NBC comedies have done smart-stupid incredibly well. Are they dropping the smart?
It looks like the end of an era for NBC's Thursday comedies — simultaneously the smartest and dumbest shows on television.
That's a compliment. For years, "30 Rock," "The Office," "Community" and "Parks and Recreation" have brought to primetime Thursday the kind of smart-stupid absurdist comedy that David Letterman and Conan O'Brien developed in late night.
You never knew if the next joke would be about geopolitics or goofy animals. Sometimes the political joke was deliberately dumb and the animal joke head-scratchingly smart.
Never in primetime have the two dueling forces of wit and stupidity met so beautifully.
But this is the last season for "The Office" and "30 Rock," and "Community" has already been shuffled to Fridays because of chronically poor ratings. With its new crop of shows, NBC seems to be backing away from its critically adored mix of smart and stupid and going after ratings.
It is keeping the animals. But not the jokes about North Korea.
"I think we're going to transition with our comedy programs and try to broaden the audience," entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt told reporters over the summer. "Those Thursday comedies, which the critics love and we love, tend to be a bit more narrow than we want going forward."
The network's new hopes include "Animal Practice," about a wacky veterinary hospital, and "Guys With Kids," about just that. None of the new sitcoms air on Thursday.
The season only officially started Monday, so it's too soon to identify trends. But so far the new sitcoms are earning better ratings than the Thursday shows — in part because viewers want to see if the new shows are worth watching.
The Matthew Perry group therapy comedy "Go On" premiered to a strong 3.2 rating in the key 18-49 demograpic, and 8.6 million total viewers — the best premiere so far for an NBC comedy. "The Office," which last season was NBC's top-rated scripted show, seems unlikely to repeat that feat this season: It premiered last week to a so-so 2.1 rating and 4.3 million, which was better than the network's other Thursday shows performed. (Update: "Animal Practice" and "Guys With Kids" had weak premieres in their official timeslots Wednesday after faring better in special previews.)
Thursdays have always been special for NBC: They were the home of "The Cosby Show," "Cheers," "Seinfeld," "Friends" and a slew of other smart, beloved shows. But only "Seinfeld" delved into the kind of absurdist humor that became a calling card of NBC Thursday nights in the middle of the last decade.
Even as the network languished in fourth place, it received critical praise for "The Office," which debuted in 2005, and "30 Rock," which arrived the next year. "30 Rock" quickly began racking up Emmy nominations and wins, bringing glory to a network badly in need of bragging rights.
The success of those shows emboldened the network to risk similarly strange, off-kilter and often-brilliant shows like "Community" and "Parks and Recreation." If "Parks" is renewed for another season after this one, it will be the last of the NBC Thursday shows that successfully mixes of insightful social commentary and flat-out silliness.
NBC's new shows take on serious issues — "Go On" is about a man grieving the loss of his wife, and "New Normal" tries to challenge prejudice against gays. But none of the shows seem likely to become playgrounds of the mind, or to wreak havoc with the space-time continuum, as "Community" did in one episode.
NBC's Golden Age of Weird may be ending. It only lasted as long as it did because the network gave its writers, producers and actors room to be ridiculous. The writers and stars — from "30 Rock" mastermind Tina Fey to "Parks and Recreation" star Amy Poehler, Fey's former "Weekend Update" cohost — were often plucked from "Saturday Night Live," the late-night cornerstone of NBC's comic empire.
Others skipped "SNL" and came directly to primetime from the improv stages that are often a pipeline to late night.
Audrey Plaza arrived at "Parks" from Poehler's Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York. Her co-star, UCB alum Aziz Ansari, quickly landed the MTV show "Human Giant" before going on to "Parks." Ellie Kemper and Zach Woods went almost straight from UCB to "The Office," which also featured UCB vet Ed Helms. And the UCBer Donald Glover became a writer on "30 Rock" before he joined the cast of "Community."
It's a little amazing: Performer after performer landing on a major broadcast network, in primetime, after honing their craft by making up new routines, night after night, in a 150-seat basement theater under a grocery store, near a New York housing project. (A Los Angeles theater draws major talents as well.) Comedy nerds pay $5 to watch legends and future stars alike make magic with only a stage, slamming doors and a few chairs.
UCB teaches its students to use "the top of your intelligence" — in other words, to play each scene as realistically as possible, and to always go for the smart joke over the dumb, easy one. Its shows are more likely to feature debates about historian Doris Kearns Goodwin — Kemper discussed her at length in one improvised scene a few years back — than the usual comedy-club dilemmas about dating.
UCB thrills in the smart-dumb comedy Letterman and O'Brien practiced on NBC, before both eventually left. Fey made it a trademark of "30 Rock." An extended recent plot point focused on escalating hostilities with North Korea, and others have involved a corporate takeover modeled on Comcast's acquisition of NBC Universal.
But those complex subjects shared the screen with a string of absurdities, from Jack Donaghy meeting his past and future selves to Tracy Jordan dressing as a white woman to see whether white women or black men have it harder.
Besides helping spawn much of the talent on "30 Rock," UCB also helped shape Adam Pally and Casey Wilson, two stars of ABC's "Happy Endings." (Wilson had her first big break on "SNL.") Meanwhile, "Happy Endings" vets David Guarascio and Moses Port were brought in to run "Community" after the firing of Dan Harmon, who deserves the credit or blame, depending on who you ask, for much of the show's unpredictability. Brothers Joe and Anthony Russo executive produce both "Happy Endings" and "Community."
"Community" has been the strangest of NBC's strange Thursday shows. One episode featured reality splitting into several different realities, depending on which of its characters answered a door. It would have been a weird "Doctor Who" episode. But it aired on NBC at 8 p.m.
It may be a long time before any network shows anything so odd at that hour again.
It's often said that all sitcoms are focused around work or family, and NBC's new lineup continues a shift from work shows ("The Office," "30 Rock," "Parks") to family shows (including "Up All Night," and "New Normal"). Family shows also include those about replacement families made up of friends, and the best example is "Friends." Other friends-as-family shows might arguably include "Go On" and "Guys With Kids."
The move to family shows — especially about non-traditional families — is no surprise given the success of "Modern Family," one of TV's highest-rated sitcoms and currently its most praised. On Sunday it picked up its third consecutive Emmy for Outstanding Comedy series, showing once again that it has replaced "30 Rock" as Emmy voters favorite sitcom.
Family shows can lend themselves to absurdity, but lend themselves more easily to sap. "Modern Family," the first primetime show to feature a lovable gay couple adopting, is an obvious exception. "The New Normal," which features a gay couple adopting from a surrogate mother, tries to build on that by adding complications, including a bigoted grandmother of the surrogate. Ellen Barkin plays the bigot.
But "New Normal" seems unlikely to play ping-pong with race, gender and politics the way "30 Rock" and "Parks" delightedly do. It seems fixated on addressing and sometimes embracing the sterotype that gay men are fussy and fashion-forward, a stereotype "The Office" undercut years ago with the low-key Oscar Martinez character.
"New Normal" co-creator Ryan Murphy has said Barkin character is "100 percent" a member of One Million Moms, a fringe conservative group that objects to the gays on the show. It previously became worked up over the openly gay Ellen DeGeneres shilling for J.C. Penney.
But taking on groups so cartoonishly extreme doesn't lend itself to the kind of nuance that fuels great comedies. "30 Rock" thrills in exploring the tight crevices where there is simply no comfortable position, like the debate over whether racism or sexism is worse.
Murphy's other occasionally political show, "Glee," makes broad points along the lines of, Acceptance is good, and bigotry is bad. It's a message that should absolutely air in primetime.
But it's not very funny.