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Nope, It’s Pretty Far From the End of Comedy

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.

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  1. Scott S says:

    Shows like Pushing Daisies and Community pulled me back to network TV for a little while after not watching anything on them for years, and their relatively quick cancellations have driven me away again. It blows my mind that networks would allow these interesting, non-derivative shows to ever become reality, when they know they won’t gather the audience the networks want, and will get canned pretty quickly. People seem to be willing to watch crap, and not anything with any thought put into it, so why do networks bother toying with us with decent shows every now and then?

  2. Lucy says:

    I will preface this by saying I totally agree with your article. Great job!

    I want to give New Girl a shout out. The concept is a little meh. “A girl moves in with three guys! Ooh la la, gender stereotypes abound!” But it’s surprisingly sweet and the characters are very human. Zooey Deschanel can sometimes be annoying but for the most part I identify with her character’s personality (I’d never seen her in anything before). The show is consistently funny and dare I say heartwarming.The episode Neil referenced in his article (“Naked”) has an excellent B plot in which one of the guys has to cram 2 years worth of pop culture for job interview small talk. And the creativity of those nine almost “penis” words made me laugh. So there’s that.

    If you haven’t watched the show, any of the first five episodes are an excellent place to start. I would particularly recommend the first three in order. The third episode “Wedding” is my favorite so far. And come on, episode 7 ends with a performance of “Eye of the Tiger” using handbells. Tell me that doesn’t have Nerdist written all over it.

    Sorry for the soapbox.

  3. gary says:

    To be fair, I believe the NYT article is discussing more about the new comedies that came in the Fall season. The shows you’ve mentioned that are good above are at least in their second season. And I do think it is strangely telling that these shows that are being pushed and other shows like Community are being pushed away.

    While I don’t think this is the end of comedy, I do think that this season made a misstep in pushing very traditional sitcoms with female stars when, supposidly, their template for pushing female stars was from the movie Bridesmaids, a very non-traditional movie.

    If anything, I wish Mr. Genzlinger was more critical for this years crop of sitcoms. It isn’t enough to say that these shows are formulaic, but more to the point that they aren’t as adventurous as the shows that came out the seasons before. There is no break-out Arrested Development/Office/30 Rock sitcom this year. It is not enough just to have a Fairy Pixie Dreamgirl as your lead, you must have something more.

  4. Rebel Lawson says:

    People are so pretentious in how they put so much value in their opinion. Everyone gets burnt out on things from time to time but I think that this Neil fellow took it as an opportunity to try and glamor readers with his article. I like several sitcoms that have repetition in their repertoire, it doesn’t necessarily make them lack laughter . Not only recent sitcoms but sitcoms like Family Matters, well OK I didn’t like Family Matters, many did though.
    But what about Cheers, Sanford and Sons, How I met your Mother(yeah that’s newer but I couldn’t resist). I guess what I’m trying to say is that, when someone has an opinion, it’s not the best course of action to try attach your opinion to something that you’ve completely fictionalized in your mind.

  5. Spencer K says:

    I’m not terribly surprised by the NYT reaction, considering how the MSM is still trying to figure out how to tie into culture with Facebook, Twitter and reporting on memes a week after they’ve died.

    I think the editors of these media outlets are afraid that if they buy into the culture, they will immediately lose their job, because they don’t know how to be relavant to the culture they’re trying to buy into. So they keep the status quo, to keep themselves employed.

  6. junesongprovider says:

    I read that NYT article a few weeks ago and it was infuriating. How convenient that in your “Death of Comedy” treatise, you cherry pick the worst new sitcoms possible without mentioning even the brilliance that can be found on the same networks (Community, Parks&Rec), let alone cable (Louie, It’s Always Sunny, The League).

  7. onReload says:

    Solid article, glad you took the time to write it. I really can’t imagine the article making a big splash, though, since…at least, I thought…everyone knew about all the great shows you talked about here. I can only imagine people nodding their heads while reading it, only to think “Oh, wait a minute. There’s that show on FX I like. What about that?”

    But on a more personal level, that has got to be a kick in the pants for anyone working on a comedic show right now. In short: NYT should put cable in their offices, and teach their writers how to use the internet for this sort of thing.