Is comedy getting weirder?
I have a confession to make: I didn’t think the Wet Hot American Summer movie was funny. As a non-American, non-camp going, non-marijuana smoking woman, Camp Firewood and its inhabitants did not resonate with me. As the collective star of the cast kept rising, the movie would occasionally resurface; I kept trying to like it, albeit unsuccessfully.
The TV show was a different story. Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp landed on Netflix last July and I finally got it. What changed? Other than the obvious facts—I got older and my taste got better—I think audiences today are better primed for and more receptive to comedy of this nature.
Alt-comedy is not a new phenomenon; it is an established, decades old genre. Absurdist sketch shows like Kids in the Hall, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The State, and Second City Television (SCTV) helped pave the way for WAHS. However, given the proliferation of comedy podcasts (Comedy Bang Bang), stoner web series (Broad City, High Maintenance), and fringe shows (Nathan For You, Review) that explore the awkward space between comedy and parody, now even mainstream audiences have different expectations of what funny is.
We live in a post-30 Rock-on-network-TV world—a world in which the lines between comedy and drama have been blurred to the point that award show categories feel arbitrary and stifling. Orange is the New Black has been nominated for both comedy & drama Emmy awards; Transparent might as well be. Peabody award–winning Louie defies any categorization. Louie CK’s newest project, Horace & Pete, continues to push the boundaries of traditional models of production and distribution.
...now even mainstream audiences have different expectations of what funny is
The parameters of accessibility have shifted, both from a physical medium point of view as well as a content perspective. A viewer discovering Bob’s Burgers on Fox, Hulu, or Netflix might be interested enough to explore creator Loren Bouchard’s previous shows—Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist or Home Movies—and because of the internet, find them easily. Both shows ran on cable channels originally (Comedy Central and Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, respectively) but viewers might not have noticed them. Having Bob’s Burgers serve as a gateway into the raw, uncut stuff consequently forces a viewer to push past their previously defined boundaries of “comedy.” Similarly, even a casual fan or FXX’s Archer would be more receptive to Adam Reed’s Sealab 2021, a show they overlooked when it premiered on Cartoon Network, before the Adult Swim channel even launched.
Not only are there various points of entry for different comedic sensibilities, there is also a range of ways in which to engage them. As a fan of Paul F. Tompkins for his impeccable Werner Herzog impression on the Doug Loves Movies podcast, I felt compelled to listen to Superego and The Thrilling Adventure Hour. I recognized his voice work as the character Mr. Peanutbutter on Bojack Horseman. Using HBO NOW, I could delve into the 90’s sketch comedy series Mr. Show with Bob and David, an inappropriate show for me when it originally aired. These days, comedy (and comedians) have a certain accessibility that makes consuming media feel more personal and relatable than ever before.
A perfect example of this is Maria Bamford and Mitch Hurwitz’s new Netflix show, Lady Dynamite. The non-linear narrative structure, meta references, and jarring tone could have been off-putting, but instead blend together to form an aggressively delightful 12 episodes of TV. A plethora of guest stars richly populate Bamford’s world, one that is somehow both inviting and alienating. Strands of Arrested Development’s DNA run through Lady Dynamite, so fans of Mitch Hurwitz should definitely give it a try. Lady Dynamite will not be everybody’s cup of tea. It’s more like a cup of herbal leaves brewed from tea your sister’s friend brought back from a “life-altering” Eat, Pray, Love-esque jaunt to Asia. The first sip tastes great, the bitter afternotes are confusing, but ultimately, you are left satiated, warm, and mildly nauseous.
Comedians using their personal troubles and trauma as creative fodder for new material is fortunately still a tradition that leads to some beautiful albeit disturbing work. The media might change, but the message remains the same. Go forth and laugh, weirdos.
All images courtesy of Netflix