Until this past weekend, I hadn’t binge-watched anything in a very long time. As in, I literally couldn’t tell you the last time I’d watched more than two episodes of any show in less than 12 hours. Part of that is a busy schedule, part of it is simply preference; I like stretching shows out a bit to savor my enjoyment of them for that much longer.
In any case, after hearing too many glowing recommendations to ignore it any longer, I (along with my wife) plunged into the comedic marvel that is Amazon’s Catastrophe. It is, I’m here to tell you, as brilliant as advertised. Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan are as warm and funny as two leads can be, and the show’s population of bizarre side characters (Chris, who talks about his marriage like a grizzled Vietnam vet recalling a horrific warzone ambush, is my favorite) carry the show over the top.
Aside from the sharp writing and performances, something else stands out about Catastrophe. Like its closest spiritual contemporaries, Louie and Master of None, Catastrophe walks the line between drama and comedy in a way that’s becoming the norm among the most creative comedic minds in film and TV.
Louie is probably where all this got started.
I don’t mean that Louis was the first show to mix serious issues and comedy. Obviously, the two have gone hand in hand for as long as comedy has existed. But for decades, TV comedies fit a certain mold, and breaking from that set-up-and-punchline laugh track formula was a death wish. I mean, just think about the first TV comedy you saw where there wasn’t a laugh track. Remember how jarring it was? Now, going back and watching episodes of Seinfeld or Friends feels more foreign than familiar.
But that’s because those shows obeyed the same rules that had been in place since the literal beginning of televised entertainment. We now realize that those rules are arbitrary, but it took a long time for execs to realize that viewers could cope without a laughing live audience to clue them into every joke. Even when sitcoms began tackling meaningful issues (M*A*S*H and All in the Family were trailblazers in that respect), they did so while obeying a comfortable structure that always ended in a punchline. As a result, they were often funny, but never felt particularly authentic.
Which is not to say that all shows without laugh tracks are “authentic.” In fact, I think the reason that shows like The Office, Parks and Rec, and Modern Family are so zany is that the shows are (or were) still desperate to remind you that you’re watching a comedy.
Which brings me back to Louie, Master of None, and Catastrophe. The shows are often funny. I think it’s fair to classify all of them as comedies. But a lot of the time, you could be forgiven for disagreeing with either of the previous two sentences.
Large stretches (and some would argue, seasons) of Louie can pass without an obvious joke (aside from the intercut stand-up bits). Master of None’s best moments are those where Aziz Ansari is tackling some of the most serious issues facing millennials and people of color (and children, parents, friends, etc.). Catastrophe is perhaps more stacked with laughs, but that feels more like a product of the characters being consistently sarcastic, witty people who rely on humor to deal with the confusion of their various predicaments than out of service to any staid ideas about what a comedy has to be.
What I’m wondering is whether or not these shows represent something that’s going to stay true for longer than the time it takes to come up with a hot take about them. Is comedy changing in a lasting way because, thanks to the internet and prestige cable channels, a devoted niche is now more important that broad appeal, which allows our most interesting comedians to follow a vision that doesn’t have to seek the lowest common denominator? Or are these just a few shows just a different sort of passing trend?
I mean, it’s not like The Big Bang Theory is going anywhere, so I don’t expect revolution. But comedians say all the time that the funniest people are those who can see and express the truth most clearly. That makes a lot of sense. But, then, isn’t it likely also the case that those same people might want to see and express the truth even when it’s not funny? Or, at least, when, as in real life, the comedic stuff rubs uncomfortably against the tragic stuff, the mundane stuff, the ugly stuff?
I think that’s what we’re seeing from the brilliant comedic voices behind Louis, Master of None, and Catastrophe. I think these super-creative people, freed from the conventions of old-school sitcom restrictions have decided that they want to use their powers of observation to reflect reality as they see it, whether or not everything (or, in some cases, much of anything) they see merits a laugh. I’m all for it, in case you hadn’t gathered that yet. Smart writers and performers trying to tell the truth about the world through their art? Sign me up.
Ultimately, that makes it a lot tougher on viewers. We like the familiar. It’s how we’re wired. And the familiar rhythms of sitcoms have, for generations, led us peacefully through their setups and punchlines. Much laughter (some of it canned) ensued.
But now we’re entering a new era. I have no idea how long it will last, nor what exactly we should call it (I hate the term Cringe Comedy), but I’m glad that we’ve made this stop on the road to wherever comedy is headed next.
Now I’m gonna go finish Catastrophe and complain uselessly when it’s over.