New Comedies Are A Mix of Yuk and Yuck

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Several comedies unveiled during the TCA summer press tour in Beverly Hills stretched the concept of sitcom in any number of directions. What constitutes comedy is more of a wholly subjective debate than ever before. New shows include Amazon’s One Mississippi, which sees comedian Tig Notaro saddled with cancer and gastrointestinal distress, visit her dying mother; and FX’s Better Things, about a divorced mother, featuring frank talk about porn, abortion and other taboo topics. They infuse the conventional TV comedy with gloom, doom and a dash of dramatic flourish.

So unconventional are the comedies at Amazon—angsty Transparent famously picked up a Golden Globe for best comedy in 2015—that the streaming service now categorizes its comedies as half-hours, moving away from labels that have defined television genres for eons. Joe Lewis, head of half-hour programming at Amazon, thinks of a comedy’s season as a five-hour movie, divvied up in 30-minute blocks. The change in category title, he says, followed the morphing of Amazon’s comedies into more dramatic fare.

Alpha House and (2013-14 comedy) Betas, and then Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle, went a little bit more dramedic,” he said. “We think about things not in terms of, this is a comedy or this is a drama, but what’s meant for this amount of time.”

Laugh Track

Comedies have, of course, been morphing for years—evolving from the traditional multicam, laugh track framework to single cams and subtle jokes and humor mined from misery. Comedies past and present such as FX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and NBC’s Community have taken delight in subverting the form.

Ali Liebegott, executive producer on Transparent, describes the show as a “dramedy or dark comedy,” but says such labels don’t mean what they used to. “It’s 30 minutes, so people think of it as a comedy,” Liebegott said. “It’s also the kind of show that flashes back to the Holocaust.

Angling for awards has also contributed to genre fluidity. Andy Samberg, host of the 2015 Emmys, poked some fun at this idea at the event. He quipped, “Orange Is the New Black is now technically a drama, while Louie is now technically jazz.”

Indeed, Louie, the Louis C.K. series on FX that featured as much melancholy as humor, paved the way for the new batch of downbeat half-hours. C.K.’s fingerprints are all over the current movement; he’s an executive producer on both One Mississippi and Better Things.

During its TCA session August 9, FX also showcased Donald Glover’s comedy Atlanta; the clip shared with critics featured a mentally ill man drinking from a toilet, then sustaining a beating from jail guards as a roomful of people look on. “It’s technically a comedy,” said director Hiro Murai. “But there are gray areas where you’re not sure if you’re supposed to laugh.

John Landgraf, FX Networks CEO, singled these “rich and cinematic” shows out as the next iteration of comedic television. “It’s narrative filmmaking,” he said, “and it shows how emotional and deep and profound, as well as funny, comedy can be these days.”

To be sure, the unconventional comedies unveiled by Amazon, FX and others at TCA were balanced out by traditional sitcoms on other networks. The featured CBS offerings not only stuck to the conventional formula, but trotted out trusted comedic hands from days of yore in Matt LeBlanc (Man With a Plan), Kevin James (Kevin Can Wait) and Joel McHale (The Great Indoors). Traditional sitcoms are immediately accessible to viewers, and play—and pay, as Chuck Lorre would attest—extraordinarily well in syndication.

“Our brand is big multicams that feature very relatable families,” said Glenn Geller, CBS entertainment president.

The expanding television landscape has paved the way for all types of comedies, say some TV insiders. “The death knell for multicams happens every ten years,” said sitcom vet Rick Singer, in Beverly Hills to promote new Fox drama Pitch. “I think the energy of a live audience is unique and fantastic. Maybe there’s a lull in [multicam comedy], but I think they’ll always return.”

Landgraf said the blurred lines of comedy and drama date back at least to FX’s own Rescue Me. The new half-hours, he says, are primarily comedies with a dramatic counterpoint. “They look at deep, weighty things, but they also want you to laugh, to see the absurdity of the characters and situations,” he told B&C. “It’s a pretty close thing sometimes.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the L.A. Times and New York magazine.