There’s a war going for comedy’s soul. In fact, it’s been going on for years, decades, centuries – ever since Nyx gave birth to Momos, the Greek god of mockery. It’s been going on since before that, actually. A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, the battle was waged when Emperor Palpatine secretly drew political cartoons satirizing the bureaucracy of the Galactic Senate and Han Solo farted in the Millennium Falcon in a way that made Luke Skywalker say, “Chewie, did you say something?” No, it’s not a battle between the chicken and the road. It’s between the dark side and the light. And, currently, Comedy Central has two shows that perfectly encapsulate the opposing forces — Detroiters and Corporate.
When Detroiters — a show about two guys (Tim Robinson and Sam Richardson) running a local advertising company — premiered on Comedy Central last February, it was a revelation. Its lightness and unbridled silliness felt wholly new for television, so much so that Scott Aukerman, a comedian who deals in a similar tone, enthusiastically tweeted about it multiple times. Corporate, a show about two guys (Matt Ingebretson and Jake Weisman) working in a soulless multinational corporation, had a similar but opposite effect when it premiered a year later. Its first season, which wrapped up earlier this week, debuted to reviews calling it “the darkest workplace comedy ever.” It often had an I can’t believe this is on television quality due to just how grim it is. Together, they represent a tonal divide that has existed in comedy more or less since its inception.
But, but, but, but, but first, let’s go back to not the birth of the dichotomy, but the language around it. Dark comedy, or black comedy, has existed as a term for decades now, but it’s always referred to as a style of comedy, as opposed to an element of all comedy. The term comes from the French humour noir, which appeared in a 1935 piece about Jonathan Swift by surrealist theorist André Breton, focusing on the cynicism and skepticism of the great satirist. But I always associate the term with the first movie I heard it used to describe: 1998’s Very Bad Things. It was playing on HBO, and as a newly Bar Mitzvahed dork, I thought it would be right up my alley. (It was not.) The thing to know about that now long-forgotten movie is the inciting incident (the titular very bad thing) — at a bachelor party, a sex worker is accidentally murdered on a bathroom clothes hook. I don’t remember anything else that happens, but I do remember thinking, this is grown up. And to me, this is at the core of the comedic dark side. Especially as it contrasts with the light, which, as I see it, is about trying to capture the feeling of being a child, and the silliness and innocence goes along with it.
Just like the Force, the two poles are not really battling as much as they are constantly working to find harmony. The dark side includes political comedy, satire, political-correctness pushers, sarcasm, violence, most insults. The light is bathroom humor, funny dancing, stupidity, impressions, cuteness, breaking, most physical comedy. The patron saints of the dark and light are Lenny Bruce and Steve Martin, respectively. The former was a breakthrough in how serious a stand-up could be onstage, and the latter how goofy.
It’s a spectrum. For example, The Simpsons mixes both, landing somewhere in the middle, depending on the episode, where Bob’s Burgers is a couple degrees lighter and Family Guy a few degrees darker. It’s also something a comedian can ramp up, one way or another. In their most recent specials, Chris Rock got slightly lighter and Dave Chappelle much darker. Most comedians are adept at playing with different amounts. (Michelle Wolf is perhaps the most light-dark balanced comedian working today.) Take two of the most famously dark and light American comedy touchstones: Michael O’Donoghue and Gilda Radner. If you look back, though O’Donoghue’s work was extremely dark, there was often some joyful absurdity to how a bit escalated. Similarly, Radner’s comedy had an undeniable sweetness and charm, but much of her work had a wicked undercurrent. The Radner classic “Let’s Talk Dirty to the Animals” specifically derives its comedy from that balance. Unsurprisingly, it was written for her by O’Donoghue:
Corporate and Detroiters are a different story. If they were drugs, a character in a movie would rub them on his gums and be like, “Woooo, mama, that shit is pure” (for some reason). Corporate is unrelentingly bleak; Detroiters is unwavering in its positivity. It’s rare to see either tone so unfiltered on TV, particularly in sitcom form. Detroiters makes Parks and Recreation feel like Mindhunter, and Corporate makes It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia feel like a baby’s princess-themed birthday party. At their most elemental, the shows are fairly similar: They’re workplace comedies about two friends. Where the shows diverge is in the lightness and darkness of their tones.
Examples! Here is a typical Corporate joke: The leads, Jake and Matt (on both shows, the characters have the actors’ real-life names), are watching an HR presentation when a sleepy Matt says, “I’m so tired, I wish I could be asleep all the time.” To which, Jake responds, “You just described death.” Matt: “Hmm, I guess I want to be dead.” Jake: “I can’t wait to die. It sounds so relaxing.”
Detroiters is more performance- and situation-focused than joke-heavy, but the joke I think about most often comes from an episode set at Sam’s dad’s 60th birthday party (for my money, the funniest episode of television from last year). Tim sees there’s a clown there and tells Sam he’s never met a clown before and asks if he’d introduce them. Sam walks Tim, who is acting like a giddy child, up to Mr. Bones. Sam: “Hey, Mr. Bones.” Mr. Bones: “Oh, hi, son.” Tim (amazed): “He knows your name!” Or take this clip, in which Sam tries to tell Tim about his dating woes, but as women approach Sam, Tim yells at them for interrupting:
Each show finds ways to sprinkle darkness into their light, or vice versa, but more often than not, it is to reaffirm their respective tones. Corporate needs to offer a glimmer of hope, so it hits that much harder when its squashed. Like in episode three, where Aimee Mann plays the one happy person in the office who is able to resist Jake’s attempt to trade his pain pills for favors. That is, until the end of the episode when [spoiler alert] she gets hit by a car. Conversely, what makes Detroiters so special is how they’ll subtly use darker elements to ground the show. Richardson and Robinson have an infectious, childlike energy, but there is a maturity to how the show depicts class. Their Detroit is always sunny, but in essentially every episode, a small, hard-up business comes to them looking for hope — and they offer it. Detroiters is optimistic in the face of struggle; Corporate is nihilistic in the face of privilege.
This is not to say one is better than the other. They are both very successful at what they do, but what they are trying to do is completely opposite. No one would say their two favorite shows on television are Corporate and Detroiters, besides maybe a development executive at Comedy Central. As a result, it’s difficult to draw too many conclusions about their coexistence. If you squint hard enough, and throw in Another Period, Comedy Central’s parody of Gilded Age–wealth aspiration, maybe you could find some message about how young Americans see capitalism, but you’d be squinting so hard your eyes would be closed and you wouldn’t be able to see the screen.
Ultimately, it says there are a lot of TV shows. Right now, for comedy on TV, it feels a bit like the indie-rock boom of the late aughts. No longer were people looking for the biggest rock bands to be all things to all people — they were happy to support niches that fulfilled their specific tastes. (And like those scenes, it still is a bit too male and white.) At its peak, over 30 million people watched Seinfeld, and in turn, Seinfeld balanced a lot of comedic tones. Sure, Larry David’s motto was “No hugging, no learning,” but in every episode, goofiness would bust through that door and twitchingly say hello to Jerry. Corporate and Detroiters don’t have to worry about the tastes of the 29.5 million or so former Seinfeld fans who don’t watch it. And it’s good for comedy. Anything that fosters specificity is.