Feb 23, 2015

Posted by in Ramblings

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

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

Part Three: The Funny of the Serious and the Seriously Funny

So first up I argued that we are living in the golden age of American TV comedy, not just some golden age of TV where everyone really means drama.  I said to hell with them.  I was quite aggressive.  Then, in Part 2, I offered up the three markers of my evidence.  The mega commercially successful The Big Bang Theory, the critical and fan darling but ratings disaster Community and then the one stuck in the middle of it all, Modern Family.  And now, the rest.

But not the rest in terms of a Katy Perry album track.  She’s not even trying for tracks 6 through 12 is she?  In this case, the rest, refers to the other American comedy television shows of the past decade.  The further evidence.  Evidence in that these are, without doubt, some of the greatest television comedies of all time.  Let’s scattershot some of these bastards then.  No order.  No rules.

Robin Williams guesting on 'Louie'.

Robin Williams guesting on ‘Louie’.

Let’s start with Louie.  Stand up comedian Louis C.K. had had his own sitcom before with the short lived Lucky Louie on HBO, but this was different. Somewhat autobiographical it’s written, directed, edited and starring Louis CK himself this was the sitcom like we’d never seen it before. It was raw and real. It sometimes went five or so minutes without a joke. Then it got surreal. And crushing and painful. And funny. And, well, everything. And it all works. The guest appearances are inspired. From David Lynch to Joan Rivers and Robin Williams to Parker Posey.  And the main cast are just brilliant. No-one’s making a show like this and if you’re not watching it you’re not doing life right. Some of the episodes of this series rank, easily, as some of the finest half hours of TV comedy ever made.

There’s a glut of ‘dramedies’, as the media calls them, that are killing right now.  And to clarify, these aren’t dramedies.  They’re comedies who just happen to add in some dramatic elements.  Which is what all good comedy does.  You know, like life. Sometimes dramas just forget to add in the comedy because that would ruin how SERIOUS AND IMPORTANT they are.

Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell in 'House of Lies'.

Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell in ‘House of Lies’.

Let me see.  You’re probably not watching Togetherness from the Duplass brothers but you should. You’re probably not going to see more fearless performances in a comedy right now.  And after a rough season one, House of Lies has truly found its feet and deserves special mention for taking the full cast to the UCB to a live, improv episode. And because NBC love cancelling good things, A – Z cruelly only lasted a year.  Girls continues to impress on HBO as well.  Suits and Shameless are scoring well with critics and ratings.  And that’s just what’s on at the moment.  In the same category we’ve also recently seen, although no longer on the air with new episodes, Desperate Housewives, Entourage, Veronica Mars, Chuck, Weeds, Pushing Daisies, Monk, Family Tree, Psych, The Big C, Enlightened and many more.  If you’ve only got time to binge watch a couple of those on Netflix, I’d recommend Chuck for a good time and Enlightened for something rather unique.  And, of course, V-Mars for the zingers and one liners.

Transparent is tackling things that scripted TV comedy hasn’t really done before and it’s doing so with a dominating central performance from Jeffrey Tambor picking up award after award.  It’s difficult to imagine a show like Transparent existing a few years ago.  Not just because of the social landscape but the media one.  It’s a show that would no doubt be too risky for a network, maybe even a cable one, to pick up.  But with Amazon, Hulu, Yahoo, Crackle, Netflix and plenty more now making good, properly budgeted, online content and shows, there’s more room for more voices to be heard.  And that’s probably why this golden age exists. Comedy is so subjective so you need space for a lot of subjects.  Which brings us to the king, or rather queen, of this new platform for comedy.

Taylor Schilling and Uzo Aduba in 'Orange is the New Black'.

Taylor Schilling and Uzo Aduba in ‘Orange is the New Black’.

