All Hail Comedy’s Takeover of TV

Broad City
Courtesy of Comedy Central

A lot of the television conversation in the past couple of decades has revolved around a bracing series of classic dramas, leading many to dub the post-2000 era a new Golden Age of TV.

As a final wave of Golden Age programs like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” began leaving the air a couple of years ago, critics wrestled with the idea of what to call the era we’re in now. The Silver Age? Platinum? Maybe nothing to do with metals?

How about this: It’s nothing to do with drama.

Sure, a lot of good dramas exist right now (and “The Americans,” “The Leftovers” and “Rectify” are the best among them). But what’s more obvious with every passing day is that we are now in an exuberant and important new era in comedy. Call it the Titanium Age or the Unicorn Age or whatever — the important thing is that comedy is calling the shots.

Right now, more comedies feel more vital and more necessary to daily life than many dramas. Comedies fit in around our lives; they’re the perfect fodder for our phones and our laptops and our bingeing marathons. They’re willing to take on our day-to-day existence in fast and furious and hilarious ways; they offer catharsis on the fly. Too many dramas, let’s face it, feel like work, whereas the distilled storytelling and shorter running times of comedies — even the sad ones — makes them much more approachable. 

Whether or not you agree with any of that, there are undoubtedly more comedies around: There were 77 in total in 2009, and six years later, that there were 169 across streaming, broadcast and cable. I did the relevant math for you (with help from FX Research): During that six-year period, when the total number of scripted prime-time shows rose from 211 to just over 400, the number of dramas and miniseries grew by 80 percent, but the number of comedies grew by almost 120 percent.*


Amy Schumer Broad City

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Peak TV, it turns out, is Peak Comedy. Of course, not every comedy is a winner; there are a lot of lame and lazy ones around, as has always been the case. But even if you use the rule of thumb that 10 percent of the output of any art form is truly excellent, ten percent of 169 is a lot more than ten percent of 77. 

So while we’ve waited for the next great drama to turn up and define this moment, right under our noses, comedy staged a stealth takeover of TV, wresting pride of place from from its more prestigious sibling. The coup was overdue. Of course, there are a number of good and pretty good dramas out there right now, but very few all-time greats. There is, however, quite a bit of sluggish or self-indulgent dross; many dramas hew to timid formulas, think a hurtling pace will hide myriad flaws, or clock in at ever-greater lengths without necessarily earning the eyeball time.

In comedy, however — wow. There is something for everyone in this wildly eclectic realm, and many, many half-hour shows that are pretty good, very good or great. There’s a beguiling friskiness percolating through the TV comedy world right now: Dozens of shows feature open-hearted curiosity, a quiet devotion to craft, a willingness to break form and an excitement when it comes to subverting expectations and trying new things. Comedies go to sad or even tragic places, and everywhere you look, there’s great physical comedy, sharp wordplay, weird sex, buoyant silliness, understated despair and a sense of wonder. 

Part of what makes TV comedy so vital right now is its willingness to attack or explore anything. Comedies are engaging with difficult themes and ideas with confidence and skill, which is part of what’s allowed them to wrest the Iron Throne of television from drama.

In a more diffuse era, in which our attention is split among various screens and apps and social platforms and most of us have too many tasks on our plates, we often retreat to TV for plain old entertainment — and it had better be prepared to deliver, preferably in manageable bursts. Many comedies consistently do just that, but to their great credit, most of them don’t feel the need to pat us on the head and patronize us. There are weird experiments and controversial ideas and political agendas all over the TV comedy landscape — and that does feel very much of this cultural moment, in which old hierarchies and attitudes are wobbling and evolving all over the place. Few dramas feel truly subversive or dangerous at the moment; more than ever, comedy is the place where it feels like anything could happen.

Just as drama has become a little logy and prone to meandering, comedy has exploded in a dozen wildly divergent directions. There’s the engaging, irreverent curiosity of “Master of None,” the hilariously ruthless commentary of “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee,” the scathing brilliance of “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” the madcap fever-dream friendship saga that is “Broad City,” the goofy and warm “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” the compassionate existential despair of “BoJack Horseman,” the sharp and profane family comedy “Survivor’s Remorse,” the acerbic yet heartfelt “Fresh Off the Boat,” the weird and wonderful meta-comedy “The Grinder,” the emotionally acute and often devastating “Transparent” and “Togetherness,” the screwball playfulness of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” the anti-sentimental romance of “Catastrophe,” the sly satire of “Silicon Valley” and “Veep.”

