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‘Barry,’ ‘Good Place,’ ‘Kominsky Method’: How Death Became TV’s Laughing Matter (Column)

There’s a common thread that ties together most of this year’s comedy actor contenders, and it’s pretty morbid. For a category that’s supposed to be all about chuckles, there sure is a lot of death.

On “Barry,” Bill Hader plays a hit man — and although he’s struggling to move past his murderous profession, he’s still haunted by the people he’s had to off. Michael Douglas’ character in “The Kominsky Method” has to comfort his best friend (Alan Arkin) after the loss of his wife (Susan Sullivan), and the specter of everyone’s advancing mortality is an ongoing theme. Ted Danson is a spirit in the afterlife who helps a group of deceased misfit humans try to get into “The Good Place.” Don Cheadle’s “Black Monday” starts and ends with a gruesome death on the day of the 1987 stock market crash. “Forever” follows Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph into the beyond. Jim Carrey’s “Kidding” character is still coping with the death of a child. John Goodman’s Dan Conner is newly widowed on “The Conners.” Ditto Ricky Gervais on “After Life.”

Not quite the stuff of laughs — but “Barry,” “The Good Place” and most of the shows on this list are some of the best series on television. These complicated leading comedy actor roles are also a reminder that there’s no one-size-fits-all definition of comedy or drama anymore. And by the look of this year’s comedy actor contenders, some of the best comedic performances on television are also the most dramatic.

Hader is the incumbent in the category, having won last year for the first season of his HBO series — in which, among other things, he kills one of his best friends and the girlfriend of his acting coach and new mentor (Henry Winkler) in order to cover his tracks.

The quiet anguish that Hader’s Barry Berkman feels, struggling with PTSD and feeling trapped between the person he is and the life he dreams of living, makes for a powerfully understated performance that deserved last year’s Emmy.

It’s all the more stunning when you consider Hader’s background on “Saturday Night Live” and the laughs he’s received over the years for playing absurd characters. Carrey and Gervais too are known for their over-the-top comedic performances but are now doing some of the most dramatic work of their careers in “Kidding” and “After Life,” respectively.

The line between comedy and tragedy has often been blurry, but until the modern Gilded Age of TV (to borrow FX CEO’s John Landgraf’s phrase), comedy and drama mostly stayed in their lanes. That distinction began to change in the late 1990s with “Ally McBeal,” and then in the early 2000s with “Desperate Housewives” — hourlong dramas with enough comedic elements that the shows competed in the Emmy comedy categories.

Both of those shows were funny enough to get away with it. But even though they have their silly moments as well, “Barry,” “Kidding” and some of TV’s other top comedies balance humor and pathos so well that they could just as easily be classified as dramas. As a matter of fact, in its first several years, Showtime’s “Shameless” was submitted as a drama, before switching to comedy. Star William H. Macy started receiving noms after the show made the classification change.

The Television Academy added a caveat to the rules this year, to prevent category flip-flops. Going forward, programs will be allowed to switch categories in the Emmy race just once. After that, they’re locked in — and won’t be allowed to categorize again.

But maybe it’s time to drop those distinctions all together. Should stars like Hader, Carrey, Armisen and Macy compete against drama contenders like “Better Call Saul’s” star Bob Odenkirk and “Ozark” lead Jason Bateman, two other comedy actors now broadening their chops?

“I’d like to see best program of the year and drop that distinction,” one network president recently told me. “Or be much more specific about which is which. We want to blow up the old rules and reinvent the things we create. But then we should reflect that in how we draft the rules.”

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