Shows Ditch Old Formulas and Formats to Push the Comedic Envelope

Emmy Race Comedy Contenders
peter strain for Variety

Hop in the Wayback Machine and travel to a time not that long ago — circa 1998 — and most of the comedies on TV were tried and true multicam series shot in front of a studio audience. Three of the five Emmy nominees for best TV comedy were multicam [NBC’s “Frasier,” “Seinfeld” and “3rd Rock From the Sun”], only one was a single-camera half-hour [HBO’s “The Larry Sanders Show”] and one was an hourlong program [Fox’s “Ally McBeal”].

Since then the accepted definition of TV comedy has only broadened further.

At one end of the spectrum there are still multicam shows [like the still-mighty “The Big Bang Theory”], mostly on CBS, while at the other there are such experimental comedies as IFC’s first-it-was-a-sketch-show-now-it’s-a-character-comedy “Portlandia.” In between there are single-camera series ranging from ABC’s “Modern Family” to HBO’s “Veep” as well as hourlong comedies, including the CW’s “Jane the Virgin” and the musical “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” And then there are the half-hour streaming shows that are often as dramatic as they are comedic, if not moreso, including Amazon’s “Transparent.”

A Dirty ‘Shame’: Showtime’s “Shameless” mixes dark humor with envelope-pushing drama.

“Unfortunately the comedy-drama labels have become very difficult to apply now to the majority of programming,” says John Wells, executive producer of Showtime’s hour-long comedy “Shameless.” “You have certain things that are clearly a drama, like ‘True Detective,’ but I think the vast majority of shows have a mix of both because they are realistic and that’s how we live our lives.”

Even the genre of Wells’ “Shameless” has been in question. In its first few years on the air, “Shameless” entered the Emmy race as a drama before moving to the comedy category two years ago.

“We always thought we were a comedy,” Wells says. “Showtime had submitted us as a drama before I figured out they’d done it, but it does go to that basic question, ‘What is a drama? What is a comedy?’

“It used to be easily defined: Serious dramas or procedurals were obviously dramas and three-camera shows with jokes were comedies. And then single-camera comedies arrived that explored all kinds of dramatic and kinetic situations, which is actually the way we live.”

Paul Weitz, an executive producer on Amazon’s “Mozart in the Jungle,” says defining a TV show’s genre can be a somewhat arbitrary distinction.

“Peter Dinklage on ‘Game of Thrones’ has one of the sharpest wits on television and on any number of comedies, the characters don’t have wit,” he notes.

Jonathan Krisel, who executive produces “Portlandia” and also showruns FX’s “Baskets,” which explores the often bittersweet lives of a rodeo clown [Zach Galifianakis] and his mother [Louie Anderson], describes “Baskets” as a slapstick drama.

“Here’s the metaphor I would use: You know how ice cream now has a lot of salt, like salted caramel?” he says. “Sitcoms got too sweet with too many jokes in them, and it gets to a point where it’s gross. For me, comedy is when you have a little bit of drama and add a little grounded reality and it’s not just crazy situations getting crazier. When there’s too much funny, it ceases to be funny. Yes, every word was researched and is technically a joke, but you don’t laugh.”

“Here’s the metaphor I would use: You know how ice cream now has a lot of salt, like salted caramel? Sitcoms got too sweet with too many jokes in them, and it gets to a point where it’s gross.”
jonathan krisel

He prefers jokes viewers don’t see coming, like scary moments in a horror film.

Showrunners say the current wealth of comedy choices benefits viewers as well as writers looking to try something new.

“The audience has become more sophisticated,” Wells says. “They expect more complexity.”

Robert Carlock, who executive produces Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” with Tina Fey, says the expansion of comedy styles reflects the growing number of homes for scripted comedy.

“And they’re outlets that have different pressures and in some cases fewer pressures than broadcast and can take a chance,” he says. “There are different models that can work with different audiences. If you were to look at the hourlongs, there’s the same kind of diversity. It’s more striking in some half-hours that are very good [and] not particularly comic but a half-hour is the perfect amount of time to tell a certain amount of story. It begs the question, when does it stop being a comedy?”

Danielle Sanchez-Witzel, showrunner for NBC multicam “The Carmichael Show,” believes comedy is always subjective. “Tonally we’re all over the map with quote-unquote comedy. Does that mean it shouldn’t all be competing in the same category? That’s hard to say,” she says. “I find ‘Girls’ funny, other people might not find ‘Girls’ funny. Comedy is subjective and it makes things like that very difficult right now. We’re often using minutes as what defines a comedy and yet Netflix can do a 40-minute show or they can do a 15-minute show if they want. Even using minutes isn’t accurate anymore.”

For the team behind “Mozart,” the question of how much comedy to inject into the series comes down to intuition.

“We have a lot of playful ideas and try to push back and not let them get too wacky or too overt,” says executive producer Roman Coppola, who paraphrased a Bob Fosse quote, applying it to comedy/drama. “If you feel something funny coming, you step on it a little. If it’s something dramatic, we twist a little humor in. We’re always looking for ways to surprise in a tempered sense.”

“Mozart” executive producer Jason Schwartzman jokes that producers should just make a season of the series and decide afterward if it turns out to be more of a comedy or a drama.

“We just want to make the show about these [characters] and sometimes they make us laugh and sometimes they don’t,” he says. “The joy of working with Amazon is we never feel like we have to be funny.”

Comedy Cornucopia: from left: FX’s “Baskets,” Amazon’s “Mozart In the Jungle,” NBC’s “The Carmichael Show,” CW’s “Jane the Virgin,”THIS IS THE PHOTO CREDIT

“Jane the Virgin” executive producer Jennie Snyder Urman says the broadening styles of TV comedy might also have resulted from a desire by comedy writers to innovate beyond setup-punchline, setup-punchline. Once a new style proved it could be successful, more networks were willing to get on board with new formats, including “The Office” and its mockumentary style.

“You have to be nuanced and darker,” she says of today’s comedies. “There’s a burden on them to do something more interesting and say something more interesting. It’s not that there’s no place for setup-punchline — I like those rhythms — but even comedies that are more traditional multicam sitcoms are dealing with more deep and interesting themes and issues within that framework.”

For NBC’s “The Carmichael Show,” that means topical humor — Bill Cosby and Donald Trump in recent episodes — reminiscent of producer Norman Lear’s ’70s sitcoms.

“We lean into the reaction to situations for laughter,” says star/executive producer Jerrod Carmichael. “We try to keep it as honest as possible. There are so many funny, big moments in life. I don’t want to go so far beyond the realm of believability. I don’t want it to become mindless.”

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  1. Laura says:

    Shameless took a hit in quality when it switched to the comedy category. It truly shines the most during it’s most dramatic moments.

  2. EricJ says:

    Going all the way back to the 70’s days of Grant Tinker and Garry Marshall, Neil Simon comedies on the NY stage were considered the high point of comedy, and single-set sitcoms like Marshall’s version of “The Odd Couple” were like giving the TV audience a half-hour of theatrical farce in their living room.
    We watched actors act, and had the sense of stage-intimacy that let us -like- the characters, and let them interact with each other as if their characters liked each other in the workplace too. (Another idea that hasn’t survived into the 21st century.)

    Until the multi-camera cinematic-style no-audience sitcom came along, every sitcom tried to follow The Office’s mockumentary style, and characters were allowed to be snarky, despicable and/or happily immature symbols of whatever social frustrations the writer wanted to get out of his system.
    That why I’ve been watching the old 70’s/80’s Bob Newhart, Cheers and Frasier reruns on Hulu, I’d rather spend a half hour with people I’m intended to LIKE.

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