This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.
Each morning a blaring sound scares me out of a biologically necessitated convalescence, an act of trauma that lifts me into the air in a fit of gloom and aggravation. Like a pallid ghost, I float miserably from the bed to the couch, the terrain that I have haunted in this fashion every day for going on seven months now. From there I work silently until it is time to do it all again.
This existence used to be not necessarily more joyous, but certainly brighter. If I close my eyes and concentrate really hard, I remember that I did, in fact, used to laugh.
I may be exaggerating the hardship, and I’m certainly grateful that, all things considered, there haven’t been actual hardships for me to endure at a time when trials and tragedies are actual government handouts. But if I could indulgently center things for a brief discussion on the world of entertainment, there is something significant that seems to have happened as this pandemic has trudged on: Things stopped being funny. Or, at least, there stopped being funny things.
I’ve been grateful that there’s been so much great content to distract and entertain us these last months, as new streaming services sprouted like weeds and existing networks hustled to deliver some of their best programming to now-captive audiences.
I May Destroy You, P-Valley, Mrs. America, Insecure, We’re Here, Bad Education, Normal People, Dead to Me, Search Party, The Great, Expecting Amy, Lovecraft Country… It’s already too many series for a Top 10 list, and that’s only factoring in shows that premiered during the shutdown. But at a time when we’ve needed cheering up the most, where has the levity been?
I was struck by this earlier this week when, after a particularly trying day in which depression seemed to fall out of the sky and crush me like a piano cut loose from a crane, I tried to cheer up by cueing up the two shows that have made me laugh the most recently: The Real Housewives of Potomac and Amy Schumer Learns to Cook.
Both series are prize-worthy triumphs of comedic editing, showcasing their stars’ natural, sharp senses of humor...and both happen to be reality TV shows.
In fact, those belly laughs and can’t-help-but-guffaw moments seem to have come overwhelmingly from reality shows lately, at a time that couldn’t be more desperate for genuine comedy to counteract the joy vacuum that is existence right now. The absurdity of Selling Sunset. The one-liners of Real Housewives. Hell, even the campiness, icky as it was, of Tiger King.
They’ve all arrived at a time after shows like Modern Family and Schitt’s Creek aired their final episodes. Saturday Night Live’s at-home outings went off air early on in the shutdown. Late-night shows sobered up to reflect the severity of the news they were commenting on. Comedy specials from the likes of Dave Chappelle and Hannah Gadsby were sensational, but no laugh riots.
Blatant attempts at comedy fell flat. Steve Carell reunited with the creator of The Office for Netflix’s Space Force, and it was bafflingly bad. Even Larry David’s whole Curb Your Enthusiasm thing had an unpleasant whiff to it this go-round.
The fall TV season is about to start in earnest. Shows like Ratched, The Comey Rule, Fargo, The Third Day, We Are Who We Are, Tehran, Utopia, and Wilderness of Error are sure to garner major attention. But outside of PEN15, which trades in heartbreak as much as humor, there’s not much coming down the pike that could be considered a good old-fashioned, LOL pick-me-up.
I’ve covered so many cycles of the “state of comedy” conversation over the years that I’d sooner suffer the emotional seppuku of watching the last sequence of the Six Feet Under finale on loop until this pandemic is over than kickstart that conversation again.
Since I’ve had this job, the family sitcom has died, the multicam sitcom has died, the female-led sitcom has died, the cynical sitcom has died, the auteur’s sitcom has died, the ha-ha funny sitcom has died, the dramedy has died, and each one has come back to life with a chorus of hallelujahs sung from a flurry of breathless thinkpieces.
I don’t think any sort of comedy is dead right now. The tonal subtleties of “comedies” like Insecure, PEN15, I May Destroy You, Search Party, and The Great—just to name series off the top of my head—suggests a blissful golden age for the genre.
It’s just striking to me that at a time shrouded in so much darkness, the aggressive joke-per-minute efforts of a Veep-like show, for example, haven’t found their way to air, specifically because the environment is begging for it. (A recent bingeing of the hilarious and super-smart What We Do in the Shadows did accomplish that, however, and I would highly recommend anyone do the same.)
Times are hard. I’m suffering misery burnout. My kingdom for a laugh!