Feb 12, 2015

Posted by in Ramblings

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

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


Part Two: Opposite Ends of the Evidence

A few days ago in Part One of these articles I suggested that, yes, we are in a ‘Golden Age of Television’ but that there were some caveats.  That we’re talking about fictional television firstly as when it comes to reality TV were are very much in the darkest timeline (stay tuned, there’s more where that came from). And that we don’t limit television to just mean drama.  There is some truly find comedy being made around the world right now but when it comes to those United States of America, I’m suggesting this is THE Golden Age.  That it’s never been better.  That this last decade is ‘The Golden Age of American TV Comedy’.  

And now, I shall present thee with the evidence beginning with three goal posts.  Or perhaps notches on a high jump pole if we’re using a sports metaphor because I’m not entirely sure how a game with just three goal posts would work.

Let us start with the mega ratings juggernauts.  The licenses to print money.  Now let me put it out there and say that I, personally, am not a particular fan of almost all of these particular shows.  

Johnny Galecki and Jim Parsons in 'The Big Bang Theory'.

Johnny Galecki and Jim Parsons in ‘The Big Bang Theory’.

They have their place given that hundreds of millions, quite possibly even over a billion, people love them so they are clearly doing something right.  I might suggest they aren’t very good or very clever.  Or that they are lazy in their writing, themes and direction.  I could suggest that one needs to pay more attention when filling up your car than you would to capture the nuances of these shows.  I might say they border on the offensive at times.  I might suggest they aren’t even funny.  I might quietly wonder how you can stretch one single joke over 150 odd episodes. But that would be my opinion.  And to say they aren’t funny is plainly wrong because other people watch them and laugh at them and some of those people are even my friends, for my sins.  And the big daddy of them all is The Big Bang Theory.

The Big Bang Theory, created by Chuck Lorre, the man who also worked on shows like Roseanne and Cybill before creating sitcom giants such as Dhama and Greg and Two and Half Men, began airing in 2007.  Eight seasons later and it is one of the highest rating shows, across all genres, in the entire world. And this goes for new episodes as well as the many repeats in syndication. The three leads earn over US$1 million, plus back end, per episode. It has won Emmys. This is remarkable for many reasons.

The often laid claim is that is remarkable because it is a nerdy show for nerds so why is it so popular? Well personally I find that claim to be utterly ludicrous because it’s not a nerdy show for nerds but that’s another article. What I find remarkable is that in today’s TV comedy landscape, The Big Bang Theory is almost the odd one out.  It’s old school, live audience, mass appeal. Like Friends, Will & Grace, Everybody Loves Raymond and their likes before it.  This is what we often think of when we think of the great American sitcom tradition.  And yet, whilst being far and away the most popular boasting the sort of viewership most people daren’t even dream of, this mega hit of which there once was so many, is truly the exception these days.

EnlargeBeth Behrs and Kat Dennings in "2 Broke Girls"

Beth Behrs and Kat Dennings in “2 Broke Girls”

Now, yes, there are others of its ilk.  Mom and 2 Broke Girls to name two currently airing but their ratings are still almost half of that for Big Bang.  The days of the big network sitcom are fading. Maybe it’s because viewers are wanting more from comedy, perhaps even due to The Sopranos effect. Maybe it’s just because there’s more networks offering more variety which could explain this whole thing.  Is it less important to make all your money on one show when you can make a good return on four or five little ones?  That said CBS make sure to regularly remind all and sundry just how huge their sitcom is.

And so to claim this is the golden age of American comedy and exclude The Big Bang Theory and its Chuck Lorre-esque kind just because they’re aren’t cool, trendy or, well, ‘good’ would be absurd. The success of them lets networks gamble budgets on other shows.  ‘Harder’ comedy if you will.

Which takes us to arguably the polar opposite end of the scale on almost every level.  To Community.


Joel McHale in ‘Community’

Before I started writing this I did a bit of a straw poll on social media asking people what their favourite TV comedies were of the last five years.  Community was the show that made the most regular appearance by some margin.  Which probably is more of an indication of the sort of people that follow me more than anything else.

It is fair to say there has never been a show quite like Community.  Premiering in 2009 and created by Dan Harmon, this really was a nerdy show for nerds. It tapped into the nerd and pop culture community in a way that almost no other show before it has, not even stalwarts like Buffy or Firefly.

