A few weeks ago, the New York Times ran an article by Neil Genzlinger that used the idea that new sitcoms are repetitive as a justification to declare the “End of Comedy”. That’s a bold statement, considering how relatively underground comedy is an art form. Comedy is certainly far from ending. And the comedy of sitcoms, with groundbreaking shows finally making it on TV, is definitely far from the end.
In the article, the only sitcoms examined are 2 Broke Girls, New Girl, Whitney, Last Man Standing, and Up All Night. The most notable connection between all of those shows is that they all appear on network television. NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox can’t take the chances that FX, Showtime, HBO, or even Adult Swim can take because of their larger aggregate viewership when it comes to prime-time programming. In trying to appeal to the broadest audience, network sitcoms will tend to follow a more traditional model or, perhaps, derive their comedic formulas from the sitcoms of the past, like The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Even with the general “play-it-safe” approach to what is put on network television (i.e. Madonna tapped to play the Super Bowl Halftime Show), shows like Parks and Recreation and Community totally disprove the claim that there is nothing new in the realm of the network television sitcom. These shows’ themes and story line range can be described, in short, as absurdity, vastly complex, and certainly moving well past the five categories of jokes outlined in the article: “Guess What? We Have Genitals”, “Technology Exists to Make Us Look Stupid”, “Parents + Kids = War”, “Eek, a Baby”, and “Clods in the Workplace”.
Dan Harmon, the creator of Community, appealing to his nerdy, obsessively loyal following (that got him and his show to be TV Guide’s Fan Favorite, by the way), has been noted to set up jokes and entire episodes off obscure pop culture references. Parks & Recreation largely features kooky people working at one place, but, unlike the “Clods in the Workplace” category into which it might otherwise be thrown, each character is fleshed out in an incredibly human way that makes Tom Haverford less like a wannabe superstar socialite that doesn’t focus on his job and more like a person that’s trying to make the best of his situation, noted by his divorce to his fake wife in Season 2. This is new territory for sitcoms, especially from the era of Three’s Company.
As I noted before, all of those shows are on network TV and stick relatively close to the label of a sitcom in the traditional sense. Louie, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Children’s Hospital, NTSF:SD:SUV, Eastbound and Down, and more do not immediately conjure up the idea of a typical sitcom. However, those shows and more like them are at the forefront of comedy, possibly even the “future” of comedy. Adult Swim’s programming is half as long as network sitcom and goes for the absurdist comedy jugular by poking fun at the overplayed conventions of prime-time TV. “Meta” comedy is certainly something you wouldn’t likely see on Gilligan’s Island.
Louis C.K,’s Louie on FX throws all of that re-hashed, derivative comedy fiercely out of the window and has been endlessly praised for doing so. There’s no apparent season arc, very few recurring characters, widely varying tones, and jokes about things that few dare to joke about (child rape and murder, the incongruity/congruity of gay sex, etc.), especially on a sitcom. If anything, Louie has opened a whole new door (or Pandora’s Box, if you want to think of it that way) on what a sitcom can be.
Assuredly, most of you that read this probably know that we are far from the “end of comedy”, even if only talking about sitcoms. You then might be asking why such an obvious response to this New York Times article is needed if this post more or less comes off as “preaching to the choir”. It should be emphasized that the shows that I mentioned in this response aren’t at all mentioned in the article published in the Times, which is (ostensibly) read by many more people than posts here at Nerdist. Thus, the type of attention that is paid to calling out New Girl for being derivative could have been spent pointing out why you should be watching Community and prevent it from being cancelled.
Besides, the end of comedy will have not been reached until Norm MacDonald’s dream of the premise and the punchline of a joke being the same exact thing becomes a reality.