Welcome to the Golden Age of TV Sitcoms

Sitcoms are in the middle of a renaissance and we get to the bottom of why TV comedy is so great again…

Editor’s Note: We’re diving into the best comedies currently on television this week. To see all of our coverage from Den of Geek’s Comedy Week, click here

There are still people out there—you’ll run into them at parties, or overhear them on the commute to work—bragging that they don’t watch TV or even own a television. And if they do happen to tune in, the one thing they’re certainly not watching is a sitcom. Sitcoms are dead, they’ll tell you. They’re deader than Susan Biddle Ross, George’s fiancée from Seinfeld.

But sitcoms are anything but dead. In fact, they’re in the middle of a golden age that has arguably made the genre more durable than ever. Sitcoms are showing the most outside-of-the (idiot)-box thinking that they have in decades. 

As sitcoms have evolved during this new age, there are categories they can be grouped into: programs with darker plots; programs that sound simplistically “normal” but are in fact unconventional; and lastly, more grounded shows that started off ordinary but have been allowed to embrace this ambitiousness. 

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THE EVOLUTION OF THE SITCOM

The evolution of sitcoms is an area as rich and layered as looking at the backstories of every single member of Springfield. So the clip show version of all of this is that the bedrock stages for sitcoms were the comfortable time period of the three-camera studio audience vehicle, and then the stylistic shift to the more confident single-camera fare. Something like this may seem obvious now, but to look at a show that falls into the former—such as Happy Days—in comparison to a sitcom that came out of the latter—like Malcolm in the Middle—the two shows look completely different, but retain the same core values.

While permutations of these types of sitcoms would be experimented with (and the introduction of single-camera comedies hardly ended the production of three-camera studio fodder; Adult Swim’s three-camera friendly The Jack and Triumph Show is currently airing), the tonal shift towards heavily edited, produced, aware single-camera shows was the apex for a while. Stylistically, these shows might have been breaking barriers and blazing new trails, but the content was often still as mundane as the usual workplace or family sitcom. It’s only recently that we’ve entered the next rung of evolution on the sitcom scale and risen above our single-camera existences and turned out something new.

NOT “HA-HA” FUNNY

The first group of these shows includes the most obvious of the paradigm shift: current sitcoms like The Last Man on Earth, Review, and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. When you think of sitcoms, you usually don’t think of the dark, strange premises that these comedies hinge themselves on. In Last Man, Will Forte plays the alleged last man on earth as he wanders the world that is left behind. Review places the plucky Andy Daly into a review show, but instead of reviewing things like books or movies, he weighs in on topics like divorce, crack, and pushing the limits of what a human being can tolerate. Kimmy Schmidt takes the consummate glass-half-full Elllie Kemper and skews her naivete’ by making her a cult survivor. All of these are loglines that would instantly have been shot down by networks even five years ago.

Andy Bobrow, who currently works on The Last Man on Earth (but cut his teeth on Malcolm in the Middle and was later a veteran on Community) sees it as story-first focus, then filling in with comedy.  

“One great thing that’s really been happening off network is the rise of these really honest shows that might be considered comedies but aren’t really structured around funny topics.” Bobrow said. “The definitions of comedy are being stretched. Some people think that stuff isn’t funny, but I love those shows. They’re trafficking in irony.”

It’s worth mentioning that before Kimmy Schmidt became one of Netflix’s most popular original programs, it was slated to premiere on NBC…before it was moved to midseason…before it was yanked entirely. Netflix not only swooped in to save it, they doubled down on it, promising the series two seasons. Netflix’s fearlessness with such content brings up another crucial component of television’s golden age, which is the death of the modern network and the new Wild West that we’re in.

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While Kimmy Schmidt struggled to be appreciated by NBC, the story behind Other Space wasn’t much different. Paul Feig originally took his Yahoo! Screen series to NBC pre-Office, but they weren’t ready for single-cam comedies. Accordingly, they asked him to turn it into a three-camera studio show, which against his better judgment, he did. The result was a misshapen creature that the network didn’t know what to do with, and so did nothing with.

Shelby Fero, a writer for Yahoo’s Other Space, offers this up in response to NBC’s pre-golden age suggestion, “Jesus Christ, they were going to do a multicam for that show? That’s bonkers… I truly think that would have been insanely difficult to pull off.”

Fero is grateful for the more fluid playground she gets to currently work in, “I mean it’s amazing that we got to do it [Other Space] as it was meant to be, on this set, single cam, with these amazing directors.”

BROADCASTING 2.0

Plenty of the shows featured here are on conventional networks, but we’re seeing a trend where even the riskier cable series aren’t measuring up anymore. Everyone wants to get into original content now, from Netflix to other streaming services like Amazon, Hulu, Yahoo, Vimeo, the PlayStation Network, to just name a few. With the slate being reset and these new places having creative and monetary freedom, it’s incredible to look at some of the talent this new playground has lured to TV A short list inclues Woody Allen, Dan Harmon, Tina Fey, Mitch Hurwitz, David Cross/Bob Odenkirk, Whit Stillman, Judd Apatow, Paul Fieg, David Fincher, Terry Gilliam, and there are certainly more on the way.

