There’s an impulse toward bleakness driving the recent cohort of comedies. People tend to die in them, or fear for their lives, or generally be suffused with sadness. They’re works that often cross genres or combine tropes from disparate, seemingly ill-fitting forms. It’s a cohort that includes both movies like Get Out, something that begins as an awkward comedy and turns into a horror about race, and TV shows like Search Party, which stitches a classic disappeared-girl trope together with a satire of millennial ennui. It’s post-comedy.
Even though many post-comedies hum along on a feeling of ambiguity — am I allowed to be laughing? Am I supposed to be legitimately worried for these people right now?! — there are now enough of them that you can start to see patterns in how they work, how they’re put together, and what they look like. Here are some of the telltale signs you’re watching something made in a post-comedy era.
A confused, ambiguous protagonist
One of the biggest distinguishing characteristics between your garden-variety sitcom and this darker area of comedy storytelling is the protagonist, who resists both the generally unchanging status quo of a sitcom lead and the full-on, unrelenting antihero qualities of a prestige drama. The main character in a dark comedy tends to lean. They’re wafflers. They’re trying to do good things, or want to think of themselves as good, or have areas of their lives where they’re just regular people trying to do normal, familiar stuff. And then, by accident or circumstance or persuasion, they get pulled into a different kind of story and tend to find themselves digging graves, or laundering money, or frantically cleaning blood off of a neighbor’s dog.
Think of Search Party’s Dory, sitting down for a Brooklyn brunch with her delightful, shallow friends, incapable of shaking her new obsession with hunting for her missing friend. Or Barry Berkman from HBO’s Barry, who would like to get out of the crime business and make new friends at acting class, but who can’t seem to stop killing people. It can also take the form of a comedy about knowing and defining oneself, as in Atlanta or Baskets or Transparent. These comedies rely on a tone and plot that shifts between serious and funny, and the protagonist has to straddle both sides.
The funny bit-players
Once you’ve got the sometimes-funny, sometimes-bleak protagonist in place, you need a supporting cast to help flesh out all the different tones. Often, that breaks down to some friends (or siblings or co-workers) who are initially designed to be the funny, happy ones — but as a fiction evolves, they often get shaded with more nuanced, emotional stories. On BoJack Horseman, this is Mr Peanutbutter, or any of the many side characters who exist mostly to provide hilarious bits of silliness (e.g., Tom Jumbo-Grumbo). For a show like Search Party, it’s Portia and Elliott, who can barely focus on Dory’s serious investigation long enough to stay for the creepy parts of a mysterious cult party.
The grim plot-movers
The balance of a dark comedy means that while the protagonist is trapped in the middle, often tilting from silliness to bleak humanity and then back again, one group of side characters are often the comic relief, and the other group are the baddies. This also tends to break down along criminal versus “normal” lines — on a show like Weeds, Nancy Botwin’s cohort of suburban parents begin as the comedy and her drug suppliers are the villains. Barry is divided into the acting classmates and Barry’s Chechen mobster associates. But it can happen outside of stories that specifically involve crime, too. On BoJack, story tends to come from Princess Carolyn, while Mr. Peanutbutter retains the friend role. On Transparent, Maura’s trans friends are (sadly) often sidelined as supportive cheerleaders, while her children provide most of the plot impetus.
In the best dark comedies, these roles quickly bleed into one another, so that the characters who begin mostly to reinforce the status quo also provide pathos, and the criminal elements are also the funniest bits of a series. Barry’s NoHo Hank is often the silliest voice on that series; on a show like Succession, Matthew Macfadyen’s Tom Wamsgans begins mostly as a pitiably absurd bootlicker and gradually shifts into a legitimate, gut-twistingly tragic figure.
Real human bodies, often in pain
In physical comedy, or in many more mannered sitcoms, there’s an undercurrent of humor that stems from feeling divorced from the bodily reality of the characters. Pratfalls and pies-in-faces are funny because they refer to the idea of someone being hurt or physically humiliated, but part of why we can laugh is that we know it’s an act. The funniness of America’s Funniest Home Videos relies on the clip nature of the show, where stupid, senseless pain happens (often to a guy’s groin), and then the video ends before we ever have to reckon with the aftermath.
One of the hallmarks of the serious comedy is a refusal to skirt around bodily realities. In the third season of Playing House, one of the two protagonists gets cancer; the opening premise of One Mississippi is grappling with the way bodies break down; a show like Transparent is necessarily and relentlessly about the relationship between body and identity. This is a notable feature in the stand-up side of this trend, too — Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, Carmen Esposito’s Rape Jokes, and even Ali Wong’s comparatively lighthearted Hard Knock Wife all take the body as a serious grounding point, both as a physical object and for all of its associated cultural valances.
There’s nothing a serious comedy loves more than knowing winks at the audience and jokes about itself and its own structure. A movie like Game Night is almost too silly to fit into a category that also includes Baskets or Atlanta, but it loves playing with winking meta-commentary with lines like, “Let’s pick a tone. Let’s stick with it.” Much of Barry is about the process of acting, how to do it well, and what terrible acting looks like. In stand-up, shows like Drew Michael’s special and, yes, Nanette are all about deconstructing the act of doing a stand-up comedy routine. Vulture’s Jesse David Fox refers to this entire movement as “post-comedy,” a name that relies on painful self-awareness as an unavoidable feature of the genre.
As Peak TV has taught us, there’s no more efficient way to communicate seriousness, intensity, and cultural prestige than a TV show that is literally dark. None of these comedies are as fully pitch black as The Walking Dead, but they’re all noticeably darker than, say, an episode of Modern Family. Scenes take place at night, or in dark rooms. Atlanta constantly plays with light and dark; some scenes from Baskets are scarcely visible. Much of the season finale of Succession, a potently bleak comedy masquerading as a prestige drama, takes place in full murky darkness.
This is one of the central qualities of a work of post-comedy, especially the fictional ones. Many of them are combinations of genres — they’re movies like Get Out that give a horror film a thin veneer of comedy, or shows like Search Party that try to juggle the close-endedness of a mystery with the situational humor of urban satire. Cross-genre combinations like these help the works perpetually tee up our expected responses to a familiar storytelling trope (things like attending an awkward party or introducing a creepy neighbor or deciding to become a detective), and then swerve at the last possible moment. Even in series and movies that aren’t stitched together from disparate-seeming genres, undermining or twisting our expectations is still a prominent feature of these comedies. Baskets is a very bleak show about a clown. There’s no way to predict what any given episode of Atlanta will look like. And the whole sad-comedy genre, including works like Transparent and One Mississippi and Review, are predicated on the idea that you think you’re about to watch a comedy, and instead, you laugh very little.
Probably, you laugh very little because you’re being reminded of the constancy of human failure, the inevitable entropy of a physical body, the cruelty of systemic injustice, the impossibility of knowing that anything we do matters, and the slow heat-death of the universe.
Nothing says post-comedy like a Camus-esque focus on nihilism. More than anything else, that’s the hallmark of these shows. If comedy often seeks to help us forget our troubles, post-comedy is an unwavering, wryly funny reminder of them. Transparent is about how we can never escape the trauma of our ancestors. Barry is about violence and pain and the tragedy of believing you’re a great actor when you’re really, really not. In this sense, at least, Nanette is the exception to the rule. It’s bleak, it reverses expectations, and it’s about real human bodies in pain. But Gadsby does her best to end with hope rather than dread. If you’re looking for deep dark thoughts about the human condition, might I suggest BoJack Horseman?