Feb 25, 2015

Posted by in Ramblings

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

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

Part Four: With Your Host, Shock Jockerman

Yes, it’s the golden age of US TV comedy.  I said as much, and why, here.  I laid out the boundaries here.  And I looked at ‘dramedies’ and ‘unscripteds’ here.  That alone should be enough to make my point.  But we’re not done yet.  There’s skits and animation this time round before I finish off this five part series with sitcoms.

So let’s start with animation.  Family Guy and The Simpsons and American Dad are still running and doing well even if they aren’t quite as razor sharp as they used to be.  But there’s a new wave of animation in town right now and it’s a bit of an old wave.  Everywhere you look there’s an adult focused, whether the kid’s know it or not, comedy animation series that looks like it’s been made by people who grew up on the sheer madness of The Ren and Stimpy Show before progressing to the likes of Invader Zim.  Adventure Time, The Amazing World of Gumball and Regular Show being the most obvious examples.  Adventure Time, is, well nuts.  Which makes it’s level of success all the more extraordinary.  It’s tapped into the minds of kids and adults alike, looks at the big issues these sorts of shows always do like good vs wrong, friendship and that, is funny as hell, and truly understands the medium of animation.  And now there’s a picture of a yellow dog on pretty much every bit of merchandise you can think of.  Spongebob is so last week.

Bojack Horseman

Bojack Horseman

So whilst those shows are, you could argue, family orientated there is also a slew of animation shows that have hit screens in the last decade that certainly not.  Robot Chicken, Archer, Bob’s Burgers, Ricky & Morty and Bojack Horseman to names just a few.  And the interesting thing to note about all of these is, unlike the models of some of the most successful animated sitcoms of all time like The Simpsons and The Flintstones these shows are, without question, not mainstream.  They are alternative, they are indie, they are Sundance.  Robot Chicken is aimed squarely at nerd, Archer too which in some senses is just an animated Chuck.  Bob’s Burgers is probably the most mainstream of them all which is saying something.  

And then there’s Rick & Morty, co-created by Dan Harmon of Community infamy.  An unashamedly bizarre, button pushing, sci fi show that isn’t afraid to get very geeky and, some would suggest, offensive.  It might look like The Simpsons in animation style and feature a dysfunctional family but it couldn’t be more different.  And in Bojack Horseman, Netflix’s first original animation series, it deals in the truly bizarre.  Both shows use animation to it’s full extent.  Many shows are animated almost for the sake of it, these are shows that are using the form for what is what intended initially I’d argue.  If you can’t film something, you can always draw it.

It’s worth noting as well that Bojack‘s first season is of mixed quality and received reflective reviews, the Netflix model means it doesn’t get canned.  It’s got huge potential and it’s been given another season to grow more into itself.  And it’s voice cast reads like a who’s who of US indie comedy including Will Arnett, Alison Brie, Paul F Tompkins, Amy Sedaris, Patton Oswalt and newly Oscarred up JK Simmons.

Fred Armison and Carrie Brownstein in 'Portlandia'.

Fred Armison and Carrie Brownstein in ‘Portlandia’.

While we’re on the subject of the ever wonderful Paul F Tompkins, let’s move on to skit. Putting SNL to one side since it’s been on since Chaplin, the range of new skit comedy shows coming out of the US right now is the best it’s ever been, and that’s saying something.  Inside Amy Schumer, Key & Peele, Drunk History, Broad City, Review, The Birthday Boys, Kroll Show and Portlandia.  How’s that for starters?  Just in the last couple of years alone these shows have produced some of the best skits I have ever seen.  ‘Divorce’ on Review. Almost perfect.  ‘Hide and Seek’ in Portlandia.  Structured so good they’re likely using it in sketch college.  ‘Family Matters’ in Key & Peele.  Such a simple idea taken way, way too far.  And Amy Schumer just being Amy Schumer, what more do you want?

