If you’ve had a chance to see my previous content you’d know that I’m big on my comedy series’ format. I try not to get carried away and forget that what’s funny is relative, but there’s an art to comedy and when followed it will bear fruit that will not only be insanely funny, but also change us and get us thinking. What is that, exactly?
There is no one history or origin of comedy, but in terms of the TV series it’s genesis lies more in stand-up comedy than it does in simply televised comedy routines – the former being American and the latter being (largely) British. On one hand we had Seinfeld and on the other we had Laurel & Hardy. There has been cross-pollination of influences, but what remains with us today is the stand-up comedy root. A completely American phenomenon that arguably has it’s roots in philosophical oration-turned comedy routine. A truly funny and relevant stand-up comic is either a very wise or very troubled person who finds the best way to relate to his/her audience is to make them laugh. Such a person gets and retains our attention, and lives beyond their years, by relating to the experiences we have in life – either reflecting our attitudes about those experiences or revealing new ways of looking at those things. I could bore you with a whole catalogue of comedians throughout American history who channeled the concerns, frustrations, or simply the need to escape, in their particular time and place – but I won’t. That’s a 500-page book right there.
The departure from TV comedy’s British influence came when Jerry Seinfeld got his own series – Seinfeld. However you want to rank his comedy in the grand scheme of things, he is the man who set the trend. The show was basically Seinfeld’s act set in his fictional apartment and it’s surrounds in New York City. A visual depiction with archetypal characters and ancillary characters to portray them. One may argue with me that this format is indistinguishable from classics like I Love Lucy (1950s-1970s), but I’ll maintain that this broke away from the British format. The differences are subtle, but the one definite is the direct involvement of an actual comedian and supporting staff in the writing and production. Earlier “models” like I Love Lucy were non-serial humourous morality plays with 2-dimensional characters. Seinfeld had just enough character development to allow for a variety in storytelling, but not so much so one could pick up almost anywhere in it’s 9 seasons. Both had their place and were truly inspired, but together they gave birth to a bastard child: the throw-away comedy series.
Now we’re getting down to what makes a comedy TV series good. I don’t plan on alienating some of my readers, but probably will, when I say that there are two milestone TV series’ in the 1990s and then the 2000s of crap television. Both Friends and The Big Bang Theory are archetypal examples of the aforementioned bastard child – taking the worst from both incarnations of comedy: almost no character development (for watchability sake) and laughter engineered by people who had no business writing comedy. No authentic character detail and development with jokes that could be told over the telephone – the environment is simply the setting the characters are in and the characters themselves simply bodies to voice the jokes. I hate to be judgemental, but the only reason either of these shows got play is because nothing else was on TV when Friends was and The Big Bang Theory’s audience hasn’t found the Internet yet or they’re going through a hard time in their lives, and cheap laughs are the medicine.
Now, there is no shortage of comedy TV series. You could throw a rock in the Punjab and you’re almost guaranteed to hit a former producer of a one-season show that tanked. A lot of experimentation has been green-lit by confused and adventurous networks and production companies – many try and many fail at silly, many still at surreal, and even more at replicating the successes of The Big Bang Theory under a variety of premises. Like throwing pasta at the wall waiting for one of the strings to stick. What are they missing? For the most part, actual comedians. Failing that, genuinely Human circumstances as their premises. An example being the current BBC comedy Mum – a dark British-style show about a 60-something woman coming to terms with her new life, with the show starting on the funeral of her husband. Each show represents one month out of the first year of her coping and coming to terms. It brings levity to the challenges and new opportunities that present themselves to a person in her position – it’s contained and has purpose. It’s not endlessly spiraling out looking for new avenues of laughter to exploit.
The current crown-holder of TV comedy, in my humble (yet learned) opinion, is Community. It’s not only the funniest show of the 21st Century, but also my case in point. Half of the characters are themselves comedians or learned to be comedians in the presence of their co-workers (Chevy Chase, Donald Glover, and Ken Jeong) during their 110-episode stint. The only problem with shows like Mum and Community is their lack of initial audience. The latter has gained a cult following while the former is likely to fade into obscurity, but both fates are certainly better than that of Friends, The Big Bang Theory, or any of the other piles of crap Humanity has been assailed by. Who’s going to remember them in another 10 years? We still remember Seinfeld and we still may remember Community in 30 years – and we will definitely see those actors again in the future. The cast of Friends, though? Stock actors for shitty Adam Sandler movies…