Are You Having a Laugh?

When I originally conceived this post, it began as an idea to rant about how finally, for the first time in a decade, the sitcom was returning to its full glory.  But just as I was set to compose a piece complaining about the comedic drought of the early 2000s (basically how every show since Seinfeld, Frasier, Arrested Development, etc. went off the air, we’ve been subjected to nothing but lackluster, boring, predictable situation-comedies), it struck me that this wasn’t really an accurate thesis statement.  The truth is, with shows like Scrubs, Family Guy, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Office (British and American versions), and others I can’t presently recall; we’ve actually had several pretty decent offerings since the sitcom’s modern Golden Age of the late 90s.  So instead of composing a long and contrived rant about how Hollywood forgot how to make us laugh, and laziness runs rampant throughout the writers’ guilds, I’ve decided to take the opposite position and write out an informal review of current comedic offerings and whether or not they’re worth your hard-earned 22 minutes of weekly attention.  As usual, you’re welcome.

Must Watch: these are the shows that are so good, you plan your whole night around seeing them so you’ll have something to talk about around the water-cooler the next day — or if they’re less popular, the shows that you spend your entire week trying to convince your friends to watch just so you’ll have someone else to discuss them with around the water-cooler the next day.  They are listed in no particular order.

Flight of the Conchords

Premise: a pair of struggling kiwi (New Zealander) musicians document the trials and tribulations of “living the dream” in New York City.  Their general naïveté coupled with their penchant for poverty put them in all sorts of brutally miserable situations — the kind of misfortune that will bring a smile to your face quicker than you can say schaudenfreude.

Hits: Their wacky NZ accents could make almost anything they say funny (but they don’t just lazily rely on that), co-star Rhys Darby could probably be prosecuted for the number of scenes he steals, and their musical numbers are second-to-none.  Anyone who’s ever pursued the life of a starving artist — or known someone who has — will probably find bonus laughter relating to their “a little too close to accurate” portrayal of being broke in New York.

Misses: HBO-only programming kind of pisses me off — you’re a movie channel, why are you making sitcoms?  Also, official word just came out that the show’s creators and stars declined to do a third season, citing the difficulty of keeping the material fresh and funny while constantly having to write new music in addition to scripts and storylines.  Supporting character “Mel,” can also be more grating than funny at times.

Verdict: The most original, hilarious product to come from New Zealand since the Lord of the Rings trilogy, pick up both seasons and let the laughter peal far and wide.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

Premise: Three borderline-amoral friends/bar-owners and their part-time employee/full-time sidekick go out of their way to live life as fun and selfishly as possible — all while avoiding anything that might lead to character growth or a desk job.

Hits: Everything these guys do feels so organic and naturally hilarious, you’d think you were watching a live-action textsfromlastnight.com documentary.  The only proof that they aren’t just improvising everything is the blooper reel included on each season’s dvd set.  Danny DeVito as a supporting actor hasn’t been this good since Batman Returns.

Misses: Airing on the FX network, and liberally taking advantage of their TV-MA rating, this isn’t the family-friendly fodder you can put on in the background at a family holiday gathering for everyone from baby Joey to Grandma Patterson to enjoy (…wait a second, why is that a bad thing?)

Verdict: Always one to jump at the chance to say “I told you so,” I watched the pilot of this show five years ago the first time it went to air, lauded its praises, and was ignored by my fellow man.  Now, a half-decade later, everyone is on board with the same hilarity I’ve been enjoying for years…the longer you wait to get into this show, the more you’ll hate yourself for procrastinating your own amusement.

The Office

Premise: A well-meaning, but oft-ignorant boss of a generic, “everyman” cubicle-farm does his best to convince himself — and those around him — that their lot in life isn’t as bad as their dead-end jobs would seem to suggest.  A reworking of the most successful comedy series in British history.

Hits: Steve Carrell does a brilliant job portraying the boss everyone has had at some point, the “Jim and Pam” love saga remains well-handled from season to season (despite the potentially shark-jumping marriage), breakout-actor-turned-star Rainn Wilson is hilarity incarnate.

Misses: Sometimes Michael Scott, as a character, is written so far overboard that it’s difficult to suspend your disbelief enough not to say “Ok, I get it, he’s wacky and he’s ths boss, but really, someone would’ve called the police by now.”  The serious segments can become borderline too serious for a show that markets itself as something purely wacky.

Verdict: The Office essentially invented/popularized the single-camera sitcom sub-genre all on its own, and week-in, week-out is worth watching for the interactions/reactions betwixt leading men Steve Carrell, John Krasinski, and Rainn Wilson. Tremendous supporting cast as well.

Community

Premise: Stereotypical stud lawyer loses his license and is forced to attend a community college in order to get his life back on track.

