May 16, 2015

Posted by in Ramblings

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

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

Part V: 5000 Candles in the Wind

(The first thing to note is I wrote this a while ago, with the other parts, and for some reason, forgot to post it.  So some of it might seem like it refers to stuff that happened about a month ago.  I’ve fixed some of it but if the tenses are all over the place or I seem like I’m reacting weirdly late to something, that’s why.  As you were.)

The home stretch.  We’ve done goal posts and animation and sketch and panel and everything else in between save for the staple of all television comedy.  The sitcom.  No longer is the sitcom just a 22 minute play about stereotypes that they filmed and put out at 7:30pm on a Thursday.  Sure, some of those still exist and they’re hugely successful.  Remember that bit in part one about The Big Bang Theory?  No, the sitcom is now more than that.  Remember that bit in part one about Community? Yes, these days a sitcom is actually what the word means.  A situational comedy.

For a while sitcom was dirty word.  It meant nostalgia like Full House of Hey Dad!  Or it meant studio audience shite like the on point pisstake When the Whistle Blows from Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s Extras.  But somewhere around The Larry Sanders Show things started to change in the US.  The Office, Spaced, Alan Partridge, these existed in the UK and our friends stateside would look on in envy.  But soon, for every mainstream, traditional success story like Friends there was a little show that could, like Freaks and Geeks.  Mostly they got cancelled.  But not now.  No sir.

Jeffrey Tambor, Franklin and Will Arnett in 'Arrested Development'.

Jeffrey Tambor, Franklin and Will Arnett in ‘Arrested Development’.

Firstly, let’s just look at some of the shows that have been on the air in the last decade that aren’t on anymore through cancellation or the creators ending it on their terms. The Office (US), Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Happy Endings, Scrubs, The Sarah Silverman Program, Trophy Wife, 30 Rock and plenty, plenty more.  Some were ratings juggernaughts, some were critical darlings, a select few, like The Office, were both.  They tried different things.  Arrested Development was arguably one of the first ever sitcoms in which it would’ve been extremely difficult to just drop in and out of and have any clue what was going on.  The story and characters were king.  The long, over arching plot giving pay off after pay off for long time watchers.  Something that, in truth, was probably it’s downfalls but, to my mind, it remains the most tightly scripted sitcom of all time and in Gob Bluth one of the greatest characters in all of comedy history.  Without AD there is a multitude of shows that followed that could not have succeeded.

Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin in '30 Rock'.

Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin in ’30 Rock’.

30 Rock also deserves special mention.  It was a show that was fiercely left wing, meta, niche, full of obscure pop culture references, had consistently low ratings and a female lead and showrunner. And yet it survived for seven seasons in primetime on a major national US network.  The fact that it also won countless awards might’ve helped but that never helped Arrested Development.  30 Rock made a star of Tina Fey, if she wasn’t already one from SNL, and showed people that, yes, female led comedies don’t just have to be about boobs, shoes and period talk.  Fancy that.  But what it also did was, in many circles, it made the sitcom cool again.  Here was a big name Oscar nominated movie star, Mr Alec Baldwin, prepared to be in a 21 minute sitcom each week.  Make no mistake, this was not like The Sopranos.  This was comedy.  Dirty, cheap, easy comedy.  Baldwin was above this silliness surely.  But the more that he said it was the best writing he’d ever worked on, the more it said it resonated with America more than drama, the more people started paying attention to comedy.  Between the ‘seriousness’ of Arrested Development and the ‘acceptance’ of 30 Rock, the sitcom was back with a bang.  And a cheesy blaster.

So as the dramedies were growing of their own accord, because make no mistake, for all it’s drama 30 Rock and AD were balls to the wall comedies, what is their legacy?  What’s on now that you should be watching but might not be?  What makes this the golden age of US TV Comedy that you keep banging on about?  Well, fine then, if you’re going to be like that.  Here’s just some of the sitcoms currently airing out of those United States.

Silicon Valley, The Comedians, Benched, Brooklyn Nine Nine, Community, Hello Ladies, The Last Man on Earth, The Big Bang Theory, Mom, Modern Family, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Family Tree, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, New Girl, 2 Broke Girls, The Middle, Silicon Valley, Veep, The Mindy Project, Sirens and and and and and and….

The cast of 'Silicon Valley'

The cast of ‘Silicon Valley’

You might not like all of them or the many I’ve not listed (including one biggie we’ll get to in a minute that should be pretty obvious given the title of these articles) and you might not’ve even heard of them.  But here’s the thing.  They all exist and are all succeeding on some level (Some of these have since been cancelled since I wrote this but the point still stands because they were good and in most cases didn’t deserve the axe, especially Sirens which was one of the best new character led comedies on US TV in the past few years).  The big successes are helping fuel the niche shows. Silicon Valley is as nerdy a show as you can get, I mean, it’s full of very specific programming and coding jokes, but it’s rating well and winning awards.  At no other time in history could a show like that exist.  Think about that.  At no other time in history could a good, funny, clever show actually get made.  It’s as wonderful as it is sad.

Ellie Kemper and Tituss Burgess in 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt'.

Ellie Kemper and Tituss Burgess in ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’.

