post comedy

How Funny Does Comedy Need to Be?

Post-Comedies Photo: Netflix/FX/A24/HBO

Why so serious? to quote a famous clown, is a question being asked about comedy more and more frequently by its consumers and by comedians themselves. To the point where some are questioning if it can even be called “comedy.” “Nanette is more a TED Talk than a stand-up special” was a common refrain this summer. “Is Drew Michael even a stand-up special?” was a question I was asked about the audience-free HBO hour. To take it to scripted TV, I’m frequently reminded of a joke from Difficult People: “When did comedies become 30-minute dramas?” Comedians and comedy writers are increasingly pushing the bounds of what it means for something to be a comedy in the most basic sense, rewiring the relationship between comedies and jokes. So what is comedy without jokes? It’s post-comedy.

Sure, it sounds pretentious; it’s a pretentious shift, especially for a form that has always seemed allergic to pretension. But it seems the best way to describe comedy is that it’s looking more like the frowning mask than the smiling one. I was confused to see some writers refer to Nanette, Hannah Gadsby’s much discussed stand-up special that deconstructed how stand-up works and passionately made a case for the shortcomings of comedy as a medium for expressing pain, as “anti-comedy.” Though it takes an antagonistic view of comedy, anti-comedy is already a thing (simply: it’s a joke that’s funny because it’s not unfunny), and it is not what Hannah Gadsby did. My colleague Matt Zoller Seitz’s term for serious comedies — the “comedy in theory” — is closer, but it’s become increasingly clear that they are comedies in practice, formally redefining what comedy is itself.

Like post-rock, post-comedy uses the elements of comedy (be it stand-up, sitcom, or film) but without the goal of creating the traditional comedic result — laughter — instead focusing on tone, emotional impact, storytelling, and formal experimentation. The goal of being “funny” is optional for some or for the entirety of the piece. This is not the same as comedians making dramas or becoming serious actors, like we’ve seen in past generations. These pieces are comedies structurally. Drew Michael might be the clearest example, as it used the elements of stand-up but removed the audience, and in turn its direct relationship to funniness. However, there are plenty more! There are sometimes funny lines and characters on Atlanta, but more often than not, the comedy is tonal — this thing makes one feel lightheartedly odd. HBO’s Barry finds itself slipping into a similar space (unsurprisingly, Atlanta’s main director Hiro Murai has directed multiple episodes). BoJack Horseman has episodes that play as laughless dramas, but every once in a while your brain smiles when you remember a horse is talking. Post-comedy is a Julio Torres sketch that just feels quiet and sad, in a humorously human way, or an episode of Joe Pera Talks With You, where the comedy comes from sustaining a gentle melancholy in deadpan. Eighth Grade is an absolutely brilliant coming-of-age comedy; it just lacks clear places to laugh. And while Hannah Gadsby tried to quit comedy in Nanette, instead, comedy is evolving to include not-comedy. Still unsure? Maybe watching SNL writer Gary Richardson’s short film, Places, Thank You Places, will help clarify a little:

This type of work is not completely without precedent — I’m thinking of certain early SNL work (especially Tom Schiller’s short films), or Beth Lapides’s influential L.A. alternative comedy show UnCabaret, that asked comics to not do their acts and instead focus on stream-of-conscious storytelling. But in the years since Louie premiered, it has not only become more common, it’s tended to dominate the conversation around comedy. It’s hard to not see this as a direct result of an era in which comedy and comedians are celebrated, but not exactly for being funny.

Smash-cut to 9/11. Or, I guess, star wipe to a few days after, when late-night hosts came back on the air, and the myth of Jon Stewart began to take shape. Gone were the days of Jon Stewart, the man with curiously a lot of material about smoking cigarettes, and in their place, a modern-day Walter Cronkite. Did you know that during his run more young people got their news from The Daily Show than any other source? Of course you did. Everyone did. By October 2004, when Stewart famously went on Crossfire, he left the show as America’s Bullshit-Caller-in-Chief. The narrative became: Comedians are truth-tellers so good at telling the truth, they are more important to the state of the union than actual journalists.

