Is the Future of Comedy the Comedy/Drama Hybrid?

10/23/2014   Split Sider   by

In a recent Salon interview, Bob Odenkirk warns aspiring writers to “get out of comedy, because it’s about to collapse.” Sketch comedy, he says, is having its time in the sun now — what with YouTube, Comedy Central’s burgeoning lineup and the legions of theater sketch teams popping up all over — but the market is becoming saturated. What’s next then? He suggests that once the market tires of short sketches, it may turn to more long-form, dramatic material. “I do think that after sketch comes story,” he speculates.

And when you look at the TV landscape, that makes sense. (Plus, Odenkirk’s been ahead of the game for years. Why wouldn’t you listen to him now?) Louie and Girls, two shows that are nominally considered comedies but regularly flirt with drama within their svelte 30-minute timeframes, are setting the tone for many of the new comedies cropping up everywhere. Some of that influence manifests itself in different ways, whether it’s other series copping their surface premise (Maron), their intimate, semi-vérité style (Broad City, Looking) or their personal, insular subject matter (Transparent, Hello Ladies).

But regardless of exactly how each show borrows, the bottom line is that all these series are following Louie and Girls’ lead by digging beneath the obvious elements of comedy to explore the uncomfortable or painful issues that lie beneath any good punchline. In short, they’re acting more like dramas.  So that begs the question: are we entering some new era dominated by that nebulous thing known as the “comedy-drama”?

Well, I’m not sure. Given the proliferation of these comedy-dramas, it sure would seem like it. Yet while we’ve started heading in that direction, I don’t think we’re quite there yet. As influential as Louie or Girls are, it’s not like they are ratings juggernauts or anything. The crossover between fans of Louis C.K.’s standup and his show is surprisingly small. Granted, neither of those shows are trying to court a wide audience, both because of their placement on cable and because their sensibilities can be deliberately alienating, as the many, many, many thinkpieces written about both shows make perfectly clear. What’s just as clear, though, is that writers and network heads are learning from these shows and applying them to their own, possibly more accessible, series.

Now, I’m not suggesting that comedy-dramas will replace typical, jokes-first sitcoms. Those will continue to thrive as they always have and always should. But I do think that, if we’re really going to move forward, we need to embrace a broader idea of what comedies are capable of. If you think that isn’t a big obstacle…well, how many times have you seen someone complain an episode of, say, Parks and Recreation was terrible because it “wasn’t funny enough” when it really just dealt with weightier material or took a breather to develop its characters?

Part of the problem in overcoming that obstacle has to do with the comedy-drama label itself. See, dramas never have to prove they’re dramas. Jesse Pinkman can say “yeah, bitch!” and we all giggle, but we never question if Breaking Bad is moving into sitcom territory. Comedies, on the other hand, don’t have that luxury. They have to remain funny at all times to prove their worth. And if the jokes don’t come fast enough, if two characters spend a scene having a long, laugh-free conversation, or if, God forbid, no one’s sarcastic for 30 seconds, you’ll inspire the wrath of internet commenters just looking to laugh. Do that for a couple episodes, and suddenly you’re a comedy-drama…or at least you’re going to be saddled with that designation on your Wikipedia page. Your perception as a funny comedy is gone, and there goes a lot of your audience with it.

In a sense, that’s a completely understandable reaction. When sitting down to watch TV, not everyone’s looking to be challenged or concerned with serialized character development. A lot of people watch comedies because they want to laugh, period. You’re in a bad mood because your had a tough day in the coal mines or whatever, and you don’t want to see your happy-go-lucky TV friends go all contemplative and dark on you. There’s nothing wrong with that. But that shouldn’t necessarily be grounds to dismiss or avoid a show either. Because they look and move (and, to be fair, are sometimes marketed) like dramas, as soon as something is slapped with the “comedy-drama” label, comedy fans tend to run screaming, when really they are often missing out on some of the best comedy around.

