Surprisingly Good Comedy

We live in a time flush with comedy, and let’s face it:

A lot of comedy out there is just plain bad.

And here’s the problem with studying comedy: your tolerance for bad comedy is drastically lowered. No, scratch that — your tolerance for good comedy is lowered. Once you recognize the setups, the structures, the formats, and the characters, you’re primed to know the jokes ahead of time. I’ve been rewatching Friends on Netflix lately, and even though I never really followed the show, the setups and characters are so familiar and ingrained by now that I can hear a setup and, over half of the time, anticipate the punchline (or, at the very least, offer another possible punchline). Though I love it, comedy has become painfully predictable. So here, I’d like to offer some comedies I have seen recently that have genuinely surprised me.

Galavant (ABC)

The Premise: A knight sets out on a quest to re-win the heart of his former lover, who has married a preposterously incompetent king. Oh, and it’s a musical. Make no mistake, this show is a musical in the most traditional sense. But here’s what makes it special: Alan Menken and Glenn Slater composed the songs for the show. Menken is known for The Little MermaidBeauty and the BeastAladdinPocohontasHerculesTangledLittle Shop of Horrors; Slater is a Broadway lyricist, having written for Sister Act the MusicalLove Never Dies, the Broadway adaptation of The Little Mermaid with Menken, and Tangled. Between the two of them they have a ton of nominations and awards for their musical work. Given their history with Disney, it is no surprise that they are working on a musical for ABC, which is owned by Disney.

What Makes it Surprising: Right off the bat, Galavant proves that, while it may be a show on Disney’s ABC, it’s not aiming to be family-friendly. Take the opening song of the pilot episode, which sings the praises of the eponymous knight:

Way back in days of old, there was a legend told
About a hero known as Galavant!
Square jaw and perfect hair! Cojones out to there!
There was no hero quite like Galavant!

The song continues, introducing his love who will soon become the wicked queen:

The man we’re speaking of, he had a lady love,
And Madalena, she was one fair maiden.
Long legs and perfect skin, a body built for sin.
With cleavage you could hold a whole parade in!
True love was never this ecstatic — Nor as wildly acrobatic.
Yes! He loved her to excess! Thrice daily more or less!
And she’d be screaming “Galavant!” 

Who am I kidding, reading the lyrics don’t do anything for the show. Watch the opening here:

Yes, the show hits a lot of standard jokes that any fan of recent musicals will be familiar with: characters vying for the big finales, meta references to the fact that characters are singing, and the like. And a number of jokes don’t quite land (it has a few too many modern slang jokes thrown in there that remind me of the “You da ant” bit from Antz), but Galavant throws so much at you that some of it is bound to fail.

Best Moment: It’s hard to choose, and I must  but my favorite moments came from the onslaught of amazing guest stars: John Stamos plays the cocky French knight Jean Hamm (I see what you did there), Ricky Gervais plays Xanax, the court pharmacist-cum-magician, and in my favorite cameo, Weird Al Yankovich plays the leader of a group of singing monks (of “The Order of Perpetual Refrain”), in a song that contains the wonderful lyric, “We’ll fetch the holy water, the holy soap as well / Cause holy guacamole that one reeks to holy hell!”  Just watch it and enjoy:

Honorable Mention: Timothy Omundson (of TV’s Psych) absolutely steals the show as the incompetent and effeminate King Richard. His songs are among the show’s most memorable and fun. He sings about all the horrible thing he wants to do to Galavant:

… and he employs the Jester, who is sleeping with his Queen, to teach him how to be funny, so that she’ll find him attractive too (instead of, you know, executing the Jester for cuckolding him):

Overall, Galavant surprised me because it absolutely delivered on its musical premise and managed to be easily one of the most unique shows on TV. Plus, it’s just a lot of fun. Here’s hoping it gets a second season (something the show itself is aware of, as it ends its first season by asking, “Will all this singing kill our Nielsen ratings?”).  You can watch it on Hulu, and please do.

Broad City (Comedy Central)

The PremiseAbbi and Iliana are two twenty-something women living in New York; the show chronicles their misadventures with roommates, romance, and unfulfilling and underpaying jobs. Amy Poehler is one of the Executive Producers of the show, which originated as a webseries.