It’s almost as if anyone who has ever had a show cancelled or mistreated by a network is heading to these streams with open arms and raving about the experience. Remember when you simply wouldn’t jump onto a new ambitious show, worried it might die and break your heart? That might be a thing of the past. 

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“What I think is happening is that the audience is getting more and more fragmented–we all know this,” Bobrow said. “The networks have finally gotten to the point where it’s economically feasible for them to indulge a niche instead of shooting for the middle. So hopefully there will be more of it.”

With so many more avenues for original content available, storytelling in sitcoms has evolved. One new feature of the latest generation is heavy serialization. The Last Man on Earth almost routinely ended in cliffhangers and promoted a new level of suspense that wasn’t typically associated with the genre.

“So Will had that all done. The main plot points and introductions were all part of the plan from the beginning,” Bobrow said. “Something big has to happen every week, yet you’re holding onto this big thing in your back pocket but it can’t happen yet.”

You have to understand that doing something like a two-part episode in the ‘70s reeked of desperation as opposed to innovation. We’re now seeing entire seasons drop at once and storytelling that complements binge watching. As a result, we’re getting more theatrics injected into our comedies and it’s resulting in fascinating television.

“What’s exciting now is that places like Comedy Central are willing to say, ‘Yeah, this is a totally different, insane idea.’” Andy Daly, star and executive producer of Comedy Central’s Review, told Den of Geek.

“And maybe it won’t get mass appeal, but it’ll generate enough excitement and get enough people watching.”

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Daly is thrilled about where all of this is heading, with respect for freedom being paramount.

“I do kind of think we’re in a golden age, and if there’s a reason I think it’s because… if you let someone do their passion project and you leave them alone to do it, they will work so hard to make it great.”

THE NEW “NORMAL”

Then there are those comedies that sound entirely normal by their descriptions, but instead offer up wildly unpredictable, post-modern takes on old ideas. FXX’s Man Seeking Woman is simply a show about a single guy trying to find love—one of the oldest concepts in television, but it digs into it all with the whimsy of Charlie Kaufman and Maurice Sendak’s love child, where trolls, robots, and penis monsters are a reality.

Simon Rich, creator of Man Seeking Woman, told Den of Geek this new shift is all about seeing how well the approach can work.

“You know, FX has been giving creative people free reign for a while now,” Rich said. “One of the reasons why I was so excited to work there was because of the way that Louie worked and the amazingly long leash that they gave him to create stuff that was really brilliant, honest, and personal… I knew from the get-go that if I could just get a show onto FX then I would have a chance to make the kind of show that I really wanted to make.”

We see the relationship model shifting even further with Broad City where the soulmates aren’t even different genders. The series may dress itself as a simple buddy comedy depicting a female bromance between two underprepared twentysomethings, yet underneath it all is a sitcom with one of the most unique, relentless, honest voices (and relationships) on television.

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Relationship comedies are worth their weight in salt on television, but one of the more recent attempts at the genre, You’re the Worst, has shattered the stereotype with unflinching cynicism, turning a tired idea into a brave new thing.

The program’s creator, Stephen Falk, said the broadcasts networks often have the wrong idea when it comes to work shopping new programs. Falk’s comedy found a home that saw his vision through.

“I felt that romantic comedy as a genre was ready to be reinvented and taken to a different and more honest level,” Falk said.

“I think it was a wrong buzzword [having ‘likeable’ protagonists] and I had a sense that FX would see to what I was trying to do; tell a love story about the dark parts in all of us.”

EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN

This is an exciting time, but never forget: TV is cyclical.

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We praise Man Seeking Woman and Other Space now, but there was ALF in the ‘80s. While television has entered this wonderful golden age, that’s not to say that huge swings haven’t been taken in the past. We merely live in the social media age, with audiences at their hungriest to consume. There weren’t people to make Bewitched memes, live tweet I Dream of Jeannie, or do an AMA with K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider back in the day.

“I grew up watching a lot of very naturalistic sitcoms…shows like Friends and Roseanne were hugely popular, but I would also watch reruns of shows like Bewitched or ALF,” Rich says. “Or shows like 3rd Rock From the Sun or Get Smart. There are shows like Small Wonder that were popular briefly. Or something like Get A Life…All of these surreal sitcoms.”

Because there’s simply more television now, today’s writers are able to reference and homage more material. Today’s weirder shows have thirty more years of TV at their disposal than the ones from the ‘80s. For example, Community practically lives off the history of television. That’s not to say that the writers from older shows weren’t writing smart scripts, they were, but now talented writers have a lot more in their arsenal because of history.

With history on our side, our programming will only get more impressive until it possibly hits a breaking point. Since this is all supposedly cyclical, it’s very possible that freedom, edginess, and binge-friendly attitudes will get exhausting at some point (likely around the time that Pinterest and Etsy announce their own streaming services, and that they’re bringing back Outsourced for a second season along with it) and we’ll revert back to our former programming slates. I can’t wait to revel in the insane shows we get in the meantime.

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