This goes double for shows that operate outside of the normal comedy community, where Paul Rudd or Kumail Nanjiani could be waiting right around the corner with a wink and a cameo. For instance, I always remembered Gilmore Girls being funny, but recently rewatching it since it arrived on Netflix, I was struck by just how funny it is, how rapid-fire its wit and dialogue are, how it tosses off as many odd pop-culture references as MST3K or Community in their respective primes.

And while it’s long been acclaimed as one of the best shows of the 2000s — even showing up on TIME’s Greatest Shows Ever list a few years back — it’s rarely brought up in the context of great comedies. But when it arrived in 2000, what else were most people going to think? It was a series airing on the same channel as 7th Heaven and competing with Friends in the same timeslot. So most comedy fans weren’t flocking to see it then, and it’s still largely thought of as a cutesy drama by the uninitiated. In actuality, though, it was frequently hilarious on top of intelligent and moving, enough so to attract guest and recurring spots from future comedy stars like Nick Offerman, Jane Lynch, Nasim Pedrad, Danny Pudi, Adam Brody, Seth MacFarlane, Max Greenfield and more.

Same goes with Slings & Arrows, the Canadian show about a flagging Shakespeare festival, and that one had an even bigger comic pedigree behind it, starring and co-created by Kids In The Hall and SNL veteran Mark McKinney. Now, it’s understandable that most Americans haven’t seen this show. It only ran on Sundance Channel in the mid-2000s, which may as well have been C-SPAN 2 in 1937. But every time I explain the show to hardened Kids In The Hall fans, I’m usually met with indifference at best, even when the show was fully streamable on Netflix and Amazon (it isn’t right now, but it goes back and forth).

Yeah, the phrase “about a Shakespearean theater” isn’t exactly nectar to a lot of people, and the series does concern itself with Big Themes of mortality and the search for meaning. (Case in point: my sister tried to get me to watch it for a long time, and it took years for it to take. But what happened as soon as I started? I was instantly hooked.) Yet while Slings & Arrows can be complex and deeply sad, it’s also a wickedly funny satire and loving tribute to artists of any stripe, and Paul Gross’ mad genius theater director Geoffrey Tennant is one of television’s great comic creations of the last decade.

Really, Freaks And Geeks is one of the few hour-long comedy-dramas I can think of that has wide acceptance as a standard in the comedy community, and that has a lot to do with the careers its cast and crew went on to have. Because while, sure, NBC didn’t give it the chance it should have, it’s also true that it was cancelled in part because Paul Feig and Judd Apatow refused to tidy up its more tragic and troubling elements, so no one watched it. Now, of course, people can’t believe it was ever cancelled. Who knows what other great comedies you or I are missing right now because they’re a little more subdued and require a bit more effort on our part?

I’m not putting myself above anyone here. I also have a ton of trouble beginning comedy-dramas I’ve read about because it’s so much easier to zip through an episode of a half-hour sitcom, even the really smart, dense ones, than a more languid, hour-long one. Certainly, if you’re looking to laugh, some comedy-dramas like Orange Is The New Black or Transparent are far more drama than comedy, but not all of them are — far from it — and plenty of them are rewarding in different ways than a traditional sitcom.

With any luck, some day we won’t need the comedy-drama label. We’ll learn that when we hear the word “comedy,” we can expect there might be lulls in the comebacks and punchlines, and that clever, light-speed absurdism can sit comfortably beside something more grounded and sobering. Till then, if you think comedies should only occupy themselves with being funny, that’s fine and all, but you’re selling yourself short, and you’re selling comedy short.

Chris Kopcow is a pop culture writer and sketch comedy guy based out of Boston. He recently started linking to his Twitter out of compulsive need.


TheWrap’s 2014 Innovators List: 11 Thought Leaders Who Are Changing Hollywood

10/1/2014   The Wrap

For our second annual list, TheWrap picks the most dynamic, risk-taking, out-of-the-box figures remaking our industry

YouTube networks, Google Glass films and marketing movies using the secret sharing app, Whisper. Welcome to the new Hollywood.

