Comedy conundrum: Dark and stormy vs. light

Gallows humor makes for an awkward but rewarding fit at Emmys

Jenny Bicks was confident that cancer could be funny.

While much of last summer’s pre-premiere buzz for Showtime’s “The Big C” revolved around whether its lead character’s melanoma diagnosis would prove too off-putting for viewers, its executive producer, a cancer survivor herself, believed the dark subject matter could put a successful new spin on a long-held comedy tradition.

“As opposed to divorce or a new girlfriend or so many other things that have been used as obstacles in comedies of the past,” says Bicks, “this show’s obstacle happens to be a disease.”

Validation came when “The Big C” not only became the highest-rated Showtime series premiere in eight years but also garnered critical acclaim and snagged a Golden Globe nom for best comedy. (Star Laura Linney won the Globe’s comedy actress statuette.) But “The Big C” is not the only show tackling dark themes to find itself in the mix for a comedy series Emmy nom this year.

In the boundary-pushing world of cable, the field is particularly rich. Showtime entries include the struggling-with-addiction “Nurse Jackie,” which scored a nom last year and a win for Edie Falco as lead comedy actress, and the multiple-personality half-hour “United States of Tara,” starring 2009 Emmy winner Toni Collette. HBO’s darkly comic entries include the Golden Globe-nommed male prostitution series “Hung” and edgy “Eastbound & Down,” while FX has thrown its support behind “Louie,” the often-morose series that explores how star Louis C.K.’s dark worldview informs his stand-up comedy.

But as the number of more serious-themed shows grows, so too does the debate over whether they actually belong in the comedy category.

“It gets very tricky,” admits Steve Levitan, whose hit “Modern Family” won the comedy category last year. “It’s not a science. We’re all trying to do art. But I think it’s often confusing and difficult for voters, or even for producers trying to decide which category to put themselves up for.”

Some comedy writers believe the Emmys could use an overhaul. “It’s an imperfect system,” says Mike Schur, whose NBC comedy “Parks and Recreation” is generating kudos buzz for its particularly strong third season. “It almost feels like it would be better if the categories were just half-hour show vs. hour show. It would take the sting out of the argument of what’s a comedy or what’s a drama.”

Emmy brass has no plans to reclassify the categories or add one for dramedies, where darker-themed shows can compete. Some producers say that’s for the best.

“We will never be pound for pound, joke for joke, as funny as ‘Parks and Rec’ or ’30 Rock,’ ” says “Nurse Jackie” executive producer Liz Brixius, who shares showrunner duties with fellow exec producer Linda Wallem. “Yet we all have a right to be in comedy. ‘Nurse Jackie’ is our sense of humor. It’s a comedy borne out of absurdity and gallows humor. It’s whistling past the graveyard.”

Bicks, for one, believes shows like hers are broadening the definition of comedy, not entirely unlike the introduction of the single-camera format once shook up what was previously a multi-camera field. “The category continues to evolve,” she says. “The things that are out there are more distinct and unique. I think that’s part of what’s getting people excited about comedy again — that it’s not just defined within this narrow window of ‘sitcom.’ ”

“I think the more permutations of comedy, the better,” Brixius adds. There’s funny stuff and there’s poignantly funny stuff, and they can co-exist.”

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