The Toatali Guide to Modern TV Comedy

If there’s one thing I know a lot about, it’s modern TV comedies. I’ve spent way too much of my life watching 20-30 minute TV sitcoms, and while I haven’t seen them all, my knowledge is pretty extensive. So, today I present a small guide to what you should be watching if you want to get into the now flourishing world of (mostly American, I admit) TV comedies. Before we begin, though, a few ground rules.

  • No rankings – This isn’t me telling you what the best and worst shows are, it’s more of a series of recommendations, depending on what you want to watch. Obviously, all of these shows are great, or I wouldn’t be recommending them, but don’t take the order I put them in as some sort of ranking system.
  • What is modern? – Any show that finished post 2013. This is pretty arbitrary, but such is life.
  • My favourite show isn’t on here… – Tough. Maybe I haven’t seen it, or maybe I didn’t like it. If you want, put a show recommendation in the comments, and I’ll try and get round to watching it.

What to watch if you want awkward comedy.

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Maybe putting Curb your Enthusiasm under the label of awkward comedy is a disservice to the show so let me calm your fears – if you hated Meet the Parents, there’s still a good chance you’ll like this. Curb is often called one of the best TV comedies of all time, and while I don’t think that’s the case, there’s still a lot to be said for it. The show hinges on the performance of Larry David, who plays a fictionalized version of himself. Each episode sees him getting into another dilemma, that he handles (mostly) extremely badly. Where the show succeeds is in the relatability of these problems. While most of them you won’t run into unless you’re a successful Jewish comedian living in L.A., you almost always side with Larry, and that makes the situations he gets himself into even funnier than they might otherwise be. Larry is an annoying guy, but seeing everything from his perspective is seeing a different Larry to the rest of the characters in the show.

The supporting cast also excel; Jeff Garlin is perhaps my favourite of them, but Cheryl Hines also pulls her weight as Larry’s exasperated wife. The semi-improvised nature of the script allows more more natural conversations than any fully scripted show would give. I talked in my review of The Grinder about how characters didn’t speak like normal people, but here they do, and it was the right choice for this style of comedy. The show may too often divulge into screaming, but this isn’t really noticeable if you don’t binge watch, and instead take your time. Curb Your Enthusiasm was recently renewed for a ninth season, 5 years after the last episode aired (which just makes it eligible for a spot in this list), and if you haven’t already seen it, I highly recommend watching all 8 brilliant seasons to prepare.

What to watch if you want a Netfilx dramedy

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Yes, Netflix dramedy gets a spot on this list. With shows like Master of None; Love; Grace and Frankie; Bojack Horseman, as well as non-Netflix shows in a similar vein, this genre has become the new big thing. As a comedy fan and a Netflix user, I’m glad to see this uptick in odd comedies supported by a major streaming service. However, not all of these really hit the spot in what I’m looking for. Master of None probably came the closest (perhaps because of my innate Aziz Ansari bias), but I don’t know if it would have deserved a spot on this list. Then along came Lady Dynamite, created by Mitch Hurwitz of Arrested Development fame (another show you should really check out), and Maria Bamford, of strange stand-up semi-fame. Lady Dynamite edges out those other shows because its actually really funny, as well as building a convincing character portrait thorough a clever structural device of three timelines that chart Bamford’s fall into mental illness to her recovery.

Lady Dynamite is extremely surreal, with buildings having names on them (Maria’s house has ‘Maria’s House’ written on it), and talking pugs, but this fits with Bamford’s often manic personality and surrealist humour. The show mainly focuses on Maria’s attempts to work her way into Hollywood fame, first by trying to capitalize on her eccentricities, then, after her breakdown, by trying to avoid this. In a way, the show itself provides an epilogue to the events that take place inside the show; in making Lady Dynamite, Bamford has manged to make the perfect show the fictionalized version of her dreams of creating. Thanks, Netflix.

What to watch if you want to laugh

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Unfortunately, TV comedy these days isn’t primarily concerned with making you laugh. It wants you to think, to cry, maybe to chuckle inwardly at the strangeness or the awkwardness of a situation, but very few shows simply put the jokes first. Then there’s Angie Tribeca, which puts the jokes before everything else. The plot is paper thin; it’s a spoof of cop shows, and the characters are one line stereotypes. But it doesn’t matter. At all. Because Angie Tribeca is really, really, funny. It succeeds in creating what one reviewer called ‘an atmosphere of comedy’; not every joke is funny on its own, but the sheer volume and speed means that by the end of each episode, you’ll be belly laughing. (It’s worth noting here that the second series is much better than the first). Rashida Jones plays the title character, and while her deadpan tone might lead you to believe that she plays a ‘straight man’ role, you’d be mistaken. Angie is just as silly as the rest of the cast, but like them, she doesn’t take any notice of the absurdities that are going on around her. Because of the joke based nature of the show, it’s hard to write much about, so please, just watch it.

What to watch if you want a musical

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A lot of the shows on this list are ‘character studies’. This is a natural consequence of TV shows that take themselves more seriously, and are usually headed up by one main comedian/comedienne. Ensemble casts seem to have, for the most part, disappeared. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is another ‘character study’ show, but this one has a big difference; it’s a musical. Really, it’s the songs that carry this one into a place on this list. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend follows Rebecca Bunch (played by Youtube star Rachel Bloom), as she moves to West Covina (California (Only two hours from the beach (four in traffic))), in order to win back her summer camp love, Josh Chan.

