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TV Comedy Writers Find Gags That Make Viewers Sweat

Scribes use 'funcomfortable' stories to ponder serious issues

Addiction, police brutality, gender discrimination, and racism are hardly issues that, on their surface, are particularly amusing for those facing them.

And yet, some of this year’s funniest TV comedies are making topical issues exactly that — a laughing matter.

“I really believe that comedy allows a lot of entry points for conversation,” says “Black-ish” creator Kenya Barris, who frequently tackles race and cultural issues on his ABC sitcom. “If you get people laughing, you can talk about almost anything.”

Jill Soloway, creator of “Transparent,” which continues to explore sexual identity and gender in a changing world, agrees. In fact, mining humor out of uncomfortable situations is something they delve into so frequently in the writers room that Soloway even has a term for it: “funcomfortable.”

To Soloway, whose show is based on her own family’s experience of her father’s transition from male to female, being able to address serious, sometimes controversial topics is as important as the story itself. “I can’t imagine making art any other way,” she says. “I love comedy and I love filmmaking, but I don’t think I would be able to enjoy myself if I didn’t feel like I was doing something to change the world.”

Soloway says she likes using humor in uneasy situations because in her experience, that is usually how life unfolds.

“The silly and the sad always seem to be wrapped up in each other,” she says. “There is a space where something deep or sad is happening and it just fills and expands and then finally bursts because of something shared and funny.”

But it is challenging to try to mine humor out of a controversial topic. Barris was nervous as he set out to write “Hope,” the episode dealing with police brutality in the aftermath of the Ferguson indictment.

“I don’t think I would be able to enjoy myself if I didn’t feel like I was doing something to change the world.”
Jill Soloway

“I did not want to trivialize the conversation and the situation, and this aspect of the world that we’re living in today,” he says. “At the same time, we’re doing a comedy, and so I felt like it was really important to make sure there was a balance between the comedy and the seriousness.”

To his relief, his script had the desired effect, evoking a range of emotions in his cast and crew. “The table read was really heavy and light and cathartic for all of us. People were laughing. People were crying. At the end, people stood up and applauded. I wanted to cry.”

While some shows look for balance, the writers of “Veep” rarely hold back when making fun of a broken political system and addressing issues that make some Americans’ blood boil. Showrunner David Mandel believes one of the reasons they can evoke more laughter than wrath is because Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and her staff aren’t defined by a particular political party.

“They are based on the real world, but they’re never the real world,” Mandel says. “We are an equal- opportunity offender.”

Mandel has no problem exploring sexism, or centering an entire episode around the worst word one can use to describe a woman.

“Our job is to find the comedy in these difficult issues,” he says. “My own personal feeling is there’s nothing that shouldn’t be laughed at. [The ability to laugh] is the most important thing in the world.”

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