The Tragedy of Modern TV Comedy

The Tragedy of Modern TV Comedy

Emmys Comedy

Seth Meyers’ opening monologue of the 2014 Emmys was wonderful in many ways. But there was one joke in particular that grabbed me. It was truly brilliant in being funny… until I managed to think too hard about how true it is.

To whit:

“We had so many great shows submitted this year. We had comedies that made you laugh, and comedies that made you cry… because they were dramas submitted as comedies.”

But it was actually Ricky Gervais’ intro for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Special that prompted me to action.

Jim Parsons had already won the Lead Actor in a Comedy Series category by then, and Gervais — in a style that only he could pull off — did a spot-on pseudo-awkward acceptance speech bit that was also truly brilliant in being funny… until I managed to think too hard about how untrue it is.

Unlike many I know, I’m not a geek who hates “The Big Bang Theory.” With its syndication on TBS, it’s a nice bit of a background filler for me when nothing else is on. I’ve paid enough attention to know that there’s a degree of character development going on, and that Parsons’ Sheldon Cooper is most of what makes the show funny at all.

Meanwhile, my curiosity was well piqued about Gervais. I had never watched “Derek,” which was nominated based on just the first season of the show, but which now has two complete seasons (totaling 13 episodes) available on Netflix.

During this lazy, long Labor Day weekend, I began the first season. I grew increasingly indignant. Indeed Gervais’ performance as Derek — a 49-year-old genuine, lovable nursing home caretaker with a childlike innocence — is magnificent. It’s almost like Gervais pieced together all of the kindness missing from David Brent (“The Office”) and Andy Millman (“Extras”) to create a character that doesn’t have a douchebag bone in his body. Instead he’s reassuring and inspiring. And by putting him in certain situations (particularly given the setting of an old-folks home), Gervais can take you from gut-wrenching weeping to primal laughter with one line.

By the next afternoon, I had completed the entire series, emotionally drained and a bit confused. How did Jim Parsons, already with three Emmys under his belt in the category, beat out this kind of performance. Then I looked again at the nominees:

  • Ricky Gervais as Derek in “Derek” (described on IMDB: “A loyal nursing home caretaker who sees only the good in his quirky co-workers as they struggle against prejudice and shrinking budgets to care for their elderly residents.”)
  • Don Cheadle as Marty Kaan in “House of Lies” (described by IMDB: “A subversive, scathing look at a self-loathing management consultant from a top-tier firm.”)
  • William H. Macy as Frank Gallagher in “Shameless” (described by IMDB: “An alcoholic man lives in a perpetual stupor while his six children with whom he lives cope as best they can.”)
  • Matt LeBlanc as Matt LeBlanc in “Episodes” (described at too much length on IMDB, summarized as A British sit-com writing team endures the Americanization of their hit show, now starring a wildly miscast Matt LeBlanc.)
  • Louis C.K. as Louie in “Louie” (described by IMDB as “The life of Louis CK, a divorced comedian with two kids living in New York.”)
  • Jim Parsons as Sheldon Cooper in “The Big Bang Theory” (described by IMDB: “A woman who moves into an apartment across the hall from two brilliant but socially awkward physicists shows them how little they know about life outside of the laboratory.”)

Obviously these shows are about much more than this, but the gist is there, as is the issue. What is a comedy anymore? The only real apples-to-apples comedy competitor for Parsons in this list of nominees was LeBlanc. Louis C.K.? Well, that’s less obvious. Here’s a stand-up comedian, doing comedy bits in the show. It’s not a sit-com the way “Big Bang” is, but sure, dark comedy is comedy. Everything else is questionable, and perhaps indicative that the Emmy categories themselves need real review and tighter submission guidelines.

Should “Derek” have been a drama, competing against “True Detective,” “House of Cards,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad”? Of course not.  But at only 6-7 episodes per season and (given Gervais reputation’) likely finite seasons, maybe it should have been considered a Mini-Series? But then, talk about a messed-up category. “Fargo” is there with its 10-episode first season and a two-year deal in place (though no confirmation yet of a second season). So is “Sherlock,”  with its feature-length 3-episode seasons, renewed for a third at least. Meanwhile “True Detective” was an 8-episode first season, doesn’t seem to have been renewed for a second season yet (though show creator Nic Pizzolatto is already doing press about it), and was submitted in the Drama category.

Perhaps some new drama category is in order, distinguishing hard dramas from more nebulous shows like “Derek” and “Shameless” and “House of Lies,” which prove that having comic relief in a largely serious storyline does not turn a drama into a comedy (and vice versa as it pertains to allowing comedies to tackle serious issues). The differentiation should lie in how the scale tips. Gervais knows comedy, but “Derek” was so overwhelmingly sweet, poignant, and heartbreaking, that the laughs were like adding sprinkles to the cup of ice cream that was the show’s drama. “Orange is the New Black” … not a comedy! “Nurse Jackie” … not a comedy!

I’d feel guilty suggesting that the Emmys needs an entirely new category (and the actor/actress/writing categories that go with it) to fix their problems… if they hadn’t pretty much handed all of the awards to “Breaking Bad,” wasted our time with Sofía Vergara spinning in circles, and ignored the likes of Tatiana Maslany (“Orphan Black”) at the nomination level.

Television isn’t what it used to be, that’s for sure. But simply acknowledging Netflix as a viable “network” isn’t enough, Emmys. It’s time to really get with the program so that the awards are really able to represent the best of this brave new television world.







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