In our second annual Innovators List, TheWrap identifies the change agents who are thinking differently about the creation and distribution of entertainment.  We zeroed in on how some of the industry’s biggest stars are rewriting the rules of film and television production. Enjoy the list, watch the video inteviews… and be sure to catch our Innovators Panel at The Grill on October 7 in Beverly Hills.


Andrew Stalbow, Seriously CEO
In a mobile-dominated world, one-time Fox executive Andrew Stalbow is re-thinking how you launch successful entertainment franchises.  Hollywood’s playbook typically involves taking characters from the big screen, and then creating related games and merchandise. Stalbow, also formerly Executive Vice President of Strategic Partnerships at “Angry Birds” maker Rovio, believes in beginning with mobile games for iOS and Android devices. Seriously’s first franchise is “Best Fiends” and it has raised funding from well known investors, such as Upfront Ventures. – Jon Erlichman


Jeff Gaspin & Jon Klein, Co-Founders, TAPP
TAPP Chairman Gaspin (formerly of NBCUniversal) and CEO Klein (formerly of CNN and CBS) see a TV future ruled by subscription channels.  The two long-time friends launched TAPP (short for “TV App”) as a subscription-based, online video platform for big personalities such as Sarah Palin.  For $9.95 a month, Sarah Palin Channel subscribers get to watch the former Alaska Governor and GOP VP nominee discuss everything from Obamacare to her “award winning BBQ salmon recipe.”  TAPP’s backers include Discovery Communications and Google’s Eric Schmidt.  While it’s not yet clear how many people will pay $9.95 a month for such programming, TAPP is targeting a range of personalities in categories like sports, politics, religion, entertainment and fashion. – Jon Erlichman

Angelina Jolie, Actress-Director-Philanthropist
The latest phase of Angelina Jolie‘s ongoing metamorphosis may be her most impressive yet: In addition to being a globe-trotting activist, busy mother of six young kids, Oscar-winning actress and perpetual tabloid magnet, the 39-year-old is also the filmmaker behind one of the most highly anticipated films of the season. Early glimpses of “Unbroken,” an historical drama based on the life of war hero and Olympian Louis Zamperini, look equal parts gorgeous and harrowing, with a supreme lead performance out of soon-to-be breakout actor Jack O’Connell. Jolie will be credited for getting the best possible work out of the young Brit, and it’s likely that she’ll get an equally strong performance out of her now-husband, Brad Pitt, in her next directorial effort, “By the Sea.”

An industry unto herself, Jolie is blazing a trail for female talent while reaching deeper for her artistic voice, a seemingly impossible task under the constant spotlight that shines down on her. – Jordan Zakarin


Sev Ohanian, Indie Producer
Sev Ohanian made a name for himself producing the indie hit “Fruitvale Station.” And his unique approach to movie-making makes him an innovator. His first feature, “My Big Fat Armenian Film,” was shot on his dad’s home video camera and promoted on YouTube.  The film’s profits helped pay for his film school training at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts (where he’s now an adjunct professor). In 2013, USC was part of a group of film schools that teamed up with Google Glass to see how the technology could be used in movies. The Ohanian-produced “SEEDS” was an instant hit and has been viewed nearly 2.5 million times (Watch it here!). “When new technology comes around, it’s best for everyone to embrace it and truly make it work for your story,” he tells The Wrap. Ohanian is currently working with a major studio on a small feature film to be distributed online.  He’s also talking with Google about ways to make more films with Google Glass. – Jon Erlichman

Jimmy Fallon, ‘Tonight Show’ Host
“Saturday Night Live” alum Jimmy Fallon didn’t go halfway when it came to making “The Tonight Show” his own after he inherited it from Jay Leno last year. Taking full advantage of the chops he had developed on “SNL” and “Late Night,” Fallon has gone beyond the traditional “Tonight Show” hosting duties of dishing out monologues and interviewing guests — his ability to mimic musical icons, develop bizarre stunts and slow-jam the news has led to a treasure trove of viral video moments and brought the  decades-old late-night institution into this century. Suddenly, Leno’s “Jaywalking” and “Headlines” segments seemed positively quaint by comparison. – Tim Kenneally