The one place that comedy is thriving, world wide, right now is in podcasts.  Some of the best comedy you’ll find anywhere is in podcast form.  And many a podcast has been turned into a TV show as TV tries to tap into that winning formula.  ‘Let’s put that spontanity, that looseness and excitement on the screen’, some idiot commissioner probably said.  And many a great podcast just hasn’t really worked on telly. The Nerdist and Stuff You Should Know being two examples. But then.  Oh, but then.

You’ve been listening to Comedy Bang! Bang! since it was Comedy Deathray right?  Ugh, dude, I had it on vinyl.

If you’ve never heard of it, that’s a bit of a joke what with it being the king of the cool, the hipsterest hipster there is.  And they know it.  And they use it.  And milk it.  And, well, how to say this, by fuck it’s good.

Paul F Tompkins, Scott Aukerman and Gillian Jacobs on the 'Comedy Bang! Bang!' podcast

Paul F Tompkins, Scott Aukerman and Gillian Jacobs on the ‘Comedy Bang! Bang!’ podcast

Hosted by Scott Aukerman, the Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast is a weekly interview/improv kinda show.  It’s full of it’s own lore and established stories now that I imagine just jumping right in could be desperately confusing at this point.  They play up to that, to that hipster notion of ‘You had to be there are the start’.  But the pay offs are worth the effort of starting at the start. The ongoing relationship of Gillian Jacobs and Gary Marshall (as played by Paul F Tompkins) is a thing of beauty.  Harris’ Phone Corner is, well, it makes you sick to your stomach that we lost Harris Wittels so young this past week.  And Jon Hamm and Nick Kroll as El Chupacabra and El Chupacabro would easily rank as one of the five funniest things I’ve ever heard in my life.

When it was given a TV show I must admit to thinking it wouldn’t work.  How could it?  How could they transplant the weirdness, the free flowing nature of it, the improv, the hour and a half of it, and come up with a 22 minute a week version?  Well they did.  And how.

Scott Aukerman (and his many pun nicknames) still hosts but the show takes the form of a chat show with band leader Reggie Watts.  What follows is a semi structured skit show that features one ‘celebrity’ guest (like the podcast) and a cavalcade of some of American’s finest comedy performers and podcast regulars, often as podcast regular characters.   Not only are these people the best for the job but it plays beautifully into the ‘I know them from the podcast’ hipster mentality, something the show regularly points out itself.  Fans of US skit comedy and improv need no introduction to names like Paul F Tompkins, Ben Schwartz, Lauren Lapkus, Horatio Sanz, Jessica St Clair, Nick Kroll and on and on and on.  Some of it is improv chat, some of it is preshot sketches, all of it is weird and wonderful and, most importantly, most of it is very, very funny.

Scott Aukerman, Ben Schwartz and Anna Kendrick in 'Comedy Bang! Bang!'

Scott Aukerman, Ben Schwartz and Anna Kendrick in ‘Comedy Bang! Bang!’

The celebrity guests aren’t what you’d call ‘big ratings draws’ either.  Sure, some of them are huge names like Anna Kendrick, Jon Hamm, Amy Poehler and Zach Gallifankas, but they’re there for their comedy chops, not stunt casting.

It can be a hard show to get into it and I dare say it’s one you’ll either love or hate, but it’s a great example of this golden age.  Here is a weird little podcast, made by some comedy nerd friends that’s become a high quality, but still weird, little TV show.  It’s into it’s fourth season.  It’s so niche even hipsters are forced to like it and not pretend they don’t.  It’s on a small channel, IFC, and doesn’t rate gangbusters but here it is, doing it’s thing, and doing it well.  It hasn’t got network hands all over it.  It’s still their show.  At no other time in history could this show get one season, let alone four.

It’s like the stock market.  When it’s doing well everyone’s buying diamond watches and nine story houses.  Everyone gets a look in.  In theory anyway.

In a golden age of comedy, shows like Comedy Bang! Bang! are encouraged, hell, permitted to not only exist but they get funded and put on real TV and everything.  Of course, the downside is there’s a bit of a scattershot approach, with networks throwing cash at everything and seeing what sticks, but that’s a hell of a lot better than the alternative.  Which is where if you don’t like SNL you’re shit out of luck.

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