And that’s just a tiny sampling of shows that debuted in the last couple of years. If you’re mentally compiling a list of another fourteen shows I should have mentioned, you’re proving my point for me.

The most vital comedies aren’t interested in tossing out softballs. In recent weeks, the parents on “Black-ish” talked about police brutality to their kids, and “The Carmichael Show” devoted a whole episode to the alleged crimes of Bill Cosby“Last Man on Earth” is a serialized comedy about what happens after the end of the world. A season 5 storyline on the consistently irreverent “Girls” revolves around porn and mentions Andrea Dworkin, and “You’re the Worst” successfully integrated clinical depression into its most recent season. “Louie” has taken on any number of difficult ideas, not always successfully, but its willingness to be bold inspired a lot of experimentation elsewhere. “Inside Amy Schumer” has mined topics like rape in the military and the impossible beauty standards women are held to, and then, just for fun, the irreverent show re-made “12 Angry Men” for the Instagram generation.

The renaissance isn’t necessarily restricted to half-hour shows; the more “Marvel’s Agent Carter” tacked toward comedy, the more delightful and essential it got. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is a musical comedy that, at its core, revolves around mental illness, and “Jane the Virgin,” the best show on TV right now, skillfully weaves together comedy, family drama, melodrama and ironic yet warm meta-commentary.

“Jane the Virgin,” the undeniable apex of comedy’s takeover, makes spinning many, many plates in the air look effortless, but its fizzy tone never interferes with the show’s seriousness of intent. It has things to say about motherhood, immigration, ambition, art and being part of a complicated Hispanic clan, and it effortlessly melds half a dozen TV formats in order to create real emotions and meaningful stakes. It’s a treasure, and it’s no less ambitious — and every bit as consistently great — as “Breaking Bad.”  

There’s no one element that makes “Jane” so magical, just as there’s no one reason that comedy is now dominant, but it’s possible to come up with a few theories. As content providers continue to arrive on the scene and as existing networks try to stay competitive, more and more shows are getting made, and comedies generally cost a lot less than dramas. The end result is that a wide array of writers and performers are getting to experiment with a lot of different ideas, premises and tones, and they are less constrained than ever by the tacit limits and unspoken rules of previous eras. Of course, there are a lot of comedy writers also doing fine work on traditionally flavored shows like “The Middle,” “Mom” and “New Girl” and on lovably weird animated programs like “Archer,” “Adventure Time” and “Bob’s Burgers.” But even five years ago, the array of choices was smaller.  

In comedy, timing is everything, and the mood of the current era is very different from that of the mid-aughts, when “Battlestar Galactica,” “The Shield,” “24,” “Lost,” “Deadwood” and “The Sopranos” were on the air. At that point, the nation was engaged in two wars and still reeling from a terrorist attack that, for many Americans, destroyed or altered previously held ideas about how the world worked.

That sense of unease, combined with the ambitions of a generation of TV writers determined to break free from limits that had held them back in the past, led to a wave of dramas and characters that are still influential today. Although there were a few exceptions like “Sex and the City,” comedies that truly broke a lot of molds tended not to survive that long during during the aughts, nor were they generally encouraged to be all that topical or bold. The goal then was to head for syndication with 100 non-serialized episodes, which often limited what comedies could do and how biting and weird they could get.

And so, despite their limitations — Golden Age dramas were usually about violent or otherwise flawed white men — a murderer’s row of of dramatic sagas served as our emotional and cultural weathervanes during that fraught era. Partly due to the thorny tenor of the previous decade, dramas were the shows that explored, processed and reflected the world for us.

America is still contending with any number of problems and frightening trends, but the nation is no longer at war, and many current threats and challenges are diffuse and hard to get a handle on (student-loan debt hasn’t yet led to the creation of a great TV show). As a result, many comedies are small in scale, yet no less addictive for that — quite the opposite.

