Why New TV Comedies Are Choosing Plot Over Jokes

“Story is everything,” was Larry Brody’s motto way back when this TVWriter™ minion took his online workshop, and while I wasn’t surprised to hear this particular bit of wisdom I was taken aback a bit by how he applied it: “Story rules, even in comedy,” LB said. “Not only does your dialog have to be funny, it also has to illuminate character and advance the damn plot.”

Which brings us to this particular realization that appeared recently in none other than The New York Times:

COMEDYTVby Jason Zinoman

Big Time in Hollywood, FL,” a hyperactive new series about deluded brothers with moviemaking dreams, is packed with startling twists — sudden murders, unlikely romance and even a Cuba Gooding Jr. performance that reminds you why he won an Academy Award. But the biggest surprise may be that it’s a comedy in which every episode ends not with a joke but a cliffhanger.

As a serialized show with a mountain of plot, “Big Time” (which started on Wednesday) represents a departure for Comedy Central, a channel built on sketch shows, topical comedy and episodic animation. It’s part of a growing trend toward narrative ambition in television comedy that raises the question: Is there a trade-off between story and laughs?

Plot has always mattered in comedy, of course, but not as much as jokes. In his influential screenwriting guide “Story,” Robert McKee argues that comedy, unlike drama, “allows the writer to halt narrative drive” with scenes that serve no purpose other than getting laughs. In television, sitcoms have traditionally relied on thin narratives stretched over seasons (Will Sam and Diane get together on “Cheers”? Will Jim and Pam on “The Office”?) that make it easy to follow the story from week to week.

“Producers knew that episodes in syndication would be scrambled and shown completely out of order, so each one needed a self-contained story,” explained the veteran comedy writer Max Pross, who has worked on “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons.”

With the rise of DVDs and streaming sources, audiences are consuming shows differently. They binge-watch and read recaps. And television conventions have loosened. HBO series like “The Comeback” and “Girls” have fleshed-out character arcs, and the fourth season of “Arrested Development,” released online all at once by Netflix, featured complex plotting with shifts of perspective that would have been hard to imagine a decade ago.

The rise of single-camera shows like those has also allowed for more filmic structure. Most of the great sitcoms of the 20th century were set in living rooms and workplaces, and they moved around sparingly. But the two most promising new comedies this season (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” on Netflix and “The Last Man on Earth” on Fox) have a cinematic sense of place and far more fantastical premises.

As the technological landscape has changed, so have the aesthetic possibilities. Kent Alterman, president for content production and original programming at Comedy Central, said he had been looking for a serialized comedy for years, even though he considered it a risk, not just because viewers starting to watch in the middle of the season could be lost. “There was a common wisdom about comedies that you needed a certain number of jokes per minute,” he said by telephone. That notion has less currency today, even though the calling card of comedy remains jokes.

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