Well, my friends, the time has come. It’s the final category of my dream Emmy nominees. I put it off until the Comic-Con furor died down, but by Thursday we’ll know what the (inevitably disappointing) nominees are. But until then, let’s live in the magical world where good comedy is actually rewarded. The nominees for Best Comedy are…
Parks and Recreation
Normally, at this point I’d go through the highs and lows of each show, play a few clips, and crown a winner. But I am not going to do that in this category for a simple reason — going through the highs and lows is impossible to do until you know what specifically the Best Comedy Emmy is designed to reward.
Rewarding specific actors or actresses is a relatively easy task to do. It’s easy to pick apart one performance and stack it against other performances. But when all the performances mix together in an inexplicable concoction that we call a show, choosing what is the best combination is kind of like choosing the best ice cream flavor — it depends on what you mean by “best.” And in comedy, there are two possible definitions; best can either mean “the edgiest, smartest, and most groundbreaking,” or it can mean “the warmest, fuzziest, most anti-drama.” As a rule, the average person wants the second option from a comedy, and furthermore, the Emmys pretty much fall all over themselves to reward this. They love it so much they treat it like it’s the One Direction of the television world and just fling their proverbial panties all over it. Modern Family is so safely anti-drama, so soft-edged and sepia-toned, so obsessively cuddly that it’s not even funny. And if you’re a crazy radical comedy lover like me and believe that the point of comedy is to actually make people laugh, you’re going to think this is a stupid choice.
If the Emmys want to reward the soft and fuzzy category of comedy (which I should state is both a perfectly valid and much beloved genre of mine), their choices should be between Parks and Recreation and New Girl, but Parks should triumph. New Girl is sweet and quirky, but Parks and Recreation has the most finely-crafted characters in comedy today. It is a show that makes you laugh as it’s making you cry, that makes you adore a tiny town that you’d probably hate living in, makes you root for people as if they are really your best friends. The magic of Parks and Recreation is that while it’s warm and cuddly, it never, ever sacrifices being witty and bitingly satirical. It is the epitome of what a happy place comedy should be.
If the Emmys want to go edgy but not too edgy, it’s a race between Suburgatory and Raising Hope. These shows are extremely similar — a core family in a town full of quirky weirdos. The main difference is that in Suburgatory the core family of George and Tessa is relatively sane, whereas in Raising Hope the core family is just as weird as everyone else. Both of these poor shows are ignored because they straddle the line. Fans of the sunshine-y are going to find the weirdness off-putting, especially in Raising Hope, which raises being kooky to an art form. Fans of the edgy aren’t going to like these shows because the town full of lovable weirdos show isn’t exactly groundbreaking stuff, and there are always these heartwarming voiceovers at the end that make your heart pitter-pat. Who does that? Lame. But both shows really do deserve quite a lot of credit for straddling that line successfully, and if I’m hard-pressed to choose which one of them I’d reward over the other. I’m currently feeling Raising Hope, if only for the double act of Martha Plimpton and Garret Dillahunt, but I think that the more Suburgatory finds its voice in later seasons, the stronger a contender it’s going to grow to be.
But comedians (and people who are, at heart, comedians) are always going to favor the edgy. Edgy comedies like 30 Rock and Community are critical darlings precisely because they push the envelope in a way that makes most people feel uncomfortable. At the core of it, that is what comedians believe they exist to do — to poke fun at societal barriers and kick them down with laughter. (If you would like evidence of this, see basically any discussion of the Daniel Tosh debacle, ever. I will bet you large amounts of money that at some point it is brought up that comedians do not want to nor should they lose their right to be edgy/racy/offensive/et cetera.) But because these shows feel uncomfortable to the average person who is having their socialized constructs poked at, they’re never going to be popular. And considering how sensitive the Emmys tend to be to this brand of comedy, it’s actually pretty amazing that 30 Rock has taken the big prize home at all. And honestly, the only reason it did was probably because it was one of the major influences in changing comedy away from the multi-camera laugh tracked classic sitcom with zero production value and towards the single-camera, slickly-produced comedy we think of today, and for a while it was the only show doing that. And as hard-pressed as the Emmys are to reward innovation, it was hard to argue for a while that 30 Rock should lose Best Comedy to, say, Everybody Loves Raymond.
If the Emmys still want to reward smart, cutting-edge comedy, the obvious choice is critical darling Community. If pressed, I’d probably choose Community for the Emmy as well, if only because that show has single-handedly done more for the genre of comedy than any other show I can think of. I predict — and I sincerely hope I’m right — that Community is what comedies are going to look like ten years from now. It’s going to be multicultural, it’s going to be gender-balanced, and it’s going to take seventy-odd years of tropes that have built up around comedy and gleefully destroy every single one of them. Why yes, comedy can parody both Law and Order and a civil war documentary while retaining character integrity! Of course an entire episode can be successfully done as an 8-bit video game! And no, comedies do not have to choose between making characters caricatures and making them human. Because Community has hit on a truth that other comedies struggle with — humans are caricatures. We are ridiculous, heartbreaking, hilarious, inexplicably weird creatures, and no show embraces every tiny, weird corner of the human experience the way Community does.
But then again, what do I know. As I’m sure we’ll learn Thursday when the nominations come out, the Emmys have never much agreed with me anyway.
The Emmys don’t like edgy? I’m not sure if we’re just defining the word differently, but looking historically down the list of winners you have show like Taxi, All in the Family, MASH, Murphy Brown, Seinfeld, Will and Grace, Arrested Development, The Office, 30 Rock …
I’m not sure I can agree with the premise of this column. Comedy is far too subjective to speak about in such cut and dry terms.
Ugh, stop predicting when Hollywood will disappoint us, Jules.
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