Even if I have other problems with “Baskets,” Louie Anderson is so great as Christine Baskets that I want to visit her world, which is unique and full of humane, realistic details. “Fresh Off the Boat” is not only an entertaining comedy that perfectly re-creates the garish silliness of the ’90s, it, like “Black-ish,” quietly and purposefully dissects the racism that still permeates America. The lives of animated characters on “BoJack Horseman” seem more real and relatable to me than the lives of the men and women on many dramas in recent years, which is partly a comment on the oddball brilliance of “BoJack” and partly an indictment of many dramas that debuted in the last few years. Way too many of them featured blurry Don Draper photocopies or unmemorable human-adjacent blandbots.

And far from wanting to retreat into half-hour escapes, we are often processing our fears and dreams through the oddball filters of comedy. It’s a measure of how far TV has come that Ilana and Abbi on “Broad City” can mention rape culture in passing and it’s not a big deal, let alone a Very Special Episode. “Master of None” switches effortlessly from rom-com to media criticism and nobody bats an eye. This new wave of comedy has trained us to expect anything, including ideas and jokes we might not agree with, like or understand. But the adventurousness of these shows, not to mention their cores of kindness and curiosity, keeps me coming back for more. 

In the aughts, an array networks realized that dramas didn’t have to be for everyone — they could be for and about very specific kinds of people, and being different and distinct could get a program noticed. That fine-grained specificity has now filtered into the realm of comedy in a much bigger way: The lead character in skit or an episode or a show can be a contemplative owl or a Brooklyn nitwit or a black doctor. These days, very few comedies are trying to please everyone — they are focused on the ideas or themes they want to explore, and they aren’t trying to be all things to all people.

“Focused” is the key word there: A half-hour running time forces a show to tell its story with clarity, economy and brevity. (New rule: No one is allowed to inflict a two-hour drama pilot on us anymore, unless it’s as good as the pilot for “Lost.”)

Drama can learn from its less-hyped sibling — to be less reverent, more playful, more willing to take chances and mess up. The truth is, most Golden Age dramas weren’t half as ponderous as some hourlong shows of more recent vintage. People seem to forget how funny “Mad Men” was or that “Breaking Bad” equipped even mid-season episodes with a driving sense of tension and energy. Some new dramas — notably “Billions” and “The People v. O.J. Simpson” — have a wide-awake sense of momentum and possibility (and they’re often pretty amusing, despite their subject matters). Sure, those shows have ideas percolating within them, but their primary purpose is to entertain. 

It’s worth acknowledging that the categories of comedy and drama are so porous that it’s hard to tell which is which. “Orange Is the New Black” famously switched categories for awards consideration, but in fairness, it’s hard to say which designation really fits the show, which is just one of many hybrids. But right now, too many shows that unequivocally belong in the drama category feel a little — or a lot — stuck in various ruts. 

Their problems are often the byproducts of ambition, which is not a bad thing. But a lot of comedies are truly innovating — and they’re getting under our skins in the process. Let’s start the process of retiring and revising the ideas of greatness formed during the Golden Age, and begin recognizing that it’s no easier to make a fine show that is funny, sweet, warm, weird and sadly hilarious than it is to trawl someone’s lowest psychological depths. Jane Villanueva’s optimistic saga is every bit as complicated and worthy of attention as Walter White’s narcisstic journey, and it takes just as much craft, intelligence, skill and inspiration to tell her story as it did to weave his dark, essential tale. 

All hail the Unicorn Age of comedy — and yes, that name is intentionally absurd. At this moment, smart, bold and subversive comedies aren’t even remotely rare.

* A note on methodology: FX Research classifies shows as comedies or dramas based on how they submit themselves for Emmy consideration. Thus if an hourlong show submits itself in comedy categories, it’s considered a comedy for the purposes of FX’s annual calculations on the number of prime-time scripted shows in existence. 

Some of the ideas in this essay are discussed in the final third of the latest Talking TV podcast, which is here and on iTunes

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  1. janis says:

    “…that long during during the aughts” they are during the shit out of it.

  2. Emmanuel says:

    I disagree with TLO and Sarah, i think Jane the Virgin is a wonderful show and as a latino i relate to them (also because of great storytelling). Plus maybe it doesn’t excell Breaking Bad but it does equall it.

  3. David K says:

    Meanwhile the film industry is doing what-superhero, reboot bs. And charging $15 for it. I’ll stick to tv thanks. Also, I should point out that there is a lot of great work being done on the internet in the form of short series. if you’re say, LGBT, and you want something to relate to, that’s where it’s at.