What Makes It SurprisingIt’s been hailed as a more raunchy, surreal version of Girls, and while I see the comparison, I don’t fully agree. It’s its own creation. And what makes it different from Girls is that the two leads have genuine chemistry. Their friendship seems genuine and storied, and arbitrary conflicts aren’t added for dramatic weight. The show isn’t aiming for weight, it simply aims to entertain. To that end, the jokes can be utterly surprising because the show has a certain “what if?” quality to it. They’re not afraid to venture into surrealism and absurdity if it means they can cram a few more jokes into the show. In many ways, it echoes the surrealistic detours of Louie, but it is unconcerned with the trademark melancholy and pathos that make Louie so unique; instead, it embraces surrealism to further the humor and the humor alone, which makes for exciting and unpredictable storytelling. Take this jaunt on the subway, which anyone who has taken public transportation in a major metropolis can recognize, even in its surrealism:

But perhaps what is most surprising — and refreshing –about Broad City is that it depicts two young women’s sexuality in frank and honest openness. It is not something shameful or prized — there aren’t lengthy discussions about when one of them will sleep with a guy they just started dating, but nor are they chastised for having a sense of sexual agency. Much like Inside Amy Schumer (another fantastic show), there’s no sense that because the characters are women, there needs to be a softening or romanticizing of their edges. Instead, there is humor found in their sexual and romantic experiences, a sense of honesty and believability that is lacking in much TV that aims to explore the lives of twenty-something women. Girls, I’m looking at you.

Best Moment: Too many to name, but I have to give it to the episode in which Abbi has to pick up her neighbor’s UPS package from North Brother Island.  It is a strange and (again) surreal take on the little annoyances of life:

Honorable Mention: Hannibal Buress plays Ilana’s on-again off-again boyfriend, Lincoln, and he grounds the show with some much-needed understated and warm-hearted humor. His deadpan delivery is a perfect counterpoint to the show’s manic energy. Meanwhile, John Gemberling plays Matt Bevers, the boyfriend of Abbi’s perpetually absent roommate (and by extension, Abbi’s unwanted roommate). He is a grotesque, bothersome, childish caricature, but it is almost like we are seeing him as Abbi sees him. He is a great source of grotesque humor throughout.

What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

The Premise: A documentary crew films a group of vampires as they go about their daily lives living in Wellington, New Zealand. Directed and written by Taika Waititi (Boy) and Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords), the film follows a mocumentary format along the same lines as Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show.

What Makes it SurprisingFirst of all, the film has genuine moments of fear and horror — essential when creating a genre mash-up like this. Horror comedies are at their best when they don’t let the horror fall by the wayside (Shaun of the Dead and Evil Dead 2 are great examples of this). The vampires are unique and feel like fully-formed characters from differing centuries, which accounts for their differing tastes and outlooks (Viago is an 18th-century dandy who feels drawn from Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire; Vladislav the Poker, never to reach the heights of Vlad the Impaler, is more of a sex-and-gore vampire along the lines of Bram Stoker’s Dracula). There is even a Nosferatu-esque vampire who doesn’t speak, and instead only stares intensely in a Max Schreck sort of way.

This dynamic lends the film a sort of Odd Couple quality (domestic quibbles about doing the dishes, putting newspaper down before killing a victim, and where to go for a night on the town make up the majority of the film’s conflicts). The humor is drawn specifically from familiarity with vampire lore and horror film tropes and clichés, but it has enough going on to make it feel very new.  The film has a lot of fun with the fact that vampires don’t have reflections, are adverse to sunlight, have Twilight-esque rivalries with werewolves, and can only eat blood (they definitely can’t eat french fries). The artistic design is admirable and on par with the classic Tim Burton and Addams Family films. It’s bloody, and bloody funny.

Best Moment: The vampires discuss their appreciation of virgin blood, and describe why they like it so much more than non-virgin blood. As Vlad explains (I’m paraphrasing here), “It’s like eating a sandwich. You would enjoy that sandwich so much more if you knew that, you know, nobody had fucked it.”

Honorable MentionFlight of the Conchords’ Rhys Darby plays the leader of a gang of polite and well-spoken werewolves (“We’re werewolves, not swear-wolves”); the vampires’ run-ins with this rival group lead to some of the film’s most memorable comic moments.

So there you go.  Three comedies (two TV shows, one film) you should check out immediately if you want something surprising and new to cleanse your comedy palate. Enjoy!


One thought on “Surprisingly Good Comedy

  1. GALAVANT is one joke over and over and over and over. I love musical theater but still couldn’t get into it.

    WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS was okay. But, I would love to read a whole essay from you on the (mis)use of the mocumentary format. Wouldn’t people comment on the camera crew a lot more often? Were all the scenes really fillmable? Isn’t it just a lazy writers’ excuse that allows for scenes of any length and on-camera interviews to fill in the transitions? (I find it especially painful when used in episodic TV like PARKS AND RECREATION.) And, most importantly, wouldn’t vampires not appear on film?

    Thanks for another fantastic blog entry, good Sir.

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