Relax in the Warm TV Bath of The Orville

The Orville. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox Televison

Looking for some quality comedy entertainment to check out? Who better to turn to for under-the-radar comedy recommendations than comedians? In our recurring series Underratedwe chat with writers and performers from the comedy world about an unsung comedy moment of their choosing that they think deserves more praise.

We know by now what the stylistic conventions and major concerns of a “good” comedy are: depressed men-children, B-roll of either Silverlake or Greenpoint. Somebody died and somebody says “fuck,” and there are touches of magical realism and it’s a very dense text. The Orville … ain’t that. Seth MacFarlane does play a depressed guy, but his is not a noble sadness. The Orville is Star Trek with dick jokes — nothing more, nothing less. That’s what comedian Moshe Kasher likes about it. A die-hard Next Generation fan, Kasher watches The Orville therapeutically. It won’t make any demands on his psyche after a long day of anxiously consuming Twitter and news. It’s an unsung pleasure, a chill hang with your TV buds.

Kasher’s new album, Crowd Surfing, also highlights a neglected side of his art form: It’s 100 percent crowd work. The stand-up special in its current Netflix-y form largely ignores crowd work in favor of genre-busting filmic moments. Unless you’re actually going to shows, you’re going to miss the immediate and interactive part of the performance. Vulture spoke with Kasher about why The Orville is an underrated show, how comedies aren’t funny anymore, the allure of the ’90s, and what Seth MacFarlane gets out of playing space captain.

What is it that you like about The Orville?
I feel like we’re living in a time when culture is getting pulled apart at the seams, and the only content that we like is the darkest, most fucked-up true crime. There’s a Nazi Living Next Door, Is That Murderer Guilty of Murder? And I like all that stuff a lot. It definitely speaks to the darkest nature of my reality. But The Orville, like … I grew up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I feel like it’s kind of the perfect show. And in the early ’90s when it was on, it spoke to a possible utopian future. And now society’s pretty agreed that the possible future will just be more like Waterworld or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I don’t think we’re hoping for a utopian future. But there’s something nostalgically nice about a show that’s not trying to do anything [edgy and meaningful]. It’s like a warm bath. It’s like watching the ’90s again.

Watching it, I was struck by how nostalgic it feels for me to think of there even being a future.
[Laughs.] Exactly, right.

It’s especially ’90s in that half of the plots are comedies of manners about different cultures not understanding each other. Cultural misunderstandings are now the sites of some of our greatest global tragedies. It’s not, Whoopsy, we didn’t know that’s how you pee.
Yeah yeah yeah, exactly. I don’t know about you, but when our country’s political reality started getting pulled in two, everybody doubled their efforts and was like “Activism!” But I feel like now, the instinct is to bury your head in the sand and just wake up in 2024 and hope you’re still alive.

The Orville is your sand.
There’s something about a show that’s not politically allegorical. It’s just spaceships in the air, and people with funny little quips. I would describe it as the kind of show that I watch the minute my wife goes to sleep, because I can’t really convince her to get onboard with a talking robot or Norm Macdonald as a large piece of booger slime. I don’t want to give it short shrift — I’m sure the people who write it try really hard to give it good, compelling, deep stuff.

I think even the writers have to acknowledge that the show is not densely packed with jokes, the way half-hour comedies have become.
I would agree. It’s funny, because it’s not even all that much of a comedy. It is exactly Star Trek: The Next Generation if you just leaned 5 percent more towards jokes. I’m sure they did it on purpose. It’s a very unique show. It’s like, “Is it a comedy?” Yeah, sort of, but it’s not one of these new comedies, in that it’s a drama. It’s its own bizarre creation: a science-fiction episodic TV show that, inexplicably, makes 30 percent more jokes than any other version of that show.

That must be very freeing. Star Trek has occasional jokes, but the tone overall is very serious.
Picard is never doing the hula.

Right. But Brannon Braga is behind this show. It must feel great to not have to completely inhabit the Star Trek tone.
I wonder what the room is like. I watch Watchmen, and I wish I was in that writers room, so I could figure out what they’re doing, story-breaking-wise. I’ve never seen a television show like that. Then there are shows like 30 Rock, where I go, Oh, I’d love to have that job, because it’d be fun to throw 55 jokes out a second. Another Period was like that for me — a joke a second. The Orville, I would love to be in that writers room just to see how the dynamics play out. Is there a comedy quadrant? Do they bring regular sci-fi scripts to this comedy pod, and they add jokes? Do they strip jokes away?

What is the critical consensus, by the way? Do people like it?

