TV Club

Why we shouldn’t mourn the loss of the big, noisy, funny comedy.

Why we shouldn’t mourn the loss of the big, noisy, funny comedy.

round 2 entry 2.
Pamela Adlon in Better Things, Issa Rae in Insecure, and Donald Glover in Atlanta.

Photo illustration by Slate. Images by FX Networks.

Fellow nonlaughers:

My mother used to have two classifications for jokes, which were “funny ha-ha” and “funny sheesh,” the latter for all the things that were amusing in theory but didn’t rise to the level of actual laughter. (It is worth pointing out that my mother did not come up with these terms—not that 4-year-old me was aware.) And that’s what we have a glut of on television right now: “funny sheesh” TV.

This is not entirely a bad thing. The intimate, more personal vibes of these shows allow for greater experimentation with storytelling and filmmaking, and they often serve as proof that peak TV means literally nothing that maintains a certain budgetary level can be canceled. Indeed, in my constantly changing top 10, I have some “funny sheesh” TV, and even more in my full top 18 (which includes Better Things, Insecure, and Girls, among others).

1. Halt and Catch Fire
2. Orange Is the New Black
3. The Americans
4. Full Frontal With Samantha Bee
5. Atlanta
6. The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and O.J.: Made in America
7. Rectify
8. Fleabag
9. BoJack Horseman
10. The Good Place

Depending on how funny you find The Good Place (I find it hysterical but know many who think it’s more interesting conceptually than, y’know, funny), that’s four “funny sheesh” shows with an option to add Orange Is the New Black, depending on what season it is. (Season 4 was probably the show’s least overtly humorous.)

And the more I thought about your question, Willa, the more I realized there’s essentially no financial incentive in television to produce gut-bustingly funny TV any more. Indeed, doing so is often a detriment to keeping your show on the air, because it often guarantees low ratings.

As any of us would readily acknowledge, comedy is one of the hardest things for a critic to recommend, because what I find funny is not going to be what you find funny, and it’s certainly not going to be what my mother would call “funny ha-ha.” Some of this is subjectivity, sure, but I would argue it’s also an extension of our political and cultural bubbles.

For a long time, American culture was based on certain shared references and ideas that “everybody” was thought to know about. If you look back at TV shows from the early ’80s, they made jokes about E.T., for instance (like how the Rev. Jim wore that E.T. button for the better part of two seasons on Taxi), and the political gags of Norman Lear shows were based on the idea that everybody in the country was debating roughly the same issues, regardless of how they felt about them. The shared series of cultural references made for bigger, broader comedy, which could be both of high quality and hilarious to a wide swath of people.

We don’t really have that any more in America. Yeah, we all know who the president is, both the current one and the future one, but we live in wildly different universes when it comes to our opinions on them. Similarly, there are still hit movies, but nothing with the massive cultural penetration of E.T. or Star Wars—except, of course, for Star Wars. There are always recognizable human foibles, or what have you, but the sitcoms of the ’90s strip-mined that material so effectively that it’s harder and harder to find something there.

Chuck Lorre—he of Two and a Half Men and Big Bang Theory (a show I have liked a lot) fame—has come in for criticism for the crude, scatological nature of his TV shows, but that’s also probably key to his success: If there’s one thing that we can all still laugh about, it’s a dirty joke, because we’re all at least aware of sex, and we all still poop and pee. (So I’m told.)

So making TV that’s funny to everybody—not just TV critics—in this day and age is borderline impossible, though not, I would argue, completely impossible. But if the degree of difficulty is so great, and you can find a cable network or streaming service willing to underwrite your creatively ambitious but not exactly funny comedy, why wouldn’t you go and do that? You’ll probably get to run for five seasons or more, and you’ll probably get some degree of critical acclaim, and even if your show never has the cultural penetration of The Big Bang Theory or even The Good Place, hey, at least you got it out there.

Networks don’t really have a great incentive either. They’ll get more critical acclaim, more awards nominations, and more magazine covers with a Girls or Transparent than they will with a Superstore. Yeah, their ratings will be lower, but everybody knows ratings don’t matter as much anymore anyway, and the budgets are low enough to make ratings essentially immaterial. Are there funny shows on cable? Sure, particularly the HBO duo of Veep and Silicon Valley, and FXX’s long-running but still hilarious It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. (I also find Atlanta blisteringly funny, but its primary goal isn’t to tell the best jokes possible.) And on streaming, Netflix has Kimmy Schmidt, Amazon has Catastrophe, and Hulu has Difficult People. But essentially everything about how the industry works nowadays is geared toward the creation of hourlong serialized shows and half-hour dramedies, which is why we have so many of both.

That said, there are funny shows out there. They’re just mostly on broadcast networks. (I promise I’m not about to talk about Last Man Standing.) NBC went from having no good comedies to having three in about 18 months. The Carmichael Show, Superstore, and The Good Place are all incredibly good and incredibly funny in very different ways, and all three try to talk about the world we live in. (Yes, even the one set in heaven.) ABC can’t seem to miss with its family comedies, which include (among many others) the still vital Black-ish, the weird and surreal Fresh Off the Boat, and the vibrant newcomer Speechless. (I don’t watch ABC’s Real O’Neals but have been told by enough people I trust that it’s hilarious that I plan to get caught up.) Fox is in a tougher bind, in that most of its shows are getting up there in years, but it’s not like Brooklyn Nine-Nine or Bob’s Burgers aren’t still consistently funny. And if you love traditional multicamera shows, CBS has Mom, which might be the best.

I can sense all of your pause at some of this, since a lot of these shows tackle deeply serious subject matter in a funny way. But, really, this has been the history of American TV comedy. The ’70s, the best decade for sitcoms, were filled with topical shows that were nevertheless very, very funny, and even a show like Cheers took the ebbs and flows of its characters’ lives deeply seriously. It’s only recently—probably in the wake of Seinfeld’s “no hugging, no learning” storytelling rule—that we’ve come to think of comedy as entirely separate from serious business. But I’ve always thought of “no hugging, no learning” as “no easy sentimentality,” and there are plenty of very good comedies right now that have hugging and learning, but hard-won hugging and learning.

The relative comedic strength of the broadcast networks is why, I think, the state of the half-hour is so much stronger than the state of the hourlong right now. Yes, we might lack for the kinds of big, noisy, funny comedies that we’ve had in the past, but the half-hour form is filled with so much creativity and verve right now that I’m not sure it matters. When broadcast is strong in a particular medium, cable and streaming are, too, because all three areas cross-pollinate and inspire and share ideas. (Last decade, for instance, broadcast had Lost and West Wing and 24 and Good Wife and others, and drama was strong across all of TV. Now, broadcast dramas are creatively struggling, and hourlongs are ailing.)

But it does feel like we’re closer to the end of something than the beginning. The rise of the autobiographical auteur sitcom in the wake of Louie and Girls has been great, but there’s less water to wring from that stone than ever before. I’m hoping Atlanta, Insecure, and Better Things, which all show smart ways forward, point toward the future.

Anyway, I want to talk about some of the shows that actually hit it big this year, which all seemed to be serialized sci-fi shows. What did y’all think of Stranger Things and Westworld? Are you over Game of Thrones? Will somebody remind me to talk about The Magicians? Nobody’s watching, but I love it.

Yrs in funny sheesh,