post comedy

The Rise of the Murder-Com

Bill Hader, looking deceptively un-murder-y in Barry. Photo: HBO

It takes less than a minute for the first episode of Barry to depict a murder, or at least the aftermath of one. In the first scene, the titular protagonist, played by Bill Hader, is in a hotel room, standing near the body of a bald man with a massive, bleeding wound smack in the middle of his forehead. Barry clearly killed the guy seconds earlier, but the disaffected look on his face suggests the incident is as routine to him as fixing a paper jam is to a FedEx Office employee. After removing the silencer from the gun, he leaves.

Nothing in those opening moments is overtly funny, although the idea that Barry is so blasé about the whole thing is darkly amusing. But as confirmed by other more blatantly wry moments in the HBO series, as well as the multiple Emmy Award nominations Barry earned this year, including one for Outstanding Comedy Series, Barry is, indeed, a comedy. It’s a very specific type of comedy: a murder-com.

At their most basic, murder-coms must contain two things: 1) attempts at humor and 2) characters, usually the protagonist, killing other people either intentionally or by accident. They may borrow elements from other genres known for their high body counts, like murder mysteries, crime procedurals, and noirish thrillers. But while they can skew dramatic at certain moments, a key part of their mission is making the audience laugh, even if that laughter arrives in the form of a quiet, depraved chuckle.

In the past two years, there has been a rise in the number of murder-coms on TV. There’s Barry, which focuses on a hit man craving a career change and is the most clear-cut example of a contemporary murder-com. Both seasons of NBC’s Trial & Error are true-crime satires, but they also qualify as murder-coms since they wring humor out of trying to defend some daffy suspects facing homicide charges. The TBS series Search Party started out as a comedic mystery about the search for a missing young woman, but in its second season, after an accidental death and an attempt to cover it up, shifted into murder-com territory. Fargo may be considered an anthology series or a drama, but there’s certainly enough humor in it — especially involving incompetent rubes attempting to hide their involvement in other people’s deaths — to qualify it for murder-com status.

Then there are murder-com-adjacent shows, like Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet, which is technically a zombie comedy — you know, a zom-com — but produces enough corpses to also fit under the murder-com umbrella. The women of NBC’s Good Girls, more a dramedy than a straight comedy, have done all sorts of very bad things by the time season one ends. They haven’t murdered yet, but a cliffhanger ending that finds Christina Hendricks’s Beth with a gun in her hand suggests the show could wiggle its way more fully into the murder-com arena in its second season. The most talked-about episode of Atlanta, “Teddy Perkins,” threatens to turn into a murder-com at any moment, and pretty much does at the end.

So, why do so many shows traffic in death and humor right now? That’s partly due to the expanding definition of the comedy genre, where experimentation and deep character study are as common as setups and punch lines. From a more cynical standpoint, it also makes sense that creators or studio executives would see the appeal in merging these two concepts. Americans love TV shows about murder and they love to laugh. That’s two great tastes that taste great together! The murder-com is basically the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of television genres.

Of course, crime and comedy have coexisted before on television. That’s not new. But generally speaking, the overlap involved lead characters who were cops or detectives — that is, the good guys trying to solve the crimes, not the bad guys perpetrating them. Off the top of your head, you can probably name a bunch of shows like that: Police Squad!, Pushing Daisies, Moonlighting, Reno 911, Brooklyn Nine-Nine. But those series don’t ask us to empathize with individuals who have gone to the dark side. The murder-com does.

The murder-com represents an evolution in the way we watch TV, in that boundaries and dividing lines are far less important than they used to be. What time something is on doesn’t matter because we just DVR our favorite show, or watch it on demand, or stream it on Hulu. We watch shows on Netflix without realizing that they are actually NBC or CW series. And we are fully comfortable with shows that flow between genres. If our comedies bear some passing resemblances to dramas or thrillers that we love, we’re cool with that.

Which is a long way of saying that Tony Soprano prepared us for this. Anti-hero television, with its focus on so-called “difficult men,” allowed audiences to watch and enjoy The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire, Mad Men, and The Americans, even though we didn’t necessarily condone the behavior of the lead characters. When Mad Men ended its run in 2015, it seemed to mark the end of the anti-hero drama as a dominating force. But anti-heroes didn’t go away. TV simply started asking us to laugh at them more frequently instead. When it invited us to see the comedy in more extreme examples of anti-heroes, like the types who kill people for a living, it wasn’t such a big leap since we’d become accustomed to simultaneously rooting for and detesting our leading men (and occasionally, leading women) for years.

One could argue that the murder-com is proof of just how desensitized we’ve become to violence. There may be some truth to that. But I’d also argue that the murder-com reflects the human capacity to find humor in even the darkest of situations, which is one of the most important survival skills a person can possess. In reality, it would not be funny if an entitled rich lady killed her brother and broke out of prison, but on Trial & Error: Lady Killer, it is funny because Kristin Chenoweth does it while wearing a fake mustache. Most people would not look kindly on a guy who makes his living by snuffing out people, but we feel for Bill Hader’s Barry, who is so steeped in his job as a hit man that he can’t extricate himself from it, literally or psychologically. In that way, murder-coms like Barry can even foster empathy, since, sadly, it’s easier to find common ground with a seemingly reprehensible fictional character sometimes than it is with an actual person.

Dastardly deaths happen in the real world every day. The murder-com acts as a release from that fact, and a less threatening way to reckon with it. Watching an episode of this kind of television doesn’t kill us, which is part of the appeal of crime comedies and dramas: You know you’re still alive after watching other people expire. But laughing, or at least softly chuckling, at what would otherwise be tragic and disturbing may also make us stronger. At least for 30 minutes or so.

The Rise of the Murder-Com