To take a look at just the show itself, it is a superbly written, brilliantly directed and expertly acted single camera, 21 minute sitcom that adheres to many of your standard sitcom tropes. Loveable outsiders, three acts clearly punctuated by ad breaks and all that.  But then it’s also not.  It’s a love letter to pop culture but it’s not afraid to tackle real, big issues either.  One of its most famous episodes, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons might be the first bit of TV to treat Dungeons and Dragons with some respect rather than just going for the easy jokes, but don’t forget, at its heart, that’s an episode about depression and suicide. That’s also laugh out loud funny.  Community is never afraid to show its heart, or be silly, or, well, its just never afraid.

It treats its characters like real three dimensional people, has true moments of drama, mostly uses its ‘meta’ moments to strong effect and, most importantly, is very, very, consistently funny. Let’s not get carried away and call Community a drama with funny bits. It’s an out and out comedy.  It just happens to have more moments of drama and sincerity than most dramas at the same time.

It was unashamedly, season 4 aside, the exact show it’s creators and writers wanted it to be.  They could go from a heartfelt ‘bottle’ episode about the nature of friendship to a stop motion Christmas special to a action packed paintball extravaganza directed by the same guy who does those Fast and the Furious films without anything feeling out of place.

In the interests of full disclosure, it might be this writer’s favourite comedy of all time, right up there with Arrested Development, Frontline and Fawlty Towers.


Community at Comic Con

Then, in a continuing effort to be The Big Bang Theory’s polar opposite, there is the aspect of Community that is not on the screen.  The Community lore that goes with it.  With frequent low ratings on NBC it was consistently on the brink of being cancelled.  Now it’s on Yahoo, remarkably, in its sixth season.

Which raises a further interesting point actually. Creators no longer need to rely on the big networks to make proper budgeted shows. Places like Yahoo, Netflix and Amazon are more interested in quality than instant, first time viewing figures.  If they make good shows, people will come and watch them.  It doesn’t matter if it’s not at 8:00pm on a Thursday.  This is a huge part of this golden age. For the first time in a long time, quality is being allowed to dictate a medium to an equal amount as money. Look at the saving of Community, the revival of Arrested Development and new comedies that frankly wouldn’t have stood a chance on ‘normal telly’ such as Bojack Horseman and Transparent.

Anyway, back to the saga of Community. Cast have come and gone for reasons of family, rap careers and just generally being Chevy Chase.  Then Dan Harmon got fired as showrunner.  Fired from his own show over voicemails, drinking and Christ knows what else.  They made a season without him and the whole thing was a bit, well, amiss. So they rehired him for season 5 to ‘Repilot’ it. Then they cancelled it after 13 episodes.

The dedication of the cast are crew to make the show they want to make might be more upfront on Community than any other sitcom ever. Most of the cast and crew are big enough these days to not need to come back to make another season of a small comedy show for a fledgling Yahoo Screen.  Jim Rash has an Oscar.  The Russo Brothers are directing Marvel films. Joel McHale hosted the White House Correspondence’s Dinner. Alison Brie has no less than four films coming out this year. Dan Harmon has another successful comedy show in Rick and Morty and a podcast with Harmontown he could easily just focus on. Its cameos (decidedly left of centre as well) remain an A Grade list of people who really could’ve said no from Jack Black to Vince Gilligan to Betty White.

Betty White cameos in 'Community'

Betty White cameos in ‘Community

But it’s got the sort of dedicated fan base to put most football teams to shame.  Fan videos, campaigns, Twitter armies and who knows what else have almost single handedly kept this show around for as long as it has been. It’s no wonder the Community and Chuck cast and crew were so close.  Chuck, itself a wonderful NBC sitcom constantly on the edge of cancellation, was saved time and time again by a small, but loud and dedicated fan base who bought a lot of sandwiches.  Both shows had Hall H panels at Comic Con for Christ’s sake.  It was no surprise to see a Subway shop open on the Greendale Campus in Community…

Community, to me, is an excellent example of the changing times in television.  It didn’t fit in the box that TV networks have had since before TV was even invented on what a sitcom should be.  So they ignored it, didn’t market it, hoped it’d just go away. It wasn’t The Big Bang Theory. The commissioners understood that.  The problem was it was good. Critics adored it but it was too odd to win any real awards.  And a lot of people loved it.  Just not the sort of people TV networks want to like their shows. And there was only a few million of them, not hundreds of millions. And they watched it online and weren’t interested in ads for shampoo. And then they made GIFs of it. Phrases like ‘The darkest timeline’, ‘We try not to sexualise her’ and the rallying cry of ‘Six Seasons and a Movie’ filled social media. Problem is, you can’t determine a rate to charge pharmaceutical companies for ad time based on ‘cultural penetration’ can you? Not currently anyway. And yet I can’t see how this show could’ve survived at any other time in history.   

