Feb 10, 2015

Posted by in Ramblings

Treat Yo’ Self: The Golden Age of American TV Comedy – Part 1

Treat Yo’ Self: The Golden Age of American TV Comedy – Part 1

Part One: Drama’s Poor Cousin

As is so often the case, Bill Murray said it best.  Here’s an excerpt from his acceptance speech when he won Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy at the 2004 Golden Globes for Lost in Translation.

“But I think it’s too often we forget our brothers on the other side of the aisle.  The dramatic actors.  And I’d just like to say that without them where would our war and our misery and our psychological drama come from?  Let’s not forget them tonight”.

It’s tongue in cheek, sure, but he also means it.  And as we are deep in the middle of ‘Award Season’ for film and TV at the moment it seems worth mentioning.  Now, let’s get one thing straight.  The Oscars and the BAFTAs and the Globes and all that are largely a meaningless exercise that serves for little more than producing good PR for films. It’s nice to win, of course it is. I’ve won the odd award myself and it’s nice to be recognised but obviously you need to be well aware that there’s no real way to say what is the ‘Best Picture’ or who the ‘Best Actor’ is, is there?  There’s no set criteria. At least at Crufts they have to measure their balls or something, but the Oscars is purely subjective.  So it’s just interesting that it’s always the dramas that come out on top. Are voters really more drawn to well crafted tragedy than they are well crafted comedy?  Of course not. Dramatic films and actors playing people with disabilities win it all because drama is hard and comedy is easy. Which is why everyone goes apeshit over a ‘comic actor’ who does a drama.  You know why we don’t go bananas over a ‘dramatic actor’ doing a brilliant comic role? Because few of them do. Because it’s bloody hard. Comedy being drama’s poor cousin is obviously a bat shit crazy and objectively wrong idea.  It’s also a tired cliche and everyone knows as much but they still resort to it.

birdman

Michael Keaton in ‘Birdman’

And let me make it clear that in no way would I suggest that the winners are bad films or shows. Boyhood has been raking in the awards this year and it’s a fantastic film. But it has a distinct edge over Birdman, the other frontrunner simply because Birdman is, well about a Birdman. It’s a comedy and, in my humble opinion, a damn good five star worthy one too.  Kate Winslet’s analysis of how you win an award in that episode of Extras was an accurate one. But I’m not here to bang on about why comedy is the best form in which to truly make a point (it is) or why it’s harder to get right than drama (it is) or why, ultimately, it’s just better (it is).  These are not really what these articles are about.

Because that, and the awards thing has been written about much before.  I want to talk about another phrase that gets thrown around a lot, especially lately. It’s the declaration that we are in a ‘Golden Age of TV’ or more specifically a ‘Golden Age of Television Drama’.  Ever since The Sopranos TV stopped being the poor cousin to film. It’s a fair point.  Without that show and HBO there may well never have been things like The Wire, Six Feet Under and The West Wing.  Now, you could actually argue those last two are political or dark comedies but that’s another story.

Mad Men

Elisabeth Moss, Jon Hamm & Rich Sommers in ‘Mad Men’

Right now, long form TV drama, it is claimed, has never been better. Take a look at the last few years and you get Mad Men, Treme, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Game of Thrones, Luther, The Good Wife, The Code and many, many more all with incredibly high standards of either critical or commercial, or occasionally both, success. And it’s a worldwide thing by which I mean America, the UK, Australia and those bleak murdery ones from Scandinavia. It’s difficult to argue against the notion. I mean, personally, as far as dramas go, Mad Men and Treme might very well be my two favourites of all time along with The Wire.  I also still have a soft spot for SeaQuest DSV which is why I should probably never rewatch it.

Certainly all those shows have comedic elements to them but they are ostensibly dramas.  They are firmly a part of the ‘Golden Age of Television Drama’.

The thing is, the award show bias creeps in here too.  When the media talks of simply the ‘Golden Age of TV’ these are the same shows that populate those lists.  What they really mean is that it’s a golden age of drama because drama is more important. It’s like everyone knows men’s sports are more important than women’s sports. Except even that’s a bad analogy because at least there’s a financial argument there on some level. Comedies routinely rate higher and have bigger box offices that dramas. Especially if we just consider all those superhero comic book movies a joke.

Anyway, on these lists, they might drop in Orange is the New Black and say that it’s a dramedy.  But that’s about it. As far as the US is concerned, comedies are still thought of in terms of your three camera, laugh track mega commercial successes like How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory or Mom. It doesn’t matter if they’re good or not because in many eyes they have no ‘critical merit’ anyway. What matters to broadcasters, and critics, is just whether they’re popular or not. A notion that’s always confused me, that something so popular can have no critical merit, but that’s another article for another time.

The point is comedy is just there to be there.  Ha ha.  Don’t take it seriously or respect it or put it on lists and they can have their own little category at awards nights.  It’s like getting a participation sticker at sports day.  If you were me.

