The biggest hit of the television season was supposed to be The X Factor, a reality performance show from American Idol’s Simon Cowell. But something has changed since the days when Idol and Survivor were crushing all other TV in North America. The X Factor is a success, but on Wednesday, it’s beaten in the ratings by the comedy Modern Family, and then it comes back on Thursday to lose to The Big Bang Theory. Meanwhile, new dramas like Pan Am and Terra Nova are getting trounced by comedies like the retooled Two and a Half Men, which is getting even more viewers with Ashton Kutcher than it did with Charlie Sheen. This scenario would have seemed bizarre only a few years ago, when reality and hour-long drama were the future of TV. But now everyone wants to do half-hour comedy. Matt Watts, a Canadian writer-performer who stars as a neurotic therapy subject in the CBC’s Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays (airing Tuesdays, but not Thursdays), told Maclean’s that although it’s “more dramatic than most half-hours,” if it were an hour-long drama, “it would be tedious.” Comedy is where the fun is, in more ways than one.
The death of the sitcom was a big story in the ’00s, when Lost and American Idol were the huge hits and Two and a Half Men (the Sheen version) was one of the few comedies in the top 10. Veteran drama and comedy writer Jane Espenson (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) warned blog readers in 2007 that “comedy is coughing up blood right now.” Critics speculated that hour-long dramas with comedic elements, like Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives, would replace the sitcom entirely; Emily Kapnek, creator of the popular new half-hour comedy Suburgatory, told Maclean’s there were “a lot of one-hours that wound up getting nominated in the comedy categories at awards show time.”
But this year, the hour-long shows are the ones in trouble on the big U.S. networks, while Deadline.com’s Nellie Andreeva noted that in the 18-49 demographic that advertisers love, “comedies dominate” this season. The biggest new hits are both half-hour comedies, Fox’s New Girl with Zooey Deschanel and 2 Broke Girls with Kat Dennings. ABC’s most popular new shows are Kapnek’s Suburgatory, about the suburbs as seen from the point of view of a wisecracking girl, and Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing, about suburban life from the point of view of a cranky, middle-aged man. Even the struggling NBC managed to find two new shows worthy of full-season orders, the comedies Whitney and Up All Night.
Emmy-winning quality dramas and hit action shows are easier to find on cable, but even for some cable channels, comedy seems like a better bet. The FX network, one of the leading players in making basic cable a major force in drama, launched two failed dramas last season (Terriers and Lights Out), and its most popular new drama, American Horror Story, suffers from being created by the same people who ran Glee into the ground. But the network head of entertainment, John Landgraf, told The A.V. Club that his team was making up for its drama problems by “crushing it in comedy”: during the network’s recent launch in Canada, the most anticipated FX shows included Louie (an acclaimed mix of stand-up and short comedy films) and Wilfred, a surreal sitcom about a guy in a dog suit.
Comedy isn’t only beating drama in the ratings; the shows that attract cult followings and try new things are often comedies. While HBO hasn’t quite recaptured its drama golden age with shows like Boardwalk Empire, fans are looking beyond drama and toward half-hour comedy for innovation. Some of the most serious and in-depth discussions of TV surround Community, which deconstructs the very nature of relationships in a TV show. Or Louie, where director-writer-star Louis C.K. tells very personal stories about being a father or entertaining the troops in Afghanistan. When many of the people behind the famous hour-long show Slings & Arrows assembled at the CBC to do a new show, it turned out to be Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays, which Watts says “was always intended as a half-hour.”
What’s caused TV’s centre of gravity to shift toward comedy? It might be partly that comedy is cheap to make and getting cheaper. Louie, which has only one regular character, has shown how digital video and editing can be used to make presentable-looking low-budget comedy. The modern drama series calls for huge casts (unlike an older drama like The X-Files, which had only two regulars), special effects and location shooting; “You can’t make a high-quality drama for less than $2 million an episode,” Landgraf told The Hollywood Reporter. This season’s new dramas had elaborate production values, and the ratings they delivered may not sustain that kind of investment. On a comedy like Up All Night, where Christina Applegate and Will Arnett are one of many sitcom couples raising a baby, most of the action takes place in a house and an office; it’s not as cheap as a reality show, but it doesn’t break the bank the way dramas do.
But there are also some creative advantages half-hour comedies have nowadays. Dramas, procedural or serial, seem to be stuck in rigid formulas. Comedies are, for the moment, a little more free to pick their own ways of telling stories: some shows have romantic entanglements that keep the fans arguing over future plot lines, while Louie mostly feels free to abandon ongoing plot lines and deal with whatever is on the creator’s mind that week. And unlike in the ’90s, when most sitcoms looked and sounded similar, there are a range of formats that can produce hit comedies today. Sitcom makers can choose from the mock documentary style of Modern Family and The Office, the live studio audience format of 2 Broke Girls, the peppy feature-film comedy look of New Girl (from feature writer Liz Meriwether who wrote the movie No Strings Attached for Kutcher), or what Kapnek describes as “the heightened and somewhat stylized look” of Suburgatory’s suburban satire. Dramas can offer more elaborate special effects, but comedy may have more visual variety these days.
Comedy also allows writers to mix up writing styles and change tone, which can’t always happen in other genres. Dramas have moments of comic relief, but they’re mostly serious and solemn; reality shows are almost completely formulaic. But on a comedy, you don’t always know what the style is going to be the week you tune in; they can be farcical one moment and serious the next moment. Kapnek says that it’s increasingly considered all right to have a comedy show switch styles and avoid “joking up the script unnecessarily. It’s okay to have moments that are a little bit down. It’s okay to have them talk about the fact that this kid’s mom isn’t around. It broadens and strengthens the show overall.” It’s possible for sentimentality to overwhelm a sitcom at times; some shows, like Raising Hope, blunt the edge of the humour with moral lessons. But sitcoms do have an emotional power now that most other shows don’t, and Watts thinks that comedy can offer more “emotional release” than drama: “I tear up more often while watching a sitcom than I do an hour-long drama, because I don’t expect it in a comedy.”
Does all this mean we’re entering a new creative golden age of comedy? That’s another question. In the 1970s with All in the Family and again in the ’90s with Roseanne, hit U.S. sitcoms were on the cutting edge of TV, dealing with important contemporary issues through comedy. Today’s successful sitcoms are mostly escapist, pushing boundaries in terms of raunchy jokes rather than subject matter. A select few comedies try to be relevant, like Parks & Recreation, which incorporates parodies of contemporary events like the Anthony Weiner scandal, but they’re not among the biggest hits. That may leave dramas like Breaking Bad or The Good Wife, with their ripped-from-the-headlines tales, to tell us about the world we live in.
But just because a show reflects our time doesn’t mean we’ll watch it. Especially not in reruns, where shows need to make a lot of their costs back: most dramas don’t repeat well, and reality shows have no life after their first airing. That could leave networks seeing comedy as their safest bet for a new media future; Media Life’s Toni Fitzgerald wrote that sitcoms recently “dominated the top gainers” from DVR playback, meaning that the people who watch TV in non-traditional ways are mostly watching comedy. “It’s honestly a really exciting time to be writing or watching sitcoms,” Watts says. And for the next few years we might not be watching much else.