Comedies Are Getting Serious As Hell — And Alison Brie Is Here For It
Imagine you sit down to watch a half-hour series. It's billed as a comedy, it stars the very funny and talented actor Alison Brie, and its four-letter acronym of a name stands for something goofy, like The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. The flashy, '80s-set series is legitimately funny; it includes performances by comedic greats like Marc Maron and allows Brie's co-star Betty Gilpin to hilariously stomp all over the idea of American exceptionalism as star wrestler Liberty Bell (see the Season 2 line about her "baking pies at home... pies of RAGE" if you need proof). But while you're laughing at the series' impeccable timing and physical comedy, Netflix's GLOW has a tendency to surprise you with a sudden left hook — right into a scene in which a black cast member cries as she is forced to relax her natural hair in order to be commercially palatable for a network cop show or one in which the producer of the titular wrestling show finds out his secret partner Florian has died of AIDS or even right into a scene that finds Brie's character Ruth in the midst of her own #MeToo moment. It's not just GLOW where we're seeing these sudden shifts from camp to serious concern. It's getting increasingly difficult to tell comedies and dramas apart, and for Brie, no outcome could be better.
"The best comedy is about the human condition and about real human emotions and when that's the motivation for it, you get a lot of heart, you get a lot of great perspective on subjects. It resonates with people more," she says, adding that the best comedy storytelling can change minds — or at least open them up to new perspectives.
It's something that the second season of GLOW strives to do with its sexual harassment and coercion storyline. This series isn't the first to tackle the topic by any means: it's been touched on by recent episodes of Younger, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Great News, and Jane The Virgin. Even Silicon Valley, the bro-iest show of them all, actually followed the conversation through to what it could mean for beings created through Artificial Intelligence. But Brie says that in the case of GLOW, the creators were really just trying to tell a realistic story: the episode was conceived of before the allegations against Harvey Weinstein changed the world as we knew it.
"I think the intention was not to cash in on the current news stories or anything like that," she says.
The best comedy is about the human condition and about real human emotions...
Slight spoilers for GLOW Season 2 ahead. The episode in question finds Brie's Ruth trying to save her all-female wrestling TV series (also named GLOW, aka the Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling) from cancellation. At the start of the season she's striving for more responsibility, angling to officially direct episodes and manage business decisions. So naturally, when she's invited to dine with the head of GLOW's TV network, she jumps at the chance to plead her case for the show she's worked so hard on. Only, that's not why she was invited along at all. First, she finds that dinner has been moved from the restaurant to the network head's hotel suite, but Glen, the network exec she's worked with for a year, is there, so it's fine. Then Glen leaves with a flimsy excuse about finding dinner menus, but he says he'll be right back, and the network head seems to be asking Ruth genuinely interested questions about her career, so it's fine. Once they're alone, the exec asks Ruth to show him some wrestling moves, but she could probably just lightly play along to be nice, so it's fine. But when she puts him in a headlock as requested, he shoves his face between her breasts, then moves to nuzzle her neck, and as he runs to the other room to check the hotel tub for jacuzzi jets, he laughs off the fact that Glen is not coming back. Suddenly, it's so not fine. The message is clear: He is expecting a sexual exchange from Ruth. And the next day, after she bolts before she can be further assaulted, GLOW is moved to a new time slot at 2 a.m. where it's sure to be canceled.
"I like how we show how easy it is to find yourself in an uncomfortable situation. These days in the midst of all these stories, there is a lot of victim-blaming and people misunderstanding — 'Why would someone even be in a hotel room with someone? What did they think was going to happen?'" she offers. "And in that episode we just see all these subtle shifts and these tiny moral compromises that Ruth is making in her mind until she suddenly finds herself in a really dangerous position. I think that is important to show — that anyone can find themselves in that position and it's not the woman's fault."
The episode even takes the conversation one step further, bringing in Ruth's former best friend and constant foil, Debbie, who actually scolds Ruth for not pretending she was interested in sleeping with the head of the network because "that's how this business works." She also says that Ruth must have known what she was getting into.
"Because our show is set in the '80s, I think we have a little distance to sort of look back at the way that women had almost brainwashed themselves to be able to deal with what they were up against and the positions that they found themselves in," she says, adding that even now, in 2018, it's easy for some people to "kind of forget how much excusing we, ourselves, have done about certain types of behavior that we've encountered."
So yeah, this is some pretty heavy shit for a comedy. Or is it?
