The subject is comedy. If it is not exactly true that it “can’t get no respect,” to quote the comic, it does get less than it deserves.
It has become commonplace to say that we are living in a New Golden Age of Television, or a Platinum Age of Television, depending on whether your point is that things are as good now as they were back when Lucy ruled the waves or whether your point is that things have never been as good as they are now.
On one level, since there has always been great television, this just means that people — critics, and the rest of you — have been given permission, by the self-creating zeitgeist, to take it seriously. And television has continued to take itself more seriously in turn: to raise the bar, to push the envelope, épater la bourgeoisie. It has become more purposefully daring but also more subtle in its aims and effects.
One not unreasonable result of this seriousness is that what looks most serious gets taken most seriously. Just as the Oscars have long overlooked comedy on film, from “The Sopranos” to “Deadwood” to “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” the New Golden/Platinum Age has been largely identified with drama. As reckoned by the website Metacritic, aggregating year’s-best lists from 61 TV critics, only three comedies, NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” and HBO’s “Enlightened” and “Veep” — or four, if you include the line-walking “Orange Is the New Black,” which Netflix is entering in Emmy competition as a comedy — made the top 20 for 2013. (“Louie,” the comedy series taken most seriously by most critics, would surely have been there had it not taken the year off — though it would have knocked “Veep” off the list in the bargain.)
Meaning no disrespect to “The Good Wife,” “The Americans,” “Top of the Lake,” “Scandal” or any of the other dramas on that Metacritic list, many of which I would bedeck with superlatives myself. But to my mind, whatever the Nielsen ratings or Twitter trends might seem to say, comedy is the day’s great creative mode — the more stylistically radical, more structurally ambitious, more thematically various, more unpredictable form. (Of course, comedy has its predictable, conservative wing as well, which some simply call CBS, and most dramas have a comic streak.)
The New Golden/Platinum age is often charted from the 1999 birth of “The Sopranos,” which, with its paradoxically charismatic central performance by James Gandolfini, launched an age of anti-heroes (and, rarely, anti-heroines), in which moral ambiguity, shocking violence and a garnish of (usually female) nudity ruled the day. Some will point out that it was preceded in much of this by “Oz,” the Tom Fontana maximum-prison series.
But both were preceded on HBO by the equally groundbreaking “The Larry Sanders Show,” which ran from 1992 to 1998 and is the show that, to my mind, really brings in the modern era. Garry Shandling’s profane workplace comedy was a naturalistic farce that created a lot of current storytelling modalities, including famous people playing altered versions of themselves, the walk-and-talk now identified with Aaron Sorkin, and the use of improvisation.
Today, there is no dramatic equivalent to Comedy Central’s “Drunk History,” fashioned from a three-way collision of reality and artifice and inebriation (actually inebriated narrators recount actual historical events, which are brought to life by lip-syncing actors); or to its “Kroll Show,” whose interwoven mock reality series lives in a space defined by chyrons and musical cues; or to the brawny surrealism of Adult Swim’s adventure series “Eagleheart” or its white-trash supernatural soap “The Heart, She Holler”; or Scott Aukerman’s not entirely mock-talk-show-with-fictional-through-lines “Comedy Bang! Bang!”; or Stephen Colbert’s double-gainer irony on “The Colbert Report”; or the late “Community,” which used parody as a storytelling device, borrowing styles from different precincts of television week to week with only the characters and the setting remaining the same; or the Tex Avery whipsaw rhythms of the even later yet still resonating “30 Rock.”
We are in the habit of regarding tragedy as more meaningful than comedy because comedy lets us off the hook with a laugh, if not always a happy ending. And yet good comedy addresses, with an unclouded eye, everything that drama addresses as well as a lot of things that drama ignores: It finds fathomless interest in the small indignities of life and in the many minor peculiarities of human physiology, psychology, desire and intercourse, even as it puts the most tragic events in proportion — everything from flatulence to fatality is grist for its mill.
Contemporary TV drama tends to be exotic; it focuses people whose lives are bigger than ours, who are the victims or perpetrators or solvers of crime, who fight wars and suffer ghosts, who live in different times in different clothes and are subjected to more than usual amounts of stress. In the current empire of television, where cable is the tail that wags that network dog, sex and violence (and, distressingly often, sexual violence), those sensational standbys, have become increasingly common tools. I would hardly call them subjects — in most cases they are administered like shots of adrenaline and often glamorized. Even in the best, least-gratuitous dramas, the naked people of television tend to be unusually good-looking — and mostly women — which is what makes Lena Dunham’s normal-body nudity on “Girls” so potent.
Comedy, by comparison, is local and lifelike. It is also inherently philosophical. The much-admired dialectical banter between Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle and Woody Harrelson’s Martin Hart in HBO’s “True Detective” is daily business to comedy, from “Mom” to “Broad City,” from “Portlandia” to “Parks and Recreation,” where belief systems and world views are constantly knocking against one another.
Comedy also goes to matters of sex and violence, sometimes stupidly, more interested in the shock than the meaning of the shock. But the best work holds them up to the light, turns them around, takes them apart. It is an art of examination, in a way. Is there any drama, excepting maybe “The Good Wife,” as consistently smart and unflinching about these things as “Inside Amy Schumer”?
While television drama is all but locked into its hourlong format, with long arcs the custom even for highly episodic shows, comedy may be as short as a single line or as long as a season. It is a darting PT boat to drama’s aircraft carrier. (Which is why it works so much better on the Internet.) It may be sketch-based or serial, naturalistic, fantastic, metafictional, scripted, improvised, live-action, animated, the voice of an auteur or the work of an ensemble; it may present real people fictitiously or impossible characters casually; and it may combine any of these elements as it pleases.
Some of this comes down to personal predilection, to be sure. That it feels more crucial to me to keep up with the Indianapolis family comedy “The Middle” than with the fantasy-realm family drama “Game of Thrones” is not because I have made a conscious decision about their relative (and anyway incomparable) merits. I get something I need from the comedy that I don’t from the drama, though each is in its way a story of power and scheming and a clan set against the world.
It is something more than a matter of taste. Humor is a coping mechanism, obviously, and laughter (says the Reader’s Digest) the best medicine. But it’s also a way of being in the world: Comedy is tragedy plus time, in the familiar formulation. We are fools, and we are all going to die; that is funny and/or it’s sad. But you might as well laugh.