Vulture called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend their best show on TV right now, and while I don’t agree with that (you’ll see what mine is later), it’s pretty damn good. Rebecca Bunch is an amazing comic creation, a product of Disney films who imagines musical numbers in her head that spring off from songs and genres we all recognize (much like Flight of the Conchords, which sadly missed this list by about 4 years), and reveal a fascinating look into her psyche. The supporting cast, much like the viewer, is drawn into Rebecca’s quest to win back Josh, including her new best friend Paula, who reveals herself even more damaged than Rebecca in her mad-cap schemes to get Josh. But perhaps the best thing about CEG, is that it doesn’t rely on you reading too much into it. It throws everything to the surface in its musical numbers, which even without a knowledge of the plot are simply enjoyable. It’s not the best show on TV, but it comes close.

What to watch if you can’t stand dips in quality

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These titles are getting a bit crazy now… Anyway, with most long running shows, there’s often a noticeable dip in quality towards the end (see Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, Friends etc). It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has been going for 11 seasons now and each season has at least a few classic episodes. Even in its latest season, where you can see the show runners following one of their character’s advice (“Well, I don’t know how many years on this earth I got left. I’m gonna get real weird with it”), it still had some really great episodes.

I said that the ensemble comedy was slowly dying, and this show is the only real one on my list. Luckily, it takes the ensemble cast model, which is often used for ‘cosy’, friends living together type shows, and makes it a dark comedy about a group of friends who run a bar together, and the various despicable schemes they get up to, all funded by Danny DeVito’s Frank Renyolds, who supports the strange ideas of Charlie Day, Rob McElhenney and Glenn Howerton’s characters, who drag along and abuse Kaitlin Olson’s birdlike Dee Renyolds. The various schemes would be funny by themselves, but the way the cast play off each other and the way various rifts between them pull their ideas apart really makes each episode click. The other good thing about IASIP is that none of the characters change, or become better people. This may seem like a downside from a story-telling perspective, but IASIP only works because of the character dynamics, and the writers know that old adage ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. The character’s various flaws become more exaggerated, but only to expand on pre-existing traits and mine them for comedy. Plus it’s all on Netflix, and perfect for binging. So there’s that!

What to watch if you want something British

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As an Englishman, I should really be more supportive of modern British comedies, but aside from a few stand out shows (Toast of London, The IT Crowd), America seems to be dominating the sitcom right now. The best British comedies tend to be panel shows; I love Would I Lie to You, and Have I Got News For You is great satire in the British tradition. But the one British sitcom that really stands out among the crowd is Peep Show. Known for its unique first person view, the show is much more than a visual gimmick. In a way, Peep Show functions as a combination of many of the shows I’ve talked about here; it borrows some of the awkward comedy from Curb your Enthusiasm (although that’s probably a side effect of David Mitchell’s exaggerated British-ness), the dark schemes of IASIP, and the deep character studies of awful people from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

Dream team David Mitchell and Robert Webb play Mark and Jeremy, two mates who live together, but whose lives are mostly failures. Mark works at a dead-end job and is always trying to win the affections of some women he creepily stalks, and Jeremy is a wannabe musician whose endeavors are mostly failures. Sometimes it hurts to see the odd couple fail in such spectacular ways, in a similar way to the UK version of The Office (I still find it hard to watch the book launch for Business Secrets of the Pharaohs), but the show so rarely misses the balance between horrifically unwatchable and funny, that it often manages to reach the heights of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s masterclass of comedy. Anyone who liked that show or wants to check out something that encapsulates what many people think of as ‘British’ comedy should definitely check out Peep Show.

What to watch if you are a human being

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It’s ReviewReview is not just my favourite modern TV comedy, it’s my favourite TV show, full stop. If you haven’t seen Review, read this at your own risk, because what I would advise is to leave this blog post right now, and go and watch both seasons. If your life isn’t changed for the better having watched a spectacular piece of television whose ambitions seems to rival that of a groundbreaking drama like Mad Men, but told in the form of small sketches rather than hour long mood setting smoke-a-thons, then I’ll forfeit my job as a critic.

For those who still need convincing (really?), Review centers around Forrest MacNeil, played by comedic genius Andy Daly, a man who reviews various life experiences for his TV show, from eating 15 pancakes to blackmailing a person. The show’s genius revolves around how each review (there are usually three an episode) changes and shapes a part of Forrest’s personality – try as he might, he cannot separate his life from his reviews, or his reviews from his life. Gradually, they start to destroy him and the lives of the people around him, but without him really ever noticing. The menace of the show Forrest runs creeps up on him as it creeps up on the viewer, but it never becomes another omnipresent character like Veridian Dynamics in Better Off Ted, because the show is so tied up in Forrest himself, even when he tries to convince himself there’s a true bad guy behind the operation. Review deals with a multitude of topics, from the problems with being a critic, to the problems of being Batman, but the show links each little thread back to the quilt that is Forrest’s messed up life, and if that sounds too dark for you, don’t worry, because it still manages to be funny. Some reviews go so over the top or deal with such silly things, that even at it’s darkest it still reminds you that this is a comedy. Andy Daly has always explored unassuming characters with seriously dark sides, but here he buries it so deep and plays it so perfectly that it’s no wonder Forrest is his only character to make it to a full TV show, instead of just a guest appearance on Comedy Bang Bang! I love Review, and I’m sure anyone who watches it will too.

So there it is. My guide to modern comedy. I wish I could have written for longer on each of these shows, but then this post will have really overstayed its welcome, and I don’t want that. Thanks for reading, and I hope anyone who did got something out of it.

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