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Emmy Comedy Preview: Quirky Is the New Black

In much the same way that dramas like AMC’s “Breaking Bad” and HBO’s “The Sopranos” made flawed antiheroes easy to root for, a new wave of comedy is putting the oddball front and center. Instead of Jerry Seinfeld playing the straight man to his quirky friends or Michael Bluth watching his family unravel around him, characters like Zooey Deschanel’s Jess on Fox’s “New Girl” and Lena Dunham’s Hannah on HBO’s “Girls” celebrate their eccentricities.

The quirky lead has been a part of TV since “I Love Lucy” took home an Emmy in 1952, according to John Leverence, senior veep of awards at the TV Academy. He cites “The Jack Benny Show,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” and more recently, “Cheers” and “Frasier” as good examples of shows with off-kilter personalities at their core.

However, it’s just been in the past decade or so that show creators and audiences have rediscovered the storytelling range of the
kooky lead.

“Between the 1990s and early 2000s, you start to see great, funny people like Seth Rogen and Jason Segel in movies,” says Jeanne McCarthy, who casts “Silicon Valley,” the freshman series that is nominated for best comedy series. “Steve Carell, Will Ferrell — all those guys started to redefine what the centerpiece of a comedy could be. You want somebody that makes you laugh, but that you care about. Lots of times that’s not going to be the handsome
leading man.”

Though “Silicon Valley” is made up of many crazy characters, the show’s leading man, Thomas Middleditch, certainly has his own eccentricities. Middleditch admits he’s usually cast in smaller roles, as offbeat characters. “Up until this point, I usually played, like, Weirdo McGoogles,” he says. “I’d come out, be like, ‘I’m strange!’ and then leave. Like a walk-on guy. To play someone where a lot of the emotional weight is on my character is a new and interesting challenge.”

With drama leading the way, wacky comedy characters seem preferable to grounded, reasonable types these days.
“I love the quirky character,” says “Veep” casting director Pat Moran. “I love the guy that doesn’t look right. When we did ‘Homicide,’ there were really no heavyset women on television. We just broke every rule with that, and I think it really mattered. It’s a leg up if you have some uniqueness going on somewhere.”

With uniqueness comes truth and empathy, which is crucial to comedy that’s engaging.

“It’s great to be funny, but there has to be an emotional component,” McCarthy says. “No matter how outrageous (show creator Mike Judge’s) comedy is, there’s some kernel of emotional truth and reality in it.”

As comedy moves further away from the traditional sitcom mold, it is becoming ever more diverse. Rather than seeing it as abandoning one format for another, FX president John Landgraf says it’s comparable to a universe that’s expanding.

“Comedy in particular is a genre that has as much stunning range as there is in drama, in terms of tone and genre and pace,” Landgraf says. “We’re just scratching the surface, in some ways. Comedy is in its infancy.”

Much of that expanding universe can be attributed to the rise of the single-camera show, a shooting style that mimics the intimacy of cinema and one that the film industry abandoned early on.

In fact, for the past four years, CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory,” replete with its own quirky lead, has been the only multi-camera series to receive a comedy series nom.

All the others — FX’s “Louie,” ABC’s “Modern Family,” Netflix’s hour-long “Orange Is the New Black,” and HBO’s “Silicon Valley” and “Veep” — are single-cam shows.

“Comedy developed to an exquisite level of refinement over time in Norman Lear’s work, in ‘Cosby’ and ‘Frasier’ and even ‘Big Bang Theory,’ ” Landgraf says. “But there’s not really any specific reason for the storytelling of comedy to be bound up in the stage play anymore. Younger viewers grew up in a one-camera world, not a theatrical world.”

With the definition of comedy continuing to expand, funny doesn’t necessarily mean a constant stream of laugh-out-loud moments that offer the escapism audiences once sought in primetime. And what seemed groundbreaking and different when David E. Kelley’s hour-long dramedy “Ally McBeal” took home the best comedy Emmy in 1999 has become the norm in Emmy’s laffer series nominees.

“Everything is so different now,” says “Louie” writer-producer-star Pamela Adlon, who also has a recurring role on Showtime’s “Californication.” “When I read the pilot script for ‘Californication,’ I had no clue that was a comedy. I didn’t understand what it was. Then in terms of ‘Orange Is the New Black,’ there are things in it that are funny, but I wouldn’t say it’s a comedy. And I wouldn’t say that ‘Louie’ is a comedy. I’d say that they’re television shows. These things can’t be put in a category anymore.”
In some ways, comedy has shifted to a more relatable style that mirrors life, such as “Louie” and “Orange Is the New Black.”

Instead of Carrie Bradshaw filling her closet with $800 shoes on “Sex and the City,” viewers peek into the world of a single father raising two daughters or a woman trying to survive in prison. It’s not exactly aspirational, but it’s certainly grounded in reality.
Although series like these could be seen as risky on a broadcast network, they’re perfectly suited to cable and streaming services, where there’s more room to take chances.

“If you’re not taking appropriately-sized risks, then you can’t get big hits,” Landgraf says. “I’m not particularly interested in doing imitative shows. I’m interested in working with people who have the ambition and the courage to try to do something different that, if it works, will advance the medium of television. ‘Louie’ is a program that will serve as source material and inspiration for many other comedy writers and actors and producers.”

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