Serious edges are to be expected from GLOW executive producer Jenji Kohan, who gifted us with Orange Is The New Black and whose first big splash on television was the hilarious, dark-as-hell comedy Weeds. And everywhere Brie goes, she seems to find herself playing characters on comedies who deal with seriously deep issues.
I think that is important to show — that anyone can find themselves in that position and it's not the woman's fault.
On GLOW, she's got Ruth, who had serious darkness in her long before Season 2; on her other Netflix comedy, Bojack Horseman, her character is best friends with an alcoholic, depressed former celebrity and her own arcs include working through the trauma she withstands after working as a reporter in an active war zone and an episode in which she decides to get an abortion; and on the series that made Brie a name, Community, she played a former straight-A student fresh out of rehab after the pressure to succeed led her right into an Adderall addiction. For Brie, this balance of "the light and dark" is kind of the dream.
"I feel like if we can make someone think about something in a different way and also entertain them, that is the true goal," she explains. And she's not wrong to hope for such an outcome, it seems. A 2015 Stony Brook University study that spanned 30 years of television found that TV actually does "increase political tolerance, and eliminate racism, sexism, and heterosexism."
Brie admits that she looks to other comedy series, like Netflix's Dear White People, to see things differently herself. She says that as a privileged white woman, "I feel like there's a lot that I gain from watching that and just learning about different perspectives and even how maybe the lens that I've seen things through my whole life is very much skewed."
Of course, the concept of comedy delivering important truths with a spoonful of laughs isn't at all new. Most of us grew up in the era of sitcoms with Very Special Episodes (see: the episode of Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air in which Carlton gets a gun because he doesn't believe the police protect people of color, or the Saved By The Bell episode in which Jessie Spano becomes addicted to caffeine pills, or even the episode of Designing Women that addressed the AIDS crisis in the '80s before President Ronald Reagan did). The difference is that now comedy series have the freedom to break down the walls between genres, not just in a network-sanctioned special episode™, but in every fiber of a series' makeup.
"I'm waiting for the day when we sort of redefine these things and start referring to shows as like, half hour or an hour ... I personally don't like being contained in the comedy box all the time, and to people who haven't watched GLOW, when they hear the word 'comedy,' it's so different from what the show actually is. It sort of just feels like an outdated perception," Brie says, pointing to groundbreaking series like Donald Glover's FX "comedy" Atlanta to support her argument. "Some of those episodes feel like they're the thriller-horror genre and some feel like straight drama and it's immensely creative, the things they're doing on that show. I don't feel like any of us should be bound to these categorizations."
For now, though, GLOW is classified as a comedy, and in the moments when Brie takes center stage as her wrestling character, Zoya — a parody of Russian stereotypes and the red scare — that laughter is still at least half of the series' goal. But even in those jokes, there are truth and lessons to be had. Zoya's fellow wrestlers like Machu Pichu (Britney Young), Welfare Queen (Kia Stevens), Beirut The Mad Bomber (Sunita Mani), or Vicki The Viking (indie director Marianna Palka) all play into downright awful stereotypes about Latina women, Black women, East Asian women, and women with larger body types for jokes — but the jokes only work if the viewer first understands just how damaging and wrong these stereotypes are. This form of commentary has earned GLOW its sparkling reputation, but in some ways, Brie sees the term "comedy" as a barrier for her show and other series like it.
"For some reason, especially with comedy, because drama, in some people's minds, just carries so much more weight and importance, it's like there's a respect for dramas in film and television more than you see for comedy," she says. And when you look at the series that end up in comedy categories in most awards shows like the Emmys and The Golden Globes (GLOW, Orange Is The New Black, Jane The Virgin, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, for starters), there isn't often a single series that hasn't also tackled something utterly real. In the above set of series alone, we've seen racism, sexual harassment, depression, the pitfalls of the U.S. prison system, immigration, and mental health not only discussed, but discussed remarkably well. Hell, there's a even a half-hour sitcom on NBC (ahem, The Good Place) that legitimately succeeds in injecting actual philosophy lessons — the kind that might make you a better human — into 22 minutes of hilarity.
"If you chose six random half-hour comedies, I feel like it would be hard to find two that were extremely similar," Brie says. And perhaps that's because without the constraints of "serious drama" slapped on GLOW (or Atlanta or Dear White People or The Good Place or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or Jane The Virgin), these series are truly free to bend genres and create something new. And that freedom, that opportunity, is a serious gift.