Peter Fenzel, Mark Lee, and Matthew Wrather overthink Prestige Comedy. Can comedy be prestigious? Can it be a comedy if it isn’t funny? (The answer may surprise you!)
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- G.L.O.W. on Netflix
- Master of None
- Catastrophe: Season 1, Season 2, Season 3
- Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix
Lots of ‘Well Actuallys’…and I’m trying to wean myself off them. Honest. The beautiful and talented Sharon Horgan is Irish, not British. Catastrophe appeared in the UK on Channel 4, which is not publicly funded like the BBC (it’s a bit of a political hot potato and I’m sure there’s other Overthinkers who can better explain – it’s interesting enough for an episode in itself) and Claire Danes is married to Hugh Dancy who is best known for not being Noah Emmerich.
Oof, I knew that too. I meant to say British show, Irish actress. Thanks for setting the record straight.
No worries. I feel like I may have lost friends due to pedantry, but in this post fact, post truth world, I’m prepared to carry the torch emblazoned with the legend ‘well actually’. Possibly in Latin.
I think, for me, something that makes it a prestige comedy is whether it feels like the show is more interested in getting laughs as an end instelf, or it’s using the laughs as another means to further its artistic project and explore themes and characters.
I would cite two of my favorite prestige comedies as doing the latter well: BoJack Horseman and Review. The fact that they are also two of the darkest comedies I’ve ever seen isn’t unrelated. They’re rate of LPM is high, they both even have a whole lot of extremely broad, physical and downright immature comedy. But, once they have you laughing, the jokes stop being an end in themselves and become pary of a rich exploration of the main characters, and humanity in general.
So I think something that needs to be discussed about prestige comedies is the fact that viewers expect a more deeply explored story than in a comedy whose primary goal is to provide 1/2 hour of laughs, and will maybe try to throw in a little story or character development only where it fits.
By the way, I cannot recommend Review highly enough. It was criminally underwatched and advertised, but it’s probably one of the best TV shows of the last few years.
Sorry for all the typos, writing on my phone.
Another way to say a similar thing is:
If it has catch phrases and silly wigs it is not prestige comedy, but if it’s about a mediocre actor who feels like a complete failure every time the script calls for him to say “are you having a laugh?” then it’s squarely in prestige territory.
This isn’t really what I was trying to say. I may have not done a great job before, so let me try to reword it and clarify. Bear with me.
My main point is that a prestige comedy can definitely have silly wigs and catchphrases and other easy/cheap jokes. Review especially traffics in “silly wigs” and catchphrases. It constantly puts its main character in humiliating costumes (or has him being naked for laughs), vomit jokes, poop jokes and more dick and fart jokes than I can count. BoJack Horsman uses its anthropomorphic animal celebrity parodies mostly for dumb puns (except for Cameron Crowe, he’s a raven).
So what I was trying to say is that it matters what the purpose of the jokes are. BoJack Horseman uses those cheap laughs as a way to explore the story of the mediocre actor you’re talking about. I’d argue that you could flip your description and still have a non-prestige comedy. That is, I think it’s easily imaginable to make a middle of the road, lowest-common denominator without silly wigs and catchphrases a struggling actor where the jokes are derived from his failures and insecurities, but don’t go deeper than “look at this silly insecure clown getting beaten down by the world.” But I don’t think we’d call it a “prestige comedy” just because it lacks silly wigs and catchphrases if it didn’t also strive to artistically explore and deepen its characterizations, stories and themes.
BH and Review are both, at heart, tragedies about men who will not or cannot change and how their lives are ruined as a consequence. The stories they tell are deep and complex and full of meditations on humanity’s “big questions.” Yet, they are also replete with extremely silly, broad and puerile humor that would delight the least sophisticated of 12 year-olds.
What I’m trying to say is that I don’t think that having cheap/easy/immature jokes (like the giant poop Wrather mentioned on South Park) precludes something from being a “prestige comedy.” Conversely, just because a show mostly refrains from these kinds of jokes, or tries to touch on a “serious” or “socially important” topic it doesn’t automatically become prestige either. (black-ish, for example is a great example of the latter. It tackles some pretty heavy topics, but it does so while firmly in the style of a network sit-com. That is, it provides laughs and a sense of comfortable familiarity while its story and character developments never reach the level of being problematizing or alienating). In other words, I’m saying that categorizing the parts of a comedy doesn’t serve to determine if something is “prestige” without analyzing the show as a whole.
Oh I’m not disagreeing.
The “silly wigs and catch phrases” is a reference to the show Extras, I just hit post without going into detail.
In the language of that series that is how Ricky Gervais’ character describes a sitcom where the characters have no depth and the jokes are clearly an end in themselves (which is sarcastically portrayed as the worst imaginable version of The Office).
Aside from all of the other prestige markers that Extras engages it, it makes the even braver move of gliding between hilarious gag scenes and meditations on whether making people laugh has any sort of value at all.