The hour long drama has entered its golden age in the past decade, giving us some of the best TV since the medium's inception. Landmark shows like Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones take their viewers beyond anything television (and in some cases even cinema... *cough* The Wire) have ever before accomplished. But on the other side of the tracks, comedy continues to thrive, all the while receiving far less attention or critical accolades. So as we arrive at the mid point of the year, I wanted to highlight a few of the better examples of comedies that (in most cases) you can tune in a watch right now! In no particular order.
As a long time fan of Loren Bouchard, its great watching his creative DNA float from project to project. Each show he has worked on (Dr Katz: Professional Therapist, Home Movies, Lucy: Daughter of the Devil) is completely different in subject matter and tone, but one element links them. That is Bouchard's attention to odd, weird and peculiar detail. His characters run the gamut from slightly off kilter to downright bizarre, and each is as nuanced and lived-in as the last. Hardly faint praise when you realize I am describing TV animation.
His current work, Bob's Burgers, now in its second season, follows a financially struggling Greek family who run a greasy burger joint in an unnamed East Coast city. Airing on FOX, the show is part of The Simpsons Sunday night block, but cleverly deviates away from the formula that bogs down the citizens of Springfield. While The Simpsons tend to bounce around from plot point to random plot point, Bob's Burgers keeps their episodes refreshingly story driven.
The voice actors perfectly suit the character designs, particularly Jon Benjamin as Bob, whose sardonic cadence is a great counterbalance to his insane family. Another favorite from the cast is Eugene Mirman as their chubby, sticky handed son whose disgusting behavior never ceases to amuse me.
It is a family show on the surface and despite some of the grosser moments; it is undoubtedly Bouchard's most commercial work. Odd considering that I can remember a semi-perverse moment from season one in which more than one animal anus is prominently featured.
I get a sick thrill realizing that these jokes are being broadcast to such a wide audience. What the average blue collar viewer must have thought of that flashback to Bob's wife Lynne's unhealthy obsession with tiny porcelain babies, I can only imagine.
It unnerved me a few years back when I heard that not only had Seth MacFarlane generated a third FOX comedy (The Cleveland Show) but soon after, that Mike Judge's King of the Hill had been cancelled, nearly giving MacFarlane some kind of Sunday evening Cartoon Monopoly. I've enjoyed my share of Family Guy/ American Dad moments but, having a fresh voice in that lineup is a huge step forward. No one is more deserving of their slot on the FOX schedule than Loren Bouchard and Bob's Burgers.
I didn't know what to expect from Lena Dunham's Girls (Sunday nights on HBO). The early buzz combined with Judd Apatow's involvement made me cautious. How many times has early hype caused you to be letdown by something new? But hype be damned, it gradually grew on me.
The opening scenes plop us into the world of Hannah, a twenty something who has just been cut off financially from her parents. Played by Tiny Furniture's Lena Durham (also the shows creator), Hannah is an aspiring writer who is currently floundering in a toilsome New York internship. The writing is painfully realistic but I do not think that necessarily means that Dunham is (as her character claims) the voice of her generation.
The first episode shows promise that I am hopeful the creative team can live up to. The comedy ranges from laugh out loud to down right cringe-inducing. In particular, the sex scene made me wince, as Hannah's desperate need to please her idiotic lover proves rather unsexy. But its subtlety intrigues me. It's too early yet to say that I love it but, Girls is without a doubt, one of the best comedy pilots since Louie.
It seems that Ricky Gervais can't stop creating stuff. This past year saw his return to HBO with the wonderfully funny/sad Life's Too Short, staring showbiz little person and actor Warwick Davis (Willow; Star Wars- Return of the Jedi). If you saw that clip of Liam Neeson asking Gervais and his co-writer Stephen Merchant for comedy advice, there is plenty more where that came from. But ultimately, that show struck a more somber tone than The Office, which unfortunately may have turned off some viewers.
Gervais' next project, Derek, a one-off pilot (the UK's Channel 4 but, it is also available for the time being on YouTube) strikes a similar tone.
Derek (Gervais) is a Simple Jack-esque innocent, who works in a dreary retirement home. As a hobby, he is an avid autograph hunter, which leaves open the chance of future celebrity cameos a la Extras if a full series gets commissioned. Based on the pilot, the project undoubtedly has the chance to hit the emotional and comedic heights that The Office did. Every character is unique and charming, and the show's setting is relatable enough to tug the heartstrings of even the crudest comedy fan.
Much has been made about the main characters mental capacity. I'd imagine those condemning Gervais have yet to see the show, as Derek is heartbreakingly sincere. They even managed to coax an excellent performance out of Karl Pilkington, who plays Derek's boss and best mate.
Speaking of Pilkington, he returned in his cartoon form on April 20th to HBO with the third season of The Ricky Gervais Show. On the surface, it may seem like just a slightly higher quality animated podcast but, the whimsical musing of Pilkington elevates the material far beyond that of its peers. This season opens with a revelation. Karl has had another film idea. The plot? An aspiring actor named Bryan, played by Ted Danson gets into a freak accident on the same day that famous actor Tom Cruise tragically dies. The only clear medical solution: Put Bryan's brain into Tom Cruise's body. Those unfamiliar with Pilkington might blanch upon hearing that description but, that is vintage KP. (Episode three is also a small masterpiece.)
It's difficult to explain to a newbie what the appeal of Karl Pilkington is. As he chats with Ricky and Steve, he will stumble upon moments of sheer comedic brilliance, all the while becoming frustrated that his points are not taken seriously. It's that naïve sincerity, crossed with a splendid mixture of arrogance and ignorance that make him so endearing.