Hits: Joel F-ing McHale.  Anyone who’s seen more than 30 seconds of The Soup knows what to expect from his snarky, quick-witted delivery of one-liners and “I’m better than you, but you’ll like me anyway” attitude — but none of that makes it any less amusing to watch.  I haven’t seen someone play themselves so successfully since Keanu Reeves in Point Break (and yes, that’s a compliment).  Chevy Chase’s return to comedic relevance was long overdue.  Supporting actors are tearing it up, especially the trio that plays Ahbed, Annie, and Troy.

Misses: The lead actress who plays opposite Joel McHale’s character (whose character name has yet to stick in my psyche) can be kind of stale at times, and their chemistry often rings false.  That said, it’s a comedy, not a soap opera, and as long as the comedy portion stays funny, I couldn’t care less about the rest.

Verdict: Only in its fledgling first season, we’ve yet to see if this show has the legs to make a run as anything more than a flash-in-the-pan prospect, but even if it is just a one-season stand, it’s worth being along for the weekly ride.  But the fact that a struggling and recently-sold NBC has it in its “dream team” mix of Thursday night programming bodes well for its future, says I.

Modern Family

Premise: Three branches of the same family tree explore how divorce, race, sexuality, dysfunction, adoption, and communication (or lack thereof) shape the look and feel of the truly modern family.

Hits: The actor who plays the lead family’s father, Phil, is an absolute riot, and this entre show would be worth watching if only to see his antics.  Luckily there’s a strong supporting cast and great writing backing him up, so there’s plenty of reason to stay interested.

Misses: I tend to shy away from sitcoms that use the “twenty minutes of funny, two minutes of message” formula because the latter part often feels forced, contrived, or just plain boring — that’s yet to happen with Modern Family, but it’ll remain a concern until we get another season or two deep.

Verdict: This show caught me 100% off guard; I watched the pilot at random or maybe at the recommendation of a friend and laughed my ass off.  Maybe I’ve just grown to expect too little from major network sitcoms, but this one is an absolute laugh.  And unlike It’s Always Sunny, stays funny without crossing any lines that your diehard catholic grandma will call you out on over Christmas dinner. Watch it, and taste the happy.

South Park

Premise: The black sheep of modern-day sitcoms, South Park portrays elementary-school students breaking taboos that fully-integrated adults wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.

Hits: Funny voices (the same half-dozen used to voice hundreds of characters), unique styling, an outright refusal to become part of the Hollywood regime of pandering to celebrities, and a “hot off the presses” feel to the topical subject matter all make South Park feel more like a half-hour with your slightly-racist uncle than legitimate television programming.  But all the fart jokes and curse words would be for naught if the underlying message wasn’t so poignant and skillfully written.  South Park uses a crass and unsophisticated mask to mock institutions and society in order to get us laughing along, then at the last second, reveals that we were the butt of the joke the entire time.  And yet somehow you don’t hate them for it.

Misses: Sometimes a fart joke is a thinly-veiled jab at America’s mindless celebrity worship, sometimes it’s just a fart joke — if you’re not the kind of person who’s ok with either of those options, then you’re gonna be let down sometimes.  Also another show you’ll want to leave off if it’s your turn to host a meeting of the close-minded and/or elderly.

Verdict: If you want to be reminded that there are worse people than yourself in the world — and laugh while you’re doing it — then this show is for you.  Also good for a passive-aggressive way of calling out your friends if they’re drinking too much of society’s proverbial Kool-Aid on a given subject.

Family Guy

Premise: Lethargic American stereotype Peter Griffin spends his time making us laugh with little else in mind.

Hits: Family Guy was the first sitcom to really pull the blinders off, and start making the same kind of jokes that were previously just being shared between friends and close coworkers.  Fast-paced, mostly nonsensical comedy about (seemingly) whatever pops into creator/writer Seth McFarlane’s head, if you want to smile without having all that pesky thought that goes with it, then this is the show for you.

Misses: Family Guy has already produced two spin-offs (well, one-and-a-half, really), and it’s own joke-telling style can wander dangerously close to the predictable/stale edge of humor…but it’s yet to fully take the plunge, and often mocks its own formulaic writing.  What more can you ask for than a show that mocks its own flaws?

Verdict: A quantity > quality look at joke-making, there’s not a lot to hate about this show as long as you don’t take it more seriously than it takes itself.

Honorable Mention: These are shows worth watching, but maybe just whenever you get around to it, or when you find yourself bored on hulu.com.

30 Rock

If I receive any hatemail from this post, I expect that 99% of it will result from not putting 30 Rock in the “Must Watch” category.  To be perfectly honest, I have no beef with this show, and I’ve thoroughly every episode I’ve seen, but I haven’t seen enough of this show to be able to give it a solid recommendation one way or the other.  That said, I’ll watch Will Arnett in anything, Alec Baldwin finally found a role he can play, and comedy god Steve Martin makes appearances, so that’s enough reason to check out a show right there.  My one gripe is that I don’t always vibe with Tina Fey’s writing the same way other people do, and I don’t really care for that blonde supporting actress, either.

