Cable Comedies Don't Win Because Award Shows are Terrified of Them
Award shows are notoriously shitty to comedy television. The same few shows — cough cough Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory — end up taking all the accolades year after year after increasingly unbearable year. As is evident again in this year’s Golden Globes nominations: of all the cable comedy out there, only Girls was chosen represent the rest. No Veep, no Shameless, no Portlandia, no House of Lies, no It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or even Archer. So many comedy snubs. Which is pretty backwards when you consider that cable is home to some of the most beloved, acclaimed, and watched comedy series on TV today. Which can only mean one thing: award shows are terrified of cable comedies.
Probably because they’re not as easy to control and there’s more of a risk involved in both creating and liking them. After all, prestige and laughter are rarely invited to the same dinner parties. But one of the biggest factors in TV success rests on the commonality of emotional evocation that its series provides: networks naturally have a larger audience to play to and therefore must go broader with their comedy.
It’s the same problem that drama suffered until cable took the reigns and raised the bar. A lot of it comes down to perception. Dramas are viewed not only for the emotional content (the drama), but also for the structural (the storytelling), whereas comedies are viewed in a far more narrow way: namely on their ability to make the audience laugh. Which therein creates disconnect: it’s harder to give awards out to something that is far more subjective than its counterpart and has a very narrow frame of reference for “success.” Humor, and in turn comedy, is highly sensitive to the viewer’s personal experiences, point of view, and sense of right and wrong, funny and unfunny, cruel and not. Therefore, people’s opinions on what makes a successful comedy are far more varied.
Cable is taking just as many risks on its comedies as it is its drama, but the problem being that the pay-off is far smaller. It’s easier to connect to a drama: heart-heavy, sometimes action-packed, visceral stuff is guaranteed. Whereas with comedy, a person’s sense of humor is completely subjective, what is considered “funny” is far harder to pin down universally than it is with what is considered “dramatic” because there is no such thing as “universal humor.”
Which is why cable comedy has such a hard time during awards season: it’s risky. Sometimes mean and oftentimes offensive, comedy cuts in its path to enlightenment and story in a way that some people find hard to swallow. This leads networks — with larger numbers and more money to spend — to create universally warm-fuzzy, often family-focused humor backed by big names and big performances.
This also butts up against the historical opinions on comedy. It’s no secret that the more pretentious among us find comedy to be nothing more than a palate cleanser to drama’s entrée. Comedy on networks is a bit more subversive because it’s not always loud, or one-note. Sometimes humor comes from quiet moments, and is glanced with a knowing eye, an absurdist straight-play, or characters that alienate rather than endear. And given the broad nature that TV comedy has embodied for so long — where paying full attention isn’t always necessary, especially if there’s a pratfall involved — it’s not hard to see why asking people to pay attention or try something new would be a slow pill to swallow.
Giving an award to a comedy series is nearly a guarantee that someone will be offended, because comedy is not for those whose offenses are easily rattled. And network comedy has struggled to find a way to give themselves the illusion of edge — like CBS’ 2 Broke Girls or Fox’s Dads — or a unique enough premise — NBC’s Animal Practice or The New Normal — as a cover-up for the much of network comedy’s inability to imbue actual character development and evolution into their funnies.
Because character development often comes at a cost: in drama that is easy to convey: people die, others are hurt, people say and do mean terribleness. But those are things comedy must flip on their head in order to make humorous. Where drama can go all-out with the tears and metaphorical, emotional, and literal significance of grandma’s death, let’s say, comedy has to trample the idea that grandma’s death was sad at all. Or if it was, find a way to make you giggle about it. No easy feat and often impossible to do without offending someone.
When drama offends, it is easier for the audience to understand the point, but when comedy offends it throws people into a bit of a tailspin, because most cannot separate laughter from condoning the offending action. The emotional gravitas drama elicits (via tears, anger, fear, and anxiety) are feelings that do not come with an implied acceptance of the behaviors. But comedy has only laughter and amusement — two feelings often associated with acceptance of the acts. It’s a double standard: where drama is allowed to “explore,” comedy must have a punchline. People are more insecure about what they find funny because it might reveal some sort of insidious internal truth, or at least more easily misconstrued as such by outsiders.
And for many years, appealing to the masses was the point. But now that networks no longer have a stranglehold on things — thanks to prestige dramas — the next place to go is naturally comedy. With people’s eyes opened to the wider possibilities and curious idiosyncrasies available to cable programming, slowly, but surely, the tide will turn for more humorous fare. Eventually. But for now, there’s still the problem of fielding advertising dollars and eyes above all else: hence the influx in family comedies this year. Families = more people = more potential for people to relate = more people watching.
But that also means not a lot of risk can be taken. Network has added pressures that cable does not: but the variety and personal opinion that plays into enjoying comedy cannot fit the one-size-fits-all mentality that networks are forced to play into. Which is also why after all of this, the likelihood of cable comedies taking away awards is still slim-to-none. Because a smaller audience means a smaller series means a smaller number of viewers and subsequently smaller number of voters able to put the names up on the ballot.
It’s a hard road to tow when one is searching for a greater understanding, acceptance, and bar-raise. Comedy will finally get its due when people gain respect and perspective over the genre. And cable will probably be the one to get us there — but don’t act too surprised when network piggybacks off of their glory to win all the awards.