Funny business: Critical analysis of television comedies, Part 1

The first in a occasional series in which myself and Myles McNutt will post a series of emails in which we delve into a particular topic with enough depth to give readers the bends…

Ryan McGee: So Myles…Ryan here. You know me. I’m that guy from that thing. And you’re the guy who makes me think I need to step up my game. But luckily I’ve convinced you/tricked you into doing these periodic discussions, based on interests that we share but don’t quite fit into our normal workloads. We’ll do these as we have time to do so, and have the passion for the topic that allows us to go above and beyond our already heavy workloads. So let me start off this occasional series with a big topic that we can’t possibly solve but hopefully work our way a bit closer towards a solution.

The topic at hand: Do we need to reevaluate how we critically discuss “comedies”? Because there’s a temptation for many to look at shows like “Community” or “How I Met Your Mother” or the various HBO/Showtime 30-minute shows the same way they look at “Mike and Molly” or other more classic sitcoms. Should “being funny” be the sole criteria for success for an episode/show?

Myles McNutt: No, it shouldn’t.

…oh, who am I kidding? Stopping there would be both inadequate and, given my track record, impossible. These conversations are a space to explore, not a space to answer, so I expect that many of the questions we’ll deal with will be followed by something less than definitive.

mike-n-molly300.jpgOn that note: I’m wondering, though, is the problem isn’t at times quite the opposite of the situation you describe. Is it not equally problematic if we hold a show like “Mike & Molly,” which is trying to do something straightforward, to the same standards as something like “HIMYM” that is actively cultivating a more complex relationship with its audience? Any “sole” criteria we develop will be absolutely destroyed when applied across comedies, regardless of whether it’s my preferred psychoanalytical/philosophical/structural consideration of television comedy or the “Just tell me what was funny” model. We need to reevaluate how we discuss “comedies,” but any reevaluation should (at least in my eyes) be a constant reevaluation depending on particular programs and the expectations they create for themselves.

As much as we might hate how reductive the “Just tell me what was funny” model works, don’t you agree that there are some shows that benefit from it, even if (as my personal experience with “The Office” has suggested) no one can actually agree on what those shows might be?

RM: On some level, I’m with you, but perhaps the problem with “just show me the funny” is that it’s not conducive to a discussion. It’s a visceral reaction in which one’s one laughter is the barometer of success. Everything starts and ends there. There’s no need for analysis since the purpose of the show is met at the point in which laughter escapes. Talking about it doesn’t help. In fact, it may hurt.

Part of the problem when it comes to shows that do get discussed online is the cultural connotations that come with talking about television comedy. Anything that isn’t an hour-long show gets fit into the category of “comedy.” We just don’t have another handy word for it, especially when there are so few shows of that length that are trying to be a straightforward drama. The word “dramedy” doesn’t quite cover it, since isn’t almost everything a “dramedy” if you look at the content of each show? Even in its most horrifying episodes, “Breaking Bad” has quite a bit of humor in it. (Tio’s aide in “Face Off,” anyone?) All drama is expected to have comedy, but not all comedies are expected to have drama. And that’s the root of the problem.

nup_142307_0045.jpgI brought up “Community” earlier, even thought it’s a show that doesn’t particularly work for me. But it’s tendency to forgo laughter in lieu of darker material, in and of itself, has NEVER been a criteria by which I’ve measured its success as a series. The episode in which Troy turned 21 might be my favorite episode in that show’s history, and there are next to no laughs in it at all. But there’s a huge difference in failing in one’s attempt to elicit laughter, and consciously sidestepping it entirely to achieve a different type of pathos.

There’s this embedded assumption amongst the majority of television viewers that something that looks like a comedy and acts like a comedy must ever and always be a comedy. And I’m not sure that works. Part of what I love about television right now is the way that certain shows push up against the boundaries of what a thirty-minute program primarily based around humorous observations can do in that time frame. (And honestly, the labored way I had to describe these shows without using the word “comedy” just shows how much we need to all sit down in a room and think of a more succinct term for these entities.)

