Comedians love to talk about themselves. So much so, in fact, that one imagines them going out of their way to have noteworthy experiences in life just for the sake of writing new material. This real-time autobiography is an essential part of the craft, as the rules of modern stand-up dictate that comics have to reveal an embarrassing experience in every set, or at least throw a few self-deprecating pokes at their own neuroses. Whether he intended to birth an undying format or not, Jerry Seinfeld transplanted these autobiographical elements of comedy culture into his TV show, resulting in one of the most popular sitcoms of all time. For apparent lack of inspiration, every comedian in the game seems determined to do the exact same thing. To quote one Kanye West: “It’s not funny anymore/Try different jokes.”
In the past month, the digital bloat of online streaming services has witnessed the debut of HBO’s Crashing, as well as the return of Netflix’s Love. Comedian Pete Holmes created and stars in the first, portraying a fictionalized version of himself as he struggles to navigate the New York comedy scene after walking in on his wife doing the dirty with another man. Appropriately, the show bears the much sought after seal of approval from executive producer Judd Apatow. Love, meanwhile, is the brainchild of comedian Paul Rust and Judd Apatow, and stars the former as a fictionalized version of himself struggling to navigate romance and his failing career as a screenwriter in Los Angeles. The simultaneous release of the two shows only works to accentuate their similarities.
That’s not to say that either of them lacks merit. Crashing, in spite of its dramatic set-up, radiates with positivity – an almost unsettling concept in 2017. As The Atlantic’s Robert O’Connell wrote of the show, “Comedy need not be only the refuge of the cynic.” Much of this optimism emanates from Holmes himself, as his decidedly unfunny protagonist starts to fail forward only because of his glass-half-full mentality. His character crosses paths with comedians like T.J. Miller and Artie Lang, playing themselves, who take to Pete’s affable persona and decide to help him out. To the show’s benefit, Holmes eschews trends by imagining a gushy sense of communal love in the notoriously difficult world of New York’s comedy scene. Still, these cameos recreate the effect of throwing a show-stopping guest verse on a mediocre rap song. It helps, sure, but you mostly just wish the song were better.
On the other hand, Love’s first season made for an intriguingly difficult watch, marked by bitterness and its protagonists’ mutual fear of screwing up a promising relationship. Gillian Jacobs steals the show right out from under Rust, as her character’s self-destructive tendencies loom heavily over the script’s bright moments, deftly adding layers of emotional complexity to an otherwise passable romantic comedy. Without her, the show’s thesis might devolve into, “Hey! Nerdy guys without career prospects can get laid by conventionally attractive women, too!”
Hollywood loves to see itself onscreen, and maybe this trend has simply infiltrated the world of comedy. Post-1950s, almost every “auteur” in film has, at one point, made a feature-length analogy about their life as a creative. Sometimes, they even write a movie about someone writing a movie, arousing film geeks and alienating everyone else. These films can open up more thematic possibilities, though, when they transplant their narratives to another craft, making the protagonist a folk singer (Inside Llewyn Davis) or a food truck owner (Chef). The time may have come for comedians to learn the same trick.
One of the best bits of pop culture to emerge from the wreckage of 2016 was Donald Glover’s Atlanta. The show riffs heavily on Louis C.K.’s Louie, incorporating elements of Lynchian surrealism for laughs while remaining generally somber in tone. Unlike Louie – which, come to think of it, may have opened the floodgates for comedians making shows about comedians in the 2010s – Atlanta takes place in the world of its eponymous city’s rap scene. An Atlanta native and rapper-singer himself, Glover stars as the scrappy tour manager for his cousin, who raps under the name “Paper Boi.” The show benefits greatly from its organic relationship with the world of hip-hop (the songs in Atlanta reflect current music more accurately than say, the Empire soundtrack), and it’s difficult to imagine anyone pulling it off in quite the same way as Glover. Even so, the show serves as a shining example of how to improve upon an old format to tell new stories from underrepresented voices.
Legend has it that, after the enormous commercial success of John McClane’s first outing, everyone in Hollywood pitched action movies as a variation on the Die Hard formula. Thus, Air Force One becomes “Die Hard on a plane,” while Speed is “Die Hard on a bus” and Speed 2 is “Die Hard on a cruise ship”. It’s possible, I suppose, that comedians will start to do the same with their TV pitches. Your protagonist can be a creative, but make them a fashion designer or a sommelier instead, and also consider pulling from a demographic other than 30-something male. Just please, no more comedians.
Chris Stanton is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Really Terrible, and Such Small Portions! runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.