Fast forward a few months to a different person, but the same network: Dave Chappelle quits Chappelle’s Show, as the story goes, over concern that people watching (specifically white people) were laughing at the wrong parts of his jokes, obscuring the comedy’s intention. Chappelle was arguably one of the absolute biggest comedians of millennials’ youth, so the conversation around his departure was particularly foundational. And while he was beloved for doing comedy, he was revered for stopping. Not too long after, you got Louis C.K. being called a genius for making an often jokeless show and, on his podcast, Marc Maron showing millions that comedians are complex, fascinating creatures who just happen to make people laugh for a living. Tig Notaro got cancer. Transparent premiered. Yada yada Trump became president and comedians were placed at the front lines of the resistance, regardless of what their act entailed.

Here we are. A lot of comedy over the last few years isn’t funny, and there are no signs that things are getting any funnier. These things don’t exactly happen by coincidence. In a fractured media landscape, where ratings have become less important, and more viewers are cutting cords, the industry must rely more on buzz to draw viewers to their content. For comedy, however, this is influenced by three factors that shape the nature of comedy criticism: (1) What’s funny is more subjective than what is dramatically resonant, so it’s harder to reach a consensus of what is the funniest show, as opposed to the show with most well-drawn character or most ambitious storytelling that just happens to be a comedy; (2) Historically, comedies have been seen as having less artistic merit than dramas. Just look at the Oscars; (3) Because of a historic aversion to analysis (comics say that it ruins the joke), comedy comparatively lacks a history of formal criticism, which leaves it more often judged by what it says than how it says it. As a result, serious comedies/stand-up specials are more often given positive reviews; in turn, networks are more likely to buy comedy that fits that mold.

The shifts in content channels also directly affect the work comedians and comedy writers can try to make. The economy of selling comedic shows has completely changed. Sure, the big networks are still in the business of trying to make shows that reach a large mass of people; however, cable and streaming are incentivized to make things that generate critical buzz or have a niche but rabid fan base. It’s a climate that allows for more experimentation, especially since these shows — ones like Transparent, BoJack Horseman, Forever, Kidding, Baskets, Atlanta, Crashing, Love — tend to get smaller episode orders, so there is less of a need to fill out plots with big comedic set pieces and shenanigans. Without giving anything away, Forever, Alan Yang and Matt Hubbard’s upcoming comedy for Amazon, deliberately makes certain experimental choices that you just couldn’t make on TV even three years ago. One can argue that these dramatic comedies are more often influenced by forms like film, theater, or novels; however, past generations of comedy writers were also influenced by those same things. There just wasn’t a movement in that direction or a market appetite for it. Particularly dramatic episodes of M*A*S*H, Cheers, All in the Family, or The Mary Tyler Moore Show used to be noteworthy, remembered as special, rule-breaking episodes for decades after; now, there are whole comedic series that live in those spaces.

You can see technology’s influence on comedy even more in the stand-up special. When specials were a rare occurence, the comic’s focus was on building an act that could sustain them for years. But the number of specials Netflix greenlights, and the amount of money it spends on them, is slowly subverting the fundamental structure of stand-up comedy — transforming it from a live medium to a filmed one. Bo Burnham, as he told me in an interview for Good One, started planning his last special, the tremendously influential Make Happy, with an eye to how it would look filmed. Not every comedian has Burnham’s specific visual and staging sense, but you’re hearing more and more comedians think of specials as a filmed piece. And with that, the audience — the one right in front of the comedian — and its laughs can become disposable, whether it’s Burnham shooting the audience as a menacing black-mass on Make Happy, Jerrod Carmichael disregarding the live audience’s enjoyment of his stand-up to try to capture the discomfort in the filmed product on 8 (directed by Burnham), or, more recently, Drew Michael’s special, filmed entirely without an audience (directed by Carmichael).

To take it a step further, like everything that came after the financial crisis of 2008, the comedy boom that kicked into high gear a few months later is colored by a distrust of institutions. And for comedy, the institution is capital-C Comedy. While Hannah Gadsby is not American, Nanette became such a sensation here because it fit so perfectly with where things were going culturally. In many ways, it felt like a continuation of recent specials that were directly about comedy and how it functions — Make Happy, Thank God for Jokes, 3 Mics (though less explicitly), Cameron Esposito’s Rape Jokes. You listen to enough comedians talk on podcasts, and you’ll hear a generation wrestling with comedy itself, and what it means to be a stand-up when there are fewer big opportunities, but more small ones.

