The Laugh Track Relapse
Do "Ted Lasso" and "Schitt's Creek" prove that the sitcom is making a comeback?
Conventional wisdom has held that television didn’t officially come of age as a medium until “The Sopranos.”
Before creator David Chase was able to realize his vision of mafiosos in crisis and kickstart the “Golden Age of Television,” television was seen as the inferior art form - something to keep the masses distracted between car commercials.
Yet, that conventional wisdom is being challenged more and more each day. Recently, Marvel’s “WandaVision” lovingly recreated the tropes of family sitcoms, stoking nostalgia for the era of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “Bewitched.” Legendary television creator Norman Lear teamed up with Jimmy Kimmel to produce primetime read-throughs of classic “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons” episodes (the result - “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” - was a ratings smash for the first episode).. Younger generations are rediscovering classics like “Cheers” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” on streaming services. Even Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood… (both the film and the recent novelization) looks back on shows like “Gunsmoke” and “Wagon Train” with the fondness typically reserved for classic films.
As Gen X (and David Chase’s) cynicism over TV’s supposed disposability has become replaced by fanboy enthusiasm in recent decades, the sitcom appears to have been given a new lease on life.
For proof, look no further than two of the most successful comedies of the past few years - “Schitt’s Creek” and “Ted Lasso.” Both are both throwbacks to an era before auteur TV.
“Schitt’s Creek” - a Canadian sitcom about a wealthy, eccentric family who lose everything and are forced to move to a small town - gained steady momentum throughout its U.S. run on (of all places) Pop TV. It became a word-of-mouth hit on Netflix, helped no doubt by pandemic binge-watching from audiences desperate for something light. This culminated in an unprecedented full sweep in all major comedy categories for the show’s final season at last year’s Emmy Awards.
“Ted Lasso,” which launches its second season on July 23, recently broke the record for most Emmy nominations for a freshman comedy. How did a fish-out-of-water show about an American coaching Premier League soccer - on a platform as obscure as Apple TV Plus (try explaining that to Grandma) - become the clear frontrunner for the Best Comedy Emmy in its first year?
It’s simple, really. Both “Schitt’s Creek” and “Lasso” have clever, memorable joke-writing. They have characters that the audience wants to spend time with (there’s a reason why my dad and I have rewatched “Ted Lasso” twice each).
But most importantly, these shows aren’t afraid of making the audience feel good.
Much has been written about the message of optimism baked into “Lasso” - epitomized by the crude hard-drawn “BELIEVE” sign that Ted posts in his team’s locker room in the first episode. In today’s landscape, in which much content has an increasingly pessimistic tone, the audacity of Ted Lasso’s hope can feel like an oasis in the desert.
Big media companies are so consumed with library comedy titles - “Friends” was billed as a crown jewel of HBO Max’s launch, while Peacock promotes itself as the only streaming service where you can binge “The Office.” Yet when the same companies greenlight new content, they seem wholly uninterested in making blue-sky programming.
Modern comedies are typically darker, more plot-driven. They often have auteurs at the helm who are interested in interrogating inner demons rather than laughing them off. Many of these comedies are among the essential works of the new century - “Fleabag” and “Atlanta” in particular. However, when a comedy veers into tragedy suddenly, is it really that surprising anymore?
I think back to the first season of “Bojack Horseman” on Netflix - one of the first (and best) comedies of the streaming era. The initial episodes promised an absurdist cartoon about talking animals in Hollywood (sorry - “Hollywoo”). By the end of the freshman season of “Bojack,” it had become a gutting reflection on loneliness, depression and addiction. Back then, it was shocking that a talking horse was making the audience feel something. Today, you expect a side of existentialism with every animated Cartoon Network show.
Sure, this new age has given us stellar shows like “Barry” on HBO, “Russian Doll” on Netflix, “Ramy” on Hulu and “Hacks” on HBO Max. However, although you may eagerly anticipate the next season, these shows are often too traumatic to rewatch. Even shows with a more traditional rom com premise like my beloved “You’re the Worst” (about a couple played by Aya Cash and Chris Geere who form a toxic union) toed this line, tackling depression and grief.
There’s no doubt that it is a positive thing that comedies have been able to get more experimental (although it’s now muddied by associations with its star, no one can deny that the FX show “Louie” was largely responsible for this sea change) - but even that has resulted in a new type of formula. Let’s call it the “somb com.” These are shows that have given up on traditional joke-telling, and have all the trappings of serialized drama.
So where does that leave the role of the sitcom today?
The likely reason we haven’t seen a sitcom revival is because hit comedies were a product of their time. If made today, “Friends” would be rightfully roundly criticized for its all-white cast, and the initial seasons of “The Office” would be a cultural lightning rod for trying to make Michael Scott’s ignorance lovable. Even a more recent show like “The Big Bang Theory” would likely not last long with its title - which today is even more of a lame middle-school joke.
We’re also more open about our struggles in the modern day, and art has caught up to reflect this. There was never a “Friends” storyline about Joey’s descent into alcoholism or an arc on “Office” about Pam suffering postpartum depression. The much-parodied “A Very Special Episode” was often just that - limited to one episode. Even the socially-conscious Norman Lear shows had to reach a happy resolution in 22 minutes. The expectation to confront social issues has made it difficult for shows to be light or breezy throughout.