  4. NicolaChoi says:

    Yes! Absolutely! This article touches on all my favourite shows and makes a very good point–because (okay im a hypocrite for this because Im like 22) but I feel like recently the ‘cool’ thing for TV or film to do is to go “dark”. Like the Batman/Christian Bale trilogy; the darkening of the Superman films; dark shows like Jessica Jones (haven’t seen all of it but heard it’s great), Game of Thrones, etc. But the comedies are the ones that I’ve really related to. Broad City in particular is just balls-out funny and actually is a really relatable and amazing representation of life (though duude they smoke a loooottt) because they bring up certain aspects of life and fodder in passing but the everyday hassles they go through is frankly ridiculous, funny, but the very human aspects of themselves and their characterisations are remarkably consistent. No matter the situation you can just TELL “yep, that’s an Abbi” reaction or “yep, that’s Ilana…”

    Another great example is “Fresh off the Boat”. This is the first show I’ve seen feature a Taiwanese family front forth and centre and it’s so refreshing. Constance Wu is HILARIOUS, and the light-hearted tone of the show is often pierced with assimilating into a culture they are not familiar with, and it’s not really mocked (though it is often funny) — it’s actually, speaking from experience, very very accurate. They do tackle it remarkably sensitively and I really appreciated that. It kind of shows (FOTB) that you can address these very topical situations even in a comedy. That comedy isn’t there just for “cheap laughs”–that because it’s so easy to relate to, when these situations are brought up, especially with FOTB I utterly empathized. Especially with Jessica (Constance Wu) because my dad is like that; he very much wants to preserve Chinese tradition within his two kids (me and my brother) in a very westernised society (yet he understands that it’s not always possible, though we celebrate our holidays, we do undertake traditions, and he likes a double cheeseburger from Maccies).

    I do enjoy dark and gritty dramas, don’t get me wrong–when they’re well-written (cough Person of Interest cough–but even that balances darkness with humour) then any show is all game (if I had the time). I guess what I’m trying to say (sorry, Variety, for taking so long to get to the point oh lord) is that when a show or a film series gets too dark and too … almost ridiculously dark … It loses its point, to me, as a subjective viewer. Darkness isn’t a problem for me. But when you rob an already dark world of any glimmer of hope, of any humour or lightness, then really–I can’t see the point. It’s like freefalling into an abyss. It’s like watching your characters getting hammered down over and over again to a point where the show isn’t just dark, or “shocking”, it’s just…an hour of watching actors getting themselves mentally and physically tortured. Quite frankly if I wanted to watch that I would honestly just watch Keeping up with the Kardashians.

  5. My theory is something you touched on in the podcast: kindness and caring. It’s not a mandatory thing for comedies but in most of the ones you mention here, it’s the key thing.

    There was a long while – from the 90s to the 00s – where meanness and cynicism were a big factor in how comedy presented itself, because that’s how Gen X and most Gen X entertainment was. Seinfeld was a show about nothing (with a bunch of jerks) and all those shows with the fat, childish husband and the thin, nagging wife were about characters who seemed to be just mean to each other, all the way up to The Office, the UK version of which I still cannot handle because I cannot take that many mean jerks. (The only reason I can handle the US version is because Steve Carell’s eyes are kind, which adds a touch of humanity to it.)

    I’m not arguing Parks & Rec started it (though I kind of am) but they brought kindness, caring, earnestness and laughing with (instead of at) to the forefront. The characters are not unkind (except to Jerry) and they want to make their parks and their city better. They care and that makes it easy to care back.

    The kindness theory doesn’t work all the shows you mention here but boy does it work for Jane, which gives every character a voice and a POV, and doesn’t make easy villains where it could (see: everything with Petra).

  6. Hey Mo, you forgot to mention “Review.”

  7. TLO says:

    Jane the Virgin is terrible. As a latina, it does not appeal to me in the least. Most of the followers I see praising it are white, so maybe its content. I haven’t been interested in any comedies coming from basic network shows in years. I do love Broad City, but I catch it on Hulu. Dramas are still more appealing, so long as they are diverse.

  8. Sarah says:

    I do love Jane the Virgin, but it does not excel Breaking Bad.

  9. TheBigBangof20thCenturyPopCulture says:

    Reality shows a golden age of TV? Dystopia is more like it. This is the Twilight Zone of Hollywood.

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