Comedy is, at its core, a suicide mission. It has to find completely original material without pushing the kind of extreme buttons that offend audiences, but it also can’t risk the worse fate of not being funny at all.
A visit to the multiplex will find plenty of projects that gamble on pushing the envelope. This summer, “Get Him to the Greek” cracked up audiences with a song about anal sex, extensive drug use and a threesome gone wrong. And last summer’s hit, “The Hangover,” laughed its way to a $277 million cume by turning a night lost to alcohol into a comically gross misadventure.
In contrast, TV comedies have found new laughs while playing in tamer playgrounds. Facing different legal, corporate and creative restrictions from features, sitcoms have rebounded in recent years to produce series, such as this year’s Emmy contenders, that find gentle and even cerebral humor — arguably superior to what’s in theaters — in quirky characters, awkward moments and surprising realism.
It’s the latter factor that has appeared to open the most doors to creative reward, says Steven Levitan, executive producer and co-creator with Christopher Lloyd of the Emmy-nommed ABC series “Modern Family.”
“I think people want more realism — they really want things to feel more authentic,” says Levitan, a TV comedy veteran of such multicamera hits as “Cheers,” “Frasier” and “Just Shoot Me.”
Shooting an episode of a TV series in single-camera style is a lot like making a feature, Levitan says, bringing new creative possibilities for both story and actors to explore. “The dialogue becomes much less about the set up and the punch line,” he says. “You can be much more subtle.”
The success of single-camera is hard to ignore, with all six of this year’s comedy series noms using the format. That’s up from just one of five nominees in 2000.
Restrictions for TV on the kind of content seen on the bigscreen do exist, but Greg Daniels, exec producer of NBC’s “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation,” says comparisons between the two are not apples to apples.
“My point of view is there’s good versions of both,” says Daniels. “There is very soft television writing that isn’t all that creative but doesn’t have any swears in it, and there’s more clever television writing that does have swears in it, and on the movie side you can have both as well.”
That said, there have been instances in which limitations have led to more creative solutions. Daniels cites an episode of “The Office” in which Pam, played by Jenna Fischer, gets entertainingly drunk with the punch line being she eventually grosses everyone out by throwing up.
But when the barfing idea hit walls both within the production and from the network, the scene was switched to Pam falling off her stool. “It actually came out funnier because the other thing would have been gross,” he says.
For most comedies on broadcast networks, the shows are conceived in a way that emphasizes longevity and accounts for the limits of what the network and the audience will accept on television. By the time Jane Lynch, a comedy supporting actress nominee on Fox’s hit “Glee,” does her part, content issues are settled.
Lynch says her approach to acting doesn’t change between features and TV, with the biggest difference being her having some input on some of the ensemble comedy films she has made.
“For those, I get to show up with what I want to do and with a take on what I want to do — and I’m expected to do that,” says Lynch. “And with ‘Glee,’ of course, the character was defined for me, and I just kind of slip into the track suit and do it.”
That’s not to say all TV comedies face such limits. Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie” and HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” both frequently include R-rated language, adult situations and even occasional nudity. But both shows take pains to use those elements to set up humorous situations instead of as a comedic centerpiece or punch line.
Daniels says going to extremes with language or content is perfectly justifiable if it’s required to sell a scene or a joke. “Some of the language on these R-rated movie comedies feels real too,” he says. “It just seems like any way you can make something feel real and then suddenly be funny is good.”
The shows on broadcast networks do push the envelope in their own way. For example, “Modern Family” features a married gay couple and references to sex that in years past would have riled up tremendous controversy.
Levitan says he thinks the key remains matching the right approach to the right material. For example, a show about young, single people looking for sex and love would need to be more adult, while “Modern Family” is about and meant for families to watch together.
“Any time one of those (R-rated) jokes is pitched, I picture myself sitting next to my kids watching it and feeling uncomfortable,” he says. “The rough stuff kind of weeds itself out automatically.”
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