Blurred Lines: ‘Prestige Comedy’ and The Drama it Entails

“I think we’re really close when we’re going to have to retire ‘sitcom’ or ‘drama’ as a descriptor for these shows,” said Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture TV critic, on a recent episode of the Vulture TV Podcast. “[Atlanta] is a half hour show, and it’s funny, but I don’t know if I’d describe it as a situational comedy.”

But it’s not all fun and games—I mean, obviously, as the lines between comedy and drama get blurred—some aren’t willing to let the shift happen without a comment, as Dan Nosowitz writes for Splitsider:

Not so long ago, my favorite comedies were light and fun and escapist. Today my favorite comedies tend to be dark and not always funny. With a few exceptions (Broad City, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), the best comedies on TV are not really suited to a casual, I-just-want-something-funny viewing. The remaining comedies that still aim for sheer jokes are either garbage (The Big Bang Theory) or highly experimental and thus also not really suited for casual watching (The Eric Andre Show, Lady Dynamite).

…The joke-focused comedy now seems somehow uncool, a little dusty. TV has drifted into a space where boundaries matter less: a show can be 11 minutes long or 90, can air on an app or on broadcast TV, can feature huge movie stars or complete unknowns, can come from any country and become a hit domestically, can take on any subject in any way. With that kind of freedom, a half-hour sitcom seems unnecessarily restrictive and old-timey, and not very exciting.

There is, I think, a diminishing pool of superb joke-focused TV comedies, a void left by 30 Rock and Arrested Development and New Girl (I know, it’s still airing, but be honest, have you watched it in the past few years?). This isn’t a grumpy-old-man screed for some form of the past like multi-camera shows, but a plea for something simpler: I want more shows that are, you know, fun. There seems to be some feeling that to be great, truly great, a comedy can’t just be a comedy, but must also tap into something dark and real and painful.

On the one hand I see Nosowitz’s point: I love comedy, and there has been a dearth of “easy to watch” comedies in my rotation over the past few years. Though the rising tide of prestige TV and sheer amount of original content promises more diversity; more room for experimental, boundary-pushing shows to breathe, the advent of “prestige comedy” is a fairly traditional mindset of undervaluing comedic acting. It’s why Robin Williams wins for Good Will Hunting but not any of assorted, brilliant comedic turns. It’s why Mad Men or Breaking Bad get to be considered “innovating prestige TV” while staying almost entirely humorless, but Jane the Virgin needs to be the first one to call itself out.

But it seems a bit narrow-focused to say that there are no more just “fun” shows. New Girl is still on Fox; over on NBC the laughs are fairly easy and free-flowing on The Good Place or Superstore; ABC offers a whole block of comedies like Fresh Off the Boat, Black-ish, The Carmichael Show, The Goldbergs, Modern Family, The Middle—you get the picture. Like someone who complains that they’re not hearing something about a real world development on their Twitter timeline, what you choose to follow is reflective of you and your tastes.

Nosowitz’s main point—that “prestige” comedy is being favored over the more carefree comedy of old—can still be valid; after all, most viewers aren’t likely to tell you that The Middle did something so fantastic it blew You’re The Worst out of the water. But I disagree with the idea that there’s inherent value in comedy just because it forcefully keeps it light. Where he argues that the “depressing lives of the cast of Cheers” is just some of the darkness that exists “in the background,” it seems disingenuous to say it should stay there. I won’t say that modern comedy is doing comedy better than older sitcoms, nor would I say that our generation “knows better.” But as part of building on what came before, comedy writers are drawing out that darkness and actually acknowledging it. mv5bmjm0ntk0odewml5bml5banbnxkftztgwnzqwmjc3ote-_v1_Some shows make this look easy—It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is the logical successor to the “apathetic psychosis” of the Seinfeld crown, staying light on its feet and letting the audience appreciate just how depraved this gang can get; You’re the Worst expertly guards its characters with emotional barbed wire until suddenly it forces the audience to realize how flimsy and cruel their defenses are. But ultimately that acknowledgement of humanity (or the disassociation with it) is just as real, and necessary, as it is on something like Modern Family or Black-ish, even if on those shows it can seem a bit more saccharine.

No one I know exists wholly in the drama or comedy realm. Even in their serious moments, most people I know only muster about 20 solid seconds of solemn communication before returning to banter. That doesn’t make life hard to watch, and I don’t think it makes comedy tinged with serious themes—BoJack Horseman, You’re the Worst, or Jane the Virgin—harder to watch either. Modern comedy writing, with all its warts and dips into drama, may not be inherently more realistic than something like I Love Lucy or Cheers, but it does feel a bit more honest.

Punchlines and Punching Bags: Putting the Heart in Your Humor

The Mindy Project is a challenging show. For a series to have shed so many of its characters, arcs, and iterations, it has never managed to find a strategy to reconcile all the inconsistency within itself; Danny is all in with Mindy, next thing you know he’s surprised she wants to get married. Mindy gets a new confidant with every short-lived cast addition but without much thought to what each character should bring her. Mindy’s main asset is that she is an excellent doctor, but sometimes the opportunity for a one-liner complicates all that. And don’t even get me started on Jeremy.