However, another major reason why joke-driven shows have become less prominent is because we can’t decide what is acceptable to laugh about anymore. Late night has gotten less silly and more serious post-2016, as the headlines became less funny. Conan’s departure in June feels like the end of an era of less politically-minded monologues (he and Craig Ferguson, once time slot competitors, had comedic tastes that drifted toward the wild and the weird). Sense of humor is increasingly tied to ideology - long gone are the days when we could all laugh together at Johnny Carson or Carol Burnett wearing the curtains. Wit and escapism have been replaced by stark reminders of reality.
There are exceptions, or course. There’s a reason why the sketch show “I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson” has taken over Internet culture. The show is simply funny, and cycles through jokes that hit fast enough that you forget about the ones that miss. It feels fresh because it’s not afraid to be weird. Meanwhile (with some exceptions - like the Bowen Yang iceberg sketch) “SNL” in the post-”Digital Short” age feels more engineered toward the content that will rack up the most Internet views the next day (enough with the non-Lonely Island musical parodies, please).
The vampire comedy “What We Do In The Shadows” on FX also feels pretty special in the current moment because it’s so similar to classic comedies - bringing together a talented cast of up-and-comers and planting them in absurd supernatural situations. On that show, keeping the rules of the vampire underworld consistent is frequently at a lower priority than the next punchline.
Even “30 Rock” creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock are still fighting the good fight for unabashed silliness, although their recent shows don’t have the same consistent spotlight of cultural attention (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” “Great News,” “Mr. Mayor” and “Girls5eva” have had varying levels of success throughout their runs).
I’m not arguing that we cancel all dark comedies - merely arguing for greater balance in the comedy space. If comedies like “Ted Lasso” and “Schitt’s Creek” are top-tier and poised to bring home the Emmy hardware, where are the middle-tier sitcoms? Where is today’s reliable stalwart like “Scrubs”or “How I Met Your Mother,” or whacky quip-machines like “Happy Endings?” Give me a show that launches new stars like “New Girl” or a cult comedy with a rabid fanbase like “Community.” Give me a warm blanket show that I can quote along to like “Parks and Recreation.” All I want is something that I can expect to laugh at, at least as I wait between seasons of the comedies that make me despair.
Other Stray Thoughts
Pig, the new film starring Nicolas Cage, might be my favorite narrative film so far this year. It is the anti-John Wick, with Cage searching for the men who stole his truffle pig but leading with sympathy and understanding rather than violence. The bait-and-switch this film pulls (it is being marketed as a genre picture, when it’s really a very human drama) is pretty affecting. Check it out in theaters.
I also saw the new Anthony Bourdain doc Roadrunner over the weekend. It was a tearful experience that made me consider how much Bourdain has shaped who I am and how I live my life. The most interesting part of the doc was seeing how his death re-oriented the lives of those closest to him. You see every emotion reflected - anger, sadness, empathy for his struggles. This film is not a hagiography by any stretch - it deliberately leaves you with mixed feelings about how Bourdain treated people in the last years of his life through to his death. Yet it is still does the work of canonizing him as an important figure. Check it out in theaters, and soon on CNN / HBO Max.
(As for the media firestorm over whether it was ethical to use AI to recreate Bourdain’s voice to read selections of e-mails that he wrote? Please, give me a break. There are so many other documentary filmmakers who deserve to have their ethics questioned before Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) - who never lied about his use of the technology. The same outrage has never been levied at Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering despite the fact that nearly every project they’ve done together (The Hunting Ground, On the Record, Allen v. Farrow) has been trailed by stories of inaccurate or unethical reporting. Neville is an easy target-of-the-week, but I trust him far more than other, more sensationalist doc directors.)
Been on somewhat of a heady sci-fi kick recently. I saw the Robert Zemeckis film Contact for the first time, and it made me miss both big-budget original swings and Jodie Foster as a movie star. I also rewatched Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. If you haven’t seen it, I think it’s one of his most haunting and ruminative masterpieces (yet it still has a less depressing dystopian vision than Ready Player One). This great piece by Indiewire critic David Ehrlich captures why.
Otterson, Joe, “TV Ratings: ABC’s ‘Live in Front of a Studio Audience’ Easily Tops Wednesday,” https://variety.com/2019/tv/news/live-in-front-of-a-studio-audience-abc-ratings-1203224560/
Maglio, Tony, “Ted Lasso’ Breaks ‘Glee’ Record for Most Emmy Nominations for a Freshman Comedy,” https://www.thewrap.com/ted-lasso-emmy-nominations-comedy-record-glee/
Rosner, Helen, “The Ethics of A Deepfake Anthony Bourdain Voice,” https://www.newyorker.com/culture/annals-of-gastronomy/the-ethics-of-a-deepfake-anthony-bourdain-voice
Setoodeh, Ramin, “Why One Survivor Regrets Trusting Documentary Directors Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick,” https://variety.com/2021/film/news/on-the-record-allen-v-farrow-amy-ziering-kirby-dick-documentary-1234928930/
Ehrlich, David, “Spielberg’s ‘A.I.’ Divided Critics, but It’s the Ultimate Coming-of-Age Story 20 Years Later,” https://www.indiewire.com/2021/06/spielberg-ai-artificial-intelligence-turns-20-tribute-1234647354/
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