Original programming has evolved to an incredible degree in even just the past few years, and television comedies have been no exception. Long gone are the days of relying on a comfortable, four-camera, laugh-track-filled sitcom; what audiences look forward to from a TV comedy in 2021 is a far cry from the expectations of audiences 20 or even 10 years ago. So, as the world becomes more connected and audiences become savvier, comedy creators are having to toy with the genre in new ways in order to break through the crowded landscape.
One major way they are doing that is by blending a darker tone and heavier themes into their series.
“Half-hour television benefits from being more dramatic than it used,” says Josh Heald, co-creator of “Cobra Kai.” “I think the blending of genres has only resulted in more nuanced storytelling overall.”
The third season of “Cobra Kai” included funny moments, including Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) trying and failing to impersonate a doctor, alongside a much more serious storyline about John Kreese’s (Martin Kove) time as a POW in Vietnam, as well as touching on his mother’s mental illness and suicide. Meanwhile, HBO Max’s “The Flight Attendant” starts with Kaley Cuoco’s titular character waking up next to a dead body in a panic, only for the tension to be broken by the character’s high-energy dance music ringtone. This sums up what the audience can expect over the eight-episode first season as she bumbles her way through playing detective. And Netflix’s “Master of None” completely uprooted its show in the third season, setting it in a countryside farmhouse and following the often-tense discussions between spouses Denise (Lena Waithe) and Alicia (Naomi Ackie).
“For me, it’s about writing a dark comedy that has life or death stakes and tension,” says Steve Yockey, creator and co-showrunner of “The Flight Attendant.” “If it were just a thriller or just a drama, then we wouldn’t be able to go as dark as we do. The comedy is what allows the show to go as dark, especially in the emotional corners. What we’re going to do is create tension and break it with comedy, so that you have this rhythm that’s pulling people through.”
Another key aspect in keeping comedy fresh and modern is understanding how people of different cultures and age groups might find common ground.
“I think basic stories are universal,” says Regina Hicks, co-creator and showrunner of multicam comedy “The Upshaws,” which streams on Netflix. “At the end of the day, the approach in is different, but some stories resonate across the board.”
“The Upshaws” stars Kim Fields, co-creator Wanda Sykes and Mike Epps, and follows a Black working-class family in Indiana as they struggle to live the American dream. Eschewing many traditional multicam tropes such as hapless dads and beleaguered moms, the show instead incorporates serious discussions about blended families, money concerns and race.
In addition to expanding the kind of content being offered within new television comedies, welcoming new voices into the creation is essential, too. That is one of the most important lessons Rob McElhenney, co-creator and actor of the long running “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” on FXX and the newer “Mythic Quest” at Apple TV Plus, has learned during his career. It was something he first picked up from his “Always Sunny” co-star Danny DeVito, McElhenney admits.
“He told me he wants to surround himself with young people and he wants them to tell him what’s funny. Because what happens is, if you aren’t at least attempting to understand the point of view and perspective of the next generation of people, then you’re just going to become a dinosaur, telling the same jokes and the same stories.”
And as dozens more new series enter the marketplace on a monthly basis, hearing the same material over and over from the same show, let alone multiple shows, is a surefire way to get the audience to turn toward something else.
“I think audiences now are a little bit more sophisticated,” Hicks says. “They’ve seen a lot. And I think people know more and have experienced more just because of the internet. So it’s not like people live in their own little bubbles anymore. You can’t fool them.”
But whether a comedy focuses on jokes per page or welcomes more dramatic tone into its storytelling, “context is everything,” McElhenney says. “Without a shared context, it’s almost impossible to find similar things funny.”