It used to be easy to define a TV comedy: characters hitting punchlines for half an hour in front of a live — and lively — studio audience, captured by a static four-camera setup.
It’s no longer that simple. The TV landscape has changed so dramatically that one Emmy voter’s comedy is quite literally another voter’s drama.
In a few cases, the traditional format thrives — i.e. the universe’s No. 1 sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory,” and its edgier sister series “Mom” — but today’s “comedy” has more styles than the stars on an Emmy red carpet.
Do you prefer your comedy dark or cheerful? Lowbrow or high? Bruising or fanciful? British or Brooklyn? Take your pick. It’s all available.
Some comedies are easy to spot. The serialized storytelling in HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” and the nuanced performances of Thomas Middleditch and T.J. Miller as a socially awkward tech genius and his slovenly self-appointed patron, would feel right at home in a straight-faced hourlong format, but no one would ever accuse showrunners Mike Judge and Alec Berg’s gut-busting series of being a drama. From the bionic monkey arm, to the three-comma club, to “O.J.” (“I’ve changed the meaning to Original Jared”), no show made me laugh out loud more this year.
Except perhaps the final 13 episodes of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation.” Michael Schur’s upbeat charmer, filmed in a mockumentary style, never sacrificed its brain for its heart. And just try to find a funnier comic set piece this season than Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope making up the lyrics to Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” as step one in regaining the friendship of Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman). “Parks” signed off broadcast TV with no obvious successor when it comes to ambitious storytelling, consistent hilarity and genuine warmth.
Except perhaps “Jane the Virgin,” the CW’s giddy and inventive blend of telenovela storytelling and deeply felt character-driven comedy, overseen by Jennie Snyder Urman. Yes, it’s a hourlong. So what? All you need is one look at supporting standout Jaime Camil’s hilariously over-the-top death scene on show-within-a-show “The Passions of Santos.” No other show makes a better argument for how silly it is to try to define an entire genre by its running time.
Except perhaps Amazon’s “Transparent,” which burst onto the scene last fall delivering laughter, tears, rueful insight into family ties and refreshing explorations of gender identity and sexuality. There’s a subtlety to the show’s sly humor that makes it feel like real life. Call it a half-hour drama if you like, but defying archaic labels is woven into the very fabric of Jill Soloway’s indelible creation.
Any of these shows would be worthy winners of the comedy series Emmy — and every one of them for different reasons.
Which begs the question we’re always faced with when it comes to awards season. How do you compare “Louie” with “Fresh Off the Boat”? “The Last Man on Earth” with “Survivor’s Remorse”? “Veep” with “Grace and Frankie”?
Even when they’re taking on familiar formats — like family sitcom “Fresh,” or the odd couple scenario of “Grace” — the smallscreen’s best comedies are no longer boxed in to delivering the same canned jokes and limited character arcs week after week. Instead they boast distinctive subject matter, unpredictable shifts in tone and gratifyingly complex characters.
And that’s the best argument I can think of for not wasting any more time trying to define what a “comedy” is — and simply enjoying the vibrant options of TV in the 21st century.