Often I held the show in a sort of special shelf of TV—the certain regard shows that may not be great (or even that good) but who you’ll follow to the end, because when they are good they are fire. The problem with The Mindy Project has always been its balancing act between humor and heart.

The thing the show has taught me about comedy, is that it’s mostly funny (or at least cohesive) when its heart is in the right place. It’s what the most successful comedies do well—from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to Jane the VirginThe humor is grounded somewhere in emotion, an awareness, and a sense of boundaries, both political and thematic.

"Chapter Twenty-Three"For Sunny that’s making sure the butt of the joke is the characters themselves. For Jane that’s keeping heightened telenovela emotions tethered to the ground through practical reactions to ridiculous telenovela tropes. When Rick and Morty plays dirty it’s not just because they’re a crass Adult Swim show, it’s because they understand the heart of the characters they’ve drawn up. Bojack Horseman gets to be absurd, bizarre, and creative with its take on Hollywoo(d) and stardom because its characters are so honestly devastating in their emotional portrayal.

“I certainly laugh a lot at Jane the Virgin, that said, I cry at every episode of Jane the Virgin; it’s a very emotional show. And I think they traffic in a lot of genuine emotional truth, which maybe is something that comedy has a harder time with, or that you don’t associate as strongly with what happens in a comedy, like a capital-C, obvious sitcom, comedy. You don’t really look to those shows necessarily for those resonate emotional beats that Jane the Virgin has a lot of.” -Margaret Lyons on The Vulture TV Podcast

The Mindy Project has always done fairly well when it chooses to put its emotional foot forward; aided by strong performances by Mindy Kaling and Chris Messina, the true dysfunction of Mindy and Danny’s relationship has always been clouded by those genuine scenes where they make it up to each other.

FOR TV -- DO NOT PURGE -- THE MINDY PROJCET:  Mindy (Mindy Kaling, R) convinces Danny (Chris Messina, L) that her tax troubles are easily fixed in the "Crimes & Misdemeanors & Ex-BF's" episode of THE MINDY PROJECT airing Tuesday, Sept. 23 (9:30-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX.  ©2014 Fox Broadcasting Co.  Cr:  Jordin Althaus/FOX

But too often their jabs (ok, Danny’s, mostly) go over the line, bordering closer to abusive than comedic. All too often the show forgets about the genuine emotional truth that should be its guiding star. I can understand the idea of an irresistible single punchline, but those start to add up. It’s self-deprecating taken three or four one-liners too far, which on a show that doesn’t traffic in emotion might be ok. But The Mindy Project wants to have its sitcommy cake and eat it too; it wants all those laughs-per-minute, and that can be maddening when the show also seems to want us to believe these characters as more than just punchlines and punching bags.

When a friend originally told me about The Mindy Project she said it was great as a series of one-liners, not so much as a whole that hangs together. I’ll probably always hold the show in a certain regard, but that definition is the one that seems to be what it’s taken to heart.

Writing oppressive humor for dummies

Nine seasons in and the characters of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” have committed handfuls of felonies and societal faux pas in their endeavors to be sophisticated and accomplished. And yet for all its dark comedy each episode seems to exist almost in a vacuum, (almost) never needing the characters to learn from their mistakes in the past. It’s curious, since the show has covered themes like cannibalism, arson, scamming, adultery, murder, terrorism, welfare, child exploitation, abortion, fraud, alcoholism, and (good lord) even more, why “It’s Always Sunny” would be widely considered one of the smartest comedies on TV right now.

Indeed in an age of heightened awareness around helping groups who were previously marginalized, it’s because “Always Sunny” is political incorrectness at its best, because it does what so many comedians try to: it punches up.

In a culture so over-saturated with jokes at the expense of oppressed people — often defended by bullshit arguments like “first amendment” or “don’t be too sensitive” — it’s a rare comedic gem that can so wholly call itself on its bullshit. It never quite crosses the line into self-aware, but the show does manage to make it clear that the joke is on the characters themselves. This narcissistic gang of children are the ones who are really at fault. “Always Sunny” has often joked about homophobia, trans*phobia, racism, sexism, but the aim is to put those who further oppressive culture, rather than make light of those who carry the burden of these -isms.

Though the show isn’t perfect (what media is these days?) it’s not telling offensive material just for the sake of being edgy, or even just because the aloofness of these questionable acts so often verges on ridiculous. It’s real “edginess” comes from the fact that the butt of the joke is the characters who are so insensitive and cavalier in their unconcerned way.

Who we feel we are allowed to laugh at reveals larger cultural discourses. Pretending that comedy exists in a vacuum of culture or should be free of awareness is a fool’s errand; analyzing humor in all our media allows us to better understand assumptions we take for granted. “Always Sunny” just makes it look easy.