Why Isn't American TV Comedy Funny?
It's as if Americans are afraid to find anything funny about their reality.
Last night I pulled out my DVD set of The IT Crowd (2009-10) to re-watch the first season. I was worried that I wouldn’t find it all that funny. After all, I had heard all the jokes before. But the comic antics of Roy, Moss and Jen cracked me up once again.
Yet I can sit through any number of mediocre American comedies, if I can stomach watching them for a whole half hour, and not manage even a chuckle. I cite Mike and Molly, How I Met Your Mother, Two and a Half Men, Modern Family, Everybody Loves Raymond, Blackish, The Simpsons (except for Seasons 3-9), even the hallowed Friends... the list goes on and on. You, dear readers, may disagree, but these shows are not funny. Even Shut Up & Sit Down, a micro-budgeted British net series hosted by Quintin Smith, Paul Dean, and Matt Lees that reviews board games, is funnier than major American sitcoms.
If we exclude Archer and Robot Chicken, the last American sitcom that consistently produced belly laughs was Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 (2012-13), with the excellent Krysten Ritter as an amoral, abusive roommate of Dreama Walker’s goody-two-shoes June, with James Van Der Beek along for the ride as a skewed, obsessive version of himself. But it got cancelled in 2012 after a seven-episode first season (although a second season was produced that included eight unaired episodes).
We can’t make the excuse that these shows have less money pumped into them, or have weak production values. Quite the opposite. The difference comes from inferior writing, directing and acting. But why? In other facets of mass entertainment, America dominates. But in mainstream comedy, its gets a failing grade.
Part of the reason is that most of this horde of unfunny shows is produced by one of the four big commercial networks, where selling advertising, not intelligence, is their raison d’être. These networks don’t want to offend their mass audiences by pushing any envelopes, so they produce empty-headed pabulum that requires minimal attention spans and hurts no one’s feelings. No uncomfortable violence, no nudity (though lots of sexual innuendo), no politics, little if any character development.
In contrast, comedy produced by the BBC and Channel 4 in Britain, and to a lesser degree CBC, isn’t as caught up in the dilemma of how to please advertisers, so these entities have more freedom. The British commercial network ITV has a higher standard to measure up to than ABC, NBC or CBS, so it tries to match BBC’s style. A season of a British sitcom might consist of only six or seven episodes, with American seasons typically three times as long: the pressure to produce more product triumphs over any sense of quality control.
Yet it’s not just this obsession with "safety", if you will, that makes American comedy inferior. There are two structural elements of British comedy that are largely absent from its American equivalents. First, surrealism and the theatre of the absurd. You do get the occasional dream sequence and alternate reality in US comedy, and a few shows like Seinfeld (1989-1998) and Don’t Trust the B--- in Apartment 23 throw in absurdities on a regular basis.
A case in point is the Seinfeld episode “The Opposite” (1994), where the sad-sack George Costanza decides to do everything in the “opposite” way he would usually do them, e.g., not sleeping with a woman on a first date or criticizing Yankees owner and potential employer George Steinbrenner. The result is a revelation: all aspects of his life suddenly improve. At the same time, the main female character, Elaine Benes, finds her usual successes turning into failures: the metaphysical order of things has been upset.
But in most American comedies, the absurd and the surreal are just nice places to visit. In British comedy, the characters live there on a full-time basis. One of the best British sitcoms of the last two decades, The Mighty Boosh (2004-07) is a show-within-a-show that fashion-obsessed Vince Noir (Noel Fielding) and jazz aficionado Howard Moon (Julian Barratt) introduce to an imaginary audience every week. It wears its artificiality on its sleeve.
In each episode they perform a self-penned musical number with elaborate choreography that is only marginally related to the plot. Further, in the first series they work in a zoo called the Zooniverse that houses, among other things, a talking ape named Bollo that none of them seems particularly concerned with. It regularly features bizarre situations and characters, such as Howard boxing a “killeroo” to prove his manhood, or American comedian Rich Fulcher in the role of their perverse boss Bob Fossil (more on bad bosses in a minute).
But none of this is new. Think back to Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-74), and John Cleese entering a cheese shop managed by Michael Palin, who repeatedly informs him that they don’t many of the cheeses he requests have in stock. At a certain point a band of Greek musicians inexplicably enters, playing over their dialogue.
Or the sketch “The Golden Age of Ballooning”, featuring a mad King George III and a Ronettes-like girl group. Or Vikings sitting in a suburban cafe singing about the glories of Spam. Or Kierkegaard and Nietzsche boxing to prove or disprove the existence of God. Over and over, Monty Python revelled in the surreal. This tradition finds regular revivals in British sketch comedy shows like Big Train, one of its best sketches being a parody of Hitchcock’s The Birds they call “The Working Class”. In it an upper-class couple is increasingly menaced by a mob of men dressed in coveralls talking endlessly about football (more on class in a minute).
A third case in point: Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, the 2004 show that mocks the pretentious style of a non-existent and until recently lost '80s horror show. Matthew Holness plays Garth Marenghi, the creator and writer of Darkplace, as a second-rate Rod Serling. He also plays the fictional Doctor Rick Dagless, who works in the Darkplace Hospital seen in the series. Marenghi comments on the supposed brilliance of Darkplace, a disaster of bad writing and even worse special effects, in the DVD commentaries and extras. Richard Ayoade, also seen as computer nerd Maurice Moss on The IT Crowd, plays Marenghi’s publisher Dean Learner, who himself plays hospital administrator Thornton Reed on Darkplace. Matt Berry plays the moody actor Todd Rivers, who plays Dr. Lucien Sanchez on Darkplace.