You can’t do jokes and be expected to be taken seriously people.  I mean Jon Stewart does jokes so he can’t be serious about newsworthy stuff. That’s insane. You need a serious man.  Like Bill O’Reilly.  He’s deadly serious and yet he’s freaking hilarious so, you know…

Martin Freeman and Lucy Davis in 'The Office'

Martin Freeman and Lucy Davis in ‘The Office’

Back in 2004 there was an excellent book titled Sunshine on Putty by Ben Thompson about the second ‘Golden Age of British Comedy’ in the late 90s citing the likes of The Office, Alan Partidge, Vic and Bob and so on.  That it was better than the days of Blackadder, Fawlty Towers, Some Mothers Do ‘Ave Em and such.  Great shows all.  But when we talk of it today we are referring to ‘quality television’. Powerful, big budget, epics with nuanced writing and knockout performances and THEMES and ISSUES.  Obviously only drama can do these things.  Poppy cock.  Balls.  Fuck off. Etcetera.

What I am suggesting is that yes, right now we are in a new golden age of TV. Most definitely.  But I would also argue, that based on those afore mentioned parameters, and that when we talk of this we are usually referring to the US productions of AMC, HBO, Netflix and so on, that we are in the ‘Golden Age of American Television Comedy’. Right now.  Not a second age.  But of all time.  We’ve never had it this good.

Shaun Micallef, host of 'Mad as Hell'

Shaun Micallef, host of ‘Mad as Hell’

Now, I’m not discounting some of the great comedy being produced out of the UK, Australia, Europe and their likes in recent years.  The Hollowmen, Mad as Hell, Rev, Upper Middle Bogan, The Thick of It, The IT Crowd, Grandma’s House and many more are all great shows.  But I just can’t put them in any sort of long lasting Golden Age of Television when you consider what has come before it and that, well, it’s pretty thin on the ground in the UK and Australia especially right now. The brilliance is spotty at best.

photos-mad-about-you-34817536-445-330

Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt in ‘Mad About You’

And so, to America. The US of A.  Of all time, you say. No, I say. And soon you will agree. Now, I get that it’s quite a big call. Because if we look to the past first of all, the US have created some of the most beloved and brilliant television comedy of all time.  From the hey day of SNL to sitcom behemoths like Friends, Cheers, I Love Lucy, Seinfeld, Frasier, Roseanne, The Cosby Show, Mad About You, MASH and and and and.  And then the more fringe, (or indie, or cult, or crossover hits or whatever the marketing people want to call it), shows like Sex and the City, Scrubs, Get Smart, The Larry Sanders Show and Flight of the Conchords which is technically a US show given some now presumably fired NZ exec turned it down. 

But few of these shows obtained the double whammy of critical and commercial success save for some rare exceptions like Seinfeld and Frasier. And while those two were on air together in the late 90s schedules, mostly, these hits were spaced out unlike here in the UK where The Office, League of Gentlemen, Spaced, The Royle Family and their ilk were all on and succeeding at the same time.

So I’m suggesting that if we’ve never had it as good as we’ve had now in terms of quality fictional television, where is the love for the comedies of the last five or so years?  The shows that have been in production during the last five to ten years alone have been some of the most successful, loved and lauded of all time. Where are they on these lists?

The Simpsons/Family Guy crossover

The Simpsons/Family Guy crossover

And that’s even excluding long running dynasties born many moons ago. I’m talking of The Simpsons, Family Guy, South Park, SNL, The Daily Show, Two and a Half Men. Let’s discount those, exclude those. Now, you may say what you like about any of them, if they’re still on they must be doing something right. I am certainly no fan of Two and a Half Men but it remains one of the highest rating shows in the world. Is that why comedy isn’t respected? Because those shows are seen as cheap, easy and silly so all comedy follows those rules. Well if we all fall head over heels to talk about how amazing a show based around some girl wandering round half naked with a dragon on her shoulder…

So while Guardian and HuffPost writers continue to fall over themselves to write more and more about House of Cards and Broadchurch, let me take some time to highlight ‘The Golden Age of American Television Comedy’. Because it’s happening all around you folks and it’s high time we sat up and paid attention.

Because if we don’t everything will get cancelled and Netflix just doesn’t have the budget to pick up new seasons of everything.  I’m guessing Spacey ain’t cheap.  

Tomorrow (or maybe the day after) my list of this afore mentioned golden age.  The American comedies that are changing TV right now and in years to come will be looked back on as some of the greatest of all time.

 

  1. Lucinda Jose says:

    Trent
    I know I said it on facebook… but Please like me is wonderful. you need to watch now. Seasons one and two. It makes so many uncomfortable, close to home experiences funny.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Treat Yo’ Self: The Golden Age of American TV Comedy – Part II | Trunk Talk - […] few days ago in Part One of these articles I suggested that, yes, we are in a ‘Golden Age…
  2. Treat Yo’ Self: The Golden Age of American TV Comedy – Part IV | Trunk Talk - […] it’s the golden age of US TV comedy.  I said as much, and why, here.  I laid out the…

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