Best TV 2014: The best TV comedy today comes from small sketch shows.

The TV Club, 2014

All the Best TV Comedy Today Comes From Small Sketch Shows

The TV Club, 2014

All the Best TV Comedy Today Comes From Small Sketch Shows
Talking television.
Dec. 24 2014 10:02 AM

The TV Club, 2014

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Entry 10: The best TV comedy today comes from small sketch shows.

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Inside Amy Schumer, Key & Peele, and Portlandia.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Comedy Central and IFC.

Is it weird to say that I miss Dads? I mean I don’t miss-miss it; last season’s Fox sitcom about old racists and the people who endure them really was as bad and offensive as we all said it was. But as I scanned down the worst-TV-of-2014 list I just posted it occurred to me that at least Dads engaged us. This fall, we mostly got bad sitcoms not worth despising and failed sitcoms not good enough to deeply mourn.

Not long ago you could argue that actual ha-ha sitcoms were the one thing that the networks could still do better than cable (The Office, 30 Rock, early Modern Family). But now, just to take NBC: Community has gone to Yahoo, Tina Fey’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was pre-resurrected to Netflix, and Parks and Recreation is getting Jammed with an unceremonious two-at-a-time burn-off. The business of sitcoms has just stopped working for broadcasters. Sitcoms have become something they can do well, but, with few exceptions (Chuck Lorre), not successfully. Drama is something they can do more successfully, but, with few exceptions (Shondaland), not well.

Yet I’m laughing, not crying. A while ago, New York magazine’s Joe Adalian wrote an extensive breakdown of TV’s “sitcom recession.” We got in a bit of a Twitter back-and-forth, not because I disagreed with his analysis, but because I thought there was something missing from his argument. Yes, sitcoms are doing terribly. But comedy is doing great. People haven’t stopped looking to TV to make them laugh. They just go to different shows. And they don’t care about format—single-cam, multicam, bicameral—the way that people who work in the business, or write about it, do. 

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Willa, you mentioned the growth in basic-cable comedy shows like Review and Broad City. I don’t know if Jane the Virgin is a “comedy” but it’s goddamn funny—the playful and agile voice-over, the comedy-gold self-regard of Jaime Camil’s Rogelio. And it’s a rare week during a Mad Men or The Good Wife season that those dramas are not among the funniest shows on air.

But comedy has also moved thanks to viral video and sharing. I recently took some measurements, and the Internet is now 85 percent “JOHN OLIVER DESTROYS” clips. Oliver benefited from HBO’s smart decision to share his passionate comedy online, subscriptions be damned. (It’s not HBO. It’s YouTube.) The Jimmys Fallon and Kimmel are basically making Internet shows in all but name.

That should be good for sketch comedy too, right? Well, sort of. Saturday Night Live turns 40 next year; I’m already dreading the nostalgia lists and the “Wanna Feel Old?” features. I don’t have any interest in arguing that SNL is “worse than ever”; I think it’s more or less the same it has been for 20-odd years. It’s less a show than an institution, a Comedy Academy. But as an institution, it has to be big, ready to take on any subject any given week, and thus it needs to be as broad as possible in order to work.

The real energy right now is in the smaller sketch shows: Key & Peele, Inside Amy Schumer, Kroll Show, Portlandia—comedies with one or two stars and particular themes and points of view. Yes, these shows have the advantage of being taped, but more important, they’re about something, not everything. Schumer’s “A Chick Who Can Hang” said more than a thousand Gone Girl think pieces. Portlandia’s twee obsessions gave us an extended Steve Buscemi guest bit that restored celery to its rightful place as world’s funniest vegetable.

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I’ve especially enjoyed Key & Peele, who have pushed their show in disturbingly funny directions, informed by their taste for horror (the “Little Homie” sketch) and thriller-drama. (It was dissonant, yet perfect, to see them both playing agents in Fargo, then riffing off True Detective’s credits and its drivin’-and-philosophizin’ sequences.) When Key & Peele launched, it got a lot of attention for the two stars’ biracial backgrounds, which mirrored the president’s. Race is still a big part of their comedy—see their code-switching Obama working a rope line this season—but it isn’t, and has never been, the sum of it. They’re also nerds, pop-culture geeks, enthusiasts. (They’re also—an underrated part of their success—damn good actors.)

I rattle on a lot about why “specificity” makes great TV, and Key & Peele is an excellent example of it. Specific people aren’t just types or representatives of a larger group. They’re exceptions. They’re informed by their backgrounds and affinities but not defined by them. (See also Black-ish, the best new traditional sitcom of the fall, which acknowledges broad black experience but draws much of its comedy from recognizing that there’s more than one way to “be black.”) Artists speak to larger experiences, but at some level they’re driven by awareness that no one is entirely like anyone else.

And this is why—to make a quick segue—one thing that has bothered me this past year has been the politicization of pop-culture debates. By which I don’t mean talking about how culture is political—God knows I do that all the time, as do each of you, and we should, because this stuff matters. I mean making pop culture into one more arena of partisanship—from Gamergate to, well, anything around Girls—complete with Teams and Outrage and lining up behind My Trusted Thought Leaders.

Lena Dunham, for instance, is a big thinker and serious about her entertainment, and she loads up her work with provocations that we can and should respond to. But when I see a cover of National Review devoted to a Dunham takedown that accuses her of sexually abusing her sister when she was 7, I have to wonder if she’s become pop culture’s Sarah Palin. By that I don’t mean that she’s the equivalent of Palin but that she’s one more figure whose introduction into any conversation now guarantees it will instantly go insane with recriminations and bad-faith accusations and privilege and bigotry and class warfare and enough already.

I mean, I’m about to get season-four screeners of Girls and I can’t wait to watch them. But am I a bad cultural critic if I am dreading one more winter of people losing their collective freaking marbles over Girls? Am I a derailer if I wish it were still possible to just discuss Girls as a comedy—weird and erratic, but hilarious and moving when it clicks, as it did in this season’s transcendent “Flo”? Am I making a big deal over culture warfare that was always thus, going back to Dan Quayle vs. Murphy Brown and beyond? Am I a hypocrite to say all this in a post that begins “I miss Dads”?

Tell me what you think, June, Mo, Willa. Destroy me if necessary! John Oliver’s on hiatus right now, so somebody has to do it.

Laughin’ to keep from cryin’,

Jim

James Poniewozik writes Time magazine’s “Tuned In” column and blog.