MM: I largely agree with the idea that there are assumptions about comedy that don’t always hold true, but I guess I’m wondering if we’d identify this as an actual problem? Reviewing “The Office” puts me up against this every week, in that I see the show differently than many of my readers. It really comes down to my insistence that the show is something more than just a joke machine, an argument that I’m willing to back up and that I feel I would win quite handedly.

It’s also an argument I kind of love having to make, on some level. As a critic, I am obsessed with exploring how we look at things, and I see those reviews as a space to make my case and to try to get people to see comedy in a different light. Sometimes people will complain about the reviews, and just ask for “what was funny,” in part because that’s their only barometer. I completely agree with you that this would make for an unfortunately limited critical perspective, but I don’t know if it’s our job to change that so much as it’s our job to offer an alternative view. I love when people disagree with me, as it indicates that what I’ve written has forced them to reconsider their own perspective; sometimes people who seem to think they’re trolling are actually identifying an important function of my review, which is inspiring them to get off their ass and make an argument for themselves.

dwight_scream.pngComedy is both more discursive (as you identify in pointing out its problematic generic breadth) and subjective than drama series, which is inevitably going to create greater conflict. While I may have played multi-camera’s advocate in discussing the need for a close evaluation of content relative to how we write about comedies, I do think that a more complex approach is an enormously valuable way to understand how comedies are structured and how they operate on a weekly basis. However, I don’t know if there will ever be a scenario where that isn’t at odds with how a large collection of viewers watch a particular comedy, and thus I’m not convinced that this conflict is something we should be avoiding. It might just be a battle we were born to fight.

My larger question, perhaps, is this: how do our subjectivities play into how we cover these shows? One trend in drama is the idea of an echo chamber, a scenario where a show like Breaking Bad or Mad Men gets so critically acclaimed that subjective evaluation becomes replaced exclusively with objective analysis. Is there a point where our coverage of comedies shifts from criticism to celebration in light of a show’s success? I love Parks and Recreation dearly, do not get me wrong, but I’ve found myself uninterested in reading criticism of the show given the unanimous praise surrounding it.

RM: Subjectivity in some ways is what I love about television criticism. That’s not to say all opinions are equally valid, but there should be room for people to explore shows in their own way. So long as the critic backs their thinking up with clearly defined terms and constant approach, I don’t really care how they approach the show. But there are times in which I find myself wishing more critics went outside that box. I think you’re right about the echo chamber aspect of some criticism (which is why I stayed away from “Breaking Bad” except in podcast form this summer), but I also think that comedy offers an untapped potential for rethinking how criticism can be practiced.

Thanks to a recent podcast that you did with Todd VanDerWerff and Libby Hill, I’ve started reading Alyssa Rosenberg’s work over at ThinkProgress. And if you read her take on “Parks and Recreation,” you see a bit of the untapped analysis that a show like that can produce. What makes “Parks” special to me isn’t that it’s universally praised (relatively speaking) within the critical community, since said praise is too limited in scope. The praise is often confined strictly in terms of how “funny” an episode is, which isn’t really criticism at all. That’s the wrong kind of subjectivity, since it doesn’t extend beyond what tickles a single funny bone.

leslie_knope.jpgI don’t know if I even want to open this can of worms, but I think it’s instructive to introduce our long-running argument for the word “review” over “recap” in describing the type of criticism to which you and I both aspire. Narrowing it down to our focus here in this back-and-forth, a “recap” would tell you what made the writer laugh. A “review” would provide context to that laughter, but also look at elements beyond mere chuckles to see if there’s something else going on beyond the surface. I appreciate “Parks” for making me laugh, but I marvel at it for producing episodes that also speak to issues of politics, socioeconomic strata, feminism, and what it means to identify oneself within a small subset of a larger country.

