In the Sept. 28 bottle episode of “You’re the Worst,” the Edgar-centric “Twenty-Two” finds recovering Iraq veteran Edgar Quintero (Desmin Borges) suffering from insomnia. Manic and hypervigilant, Edgar goes for a midnight jog — and as headlights shine up the street, Edgar jumps behind a parked car like he’s facing down an armed gunman, terrified by the seeming IED the driver chucks out the window as the van drives past: It’s the morning’s paper, of course.
The episode, one of several high-concept outings in Season 3, remains trained on Edgar’s perspective as he struggles with severe PTSD, highlighting not just the struggle of our nation’s veterans for adequate medical and mental health care, but the often aggressively blind eyes the rest of us turn toward those issues. True to form, “You’re the Worst” centers its humor on the periphery of the foregrounded heartbreak, centering the jokes on the selfish cabal of Edgar’s so-called friends, and those paid to safeguard his welfare.
Increasingly, the shows that stop to contemplate the harder parts of life are comedies — or more properly, dramedies made by comedians. While there’s apparently still some room for the laugh-after-every-line multi-cam format on some networks, and subtler single-cam family shows like “Modern Family” are still at the top of the ratings every week, it’s been noted time and again that the prestige half-hour is rewarded by slowing its pace and allowing room for emotional struggle — often creating the opportunity in reflex to portray actual human connection in those bleak moments.
This new wave of writerly comedy, comedy for and by comedy writers — which includes but is not at all limited to “You’re the Worst,” “Catastrophe,” “Transparent,” “Fleabag” and “Crashing,” “One Mississippi,” “Atlanta,” “Casual,” “Master of None,” “Insecure,” “Girls,” and of course “Louie” — spaces out the laugh lines to explore deeper territory and look into pain’s role in everyday life. The comedy format, which can seem only nominal in a lot of cases, lets characters and viewer plumb the darker areas while still protected by the knowledge that there will be at least a hint of light at the end.
Tig Notaro’s “One Mississippi,” on Amazon Prime, is almost entirely about the fallout from a family death: The characters face down cancer, death, sexual abuse and more, and yet the show is never devoid of laughs. Notaro finds the ironies particular to tragedy, and just as in her standup career, finds their edges. In one fantasy scene, a graveyard full of women’s ghosts casually chat about their abusers as though talking about their first kiss.
In another instance, when Tig discovers she has a secret half brother that her mother was clandestinely visiting, leaving child Tig to fend for herself, Tig offers him cold but funny comfort: “If it makes you feel any better, I was being molested while that strange woman was ruining your vacation.” It’s a dark joke, but made so precisely and unexpectedly that its honesty and pragmatism become redemptive… And it’s moments like these, in this particular band of comedy, that can often become transcendent.
“Master of None’s” smartest episode, “Mornings,” is a great example of a comedy mining mundane sadness, rather than strictly tragedy: The episode takes place over a sped-up relationship arc, as Deve (Aziz Ansari) and Rachel (Noël Wells) move in together, and tiny hiccups in their bliss spin out into uglier and uglier silences. In a later episode, as Dev contemplates his anxiety about the future and adulthood, the show drops the distancing effect of humor altogether for a passage from Sylvia Plath’s “Bell Jar” — what could have been misguided and maudlin becomes revelatory, as Dev reads Plath’s words about life and loss into a situation that prepared for us to hear those words fresh.
While every prestige comedy that’s come since has been compared to Louis CK’s flagship creation (and many of them bear his name somewhere in the credits) — it’s also the wider availability of streaming services. Free of commercial breaks and the commercials they contain, and often laser-targeted to the demographic that will most enjoy them, shows know better how much they can stretch tone and risk in pursuit of their artistic goals.
The topics broached in these shows — sexual violence, depression, PTSD, abortion, prisons, veterans’ health, severe mental ilness and death — lay solely in the domain of drama until the procedural backlash caused them to trend more high-concept, twist- and shock-oriented, and generally adventurous. Plenty of dramas on the nets and cable are still focusing on important issues and complex dynamics, but comedy has made a place within itself for us, as viewers, to explore our less shiny, more broken feelings.
