Feeling a little down about the state of the world? Wouldn’t it be great to turn on the TV and spend an hour just laughing? Well, forget that. TV has never offered as many comedy options as it does today and yet produced so few actual laughs.
We are constantly congratulating ourselves for living through the Golden Age of Television, but I don’t think anyone can really argue that we are in a Golden Age of TV Comedy. There’s no contemporary equivalent of “I Love Lucy,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” or “Seinfeld.” The closest we have today to those classics is “Modern Family,” which is heading into its eighth season and feels more than a little long-in-the-tooth.
The problem isn’t confined to network TV. Basic and premium cable are awash in comedies, as are streaming services like Netflix and Amazon. Almost every time I turn on Netflix I’m notified of a new sitcom that seems mildly interesting but usually isn’t. Part of the problem is that many of the new comedies seem to be targeted at niche audiences – black single women, the transgendered, lesbians with mastectomies, older divorcees, teens, Hispanic single moms, African American college students, etc. It’s hard to find a show with universal appeal.
To be fair, there are a handful of shows that are actually fresh and funny: “Veep,” “Silicon Valley” and “black-ish” are of-the-moment and hilarious, but none are particularly highly rated, and they ask the audience to think too much ever to penetrate the consciousness of Middle America.
An even bigger challenge in comedy is that the most highly respected sitcoms are barely comedies as all. I’ve written about this before, noting that pain, humiliation, and self-involvement are now considered mainstream sources of humor. Shows about drunken, self-abasing cartoon horses (“Bo Jack Horseman”) or pathetic education administrators who burn down their boss’s house (“Vice Principals”) might tell us something are human nature when it’s pushed to the extreme, but it’s definitely not going to give us a respite from our daily cares. (See the “BoJack “trailer below for an example of a very good but very dark “comedy.”)
And it’s not just sitcoms that have ceased to be funny. Late night TV was once the province of laid-back amusement – a place to mellow out with a few laughs before fading away for the day. No more. Now it’s the spearhead for the Trump resistance. Stephen Colbert used to be a sharp and acerbic political critic, but now he’s so bitter about the Trump presidency that he is no longer funny except to Trump haters. (I do have to admit, though, that “Saturday Night Live” was the exception to the rule this year, producing hilarious and much-talked about spoofs of the President and, most memorably, Sean Spicer.)
Meanwhile poor Jimmy Fallon, who deliberately tried to avoid political controversy, isn’t funny anymore precisely because he seems out of touch. It’s a crazy conundrum – you’re not funny if you talk about politics too much, but also not funny if you pull your political punches. No one seems able to find the happy medium – maybe because the country is too split.
One place from where you should be able to squeeze out a laugh or two is from one of the hundreds of stand-up specials on HBO, Showtime, Netflix or Amazon and yet I find this a generally unsatisfying experience. There’s a reason that stand-up works best in front of a live audience. The crowd laughs and you laugh too, even if the joke isn’t that great. But watching alone in your living room with all the attendant distractions? It better be riotously funny. The last stand up special I really enjoyed was Bill Cosby’s 2014 appearance on Netflix (sigh). I did appreciate the achievement of Dave Chappelle’s two recent specials but they were so risqué that I was embarrassed to be watching them even though I was the only one home at the time.
In the end, I think the problem might actually be that there’s too much comedy content. How many more comedy shows are there now than in the 1980s, when TV fractured into specialized channels? Five times more? Ten times? But there isn’t five or ten times more comedy talent than there used to be. Writers who used to be the fourth-funniest person in the writers’ room are now showrunners themselves. Comedians who would be barely scratching out a living 30 years ago in comedy clubs or improv companies now have major production deals.
Maybe we’d be better off with less comedy and more desperate struggling comedians. That would be worse for them but better for us.
(By the way, the exception to everything written above is “The Big Bang Theory,” by far the most popular sitcom on TV and a throw-back to 1970s TV with its punchlines, laugh tracks, easy-to-follow plotting and three-camera production values. The show is not really for me, but audiences seem to like the tried-and-true formula. It’s shocking to me that no one seems to be able to duplicate it.)