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TV Watch: House Style in the Golden Age of Comedy Central

TV Watch: House Style in the Golden Age of Comedy Central

The very first words spoken in “Broad City” arrive by way of video chat, as raffish slacker Ilana (Ilana Glazer) floats the idea of attending a Lil Wayne concert by her girl Friday, Abbi (Abbi Jacobson). “Ab, Ab, Ab, no joke,” she says, summarizing Comedy Central’s current slate in the process. “Today is the day we become Abbi and Ilana, the boss bitches we are in our minds!”

Though “Broad City,” “Key & Peele,” “Inside Amy Schumer,” “Nathan for You,” and “Review” tackle many subjects, Comedy Central’s constellation of boss bitches and irascible absurdists recalls the argument of Ethan Mordden’s book “The Hollywood Studios: House Style in the Golden Age of the Movies.” Applying the aesthetics and politics that made “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report” late-night powerhouses to a stable of (quasi-) narrative series, the network has developed a house style as distinctive as Paramount’s European sophistication or Warner’s hardscrabble social realism. Comedy Central’s original programming is increasingly by, for, and about its young, diverse, progressive, irreverent, web-savvy target demo. It’s viral television.

Last month, Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff astutely identified the series responsible for Comedy Central’s “hot streak,” but his explanation that the network “renews excellent programs that struggle in the ratings, trusting they will find viewers eventually,” describes only half of the equation. Rather, as VanDerWerff’s use of the terms “formula” and “format” suggests, Comedy Central’s cohesive style allows trust to flow in the opposite direction, too. Engaging both our desire to be surprised and our comfort with the familiar, each of these five series appeals to similar comic and ideological sensibilities without exactly replicating the others. In essence, “house style” is a mutually beneficial insurance policy, and Comedy Central’s seems built to last.

In part, that’s because it already has: the network’s liberal approach to politics originated with its stalwart “fake news” programs, which tapped a market for unapologetic criticism of the status quo broken up into funny, bite-sized servings of progressive red meat. In a sense, Comedy Central’s more recent series employ the same model: each features the creator/lead writer/star — or a pair of them, in the case of “Key & Peele” and “Broad City” — performing a heightened version of him- or herself in the service of razor-sharp topical comedy, with episodes structured around a handful of segments that can stand alone as embeddable, shareable YouTube clips. 

Yet these forthrightly fictional series do the satirical nonfiction of “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” one better, building an impressive depth of characterization from fragments that might, in lesser hands, be no more than a craven viral marketing strategy. Even the sketch comedies, “Inside Amy Schumer” and “Key & Peele,” manage to create a consistent authorial perspective. Schumer’s ribald, feminist view of mainstream pop culture’s reinforcement of outdated gender roles comes through, in distinct ways, in both “Sex Tips” and “The Foodroom,” while Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele unpack the instability of notions like “whiteness” and “blackness” again and again from new angles, as in the brilliant “Soul Food.” (For me, “Kroll Show,” which comes off as a sketch-comedy version of the horrible “Tosh.0” or E! Network’s “Talk Soup,” is the exception that proves the rule: plucking the low-hanging fruit of reality TV excess, Nick Kroll is more chameleonic parodist than comic auteur, even though he, too, is a creator/writer/star.)

As Comedy Central reinvents the mockumentary and the sitcom, as well — with the deadpan, metafictional “Nathan for You” and this year’s best new comedies, “Review” and “Broad City” — the network’s style has proven flexible enough to include loosely structured narratives as attuned to politics and culture as any arrangement of skits. In fact, while all of the series mentioned here tend to hone in on subject matter relatively close their respective stars’ personal experiences, their piecemeal quality prevents any single show from being easily pigeonholed as “the one about gender” or “the one about race.”

For instance, “Review,” in which Andy Daly plays Forrest MacNeil, an intrepid critic of experiences like cocaine addiction and road rage, includes a half-star “review” of racism as ingenious as anything on “Key & Peele,” culminating in Forrest’s realization that he’s been a racist all along; in a similar vein, the sixth episode of “Broad City,” “Stolen Phone,” features a memorable two-line exchange that manages to touch on friendship, sexuality, and stereotypes all at once. “What’s better than a pink dick with a sense of humor? Besides a black dick,” Ilana comments. “Sometimes you’re so anti-racist,” Abbi replies, “that you’re actually really racist.” More important than any individual gag’s political content is the network’s sustained attention to the multifaceted vagaries of the modern world. None of these series devolve into tokenism, just checking some box on a “diversity” questionnaire, nor do their wide-ranging concerns — from the emptiness of contemporary art (“Nathan for You”) to the ongoing disintegration of one’s formerly happy life (“Review”) — feel dashed off.

Indeed, it’s a certain confidence in the humor of the unremarkable and the everyday that explains the network’s recent success: perhaps the most radical aspect of “Broad City,” “Key & Peele,” “Inside Amy Schumer,” “Nathan for You,” and “Review” is that none self-consciously positions itself as radical. Rather, Comedy Central’s auteur-driven, freewheeling, polemical style is par for the course, creating a space for bold comedy by understanding that life offers no “Very Special Episode” for confronting, lampooning, laughing off, and suffering through indignities large and small. It’s just one fucking thing after another, and that’s no joke.

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