How I Met Your Mother

Another casualty of my limited tv-viewing time, this is a show I’ve enjoyed every now and again, but have yet to sit down and watch en masse — despite the acclaim for it from my friends and peers.  Neil Patrick Harris has been making me laugh (intentionally or not) since his Doogie days, and this is another one where the supporting cast makes it worth a second look.  It’s in my blockbuster queue, ok?

Scrubs

Five seasons of great comedy crammed into ten years, and now on its second home network, Scrubs has always been the Dwayne Wade of sitcoms for me — still really really talented, and probably better than 90% of its competitors…but it’ll just never be Kobe Bryant or LeBron James.  And this season’s setting change from “practicing doctors” to “med school teachers” sounds like an idea that came from the same people who thought Joey was a viable spin-off.  I smell a pending death that’s only being staved off by ABC’s lack of replacement material.

The Simpsons

I appreciate what that mustard-yellow family did for modern situation comedy storytelling and structure as much as anyone — especially during a time when there wasn’t much innovation being pushed within the industry — but that’s about as much credit as I can give them.  A few funny runs here and there, for me, The Simpsons’ long-term appeal only extends as far as the word “D’oh!” and the fact that Bart is voiced by a girl.  My favorite parts of that show were always listening to Phil Hartman or Hank Azaria do various voices, but that was more out of respect for their art than because I found the overall writing particularly funny.  That said, it’s better than nothing if you need something to watch on a Sunday night if football and basketball are out of season.

Glee

Another time-will-tell story, Glee’s first season has already lost me as a viewer on two separate occasions — not a good sign.  The only reason this one is even a consideration is because I like musical numbers, I like Jane Lynch’s character, and I like the actress who plays Quinn (Diana something?).  But if the writing and acting doesn’t improve, I’ve got Broadway for my musical fix, Arrested Development for my Jane Lynch fix, and if I’m that desperate for a hot blonde in a cheerleader’s uniform, I’ll pop in season one of Heroes.

Parks & Recreation

A classic example of a show whose product is less than the sum of its parts (a slate consisting of Amy Pohler, Rashida Jones, Aziz Ansari, and more), you’d think this would be a nonstop laugh-a-thon, but it rarely produces more than a chuckle from me.  I’ll give any show a season to impress me, and again here’s an example of how a Thursday night timeslot means it’s likely not going anywhere anytime soon, but this might be the half hour I use to get dinner between Community and The Office.  The guy who plays Amy’s boss, Ron, is great though, Amy and Aziz clearly improv some funny material, but that’s about where my interest (and the show’s pull) dies off.  Originally this show was supposed to be a direct spin-off of the American version of The Office, but I’m glad someone had the good sense to not associate it directly with that world of papermakers from Scranton.

Oldies, but Goodies: If it’s a rainy day, and you’ve already hulu’d, DVR-ed, and Netflixed all your current options, maybe pop in a couple of these classics for a first or repeat viewing.

Arrested Development: Arguably the best sitcom of all time, if you haven’t seen this show in its entirety (or worse yet, if you have, but just don’t find it funny), then you haven’t truly lived.

Seinfeld: The first powerhouse sitcom of our generation, Jerry Seinfeld took a 75-minute standup routine and turned it into a decade of on-air laughter.  Thank him, and relive the best inside jokes of the 1990s.

Extras: The second major project of English comedy mastermind, Ricky Gervais — this series takes everything that people liked about his version of The Office and capitalized on it to produce this sitcom about a struggling actor’s rise and fall from stardom.  It’s all the hilarity you expect from Ricky, minus some of the overly “is that funny or are they just British?” awkwardness that’s often associated with English comedy and gives you something awesomely enjoyable that also makes you take a step back to think about the monsters that fame has created in our modern societies.

The Office (British version):

The original only ran for two seasons (by the creators’ choice), but two years was plenty of time to spawn a comedy megahit that’s yet to be replicated across the pond, and was such a solid idea that it was successfully cloned here in the states with the aforementioned show that’s now in its sixth season.

Coupling (British version):

While I’m pushing comedies from Great Britain on you, I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you to check out a show called Coupling.  It deals directly with the sexually-charged aftereffects of a society that’s too wholly focused on image and stature, and the crazy situations you can get yourself into if you let yourself think with your reproductive organs.

That’s all I’ve got for now — hopefully you appreciate the irony of how un-funny this post about comedy has been, and don’t hold the lack of hilarity against me.  Check back soon for my…you know what, it doesn’t even matter what — it’s the internet, and I know you don’t have anything better to do with your free time anyway, so I’ll see you back here real soon.

Peace, love, and rock.

Dustin

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One thought on “Are You Having a Laugh?

  1. starbux says:

    nice share, great insight.

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