Comedy. Funny awkward? Funny ha ha? Funny bizarre? Funny means different things to different people, and so there are many varieties of comedy in today’s entertainment world. Before I list my picks for Best Comedy TV Show on Hulu, let’s take a look at the dictionary definition of comedy, followed by characteristics that I look for in a successful comedy.
Comedy aims at entertaining by the fidelity with which it presents life as we know it; farce at raising laughter by the outrageous absurdity of the situation or characters exhibited; extravaganza at diverting by its fantastic nature; burlesque at tickling the fancy of the audience by caricaturing plays or actors with whose style it is familiar. Generalized sense of “quality of being amusing” dates from 1877. Comedian “comic actor” is 1601; meaning “professional entertainer who tells jokes, etc.” is 1898
That definition covers the main characteristics of comedy, which leads me to a few points I’d like to make:
- The term “comedy” originally referred to plays that had happy endings, as opposed to the tragedy. Now we use the term “comedy” to apply to stand-up routines, movies, tv shows, etc. There are, of course, many categories of comedy now: dark/black, romantic, satire, parody, slapstick, deadpan, tragicomedy, lowbrow, highbrow, etc.
- Bottom line: Comedy is intended to be funny, whether it be in a dark, sarcastic, ridiculous, or generally amusing sense.
- For something to be funny, there must be some thematic elements the audience can relate to – Dysfunctional family relationships, awkward interaction with coworkers, meddling in-laws, etc.
- Comedic actors exhibit certain traits that make them funny: physical comedy (i.e. Kramer bursting through Jerry’s door, or Elaine shoving someone while proclaiming “Get out!”, on Seinfeld), deadpan delivery of lines (i.e. Bob Newhart, Ray Romano), intonation of voice (Jerry Seinfeld’s incredulous, high-pitched yelling, Matthew Perry’s overemphasis of “be” on Friends – “Could this be any more awkward?”), subtle changes in expression (Jim’s glances at the camera on The Office), etc.
- Of course, the actors would be limited in their ability to entertain were it not for the writers. Comedic writers have a knack for writing clever, humorous dialog and scenarios. Who knew that losing a car in a parking garage could be so funny – until Seinfeld’s writers created an entire episode about it. Or that a single phrase could become a source of endless hilarity – until “serenity now” (Seinfeld) and “the rural juror” (30 Rock) and others came along? Other times it’s more about witty, fast-paced scripts, as with the dialog and accompanying narration by Ron Howard on Arrested Development (“Now the story of a wealthy family who lost everything and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together. It’s Arrested Development.”)
- Aside from the acting and writing, audiences connect with comedies because they allow us to escape (doesn’t everyone wish they lived carefree lives in a fantastic New York apartment like the characters on Friends? Or wouldn’t you love to live in a world where you used a supernatural ability to solve a crime and then sit down to eat some delicious pie, like on Pushing Daisies?) or they focus on situations that we find familiar. Though in real life these situations may be less than enjoyable, a comedy can turn them upside down to find the light-hearted, amusing, whimsical, warped, or ridiculous underbelly. Waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant for what seems like an eternity. A husband refusing to unpack his suitcase, which remains sitting at the foot of the stairs while spouses’ pride gets in the way. An inept boss who means well but only creates awkward situations.
- Two characteristics of comedies that I value most are running gags and inside jokes. If a show possesses these traits, it is evidence that the writers value their loyal audience, and want to provide them with “easter eggs.” For example, on a Halloween-themed episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xander was transformed into a soldier, and from that point on throughout the show’s run, he would occasionally draw from his knowledge of combat and weaponry, a holdover from his short stint as an army man. This inside joke was rewarding for viewers, and it also fit well with Xander’s character development on the show, as he always felt out of place on the team of gifted and talented Scoobies. At least he always had his soldier knowledge to fall back on. As for running gags, perhaps the best current example is Barney and Marshall’s slap bet on How I Met Your Mother. How many slaps are left now – is it two or three? 30 Rock and Arrested Development probably have more inside jokes than any other shows, and usually they involve the shows taking aim at their respective networks. 30 Rock, in particular, doesn’t hold back in turning NBC into a running joke, whether its highlighting the network’s head-spinning organizational structure, or taking reality shows to the limit with “MILF Island.”
Those last two characteristics, running gags and inside jokes, are high on my list of necessary ingredients for an award-worthy comedy. They are evidence that the show runners have carefully planned and written the show. Other important ingredients include smart writing, outstanding acting, memorable characters, and, simplest of all – something that makes me laugh. The more, the better! There’s nothing worse than sitting through a sitcom and not laughing once. What’s the point? Another trait that puts a comedy low on my list includes relying on lowbrow humor or sexual innuendo for most of its laughs. There are a lot of funnier things to focus on, but often it seems like shows take the gross out and/or sex joke route because they are the easy way out.
So, now that I’ve laid out my idea of what is required to have a successful, classic, hilarious comedy, I will review the nominees for this category of the Hulu Awards (Best TV Comedy Show), and then announce and defend my proposed nominees. Stay tuned.