It seems like some critics hated the first season. But the people who stuck around for season two went, “Oh, I get this. I like this.”
Look. I don’t know about you, but I feel like my day begins by blinking my eyes open, grabbing my phone, and just pouring poison directly into my cerebellum. It’s this horrifying news cycle: What did Trump say? What’s the impeachment situation? Who did they just expose as a sexual predator? And to me, a show like The Orville or The Mandalorian is just like candy. There’s just something very refreshing about a show that doesn’t have the pretense of import. This is going to sound so insulting — I really hope the creatives don’t read this, but I’m sure they will — it’s not even trying to be its own show, you know? It’s trying to be, it seems to me, a nostalgic take on shows that we know and love.

Is that something that resonates for you? Because you also had a show that harkened to an older format, with Problematic
Well, what show do you think that was? Donahue?

That’s an interesting question. Well, Problematic was the opposite of a show that was nostalgic and a light fluffy look at life. We were literally trying to kick a hornets’ nest, and I don’t know how effectively we did or didn’t do that.

I do like nostalgia, yes. So maybe there is something about the ’90s, because that was the era that was my most television-watching youth. There’s something about those shows, and the music, and the style of the ’90s that sort of rests in my nostalgic core. So, yeah. I’m gonna say yes.

Problematic was definitely trying to kick a hornets’ nest, but there was a somewhat wholesome premise at its core: that something productive can come out of these fights. We might not all wind up on the same page, but we can at least see each other’s points.
That is definitely, definitely what we were trying to do. My biggest takeaway from that show was that it’s very difficult to have giant, foundational conversations, hornets’ nest conversations, in a 22-minute format. Oh, would that the world could see what the hour-long tapings looked like! Because once you cut it down to fit a Taco Bell double-stuffed extreme diablo demon ranch taco commercial, part of the nuance of the conversation was difficult to maintain.

And I think that is something about The Orville that’s nice. It’s an hour-long show, where 22-minute comedy elements are kind of, I would almost say arbitrarily, sprinkled on top. It’s a straight-down-the-middle episodic drama. A space opera. And once in a while, CGI Norm Macdonald floats in and sexually harasses a crew member.

What did you like so much about Next Gen?
The ensemble and the character studies of those people, the individual journeys these characters go on. I’m trying to think of the last time there was a show where I’ve really fallen in love with all the characters. These things hit now — Watchmen, Game of Thrones, even Battlestar. You fall in love with the ensemble, you fall in love with the story and the world, but the characters themselves? These shows are full of evil characters. Jamie Lannister and Cersei Lannister, you feel, This person’s evil, but I’m into it. Even Regina King in Watchmen — she’s not a force of pure good, she’s a force of chaotic good. And there was something about Star Trek, where every character was somehow more wholesome than the last. Every character was more lovable and pure. I guess Will Riker was a bit of a handsy ladies’ man. But even that version of the suave Casanova that’s constantly flirting with every woman that he sees was a kind of Pollyanna version of that. So there’s something about this universe of pure good that I really loved. And I think The Orville, in its best episodes, has a nostalgic feeling of some of that. And who among us doesn’t feel that Seth MacFarlane is a creature of pure, unadulterated light from God himself?

I think I can say that Seth MacFarlane is very earnest in caring about the stuff he cares about.
[Laughs.] That was a long walk, but I think I agree. Here’s the thing: You look at The Orville and Seth MacFarlane is the captain, and you’re kind of like, Huh, why did he want this? It’s a little bit of a head-scratcher. Seth MacFarlane, he’s kind of an entertainment Everyman. He loves musicals, he loves joke-driven comedies, and animated stuff. He likes comedy-comedy. And this isn’t that. This isn’t joke-joke comedy. Like I said, this is warm bath comedy, not searing acid. Why did this guy even want to do this, beyond the fact that it’s cool to be the swashbuckling captain? And it seems, to me, very obvious that he wanted the starring role for the same reason I get this guilty pleasure out of this, which is that it just feels familiar. It’s nostalgic.

Did you like The Orville?

Uhhh …

I liked what I watched, but I don’t know if I’ll continue watching.
I kind of get it. I’m not taking a swing, and I don’t think they’re taking a swing, that The Orville is “important” TV. But I know that I love the experience of watching it. I’ve been watching a lot of things recently, like Uncut Gems, where you’re just like, Wow, that was hard to watch but it was entertaining. I think that’s entertainment now, and entertainment reflects what our life is like now: God, this is really difficult to just even be. And there’s nothing difficult about an episode of The Orville. 

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Relax in the Warm TV Bath of The Orville