Leaving aside its dizzying triple-coding of characters and absurd situations, Garth Marenghi's Darkplace also revelled in failure, making it funny. We all know that Marenghi is a pretentious twat and that his show Darkplace is a silly mess.
American comedy does the opposite, revelling in success. Though it often contains a social outcast or moron whom the other characters ridicule, e.g., Ed and Nolan on FX’s Anger Management (2012-14), the main focus of American comedy is the winners. Ed and Nolan are balanced by young and beautiful Lacey, who gets her way despite being horrible to those around her, a spoiled child whose life mission seems to be to date rich men.
On his show Jerry Seinfeld, despite living in the same grotty flat year after year, has all the money and women he wants. As “The Opposite” pointed out, everything evens out for him -- he can break up with a beautiful woman because she has “man hands” or looks too much like him one week, only to have a brand new one arrive in the next. However, Larry David and the other writers on the show had the courage to make it clear that they were mocking the narcissism of the central characters, which the sombre final episode makes clear: our heroes wind up in jail for breaking the “Good Samaritan” law in a small town they visit.
Charlie Sheen has lots of money and women too in his sitcoms, despite the occasional setback. Ditto playboy Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother (2005-14), played by Neil Patrick Harris, whose being gay ironically undercuts the premise of his character. Further, work and money are rarely issues for our heroes in American sitcoms. The six characters in Friends (1994-2004) all seem to be able to afford nice apartments in New York, despite the fact that for at least part of the series Rachel and Phoebe live on service-industry wages and Joey is as a struggling actor.
Modern Family (2009-) is a paean to the American upper-middle class, showing us how its liberal wing is happy to embrace not only a the '50s style heterosexual suburban quintet, but a gay couple (as long as they’re white and have money) and a divorced Latina mom (as long as her husband is white and has money). I find it difficult to watch: it reinforces the American class structure as much as Ozzie and Harriet ever did.
And there it is, the second element present in British comedy, and largely absent from American shows: class. American comedy largely papers over social divisions in the US, and if it portrays the working class, it shows them as upwardly mobile and comfortable. For the major broadcast networks, we have to go all the way back to All in the Family (1971-78) to find something that approximated realism when it comes to class.
In contrast, much of British comedy involves “taking the piss”. In many British shows, the main characters face an over-bearing and slightly ridiculous boss whom they must nevertheless kowtow to in order to keep their jobs. Further, work (or the lack thereof) is central to the lives of these characters, even in the most surreal shows. We don’t have to watch Dowtown Abbey to remember that class has long been central to British identity. But for Americans, class is something to be ignored or triumphed over, even if sociology tells them that their society has far greater disparities of wealth than the rest of the post-industrial world.
We see this element emblazoned all over British comedy. In Monty Python’s Flying Circus, it was John Cleese’s “Ministry of Silly Walks” and “Upper-Class Twit of the Year” sketches, along with Michael Palin and Eric Idle’s parodies of self-important BBC presenters. In Blackadder I, II and III, Rowan Atkinson played a court functionary who had to please the whims of kings, queens and princes, even though he was clearly brighter than them all. In The Office, the employees of a paper-making firm must endure the cringe-worth idiocies of boss David Brent (Ricky Gervais), prisoners of their failed dreams working in a soulless modernist office, selling a product that they don’t care about.
The IT Crowd varies this a little: our heroes Roy (Chris O’Dowd) and Moss (Ayoade) are stuck in a basement from where they repeatedly inform those working in the upper levels of the building how to fix their computers by plugging them in or turning them off and again. Indeed, the vertical structure of their corporate tower is a good metaphor for class structure in modern capitalist societies. Roy and Moss are regular objects of social exclusion and ridicule by those working above them. Further, they’re burdened with manager Jen (Katherine Parkinson) who lied on her resume that she “has experience with computers” to get a job at the company, but is more interested in buying shoes or dating cute security guards. Their first boss, played by Chris Morris, is a puffed-up, mildly deranged incompetent whose management style does nothing to improve their work environment.
Spaced (1990-2001) takes the relation to work one step further: Daisy (Jessica Stevenson) and Tim (Simon Pegg) are a writer and comics artist who share a flat in London, pretending to be a couple to save on rent. Neither has a full-time job: Tim works in a comics shop run by a strange man named Bilbo, while Daisy spends much of the series looking for work. Despite their economic plight, they spend their days drinking, dancing, playing video games and participating in elaborate fantasy sequences that refer to popular culture mainstays like Lara Croft and Star Wars. The target of the piss-taking here isn’t so much a specific boss as the whole idea of having a regular job -- late capitalism itself.
We even see this taking the piss in some Canadian comedy. The premise of Eugene and Daniel Levy’s Schitt’s Creek (2015-) is that the aristocratic Rose family has lost their money and is forced to life in a motel in the titular town they bought for their son as a joke. Stripped of their wealth, their big-city sophistication is shown to be pointless in their new environment, where the locals regularly deflate their air of class superiority.
American mainstream comedy is a safe fantasy where people don’t fret over work and class doesn’t exist. The same characters do the same things over and over in between commercials selling cars and beauty crèmes. Just get out the rusty old cookie cutter, pour in a Kevin James or Ray Romano in the lead, a wife or romantic interest on the side, add a kooky best friend or neighbour, et voila: you’ve got an American hit.
British comedy shows people caught in absurd situations who have to work to survive, who face a class system where those at the top are pretentious twits who don’t deserve whatever sense of superiority they project. They aren’t afraid of letting their heroes fail. They’re funnier because far more of us are like Roy or Moss than Rachel or Joey: things don’t just “even out” when we make bad decisions. Beautiful lovers don’t just come knocking at our door while we’re wallowing in narcissism with our equally narcissistic friends. In short, British series are not about them. They’re about us.