Karl is always being nagged to learn more, in hopes of broadening his mind. For the sake of comedy, I hope that never happens.
"Do you know how many mirrors I've smashed, thinking it's a blonde woman mocking me?" -Jenna Maroney
The good news? 30 Rock is the same hilarious show that it was when Tina Fey created it six seasons ago. Well, almost.
The bad news? As far as I can tell, any form of character consistency has been abandoned in favor of the best possible joke. Current episodes feel almost cartoonish, as actors deliver admittedly very funny lines that feel unnervingly out of character. I don't mean this necessarily as a slam. With regards to sitcoms, you sometimes see a divide in writing philosophies. Some show runners would never sacrifice any aspects of their stories or characters in favor of a slightly funnier punch line. In this case, Tina Fey does exactly that but, the laughs are so consistent that she cannot be faulted.
This is essentially the same argument Chevy Chase made to Community creator Dan Harmon in that now infamous voicemail. Amongst many other things, Chevy essentially said that nobody will care about these characters and their stories, if the jokes ain't funny. But an equally strong argument could be made that nobody will laugh at the jokes if the audience does not care about the character delivering that joke. Finding a good middle ground between the two sides is a tricky balancing act.
I have really enjoyed seeing the evolution of 30 Rock. Every time I tune in, I get at least a few huge laughs, which sadly is more than you can say for many sitcoms. But that disparity between story and funny continues to be an issue that wounds much of the current TV slate. Truthfully, I'll usually settle for funny but without story, I might not feel as compelled to tune in each and every week.
Contains Minor Spoilers
Since the end of season one, I have always mentally associated Kenny Powers (Danny McBride) with a character from an old movie: Jack Nicholson's Robert Dupea, from Five Easy Pieces (1970). Both men are brutally unreasonable and yet, totally endearing. Ya hate them until you realize that ya love 'em.
The final season of Eastbound and Down (the entirety of which is currently available on HBO On-Demand) wrapped up beautifully with an eight episode arc, examining Kenny's new life in Myrtle Beach. I was eager to see if show creators Ben Best, Jody Hill and McBride could top the tequila and cockfighting insanity of season two and they did. The season opened with April (Katy Mixon) dropping off baby Toby, forcing Kenny to play the role of a single parent. This could not be more ill timed as the Myrtle Beach Mermen have just drafted Kenny back into baseball.
Without spoiling anything, hardcore fans will undoubtedly be thrilled. The finale's third act contains a fabulous moment (you'll know it when it happens) that shocked me into a brutal fit of cough-laughing. I did not see that one coming. Had McBride not played his role so perfectly, that twist could have fallen flat on its face. Instead, it gracefully lands like a jungle cat. The show's creators once again prove they can nail a dramatic beat just as well as they can a comedic one. Eastbound and Down concludes on an utterly perfect note.
Just like Robert Dupea from Five Easy Pieces, Kenny Powers once cowardly ditched his girl at a gas station to run away from his life and problems. I'm surprised by how pleased I am that he eventually grew up and came back.
And yes. That ending really is Kenny's version of growing up.
I hate to admit it but initially, the premise of Veep (a darkly funny behind the scenes look at the inner workings of the White House, focusing on fictional Vice President Selina Meyer, played by Julia-Louis Dreyfuss) didn't really impress me. On the surface, it seemed like yet another knockoff of The Larry Sanders Show until I spotted a certain name in the credits and everything clicked. Creator/ Executive Producer Armando Iannucci is a confirmed genius. His work with Steve Coogan on I'm Alan Partridge and his award winning (and similarly politically themed) BBC series The Thick of It with its spin-off film In the Loop in particular standing out as comedic high watermarks (not just) in his native country of England.
Veep's season finale is scheduled to air June 10th on HBO. So far, the show works beautifully. The cast includes Tony Hale (Arrested Development; Stranger than Fiction), Matt Walsh (Upright Citizens Brigade, Dog Bites Man) and Anna Chlumsky (My Girl, Uncle Buck), all of whom blend seamlessly into this world, despite being so recognizable from their other work. It only took me a couple of seconds to stop thinking: "Hey, it's Buster!" when Hale appears on-screen but, that might just be my hang up.
In episode one, a fellow congress woman makes a joke, using the word retard. It's an HBO show so obviously, I didn't bat an eye at this. It is only later when Selina casually re-tells this joke under less than ideal circumstances, did I utter that knee-jerk PC groan: "That was inappropriate." It took me a second to catch myself and realize just how ingenious this structure is. By allowing the audience to chuckle at the first joke, they become an accomplice with Selina as she later delivers the disastrous faux pas. You can't judge her because-- you did laugh the first time, didn't you?
As I said, Veep works. Much like the aforementioned Girls, it has the potential to be one of the best new comedies on TV. Hopefully HBO won't pull a Lucky Louie on this one. In the meantime, I strongly urge people to give Iannucci a chance. HBO's Veep brilliantly shows us that no matter what you achieve or how high up the socio-economic ladder you climb, there will always be annoying jackasses around to ruin your day.
Two clear omissions from this list are Louie and South Park. My explanation? Well, I am not yet caught up on this season of South Park. But I soon will be. And the third season of Louie does not start until June. Patience.
Tony is on Twitter. It's true, ya know...
Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. In addition to ShowbizMonkeys.com, Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine and The Uniter. You can find Tony on Twitter.