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TV Sitcoms: The Laughs Are Dying

Andrew Payne Andrew Payne
August 7th, 2009 11:53am EDT
EntourageSay what you will about "According To Jim", but it at least it had jokes. Yes, jokes. Remember those? The old set-up, punch line routine intended to make audiences laugh. They used to be a staple of television comedies. Laugh-track or no, comedy shows on television were once designed to simply elicit guffaws from the viewing audience, whether or not we heard them.

But today, the laughs are dying. And this isn't a "Parks and Recreation" kind of demise where the jokes are just bad. Instead, comedies have stopped making jokes altogether.

Consider the comedies on television this summer. Mainly, the quartet on the premium channels Showtime and HBO on Sundays and Mondays as these are really the only place to find fresh comedy on the airwaves outside whatever laughs one can cobble from David Hasselhoff's musings on "America's Got Talent".

Two of these shows, "Weeds" and "Entourage", have become pillars of the television comedy pantheon over their runs. Lately, however, each has tilted far towards the dramedy end of the equation. One-liners and punch lines have been replaced by real life decisions and heightened drama. None of which seems to have any place in a half-hour show, oftentimes making the stories seem truncated - as in, shouldn't this type of show run a full hour?

The diminishing comedy of these two shows has seen itself come to its logical extreme with the debut of two new series this summer "Nurse Jackie" and "Hung".

Each of these new shows is ostensibly a comedy: They run 30 minutes, the situations are a bit abnormal, and the stories move with a lighter and quicker pace. There's only one problem. There are no jokes. There's nothing really funny on any of these shows.

Sure, many of the situations are amusing. After all, one show involves entirely around a high school basketball coach whoring himself out under the guise of a female poet of a pimp. Should be funny right? But "Hung" really isn't. It keeps a smile on your face as we meander through the life of this basketball -coach-cum-ho, but that's about it, there's never a gag that you can reference or reiterate as an example of outstanding humor from each episode.

"Nurse Jackie" can be even less funny. Jokes do exist but they are incredibly rare, and as the series has progressed a sharper focus has been paid toward the drama of its titular character: her juggling an affair and marriage, her drug habit, her macabre eldest daughter, and the everyday hazards of her profession. Not exactly fodder for a yukfest.

These shows may be considered a new hybrid form of television. A lighter drama that only runs a half-hour and surprises viewers with an occasional joke, but what about established comedies like "Entourage" and "Weeds"?

Their turn from being funny to being affable is quite jarring. There was a time when "Entourage" gave us jokey catchphrases like "Let's hug it out" and "Victory!" But now? Look for a joke, look for a sign that seems meant to elicit laughter in the midst of its commercial-free thirty minutes. They just don't seem to exist anymore.

Recently, Turtle went to super-duper agent Ari for business advice. This normally should send the hilarious Jeremy Piven on a rant that would offend several nationalities, contain more four-letter words than a Jeopardy category, and have viewers collapsed in horrified laughter by the time the blood was through rushing to his head.

What did we get? A bit of a rant, half-an-insult, and actually some sage business advice before Ari agreed to help Turtle.

Umm. . .what?

In a comedy show, a potentially golden moment of funny shouldn't be sacrificed for the sake of story or plot. We want to laugh when we tune into these half-hour nuggets of delight, not be carried along with half-a-smile and learn something about how to begin on the road to success at the UCLA extension program.

On "Weeds" the lack of jokes is even more frustrating. That's because we're continually teased by the occasional moment of funny. Maybe Andy makes some sort of gaffe, Doug actually appears on an episode for more than five seconds, or the sociopathic hired goons act like sociopathic hired goons to hyperbolic bits of ludicrousness.

Weeds

Image © CBS Corporation

This happens very rarely; however, as we are often instead trodding through Nancy's world in shambles and her relationship with a Mexican drug kingpin. Again, not really situations that lend themselves to high comedy, and "Weeds" does its best to avoid any jokes in these instances.

That's where we stand with television comedy this summer. A lot of shows centered more on story than humor, more worried about plots than chortles, far more concerned with their characters than the laughing habits of their audience. Yes, comedy on television appears to no longer be funny, and it is for lack of trying.

But is this necessarily a bad thing?

The fact is, none of these shows is bad. Sure "Entourage" and "Weeds" have slipped in quality over the last few seasons, but stacking them up against the normal comedy fray on television they come out squarely on top. They certainly aren't boring, they move well and while they may not bring about laughter, a pleasant smile never leaves a viewer's face.

"Hung" moves in much the same was as its premium channel predecessors. It's a bit darker but has the same amusing feel and a similar ability to engage the viewer with slightly humorous situations that are never quite funny enough to warrant a chuckle.

"Nurse Jackie" is a different animal. This is an extremely dark show that seeks to examine a borderline twisted main character who nonetheless functions as a heroine. This makes for a compellingly bleak series that focuses on psychology much more than it does funny situations. Again, not a bad thing, but certainly not a humorous thing.

So this is what we're stuck with. Television comedies that no longer make us laugh. They may engage us with interesting stories and characters about whom we care, but as for a chuckle-filled escape replete with jokes and other comedic trappings we'll have to look elsewhere.

It's a mixed blessing at best. On one hand, we're now treated to half-hour shows that offer us cinematic quality and stories with a deeper concern than stampeding towards the next punchline. Of course, it also means we no longer laugh when we watch these shows, instead we're treated to good stories that may keep us pleasantly engaged but ultimately leave us wondering why we even spent time on a show that no longer makes us chuckle.

Maybe these shows could attempt to tell their compelling stories but sprinkle in a few jokes along the way. Kind of like "Entourage" and "Weeds" used to do before they became whatever they are now.

Would that really be so hard?

Andrew Payne
Story by Andrew Payne

Starpulse contributing writer