Dark comedies: The best shows on TV are making us cry
In one season 1 episode of Transparent, Shelly (Judith Light) goes over a plan for how she’s about to compassionately kill her dying husband. It’s dark — really dark. But Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) jumps in with a little levity: “We’ll have a wonderful shiva,” she says after Shelly explains, in detail, how many Percocet pills it’ll take to get the job done. “I have the stirrers, and I have the mustard!” Shelly excitedly responds. This is modern comedy — or, as Transparent creator Jill Soloway calls it, “comedy with melancholy running through.”
The genre’s usually thought of as the one people watch to escape from melancholy, to distract them from real life. Those shows still exist, of course — the seemingly unsinkable Big Bang Theory alone, a textbook multi-cam half-hour, proves that those types of happy-ending comedies aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. But now there is also the kind that embraces melancholy head-on, that directly confronts the more unpleasant parts of life. You know the ones: Louie, Girls, Casual, BoJack Horseman. They’re funny, just not in the way, say, Seinfeld or How I Met Your Mother are funny. No laugh track, no tidy conclusion during the final minutes. Messy.
Because of this, their label as purebred comedies sometimes seems inaccurate. Is a show like Togetherness really a full-blown comedy if its season 1 finale — in which Brett (co-creator Mark Duplass) went to declare his love to his wife (Melanie Lynskey) right as she potentially slept with someone else — ended on a heart-sinking, completely unfunny note? The current landscape doesn’t quite allow for shows to formally occupy more than one genre: In 2015, the Television Academy decided that, from then on, any half-hour shows would be automatically categorized as comedies and all hours would be dramas. Shows can fight this by filing a written argument and links to six eligible episodes that showcase their preferred genre, but that’s ignoring that their preferred genre might not even exist as a category.
Here, the creators of critically beloved half-hours on and off the air —HBO’s Girls, Amazon’s Transparent, Hulu’s Casual, Netflix’s Master of None, FX’s You’re the Worst, and HBO’s late Togetherness — tell EW of the power and challenges of not checking a box.
Jill Soloway, Transparent: Like Louie, Girls, the best of Woody Allen, Transparent is comedy with melancholy running throughout. Take things that seem like they could never happen, try to write the funcomfortable truth of how they would go down in real life, then cast great actors with great senses of humor to prove the awful authenticity of the moment with their performances. It’s laughing at the lonely, stumbling questioning. Finding joy in the silly of everything.
Jenni Konner, Girls: I wish things weren’t called comedies or dramas — that they weren’t divided that way. I wish everything was just [labeled as] half-hour or one hour. Didn’t Chris Rock say this at the Oscars, how insane it was that there are best actor and best actress categories, as if it’s two separate jobs? That’s how I feel about this. You either tell a story in 30 minutes or you tell a story in 60 minutes, and you tell it however you want. Just because it’s a half-hour doesn’t mean you need to have a structure of joke, joke, joke.
Soloway: Sometimes I’ll be out there shooting one of my indie film moments, on a beach, with just the cinematographer and the actors, and I’ll think, “This is going up against The Big Bang Theory, which is shot in a room in front of an audience with cameras on dollies. Why? Because it takes around 30 minutes to watch.” It makes no sense. We have more in common with one-hours if you look at it that way.
Mark Duplass, Togetherness: This concept of living in the world between comedy and drama is really only new to television. It’s been happening in film, and independent film in particular, for a long time. What you would have in film was, if you’re going to do a movie at the big studio Fox, you have to know whether it’s a comedy or a drama, and it has to be clearly one or the other. But if you had something in between, you could make it at Fox Searchlight. The same division is almost happening between networks and cable divisions in the television world where, because you’re seeing so many storytellers flock to the television space, a lot of these storytellers tend to be a little bit auteur-driven and they have a voice. What’s great about cable TV in particular is they’re not trying to box you in as much to make one or the other.
Alan Yang, Master of None: I’ve been telling Uber drivers and various other strangers, “[Master of None is] a comedy about a 30-year-old dude living in New York” — pretty much the worst, least gripping elevator pitch possible. But the show doesn’t have a high concept, which helps us, I think. Each episode can be whatever we want it to be. When we pitched the show to Netflix, we definitely called it a comedy — it had a little bit more straightforward of a premise and tone. That evolved over time.