Community has proven that if you make something you love, you’ll find the people who love it too and somehow, some way, and then you just have to hope someone will pay you to do it.  Mind you, Dan Harmon has said he’d shoot a Community movie in his basement if everyone was up for it.  And if you’ve never seen it, for shame.  The first five seasons are on Netflix now.

Which brings me to the middle.  A show somewhere between Community and The Big Bang Theory.  A show that critics really like but don’t love.  It’s just quirky enough without being offensive or weird which means it cleans up come awards season.  And it rates pretty well too.  Like, really well.  And it has a strong overseas following. But it’s single camera and it has no laugh track.  And it’s onto its sixth season. And yet most people kind of forget it’s there. It’s like Corn Flakes. No-one hates it, no-one loves it, but a lot of people like it and there’s always some in the cupboard.  I speak of Modern Family.

Julie Bowen and Ty Burrell in 'Modern Family'

Julie Bowen and Ty Burrell in ‘Modern Family’

To my mind, Modern Family is a real cake and eat it too kind of show.  It’s not quite mainstream enough to be a massive hit, but it’s not quite niche enough to win indie cred.  It sits in the middle, a little unsure of itself.  Except that it keeps on trucking. It usually rates much lower than The Big Bang Theory, slightly less than say, 2 Broke Girls, yet almost triple Community.

The main criticism of Modern Family always seems to be that it is stuck.  They’ve got a premise and it’s not an easy one to expand on.  There’s only so many ‘lessons’ to teach about family life in a monologue at the end and the aging of the younger cast members hasn’t been dealt with in any sort of meaningful way.  And yet, taking each episode at face value, it’s still a funny show. It’s kind of like a live action The Simpsons. There’s no development and it’s not as good as it was but, if it’s on, you’ll still watch it.  Largely due to its cast.  Personally, I could watch Ty Burrell bumble about by himself for 20 minutes and be happy.

The point I’m trying to make here is that the strength of comedy on TV in the US at the moment is so strong that all three of these shows can not only survive, but flourish.  An off the charts hit, a cult classic and a show on a treadmill all are into six seasons and beyond.  I’d suggest that previously Modern Family would’ve either gone the way of the Dodo or jumped the shark massively but it’s, more or less, give or take a ‘down under’ episode, stuck to i’s guns and still puts out a pretty funny show each week, even if it’s not really my cup of tea. And Community is a show that in a time without social media for fans to really express their love on, would’ve been canned after a year because Neilsen is king to the men with the money.

Will Arnett and Jason Bateman in 'Arrested Development'

Will Arnett and Jason Bateman in ‘Arrested Development’

In a poor comedy economy it’s not the strong that survive, it’s the ones that sell the most ads. There’s a reason why Arrested Development, Freaks and Geeks and Sports Night didn’t last long and it’s got nothing to do with their quality.  It’s for the same reason that other shows ran a lot longer than they probably should have. It’s the reason why some that should’ve ended years ago haven’t.  Money. It’s hard to turn it down as a creator or a network.  Not everyone can do what Jermaine Clement and Bret McKenzie did*.  But, in a golden age there’s something for everyone.

So there’s your tent poles.  Or goal posts.  Or whatever I said they were called.  Next up, in the predictable titled Part III, I want to throw a blanket over the rest.  Shows that aren’t necessarily demonstrating proof of the landscape then and now as discussed here, but rather just proving my initial point.  A snapshot of the frankly ridiculous amount of spectacularly good shows of the last decade, the greatest span of time in American TV comedy history.

* When HBO rang The Flight of the Conchords duo to offer them a third season they famously told HBO not to tell them how much they would be paid because they really didn’t want to do another season so if they heard the amount on offer they were worried it might cloud their better judgement.  Respect.


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