For example: While Season 2 of Fox’s “Empire” concentrated in large part on Andre’s struggle with bipolar disorder, and introduced Grandma Lyon, whose own mental illness and abuse shaped the young Dwight Walker into Lucious Lyon, these stories served more as setup for plot points than explorations of feeling, or a meditation on pain and what gets us through it. We don’t experience Andre’s day-to-day of living with his mental health, or the way it made him feel or relate to others. We got the drama of his highs and lows, but nothing quotidian or even particularly relatable — the exchange “Empire” makes, with its heightened-reality appeal.
The modern drama aims to be epic, which means large dramatic swings — and that puts comedy at the disposal of simpler, smaller, more shameful terrors. “How do I get through this?” “What sort of monster am I?” “How long can I keep these feelings at bay?” are all very dramatic questions — but framed in comedy, we’re able to stomach going deeper, identifying more.
The trend is worldwide: Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s “Fleabag” came to Netflix from the UK this fall, giving us a main character who pushes her feelings away by using humor, even as she has flashbacks about her dead best friend. And while the show holds off fully explaining the tragedy until the six-episode season finale, the turn toward Fleabag’s distress and fear that she’s a horrible person is haunting partly because we’ve only known her as a joker. We are implicated, both in Fleabag’s grief and in the extreme activities she undertakes to stave it off.
And in Australia’s “Please Like Me,” whose third season finally debuted this fall on Hulu, main character Josh’s (creator Josh Thomas) mother survives multiple suicide attempts while coming to terms with her bipolar disorder. Much of the show’s larger arc shows Josh struggling to relate to his mother’s plight, though the show itself never judges or shies away from it.
It’s in this non-judging, brightly acidic compassion that “Please Like Me’s” greatest strengths come across most clearly — and illuminate the range of emotion and experience that comedy can safely contain. A Season 3 episode about an abortion, through which Josh nurses his ex-girlfriend Claire (“Reign’s” luminous, gifted Caitlin Stasey), looks at the subject through clear — and importantly, non-American — eyes, allowing the full range of emotion into the story without once tripping the “privilege” wire. Throughout it all, Josh gives her the hard time only a best friend can, and keeps her laughing even at the darkest, most honest times throughout.
“I thought my politics would protect me from my feelings,” Claire says, and if it’s hard to imagine an American character uttering such thoughts aloud, it’s even harder to ignore just how profound (and profoundly framed) that statement is — or how cringeworthy or shallow it might sound, in a less earned or safe context.
The end of the episode sees Claire, at her friends’ urging and dressed as Godzilla, destroying a cardboard city they’ve spent the season meticulously crafting. It’s funny and bittersweet, and defiantly celebratory, and overwhelmingly generous. While “Please Like Me” is described more often than any of these as a drama, Thomas’s career — like that of so many comedians-turned-auteurs — has always walked the line between rank absurdity and harsh irony.
As Sarah Silverman — who has packaged her brand of humor into more than one television show, but crosses the drama divide only in very specific ways and projects — once said, updating the classic aphorism “all comedy is based on misery,” all standup is based on shame. On the one hand your Kathy Griffins and Amy Schumers, who keep their truly trainwreck selves behind a veneer of managed chaos, and on the other: Maria Bamford, Tig Notaro, and others who are able to walk along the razor of shame without ever falling off. Sharing the shame, laughing about it, is a revolution for the artist and a relief for the audience — and binds the two together in a shared, intimate moment: If we both wet the bed as children, Silverman might say, then… What is the problem?
If the new wave of television comedy arises as much from the technological explorations of attention-hungry, shame-swallowed stage comedians — much of the work rests on a bedrock of early web series, podcasts, and internet experiments and stunts from people so bursting with talent they did the work for free — then it’s possible that radical honesty is simply part of the DNA of the new comedy: Not reaching for bathos, for the next big emotional sensation, but ascending — from the painful truth that has always set great comedy apart.