Rosenberg’s analysis gets at these levels, as do others. But when critics like Alan Sepinwall call Pawnee a real-life Springfield from “The Simpsons,” I think readers get the wrong idea. Pawnee is not a cartoon world come to life; rather, Springfield is in fact a far more interesting and realistic depiction of a cross-section of American life than more live-action shows could ever hope to produce. If people want to come to “Parks” for Ron Swanson’s mustache, that’s their prerogative. But it seems to me a missed opportunity to look at that character on such a surface level. This is where criticism can come in to give greater context, and tease out underlying issues that can illuminate understanding. But it seems more often than not, critics/readers don’t think such analysis is necessary, which to me is throwing a large swath of television programming under the bus.

So here’s another question to you: there’s often talk that we’re in a “golden age” of television. The shows almost always used as examples to back that up are “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Mad Men,” and “Breaking Bad.” Are we ever going to see a comedy on that short list? What’s to stop a “Parks” or a “Louie” from being mentioned in the same breath as those show? Is it the word “comedy” itself that is preventing such an elevation? Maybe this gets at the heart of why I feel like the language itself surrounding these shows needs to change. The word “comedy” seems unfairly stained at this point, and either we need to rehabilitate it or invent something else to describe the shows we’re discussing here.

Know what? Hold your answer for now. Mull it over, and let’s pick this up over on your turf in a little bit? We can continue what’s turning into quite a long discussion. (As if anyone expected a succinct back-and-forth, given the parties involved.)

Here, we’re breaking up our chat into two parts, the latter of which will post soon. For now: do you look for subjectivity more or less than you do in criticism of comedy versus drama? Should the two be cleaved into separate units in terms of analysis? Is one unfairly perceived to be superior to the other, or is comparison a moot point?

4 Comments

  1. Posted October 21, 2011 at 3:42 am | Permalink

    The Golden Age of Television’s greatest comedy: Arrested Development.

    Right? I’m surprised that show never came up, as it was both critically-acclaimed AND award-winning.

    I think you could boil down all scripted TV down to some base elements that affect how viewers watch the show. Medium (i.e. beamed from a satellite to your TV live? Netflix/Hulu/insert streaming service here? DVD or Blu-ray on your home entertainment system?) and method (swallow whole seasons in one night? watch week-to-week, one episode a week? spaced sessions? alone or with family/friends/lovers/insert relationship status here?) are two big factors that can affect how people perceive, well, nearly any visual film media.

    There are also some prejudiced expectations that come with labeling something a “comedy” or a “drama”. As you state, and as I could come up with hundreds more examples, comedies tend to have great drama, and dramas have wonderful humor. But not everybody wants even that. Some people might object to the humor contained in Breaking Bad, and some people will object to the dramatic elements of, say, How I Met Your Mother.

    And why HAS there never been a half-hour drama? That’s something else that seems to have stuck — when something is an hour long, we usually class it as “drama” without thinking, even though Glee is (sometimes) a comedy. And nobody would ever dare try a multi-camera drama, I’m sure. Maybe these things have been attempted in the past, I don’t know. But my point is that we don’t see those, and so the industry creates these connections in our minds that become assumptions about TV in general.

    …OK, so I don’t have a unified stance on anything here. I’m just spit-balling. But it seems to me that we try to arbitrarily separate “comedy” and “drama” for some reason, when the two are meant to be acting in unison anyway. Laughter is the best medicine, said some old dude a long time ago, and as the Tenth Doctor says in Silence in the Library, “Dying gives us size… weight.” In other words, good drama reminds us of the on-going struggle of life, both in micro- and macro-cosmic senses.

  2. Tausif Khan
    Posted October 21, 2011 at 4:08 am | Permalink

    When commenters ask the question “What was funny?” I don’t even understand it. What is funny to the writer may not be funny to you the reader. I have never once read the stray observations of a column from The AV Club, Sepinwall’s Blog or Cultural Learnings that made me laugh if I have not seen the episode myself. A lot of the time I read a laugh line in the stray observations section and think (hypothetically) Barney probably said this but then watch the episode and find out it was Marshall. For me the context is important. If it is formulaic and does not reveal anything it will probably be ignored.

