Indeed, the last great line-up of “must-see” sitcoms seems like a long time ago, when “The Office,” “30 Rock,” and “Parks and Recreation,” all appeared together one last time in the fall of 2013. Since then the comedy landscape has been hit or miss.
But the launch of the new TV season brings more enthusiasm than usual for sitcoms. Critics have been excited about FX’s “Atlanta” and “Better Things,” ABC’s “Speechless,” NBC’s “The Good Place,” and Amazon’s “One Mississippi One.” If these shows turn out to be halfway successful maybe they, combined with returning hits like “black*ish” and Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” could begin to constitute a sitcom revival.
Still, it’s interesting that some of these series are not really that funny. In fact, for some time now, prestige comedy has been synonymous with a dark, bleak world. On “Louie” and “Girls,” two of the most highly praised “comedies” of the past five years, entire episodes go by without a single joke.
Consider the situations in a few of the new situation comedies. In “Speechless” the parents are trying to balance the needs of their kids, one of whom is wheelchair-bound with cerebral palsy. In “Atlanta,” a broke Princeton drop-out with serious money and relationship problems is trying to launch his cousin’s hip hop career. In “One Mississippi,” a woman recovering from a double mastectomy and a debilitating digestive illness returns home to take her mother off life support.
On “Saturday Night Live,” Gilda Radner’s character Lisa Loopner used to say, “That's so funny I forgot to laugh.” After seeing some of these “traumedies,” I’m beginning to appreciate the unintended wisdom of the saying. When a sitcom character slips on a rug or is outwitted by a wisecracking ten-year-old, that’s amusing. But when a character is faced with the absurdity of a parent’s death or a child’s disability, it’s a profound cosmic joke. The deep humor comes out of the need to keep moving forward in the face of a tragedy, and this is not always laugh-out-loud comedy.
Like many programming trends on television, the trend to bleak humor originates in both changing taste and the fracturing of the once-monolithic television audience. When there were only three major networks, all television networks needed to appeal to the lowest common denominator, whicht meant set-up, joke, laugh, set-up, joke, laugh. Some of the resulting shows were transcendent, but most were formulaic and mediocre.
The decision of HBO to move into original programming broke the broadcast networks’ creative monopoly. One HBO’s first series — Garry Shandling’s “The Larry Sanders Show” – became an ur-text for bleak comedies. Shot in single-camera format without a laugh track, the show highlighted the insecurities, selfishness, thwarted ambition and existential despair of the characters and guest stars. Since then, dyspeptic shows have become increasingly popular as networks sought smaller niche audiences who could support a different kind of comedy.
Laugh-less comedies have also thrived as television’s business model has changed. For decades the big money for a television series occurred when it went into syndication, so the goal was to get a series enough episodes (usually about 100) to make that possible. That meant targeting a broad audience and generating high enough ratings to keep the show on the air for four or five years.
But as live viewing gives way to streaming, ratings are less important. Networks and services like HBO, Showtime, Amazon Prime and Netflix are in the business of acquiring monthly paying subscribers and ratings are an afterthought as long as customers keep sending in those monthly checks. Building content libraries is now the name of the game. It’s more important to have at least one show that each customer is passionate about than to have dozens of shows with moderate appeal.
The dark comedy is definitely a niche and not for everyone. It’s also hard to sustain. A show like “Louie,” which seemed fresh and original in its first seasons, felt downright depressing as the years went by. Louis C.K. peeled back the façade that we all display to the world only to discover a confused, self-involved introvert underneath. If audiences are going to stick with a show, they have to find something redeeming in the main characters — ahard to do without at least a little humor.
Fortunately, these new dark sitcoms, as uncomfortable as they are, actually do have moments of real humor. I really did laugh out loud at “Speechless,” “Atlanta,” and “One Mississippi.” Sometimes real life is so ridiculous that all you can do is laugh.