Looking at all of this together, what I’m seeing is a shift away from comedian as provider of a service (laughs), and toward comedian as artist.

Really, this shift has been happening slowly since the dawn of modern comedy. For over 100 years (though it isn’t a straight line), experimentation and pathos have become more and more common. And all along the way, people in comedy complained. That, of course, is still happening, be it in the Difficult People joke noted earlier, Michelle Wolf’s recent takedown of political comedy, the vicious parody of comedian-fronted dramedies that was Cuplicated, Jerry Seinfeld seemingly asking every guest on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee who is younger than he is why a comedian should aspire to be truthful over being funny, this SNL sketch:

These are the growing pains of an art form in transition. I spoke to Wayne Federman, the host of the upcoming podcast, The History of Standup, a man who knows more about the history of comedy than anyone I’ve ever spoken to, about this new style of comedy and the grumblings among comedians and fans. He saw a direct parallel with the late 1950s, when comedians like Joey Bishop and Alan King complained about young comedians putting out albums. They were, in the veterans’ eyes, giving away an act that could be toured on for decades. They vocally derided long stories, like the 15-minute one Shelley Berman tells about his father on his album Outside Shelley Berman, for not having enough jokes. “Sick comedy” was a phrase coined for comedians like Berman, Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and if she were a real person, the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, who eschewed a rapid-fire, one-liner joke structure for something more in the moment and honest. Federman agreed that these debates were almost identical to the ones in the 1990s, when alternative comedy was starting, with a focus on honesty and experimentation. The more established comics called it “alternative to comedy.” It’s not unlike what comedians have been saying about Nanette — essentially, that a better comedian would have been able to criticize comedy with jokes.

And by “what comedians have been saying about Nanette,” I mean what they have been saying off the record, save a few sly tweets about the hype around its being overblown. In the face of mounting complaints about comedy’s shift to seriousness, what was so interesting about Nanette is that something about it compelled comedians to publicly declare their allegiance to it, on Twitter and in interviews, as if it were some post-comedy manifesto, burning the bridge behind it and showing the way forward.

Even if all those comedians aren’t going to resolve to be less joke-focused, they do not want to be left behind. Comedy will be different after Nanette, not necessarily because of Nanette, as these changes have been bubbling up for years, but a little bit because, as I said before, the buyers will adjust. That isn’t to say all comedians have embraced it. Hardly. However, there hasn’t really been a backlash as we’ve come to expect when someone — especially a woman — creates a piece of art that’s universally lauded. After being around comedians at Montreal’s Just for Laughs festival and elsewhere, I’d say there is less complaining and more reckoning with what it means that a special with long stretches without jokes or laughs is held up as the most relevant example of stand-up today.

“Comedy is always changing” was the one thing Federman wanted to make sure I remembered. It reminded me of my favorite line from I’m Dying Up Here, Showtime’s fictionalized drama about the 1970s L.A. comedy scene (talk about comedy being taken seriously!). After bombing at the show’s version of the Comedy Store, a Borscht Belt comedian (played by Judy Gold) a few generations older than the vanguard the show follows, says: “A hundred years from now, people are still gonna be listening to Beethoven and ooh’ing over Michelangelo, reading Shakespeare. But us? Jokes and shoulders, that’s what we are. Jokes for people to laugh at and shoulders for comics down the road to stand on … We’re just a faint echo in a joke told a hundred years from now.” It’s something I noticed working on the two editions of the 100 Jokes that Shaped Modern Comedy — every joke in history both built on what came before it and rendered it not as vital. The good news is, it’s not a zero-sum game. Tomorrow, John Mulaney isn’t going to go into Word, highlight all the punch lines in his act, press delete, and replace them with resigned sighs. And sure, the press materials for Amazon’s Forever say Yang and Hubbard literally told the staff to write fewer jokes, but a lot of those writers also work on The Good Place, and that show has a ton of jokes. There are still one-liner comedians today, 70 years after that fell out of fashion. But the progress will not be stopped. It is the only constant. Jokes and shoulders, that’s what comedy is. Well, maybe not jokes.

How Funny Does Comedy Need to Be?