Orange is the New Black can legitimately lay claim to having the best ensemble cast on TV right now.  It can even say it’s the best ‘dramaedy’ and you’d struggle to find complaints.  For my money, the first episode of last year’s season two was one of the best hours or scripted comedy I’ve seen in a very long time.  It was a devicive episode but it was one that you just couldn’t have made on ‘normal telly’ for so many reasons.  The absence of the main character for most of the whole hour to begin with is a big network no-no.  There’s time’s that OITNB misfires, like in all those scenes Larry’s in, but they’re pushing boundaries and trying something new.  Can you imagine sitting down in NBC and saying, ‘Well it’s set in a women’s prison where almost all of the characters are women.  Lots of them are gay and black too.  And one of the cast is transgender.  And none of them are really stars.  One of the guy’s was in The Wire though so does that count?  Oh, and it’s pretty full on.  With the sex and the violence and the politics and the drugs and the realism.  And it’s about fucking everything up.  And there’s not much redemption.  And yes sir, I did say it was a comedy’.  I mean, come.  And nine times out of ten, it’s landing.  It’s a show worth the Netflix subscription price alone. 

Which seems to neatly bring us to the real life comedy shows. By which I mean hosted shows, late night shows, that sort of thing.  The Colbert Report may have just ended and the always excellent Craig Ferguson has left his late night slot and David Letterman is on the way out also but the new guys are taking things in a different direction.  Except for Seth Meyers who’s just being his charming self still.  Conan O’Brian, Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon are all taking the late night format by the scruff of the neck.  

Emma Stone with Jimmy Fallon on 'The Tonight Show'.

Emma Stone with Jimmy Fallon on ‘The Tonight Show’.

It’s less formal, it’s more viral, it’s more fun.  I’ve never been a huge fan of Fallon, even from his SNL days but what he’s doing with The Tonight Show is a refreshing change and it’s well worth checking out.  Celebrities doing silly things and playing games is hardly a new idea, but it’s one that’s been missing from late night US TV for a long time as more and more stars come on to merely tell a preplanned story and plug the movie/book/show/album.  There’s something that seems new about watching Fallon doing skits as Bono or the lip sync challenges.  Conan’s video game reviews and Tindr adventures with Dave Franco.  Fallon’s Mean Tweets and, well, Matt Damon issues.  It’s not breaking the mould but it has tapped into the way we consume content now.  And it’s working like it never has before.

On the political front Jon Stewart may be leaving The Daily Show by year’s end but what he’s done in the last decade can only be applauded from the highest roof tops.  In some respects it’s really just an elongated form of Weekend Update that Chevy Chase pioneered in the seventies but to see it only as that is a little short sighted. For it is genuine news content, genuine political content and genuinely funny.  Almost every night.  And that’s paved the way for what many, myself included, declared the best new show of 2014.  Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.  Along with Community, this was the show that received the most love in my social media straw poll and rightly so.  Perhaps it was just the crossover fans who enjoyed the idea of Professor Duncan having his own show…

VHqSfGziSTSGyE4kR5Lf_Screen Shot 2014-08-18 at 12.16.36 PMJohn Oliver took the little bits he did on The Daily Show and expanded them.  He didn’t try to ram in too many jokes about too many things.  He, and his team, took time with things.  They researched.  And researched.  And each week they’d present a proper look at a real issue.  And the jokes, by and large, were good, proper satire like you’re Mum used to make, if you’re Mum was a satirist.  Mine was an accountant so, you know.

And amongst all of that it was making a real change, even if, at times, it was in a very silly way.  They saved some space geckos and caused Phillip Morris to take an ad in the New York papers defending themselves.  They’ve been attacked on Twitter by world leaders for taking the piss which is always a sure fire sign you’re doing something right.  And it was, pound for pound, maybe the funniest thing on telly last year.  No other show can shift gears from making serious political points about gay rights in Africa to firing a salmon at Tom Hanks like John Oliver’s managing to.

Also, here’s the other thing, and pay attention TV land.  They made the big stories free on YouTube the next day.  The show got incredible traction very quickly.  It was a cultural phenomenen within a few episodes of it finding its feet in season one.  And this is a show that can thrive on that.  The more people on board with it’s hijinks, the bigger the bigger hijinks and, truthfully, the more real difference it can make.

And the fact that I’m on at the end of Part III and I’m yet to get to the skit shows and the sitcoms almost seems like I could stop here and have already proved my point.  But I won’t.  Part IV is coming soon.

In the meantime, if there’s any dramedies or panel/hosted shows you reckon I’ve missed or deserved a mention, leave a comment below.



  1. Treat Yo’ Self: The Golden Age of American TV Comedy – Part IV | Trunk Talk - […] out the boundaries here.  And I looked at ‘dramedies’ and ‘unscripteds’ here.  That alone should be enough to make…

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