Ze Frank, President, BuzzFeed Motion Pictures
BuzzFeed has moved light years beyond cute cats.  The social news and entertainment company, which says it reaches more than 150 million monthly unique visitors (and caught Disney’s eye) is making a big push in Hollywood. BuzzFeed hired vlogging pioneer Frank in 2012 to lead its video efforts.  In August, BuzzFeed announced an infusion of $50 million in new financing led by the venture firm Andreessen Horowitz to expand its video operations, which have been rebranded as BuzzFeed Motion Pictures.  Frank is leading the unit as President, with help from Hollywood producer Michael Shamberg (“Pulp Fiction”) and comedian Jordan Peele (“Key & Peele”). The company has said BuzzFeed Motion Pictures will “focus on all moving images from a GIF to feature film and everything in between.” – Jon Erlichman


Beatriz Acevedo, Founder & President, MiTu Network
By now, you’ve heard about the dramatic rise of multi-channel networks, also known as MCNs. Disney’s acquisition of Maker Studios and Dreamworks Animation’s purchase of AwesomenessTV have brought a new level of credibility to YouTube channels and their stars.  Like Maker and Awesomeness, MiTu is an MCN, but one focused on programming for Latino audiences. TV industry veteran Beatriz Acevedo founded MiTu in 2012, along with her partners Doug Greiff and Roy Burstin.  The company says its videos have generated more than 6 billion views.  MiTu, which recently partnered with Maker, is also seeking to build on its YouTube audience.  It inked a licensing deal with AOL and teamed up with HLN on a late-night show inspired by MiTu’s “El Show w/ Chuey Martinez.” The company recently raised $10 million in funding, led by Upfront Ventures, an original investor in Maker. Other MiTu investors include the Chernin Group, Machinima co-founder Allen DeBevoise and Shari Redstone’s Advancit Capital.  — Jon Erlichman

Michael Heyward, CEO & Co-Founder, Whisper
Whisper is one of LA’s standout startups.  According to the company, the secret sharing app generates more than 6 billion page views per month. Los Angeles native Michael Heyward (son of  ”Inspector Gadget” creator Andy Heyward) co-founded Whisper with Brad Books in 2012.  With the hiring of former Gawker staffer Neetzan Zimmerman and a BuzzFeed partnership, Whisper posts are getting widespread attention outside of the app.  And Hollywood is taking notice. Paramount has a marketing partnership with Whisper for the upcoming film, “Men, Women and Children.” Other Whisper entertainment partners include Hulu, Universal, MTV and VH1. – Jon Erlichman


Cody Simms, Managing Director, Techstars
The Disney Accelerator aims to bridge the gap between Hollywood and Silicon Valley. In its inaugural year, the program brings together entrepreneurs, mentors, creatives, investors and technologists to support the next generation of entertainment innovators. Operated by Cody Simms at Techstars, the accelerator provides 10 startup companies $120,000 and 15 weeks to advance their consumer entertainment and media products. During that time, the entrepreneurs receive access to stories, resources and relationships from across the Walt Disney Company with the goal of presenting to media and investors at an industry demo day. – Gina Hall

