It was a controversial move for FX to split their drama and comedy programming between two channels last year, FX and the new FXX. While FX has plenty of strongly rated programming, FXX was presented with a new challenge, since many cable subscribers wouldn’t automatically have access to FXX. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, for instance, going on its 9th season, could weather the storm of transitioning to a different channel. However, newer shows like Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell suffered from the switch and ratings sunk quickly. Totally Biased was cancelled not long after it moved to FXX. The Jim Jefferies vehicle Legit and animated series Chozen also seemed to share the same fate when they got the axe a few weeks ago.
The division between comedy and drama for FX makes sense from a branding standpoint and would certainly allow for more air time to expand their programming in each direction. Yet one of FX’s most acclaimed sitcoms — one of the most acclaimed sitcoms on television — is on FX rather than FXX. The latest season of Louie is indeed airing on what is supposed to be exclusively a drama channel.
As far as sitcoms go, Louie is on the end of a spectrum that could be best described as a dramedy, considering how many introspective, existential moments it has within its comedic universe. Still, it’s a sitcom about the life of a comedian and can be damn hysterical when it wants to be — which is quite often.
Perhaps, unconsciously, FX is indicting their own branding by keeping Louie off FXX. By keeping Louie on FX, here’s no need to worry about a ratings dip due to moving to a brand new channel that fewer people have. As it stands now, Louie is now on the same channel as The Americans, Sons of Anarchy, Justified, Fargo, and American Horror Story. It definitely stands out from the bunch. Though it’s more dramatic than It’s Always Sunny or The League, Louie fits in better with those series.
Another difference one should note here is that Louie is currently one of FX’s most awarded programs. According to IMDB, Louis C.K. has scored 12 awards wins and 31 nominations with his show between Emmys, Golden Globes, etc. The rest of FX’s line-up has comparable numbers. The Americans has 3 award wins and 21 nominations while Sons of Anarchy has 5 wins and 25 nominations. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, on the other hand, has only 1 win and 6 nominations while The League doesn’t even have any nominations to speak of throughout their five year run.
So, the line between FX and FXX seems to have been drawn in regards to acclaim rather than comedy and drama. Perhaps FX would rather keep their award-winning shows in the place where the most people can see them. To be fair, that’s an absolutely logical move and it seems to be working for them. The Office‘s Dwight Schrute might summarize this more clearly: “Put the most attractive beets on top. The ones that make you pull the car over and go, ‘Wow, I need this beet right now.’ Those are the money beets.” Their latest comedy series, Married starring the award winning Nat Faxon and Judy Greer, is, as you might now suspect, premiering on FX.
Still, keeping their “money beets” up front doesn’t completely explain why they’re putting the less attractive beets in an ice box (i.e. putting almost your whole comedy line-up on another channel). Down the line, perhaps FXX will build more of an audience and gain subsequent awards attention and the network could chalk all of this up to growing pains. They have secured syndication rights for every episode of The Simpsons and will start airing re-runs this summer.
However, Louie’s position as an award winning dramedy amidst a crowd of other award winning dramas speaks to a much bigger issue that goes beyond FX and on to the entire entertainment industry. Whether it be in TV, film, or on the web, drama is considered worthy of more artistic merit than comedy. The Oscars are almost entirely dominated by tearjerkers, character studies, biopics and period pieces.
It takes the likes of Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne, or Armando Ianucci to get the Academy to take notice of comedy with their respective nominations for Moonrise Kingdom/Fantastic Mr. Fox/The Royal Tenenbaums, Sideways, and In The Loop. Blazing Saddles, regarded widely as one of the funniest movies in the entire cinematic canon, was nominated for three Oscars in 1975, but none of them were Best Picture, Best Screenplay, or Best Director. Instead, Madeline Kahn got nominated for Best Supporting Actress and the movie itself got nominated for Best Film Editing and Best Original Song. The Godfather Part II won that year ahead of Chinatown, The Conversation, Lenny, and The Towering Inferno. Sure, Blazing Saddles has a good number of fart jokes and physical humor, but few film historians would debate how genius of a movie it is.
If a comedy currently wants to be taken seriously and get the accolades of the industry as a show or film, its best bet is to be a dramedy. If it’s a well crafted drama that has a few big laugh moments throughout, chances are even better. Sure, NBC’s revival of The American Comedy Awards and Comedy Central’s very own Comedy Awards offer a recognition of sorts to comedic excellence in addition to the separate categories at The Emmys and The Golden Globes, but that’s not the kind of recognition that many of comedy’s best and brightest deserve.
This isn’t an easy problem to solve. Branding, ratings, prestige, etc. are all elements that keep comedy under a sort of glass ceiling. At the very least, Louie, with its obsessive following and row of trophies, might (and that’s a very tentative might) pave the way for comedy to get the full respect it’s deserved.