    The main question I ask is “What is the joke saying/communicating?”

    Humor is a mode of expression which is able to communicate something to the listener that a different mode of expression can not. So for me on some level it operates similarly to a musical.

    For me any comedy should reveal something about the character, the story line or about society in a way that could not be told in a straight dramatic fashion.

    For example, I wrote after seeing the most recent 2 Broke Girls:

    “Alright 2 Broke Girls you earned one more chance after this:

    Caroline: I can’t face him because I am a waitress. Last time he saw me I was a billionaire in a townhouse. Now I am a waitress in a walk in freezer.

    Max: So when you were laying around on your trust fund doing nothing everyday have other people scrub your toilet you could hold your head up high? But now that you support yourself by earning your own money that is some how shameful? Who cares what he thinks? He is the guy who just paid $100 to party with a horse! He is the loser not you.

    I laughed out loud at the horse line and I felt happy while doing it. Very few comedies can make me do that. If a comedy can do this than it can get more chances.”

    I felt happy because Max revealed something to me about life and society that I have felt for a long time but felt liberated to hear in a mass media context because it has been hidden from news media conversations for a long time. It was a trenchant conversation about class in the modern American context.

    In a previous episode I had become livid at Michael Patrick King for talking down to his audience when he had Caroline tell the audience that her Ponzi scheming father couldn’t be that bad because he is kind enough to be caring to his daughter that even from jail he would remind her to wear her mouth guard. That was offensive but intended to be sweet. It was offensive because King wanted to believe that people are incapable of thinking that a criminal could care for their daughter. It revealed nothing but showed only that King wanted to preserve the status quo.

    The same thing with Louie. Louie encompasses many different genres (at a couple points horror in its most successful incarnation). But always came back to revelatory moments about life and society. Louie got the biggest mileage out of the smallest moments. He was able to make a point about racism, respect for the elderly and family dynamics all in one scene about visiting his Great Aunt. It was funny for its truth value grounded in the uncomfortable tension of visiting his racist great aunt in a decrepit home.

    For me comedy reveals something you couldn’t otherwise express in another mode of expression.

    I would advise you to read Freud’s “The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious” and Marcuse’s “Aesthetic Dimension” to help you probe more of the depths of the robustness of a complex concept as humor.

  3. Tausif Khan
    Posted October 21, 2011 at 4:26 am | Permalink

    I want to expand a little about the point about humor and character.

    The humor in a show like How I Met Your Mother can be formulaic in its sitcomyness when it gives a laugh line that can be said by any character. The show is at its most hacky when it gives a line to a character that should have been said by another one. Marshall and Lily get a lot of mileage about flipping gender expectations and says a lot about their unformulaic experience as a couple with different genders. Lily is very expressive of her sexuality and at times more confident in her decisions than Marshall so much so she makes fun of him and Ted for being such saps. Therefore when Lily and Marshall had the episode where they had separate beds but then Marshall kicked Lily out of bed it just felt like another man just being a dude. It failed to express what we had learned about the characters and their comfort in knowing that traditional gender expectations are not codifying the relationship.

    Comedic lines about fathers will be different when it comes from Barney then from Robin or Marshall because each one had a different relationship with their father.

    NPH in this HIMYM podcast: http://www.cbs.com/shows/how_i_met_your_mother/video/?pid=ds5sxpSqLQVdrxhZhusKb4L1Z645r5_M

    brilliantly explicated on what he thought is the difference in performing drama and comedy. He said that with a drama many different actors can read a dramatic part and make it resonant. However, comedy has a specific timing and rhythm to it that makes it a very specific form.

    Therefore delivery from a specific actor into character is very specific and helps to form the very core of a character.

  4. Mike P
    Posted December 28, 2011 at 2:26 am | Permalink

    Surely if laugh a minute is what people want then they should watch stand-up? Any TV show has to have plotlines to keep it moving, it’s impossible to have a plot with constant jokes unless you have a farce or slapstick which will get very repetitive and boring.

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