Lisa Kudrow & Dan Bucatinsky, Is Or Isn’t Entertainment
Emmy-winning actors Lisa Kudrow and Dan Bucatinsky formed their production company, Is Or Isn’t Entertainment, in 2003. The duo produced the online series, “Web Therapy.” It would live online for four seasons and get picked up by Showtime later, with a fourth season slated to premiere on the premium cable channel on Oct. 22. It continued online in the meantime and wrapped its fifth season this past February. Additionally, the company produced genealogy show “Who Do You Think You Are?,” which aired on NBC for three seasons, was canceled and then revived on TLC in 2013. And “The Comeback,” which was canceled by HBO after one season, returns this November nine years later for Season 2. The return season will explore the changes in the TV landscape over the last near-decade with Kudrow’s Valerie Cherish, which the producers know much about. Whether it’s broadcast, cable, or digital, Is Or Isn’t operates under the assumption that good content can exist in any platform and has made their projects an example of this.– Jethro Nededog
Jake Schwartz, CEO & Co-Founder, General Assembly
The skill set for success in Hollywood is changing.  Enter Jake Schwartz. The New York-based entrepreneur co-founded General Assembly in 2011 to help techies and non-techies alike beef up their training, offering courses on everything from iOS app development and UX design to digital marketing and data science. Along with online courses, General Assembly’s global footprint is growing quickly.  It has classes in more than a half dozen U.S. cities, as well as campuses in London, Hong Kong, Sydney and Melbourne.  GA, which already has a presence in Santa Monica, will be opening another campus in downtown LA later this year.  – Jon Erlichman


Every big actor in Hollywood has a producing partner. Often this partner is the business person–a development executive who knows how to navigate the industry and balance the star’s “creative nature.” But as the end of Friends approached, Lisa Kudrow realized that she didn’t want that kind of producing partner; she needed a true creative partner, one with whom she could do creative development and navigate the business. And finding that person was simple: her longtime friend, Dan Bucatinsky.

Tyler Perry’s Amazing Journey to the Top

What filmmaker has had five movies open number one at the box office in the last four years? Spielberg, Tarantino, Scorsese? No. This record belongs to Tyler Perry, one of the biggest names in the movie business. Yet many Americans have never heard of him.

His nine films have grossed more than $481 million, one of the highest average grosses per film in the industry. And as we first reported last fall when we broadcast this story, they’re just part of Perry’s multi-million-dollar entertainment empire.;videoMetaInfo;housing;housing;storyMediaBox

The New Normal

‘Will & Grace’ got gays into everyone’s living rooms. Now, Cam & Mitch are selling fatherhood to the masses.

Will & Grace photo: Everett Collection

Modern Family: ABC

Modern Family is the most popular show on television — depending on how you measure the ratings power of that covetable 18–49 age demographic.That means, despite what you might think of its stereotypically fey fathers, Mitchell (gay actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cameron (straight actor Eric Stonestreet), the fact is that Modern Family may be the most radical form of propaganda the LGBT community currently has going for it.

Cam and Mitch don’t worry about waistlines and fashion — as Will and Jack did on Will & Grace — instead, they are obsessed with rearing their adopted Asian daughter and are contemplating expanding their nuclear family with another child. Every week, millions of Americans are seeing two men raise a daughter, which isn’t unthinkable (we had the first hint of that in the late ’80s with My Two Dads, a show that was ostensibly straight but contained notes of queer fear). But it’s the reason a Facebook campaign to pressure the network, the Disney-owned ABC, to allow Cam and Mitch to kiss, was so revolutionary.

But is this false progress? Nielsen has proclaimed LGBT-inclusive shows “the new mainstream” of television — with gay-friendly shows capitalizing on 28% of broadcast primetime viewing (and 22% of ad dollars). It explains the competition between Happy Endings and Whitney to be the next Friends-with-a-non-threatening-gay-pal, and why the once-dominant American Idol may finally come out of the closet. Ryan Murphy, however, remains our most prominent culture czar when it comes to queer characters on TV. Although praise for his creation of Glee’s Kurt is trumpeted from the mountaintops (and actor Chris Colfer was recently voted the most-eligible bachelor in Out’s online poll), he’s actually an anomaly. Murphy has typically portrayed deranged, perverse, and despicable homos; just think of Zachary Quinto as one-half of a murderous ghostly gay couple on American Horror Story or the crazy transsexuals of Nip/Tuck. The fact that his new sitcom project for the fall, The New Normal, is about a gay couple and the female surrogate who will carry their baby may be a way to balance out that pathological trail of discarded characters.