I’ve sometimes been confused at how shows and actors get categorized at awards shows, but the truth is, there’s no clear-cut solution to distinguishing between comedies and dramas. It’s not always 100 percent obvious where to put certain shows, so we’ve kind of fallen back on, “Well, this is a half-hour show, so let’s jam it in the comedy section.” I think people recognize that a show like Transparent is a brilliant show no matter what category it’s placed in, which in some ways makes television a little more progressive and accepting than, say, film. Comedies get very little love and respect at the Oscars, where the last hard comedy to win Best Picture was Annie Hall 40 years ago.
Stephen Falk, You’re the Worst: If you look at our show, we’re telling the audience that jokes are important — we craft and tell jokes of all sorts. We’re not joke machines like a multi-cam, but we certainly are very interested in being funny and entertaining in that way. I think the difference for me is that I don’t get hung up on that label as being something that needs to define us to the point where we can’t break out in terms of subject matter or even tone. I don’t look at it as a box. I look at it as a categorization and, in a certain way, a genre that I’m happy to be in. I think even when we go dark, there is always still a sense that, at the end of the day, that we exist to tell jokes and to make people laugh, but our job is also to reflect life and I think, like life, there’s always the dark sitting right next to the comedy.
Zander Lehmann, Casual: We break the stories like a drama. We try to write the scripts like 30-minute dramas and then try to make them feel believable and real and insert enough opportunities for our actors to sort of play for comedy. My mother thinks the show is very dramatic and very serious; I happen to find it funnier. I fall on the side of, “There’s no such thing as too dark when it comes to humor.” If you can laugh at something that you shouldn’t be laughing at, that, to me, feels like you’ve done your job as a dark-comedy creator.
For me, comedy has always been about surprise. When you have an expectation of where a scene will go or what a character will do and when those expectations are subverted and then you get a different punch line, a different play-up, that’s what I think surprises people and makes them laugh. I don’t watch broadcast comedy; it’s not funny to me. I think the jokes they do never surprise me, so it doesn’t really do much for me. But, look, there’s probably a version. The Last Man on Earth, I think there were episodes of that in the first season that I thought were truly funny. It felt like a show that had bigger humor but also had real dramatic stakes to it. It was about a character, and it was about a sort of depressed character in a world all alone. I think that’s the best version of what the network can do.
Yang: One thing I’ve noticed is many shows are taking on social issues that people talk about at their dinner tables but have been absent from television comedies for a while — The Carmichael Show, Black-ish, our show. It’s a little mini-trend that I’m excited about. Of course, this probably means that in a few years, people will be sick of that and will want nihilistic, misanthropic comedies to wash out the taste of all that earnest, forward-thinking discussion. Maybe there’ll be a new Seinfeld-type show that will blow us away.
Lehmann: The only pushback [Hulu] ever seems to give is, “This feels like a broad comedy beat; it doesn’t feel real enough. Take it out and make it feel more grounded and more realistic,” which is my favorite note to get, ever. They push for reality over anything else. Even if a scene is funny, if they feel like it doesn’t feel like a real thing, then they’ll tell us and we will generally take it out. We had a couple episodes that were sort of blown up because they gave us the note, “This feels like a sitcom.” And we looked back, and we said, yeah, you’re absolutely right. That is a sitcom beat. We’re not going to do that. Episode 5 or 6, we originally had some meet-cute idea with someone getting hit by a car, and they were like, “Don’t do that.” And we didn’t do that, which is good.
Soloway: There are times where we want to approach the more dire aspects of what the trans movement is fighting — suicide, violence — and we have to work harder to put them in our show because we find ourselves in that comedy category. [But] I approach this series with the notion that I am making a five-hour feature film. We’ve created an ecosystem that fosters that, meaning our larger focus is telling novelistic, sometimes sad, most times silly stories without having to be conscious of labels.
Falk: I actually just got a note for an episode in season 3, which we’re writing right now, that echoed a couple of the fears that I got from [the network] about the [season 2] depression storyline, but at the end of the day, it wasn’t, “We think you shouldn’t do this.” It was just saying, “Make sure it’s still fun to watch.” It doesn’t have to be funny, but it has to always be entertaining.