The Moral Of the Story Is...

One thing a lot of recent comedies have in common is that they have completely discarded the Seinfeld rule of “no hugging, no learning.” That was a reaction against the way so many comedy shows used to end every episode: a serious scene summing up the moral, followed by a joke (“treacle-cutter”) to remind us that this was still a comedy. But in the dark age of TV comedy that was the early ’00s, the avoidance of this kind of scene was taken to an extreme, with comedies becoming amoral and heartless. So now there’s been a backlash against the backlash: many comedies try to have some kind of lesson-learning moment near the end, that clearly gives some kind of moral to the episode, or an emotional connection between characters. The writers of The Office even mention on a commentary that they are closer to the Full House format of comedy storytelling than the Seinfeld format.

This kind of moment is particularly common on edgy single-camera shows, perhaps because the writers of those shows are very conscious that they could be accused of heartlessness, and want to make it clear that they do have a nice side. Arrested Development was the template for this; every episode would include a classic “moral of the story” scene followed by an equally classic treacle-cutter. (George Michael tells his father “you’re the most important part of my life,” followed by a meta-joke about how corny that line was, followed by his father burning his hand again.) You can see this kind of thing on Bill Lawrence’s shows — though of course Scrubs pre-dates Arrested Development — and you see it on Community. (By the way, Community‘s pilot didn’t impress me much, but I think it’s improved since then, and it deserved its full-season pickup.) And Modern Family tries to tell us, out loud, the theme of the episode we were just watching.

Other shows follow the Wonder Years or Sex and the City pattern of having a narrator or diarist tell us what the moral is. It’s an almost unbearable temptation for any show with a narrator, comedy or drama, to end the episode by telling us that “We all go through life [fill in whatever the characters were doing this week].” How I Met Your Mother would have serious trouble ending most episodes if Bob Saget couldn’t step in and tell us what the story means.

The moralism is probably least pronounced in the format that used to use this kind of ending all the time: the live-audience comedy. (The producers of The Facts of Life would tell their writers to include a “fact,” meaning lesson, in every script, sounding for all the world like the producers of My Name Is Earl.) Most of those shows remain pretty amoral and shy away from serious moments. For now, anyway.

And while I know I’m always holding up The Office as the “good” comedy that gets things right when other shows get them wrong, I have to say that they come closer than most to getting the morals right: they try to convey the feeling that the show has a moral or overall theme, without the characters (usually) telling us what they learned.