Abbott Elementary's Creator Is Right, It's OK For Sitcoms To Be Funny
As a comedian, I am, purportedly, a fan of comedy (go to town on that sentence, comment section.) But over the last couple of years, I’ve found less and less comedy that seems to have the ultimate goal of… producing laughter. A friend or the internet will recommend a comedy show to me and what I end up watching is a 43-minute program about the crushing weight of trying to make it on your own as an artist where the closest things to jokes are a 23-year-old wryly commenting on her IBS diagnosis while an even sadder cover of a Cat Power song plays.
The slow blurring of the lines between dramedy and comedy is nothing new. SNL hit on it with a pretty pitch-perfect sketch 5 years ago in 2017. Somehow, even though the reaction to this sketch would have seemed to give a slight hint to the people in charge that people were dying to have an actual laugh line in a comedy, comedies have only gotten sadder and longer. Quinta Brunson’s Abbott Elementary is a massive commercial and critical success. It holds a 97% critic and 91% audience rating on RottenTomatoes. Its second episode was ABC’s most watched comedy program since the season FINALE of Modern Family. It’s the most tweeted about show in 2022.
However, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, people have been letting Brunson know on Twitter that they find the show “undramatic.” She voiced her annoyance on Twitter this week, saying “I just saw someone call Abbott Elementary 'undramatic' as a critique. I wonder if that has something to do with it being a 22 minute sitcom. film bros please just...back away from the show.”
Listen up, you deathly online H.P. Lovecraft looking-ass grad students: not everything has to be about the struggle of life against an uncaring god. If you’d like something with more drama, you are in luck, because that is an entirely different, massive, and distinct genre. Drama, both onscreen and off, is not exactly a resource we are lacking in. It’s an even stupider critique when you consider that most dramas still DO have some sort of comic relief. It’s like getting mad at a Dead Kennedys album because it doesn’t have enough cello. You’re in the wrong Spotify playlist, dude.
To be honest, I don’t even know where the idea of this demand for hyper-dramatic comedy is coming from. Outside of Emmy-hunting, I just truly don’t see the audience that demands this. There’s more evidence, if anything, of a desperate hunger for actual, true comedy programs. When you look at some of the unexpected successes of the last few years, you find a trove of joke-heavy, comedy-dense programming. Rick and Morty, I Think You Should Leave, Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Bob’s Burgers, none of these shows are hurting for 2-minute quiet scenes of someone staring into a bathroom mirror. It’s not generational, either. People have noted the popularity of old sitcoms on Netflix exploding among younger audiences. Maybe 16-year-olds aren’t binging old episodes of Friends and Frasier because they connect with Chandler or Niles Crane on a deep level, but because they’re absolutely starved for someone to deliver a punchline that’s not just coughing during an awkward moment.
Now, some of you may argue that some of these shows do indeed tackle real issues like the ones mentioned above, (hello, Rick and Morty graphic t-shirt online IQ test takers) and I don’t disagree at all. The thing is, you don’t actually NEED to sacrifice jokes in order to communicate emotion or character development. Part of me even argues that an inability to dovetail actual human experience and comedy feels like a failure on the part of the writer, instead of something that makes them some genius on the art of life that won’t stop bringing up “sad clowns”. If someone says the name Pagliacci in front of me I’m going to stomp their dumb round glasses into dust.
Want an example? Let’s take a look at maybe the most dominant and culturally important television comedy of the past decades, The Simpsons. I’d specify which seasons, but I think everyone knows which ones I’m talking about at this point, unless you really love BTS cameos or whatever. I think you’d be hard pressed to find any television or comedy fan that, gun to their head, could effectively argue that The Simpsons is any of these: poorly written, consistently funny, and genuinely touching. The juggling act that those early seasons pulled off is part of the magic of a truly great comedy show. Even one of the show’s more emotional moments, the scene where Bart fails a test despite his genuine best efforts, the famous “I really tried this time” scene, is studded with jokes. After the highest point of emotion, Ms. Krabappel chimes in with a perfectly timed, “Well, a 59… It’s a high F?”
This alternation of emotion and release is part of what’s so satisfying and cathartic about great situational comedy. It’s a constant give-and-take, a see-saw of emotions. While greatly regretting the use of the word “lens” here, and climbing further up my own ass than I already have, that is the lens of comedy. If you’re not able to balance these things, I’m not even sure you’re really writing a comedy. You’re writing melodrama with a couple of sight gags to get you into an easier awards category.
One of the things that pisses me off even further about the new brand of comedy is that it’s always praised as being so “real”. I have to listen to some David Foster Wallace doppelganger on sabbatical spout about the “humanism” of some new premium-channel comedy about the person who puts down all the dogs at the shelter. Life is funny! Humor is a universal coping mechanism! Sure, maybe people aren’t traveling to an alternate universe where everyone talks with their butthole, or stealing gas to make extra money (ok, actually they might be right now), but jokes are a constant real life coping mechanism at the office, in relationships, in the entire experience of being human. Maybe all the characters in your comedy are so sad because nobody ever cracks a #*$&ing joke.
Top Image: ABC/Pixabay