Culture Drives Laughs in Today’s TV Comedy

Silicon Valley

From “All in the Family” to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” to “Seinfeld,” comedy has always lived in the zeitgeist of the culture, and if there’s one series that satirizes society’s ever-expanding love-hate relationship with modern technology, it’s HBO’s freshman entry “Silicon Valley.” In one episode, and in quick succession during a disastrous business meeting, a “Star Trek”-esque TeleHuman device bites the dust, a Skype session goes south and, to boot, there’s bad cell phone reception. It’s a scene that aptly mocks our collective frustration with the toys meant to make our lives easier but that ultimately create infuriating stumbling blocks.

It makes you wonder: Weren’t we way better off getting together in person? And that’s the big joke, broadly told but also completely on point and realistic. And that’s why it works.

“I always thought the distance between the promotional mystique and the actual frustrating consumer experience is pretty funny,” says Zach Woods, who stars as Jared, the structure-seeking tech geek, on “Silicon Valley.” “The thing about the show (that) I like in terms of the satirical elements is that it’s less about the particular products and more about the culture.”

What endears “Silicon” to audiences is that its humor resonates in a way that never feels alienating or off-putting. It’s equal opportunity in the way it both makes fun of its characters and empathizes with their predicaments.

“(The show) ridicules the things about Silicon Valley and just people in general that are worthy of ridicule, but I don’t think it’s dehumanizing,” says Woods. “I don’t think the show feels like it’s cooler than the subjects. Shows that are mean ultimately are not funny for very long.”

Gone is the era of Archie Bunker when comedies like “The Jeffersons” and “Sanford and Son” dwelled in politically incorrect territory. With certain exceptions (think “Louie’s” recurring “life sucks” theme that verges on the depressing), shock value has superseded social issues, with irreverence and outrageousness today’s comic aim.

“In the ’70s and early ’80s on TV, they would make jokes about race and sexuality and religion and now we don’t do that,” says Retta, who plays Donna, the sassy office manager on “Parks and Recreation.” “We don’t highlight bigots, if you will, but we’re raunchier. We have more sex jokes, but not necessarily sexuality jokes.”

There’s also more fluidity in this year’s Emmy Comedy race than ever before, with uproarious series such as “Parks and Recreation” and “Modern Family” competing against much darker skeins like “Shameless” and “Orange Is the New Black.” Even “Girls,” in which Lena Dunham walks around unabashedly in a green bikini for an entire episode (which is the joke), prescribes to a far more nuanced brand of comedy than, say, over-the-top laugh fest “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”

“Shameless,” says executive producer John Wells, is very much in the vein of the boundary-pushing comedies of yesteryear.

“What we are allowed to now make comedic is substantially different than what it used to be,” says Wells. “What they were doing on ‘All in the Family’ some 30 years ago was very pointed and satirical and (it’s) what we try to do on ‘Shameless.’ We’re doing class satire. We’re poking fun at the notion that our nation is a meritocracy, which everyone knows isn’t quite true.”

Most TV comedies, says Wells, citing Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie” as one example, live at that curious intersection of Sad and Absurd. The idea of a “conventional” comedy, he proffers, is essentially a myth.

“A more sophisticated way of looking at these shows is in the way they tell their stories, particularly in serialized shows, where they fall into a much grayer and more naturalistic category than comedy vs. drama,” he says. “Personally, I don’t think those categories are valid anymore.”

As our relationship to television evolves, so does our perception of what makes something funny, Woods says.

“People are enormously media savvy now and that’s affected the way people experience comedy,” he says. “Back in the day, audiences didn’t know what a showrunner was, but now people are more interested in the mechanics. They want to see the gears; they want to look under the hood a little bit more. I wonder sometimes if the personality of the actor — who’s tweeting funny things all week long — eclipses the character he plays (on TV) in the viewer’s mind. I’m not sure if this makes a show funnier or less funny. It’s confusing, and really interesting, but maybe that’s OK. Maybe all we really want is to feel connected to individuals.”

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