TV Comedy’s Reinvention

The state of contemporary comedy and how it's forging the future of film and television...

It’s no secret that we are in the midst of a golden age of television.  The entertainment platform that was once regarded as campy and undeserving of formal respect has since matured—crawling out from under the shadow of film.  This maturation has lead to an era in which commercial appeal is tantamount to creative expression, creating a renaissance akin to what Hollywood saw during its golden age in the 70s.

Several factors contribute to what some claim to be TV’s current dominance over contemporary film, mostly revolving around the emergence and newfound popularity of online streaming. The advent of series streaming has allowed viewers to keep up with serialized stories at a much easier pace than before. Watching multiple episodes of a series in succession, or binge watching, has in recent years both established itself as a staple method of media consumption and revolutionized how series are perceived by their audiences. By organizing content in a way that encourages obsessive revisitations, websites such as Netflix, HBOgo, and Hulu have brought what once was the VHS or DVD fan collection into the 21st century.

Some shows which saw little commercial success and consequently suffered short lifespans have since gained cult statuses online. Shows such as Arrested Development, which lasted only 3 seasons while on a major network slowly found their cult audience growing via DVD boxsets and streaming. Having gained a fresh and devout internet fandom, Netflix eventually revived the show and ordered the production of a fourth season. Many fans claim that Arrested Development didn’t fare too well in its initial run due to its reliance on call-backs and in-jokes that referenced earlier episodes in the series; requiring too much of the audience’s memory to arrive at punchlines.

Streaming and the spike in DVR ownership has allowed narratively ambitious shows in the vein of Arrested Development to thrive in a manner that they wouldn’t have been able to before. Along with this growth in followers, an increased interest in who is behind the show has also arisen. This recently developed incarnation of fandom was embodied in early online form by way of the internet forum, but has since evolved to a greater being exemplified by highly produced shows and documentaries such as The Writers Room (2013) and Showrunners (2014), which solidified the concept that those who pull the levers behind a series have a narrative of their own.

Amidst all the heaps of glory that modern day TV shows are receiving, comedies, whether they be skit shows, sitcoms, or something in between, rarely get the respect they deserve in comparison to their politically dramatic and crime investigating analogues.

Not only does the quality of these humor-based shows rival anything in the dramatic departments, many of the innovations that dramatic TV is currently being heralded has been present in comedy for years already. For instance, televised comedy has been considered an author’s genre for much longer than its dramatic counterparts.  What started as ardent fans of comedy tracking the rise of young writing prospects like Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks and their works for late-night shows in the 50s evolved into the massive cult followings of comedy writers like Larry David and Matt Groening. Even the innovation of having a serialized story on primetime television is thought to have originated with the comedy, Cheers, which premiered in 1982. Twin Peaks, a dramatic show that is widely regarded to be innovative in the same regard, didn’t premiere until 1989.

The idea that a piece of film or television exists as something created by a unique author, or auteur theory, is still going strong in contemporary TV comedy. Whether it’s the drama surrounding Dan Harmon being fired (and eventually re-hired) as a show runner from Community, or the unparalleled control granted to Louis Ck on Louie, a show he writes, directs, stars, and occasionally edits, there is a definite appeal in creating comedy out of a singular distinct voice. 

Love, which premiered on Netflix in February, is the most recent show to follow this trend, for better or for worse…

Read more about it in next week’s addition of “The Laugh Track.” 

Image Via The New Yorker