta. These shows are at the forefront of prestige comedy, earning magazine profiles and Emmy nominations and spots in discussions of culture at the highest level.
They also aren’t, necessarily, especially fun.
For decades, the words “sitcom” and “comedy” were nearly interchangeable in television comedy; most of TV’s biggest comedies were in fact situation comedies, taking place primarily with a single cast in either a workplace (Cheers, The Office, 30 Rock) or in a home or apartment (I Love Lucy, Seinfeld, Friends). Themes and rhythms vary in sitcoms, but in the majority of TV’s most enduring hits, the principle tone is joke-heavy and light. Darkness, if it exists, lies in the background; the depressing lives of the cast of Cheers or the apathetic psychosis of the cast of Seinfeld are secondary to the primary purpose, which is to make the viewer laugh. Even the most experimental of recent comedies – Community, Arrested Development – are all in service of the noble joke.
Modern prestige comedies, thanks to fracturing audiences and changing tastes, often don’t feel the need to focus on joke-making at all. There are long stretches of any of the shows I named above with no real jokes in them, instead developing characters and telling stories in the same way as any drama. Is Baskets really even a comedy? Is Orange Is The New Black? Do we have to assemble some kind of metric of jokes-per-minute to be able to figure out where to slot these shows into Emmy nominations?
The broad shift of prestige comedies from sitcoms to something that maybe used to be referred to as a “dramedy” is neither bad nor good. The quality of a show doesn’t rely on whether it slots nicely into decades-old categories for awards shows. But the rise in prestige comedies has a secondary effect that I’d argue is unwanted, at least for me: the decline of joke-focused comedies.
Not so long ago, my favorite comedies were light and fun and escapist. Today my favorite comedies tend to be dark and not always funny. With a few exceptions (Broad City, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), the best comedies on TV are not really suited to a casual, I-just-want-something-funny viewing. The remaining comedies that still aim for sheer jokes are either garbage (The Big Bang Theory) or highly experimental and thus also not really suited for casual watching (The Eric Andre Show, Lady Dynamite).
It’s easy to trace this backwards; the most obvious touchstone is Louie, which garnered near-universal praise when it began airing in 2010 thanks to many of these same characteristics. Louie’s mostly unrelated vignettes, some of which are not really comedic at all, proved hugely influential for this new group of comedies. And while it’s tempting to assume that these kinds of high-art comedies are exempt from trend-chasing, television is notorious for just that – think of how many Lost-lite shows came out within a year of Lost becoming a giant hit. Soon, it became weirdly marketable to produce not-necessarily-funny comedies about creative types on anti-depressants living in New York City and Los Angeles.
The joke-focused comedy now seems somehow uncool, a little dusty. TV has drifted into a space where boundaries matter less: a show can be 11 minutes long or 90, can air on an app or on broadcast TV, can feature huge movie stars or complete unknowns, can come from any country and become a hit domestically, can take on any subject in any way. With that kind of freedom, a half-hour sitcom seems unnecessarily restrictive and old-timey, and not very exciting.
There is, I think, a diminishing pool of superb joke-focused TV comedies, a void left by 30 Rock and Arrested Development and New Girl (I know, it’s still airing, but be honest, have you watched it in the past few years?). This isn’t a grumpy-old-man screed for some form of the past like multi-camera shows, but a plea for something simpler: I want more shows that are, you know, fun. There seems to be some feeling that to be great, truly great, a comedy can’t just be a comedy, but must also tap into something dark and real and painful.
But that feeling assumes that there’s something lesser, something simplistic or lazy or puerile or somehow dumb, about making a show with the primary goal of making the viewer laugh. And that couldn’t be further from the truth; it must be at least as difficult to make a truly great laugh-focused comedy as an intermittently funny half-hour drama, and should be respected just as much. What I hope is that the trend at some point swings back the other way, that dramedy shows about depressed writers in Los Angeles will become so expected and unexciting that a joke-focused, fast-moving comedy – maybe even a sitcom – can feel new and invigorating. And fun. Fun is good.