But here’s the weird thing.  As TV networks get more and more prone to playing it safe with dramas and reality bullshit you would expect the comedy scene to struggle.  Instead the opposite is happening.  Basic cable, HBO and services like Netflix are investing heavily in comedy.  NBC commissioned Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt only to let Netflix take it over since they couldn’t work out what to do with a smart, funny show without a single straight, white male lead in it.   They could’ve just put it on because it’s excellent, but, hey… I mean, that theme song along would’ve got people running back into the living room to find out what awesomeness had just started.  Sorry, I’ve put it in your head now.  It’s there isn’t it?  For the rest of the day.  Sorry.  Females are strong as hell…

Oh and before we move on to the biggie, can I just tell you that Veep is the funniest, best written, best acted show on TV right now that you’re probably not watching?  I can, good.  Seriously, laugh out loud multiple times, every episode.  Stop complaining there’s no more The Thick Of It.  Because there is.

So anyway, back to my original point, that this is a golden age of TV comedy in the US.  The examples I’ve provided, I hope, have conclusively proved that point.  From either end of the spectrum, from The Big Bang Theory to Community.  But every golden age has that one cross over sort of show in the middle.  One that isn’t edgy, but it’s still smart.  It’s not the funniest show ever, but it’s still damn funny.  It’s not a rating juggernaut but it’s held down a primetime network TV slot for, I dunno, seven seasons.  And it’s good.  In every sense of the word.  It’s a quality show, but it’s also a good one.  It’s familiar, but it’s doing something new.  It’s not crass, it’s got a good heart.  It’s caterpaulted it’s stars in front of, and behind the camera, to new levels of respect and stardom.  And it’s called Parks and Recreation.

parks-and-recreation-washington-dc

Adam Scott, Rashida Jones and Amy Poehler in ‘Parks and Rec’

Created by Greg Daniels and Michael Shurr, who were also responsible for the US version of The OfficeParks and Rec adopted the same mockumentary style and the very shaky and short first season felt like a poor cousin to that show.  The main character of Leslie Knope had always been written with Amy Poehler in mind, possibly due to the, at that time, rising star of her SNL stablemate Tina Fey who was into the third season of 30 Rock, also on NBC.  They surrounded Poehler with a superb cast of, at this point, relatively unknown supporting plays such as Nick Offerman, Azi Ansari, Aubrey Plaza and Rashida Jones.

Bit part players were also involved from the off.  Characters who were only supposed to be around for an episode or two, or at the most, background filler.  Retta, Jim O’Hare and, of course, one Chris Pratt.

But that first season, so short due to Amy Poehler’s pregnancy, as bad as it was, and let’s be honest, it was, proved to be ridiculously important.  It gave everyone time to fix what was broken for season two.  Find out who these characters were and then make that show, not the one they’d started making.  By the end of season two, when Adam Scott and Rob Lowe joined the regular cast, it had it’s stride.

What followed for the remaining seasons was something rarely witnessed in a sitcom.  They created an entire world in which we just wanted to be a part of.  The fictional town on Pawnee was always the lead character in Parks and Rec.  The stories were character driven.  Pawnee, like Baltimore in The Wire although entirely made up, was a living, breathing entity.  Springfield or Quahog are full of interesting characters though they, deliberately, never feel a real place.  Pawnee’s different.  It was all too real.  And with that meant that Parks and Rec could move into satire too.  It did simple sitcom premises, it did romance, it did political satire, it did slapstick, it did serious and it did silly, very silly.  It did genuine character development, it did, well it did everything.  And it was loved for it.  Not in The Big Bang Theory numbers but enough to keep it on the air.  And it’s fans loved it.  It began to achieve that most cherished and unmeasurable things most great art strives to achieve.  Cultural penetration. Networks hate it because you can’t sell that.

Joe Biden in Parks and Rec

Joe Biden in Parks and Rec

But over the course of seven seasons, Ron Swanson became an icon, a way of life if you will.  Treat Yo Self became a thing, and not just the title of this series of blogs.  Breakfast foods made a comeback.  And no-one was able to look at a minature horse the same way again.  Massive stars requested cameos.  From Louis CK to Kristen Bell to Joe Biden Paul Rudd to Michelle Obama to Bill freaking Murray.  Bill Murray cameoed in a network sitcom in 2015.  Let that sink in.

Aubrey Plaza and Chris Pratt in 'Parks and Rec'

Aubrey Plaza and Chris Pratt in ‘Parks and Rec’

And here’s the kicker.  During the show’s run, thanks to Guardians of the Galaxy and other roles, Chris Pratt became the biggest movie star in the world you’d argue.  He could’ve very easily asked to be written out of the show to follow that.  But no.  Pawnee meant too much.  To him.  To the cast and crew.  And to it’s fans.  So whilst he missed a bit of season 6 as his character Andy ‘went to London’ he was back, full on, for every episode of season 7.  That says something about the quality of the show. Never mind the subsequent exploding careers of pretty much its entire cast.

What set Park apart was not that it was funny.  Many shows are funny.  It was its heart.  It’s respect for it’s characters, its vision and its story.  And it was able to do that because of the time it was made.  Comedy was king (or rather queen) again.  Big shows were paying the bills that meant Parks could do its thing and be allowed to.  It didn’t have to change because of what the network needed or there was only room for one comedy.  Now that has started to shift somewhat, from networks to Netflix, but the feeling is still there.

Look at these shows.  Look at Parks and Recreation and ask yourself, when else in history could a show like this have been made?  When else could you have made over 100 episodes of a smart and sweet, slow burning, alternative sitcom filled with big name stars.  Whatever answer you come up with, unless it’s never, you’re wrong.  And we should take some time to be grateful for that.  Don’t be a stereotype and whinge there’s fuck all on TV or that Americans don’t get subtlety in comedy or some nonsense like that.

Investigate Netflix.  Buy some stuff from iTunes.  And bask in this, The Golden Age of US TV Comedy.

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