While television dramas are meant to make you think, their comedy counterparts have long held dual roles: they have to make you think and they have to make you laugh. This poses an exciting challenge for an actor, who must find the choice funny moments in pages of scripted sadness. The past two years, Jeffrey Tambor has taken home the Emmy for lead actor in a comedy for his work on “Transparent,” which balances humor with deeply emotional scenes. Other actors, including Aziz Ansari on “Master of None” and Zack Galifianakis on “Baskets,” also tackle some serious issues.
“Funny and sad or comedy and drama; some mixture of those two is the bet way to tell stories,” says William H. Macy, who relishes these contradictions in his thrice-consecutive Emmy-nominated role as a drunken, drug-addled con artist (and decades-long loser of Father of the Year) Frank Gallagher on Showtime dramedy “Shameless.” “Every story is improved by adding in its opposite at strategic times. The tragedy of what Frank does to the family is presented by the writers and creator John Wells … but they [couch] it in outrageousness and humor and Frank’s particular personality, where you just love to hate him. That allows them to tell a dark story that people can stick with for a long time and it allows us to address some dark places.”
The experience of dark comedies can also be cathartic for actors. Paul Rust, the creator and lead of Netflix’s relationship series “Love,” either the most ironic or painfully honest title of a show on right now, spoke just after leaving his therapist. He says some days on set playing the often backbone-adverse Gus Cruikshank are just as helpful for working on his personal issues. He credits executive producer Judd Apatow for pushing the show, and Rust himself, to explore deeper.
“Although I don’t struggle with substance abuse or addiction [like co-star Gillian Jacobs’ character, Mickey Dobbs], my struggles of wanting to be liked and being co-dependent and all the stuff I’d rather want to ignore and repress, that’s the stuff of the show.”
|“For the longest time, I never wanted to be stereotyped as the fat funny guy or the comic relief. … A lot of people have said, ‘Man, you’re always on.’ I’m not on; this is just how I am.”|
Another series that could be classified as a romantic comedy that deals with dark places is FXX’s “You’re the Worst.”
After three cycles of covering the ups and downs of the courtship between Chris Geere’s narcissist Jimmy Shive-Overly, and Aya Cash’s edgy and clinically depressed Gretchen Cutler, FXX’s “You’re the Worst” ended its third season with him abandoning her on a hilltop mere minutes after he surprised her with a marriage proposal, thus opening a dialogue for audiences about commitment and monogamy — and, it should go without saying, selfishness.
“In a lot of romantic comedies that I’ve done before and that I’ve seen on TV and in the movies, you seem to go from level one romantic to level 10 romantic in the space of 10 minutes,” Geere says. “The reason why I think ‘You’re the Worst’ works is we’re always reining ourselves back. Love and relationships are not easy. You need to keep in touch with who your character is and you don’t want to get there too quickly. For these two people, especially, it’s such a long road.”
Anthony Anderson, who has twice been nominated for his starring role as Andre Johnson in “Black-ish,” says, “Comedy is something that comes natural to me.” But he adds that stepping away from the genre to do such drama series as “Law & Order” and “The Shield” and movies like “Hustle & Flow” helped others realize his range.
“For the longest time, I never wanted to be stereotyped as the fat funny guy or the comic relief in television and films,” he says. “A lot of people have said, ‘Man you’re always on.’ I’m not on; this is just how I am … It’s not a switch that I turn to be on and be that caricature. It’s just who I am; this is how I exist.”
|“I love comedy that comes from a lot of tension. We love the idea for this show because every scene you’re doing, that tension is from the overall premise.”|
These other roles also helped him prepare for some of the ABC half-hour’s more serious topics, including this season’s “Lemons.” That critically praised episode, which aired before Donald Trump’s inauguration, allowed him to give a stirring monologue about his character’s ability to still love his country despite its history toward African-Americans.
“It’s great to be able to go from one extreme to another,” he says. “With that episode, it shows the arch of the show in the character, it shows the depth of the show in the character and it allows us to travel a great distance in the dichotomy of what’s going on with this individual, in particular, and how it works throughout the show. I get to run the gamut of emotions on our show, from the absurd and the silly to the very dramatic and earnestness of this character. It all seems to work seamlessly within these 22 minutes that we’re telling the story.”
But comedy can also offer some escapism from real-world struggles. Sick of stressing about mass extinction and population reduction after watching a zombie apocalypse in AMC’s “The Walking Dead” or the religious dogma of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”? Dive into the margarita pool that is Fox’s considerably more light-hearted “The Last Man on Earth.”
“We don’t try to make too much of a comment” about the environment or our own society, says series creator Will Forte, who has received Emmy nominations for both writing and starring as Phil Miller, the series’ titular survivor. “I love comedy that comes from a lot of tension. I think these dark areas provide that backdrop of tension. We love the idea for this show because every scene you’re doing, there’s that tension from the overall premise.”
The therapeutic laughter that comes with comedies may also offer something that dramas, by their nature, all too frequently do not: hope.
“A joke at the right place allows the audience member who has been vicariously living every second of this story to step back a little bit and exhale and laugh,” Macy says. “It’s just a little reminder that there’s hope and it’ll get better. It makes a harsh story a little more palatable when you tell it with a little bit of humor.”