The New Funny.. not so funny?

groupshotThere is a new style of sitcom on the block and it recently inspired this conversation between two friends of mine.

L: you watch New Girl right?
D: yeah, because you told me to.
L: you liked it though?
D: I thought I might, there was some really fit birds, but there weren’t any jokes. I kept watching and no one said anything funny.

I’m sort of in between as I don’t mind New Girl. I find the characters relatively endearing, there is a surreal and clever alternative reality embedded that kinda sucks you in and I really want to live in that loft.

But its never made me laugh.

For a sitcom that should be a problem. Yet it is extremely representative of the New Funny. The NF are all over the schedules now – Happy Endings, The Mindy Project, The B**** in Apartment 23, Modern Family, Cougar Town – with only a few stalwarts of the old guard still plugging away.

The New Funny don’t have laugh tracks, they don’t have punch lines, according to D they don’t have jokes, and in the traditional form he’s got a point. boys

So what do they have?

Self referential dialogue is one of the most distinguishing features of the New Funny. Not only referencing current cultural trends and their own role, both imagined and real, within it –  Happy Endings constant attempts to generate buzz phrases, Cougar towns play on their guest stars previous relationships in Scrubs, James Van der Beek as himself in the B***** in Apartment 23 – but these characters also take self-awareness to a extreme new level, with much of the dialogue playing like a surreal therapist session. An entire episode of New Girl was built round the notion of a POGO, what your friends say about you behind your back, another Nicks anger management, his inability to commit, his lack of adventure, his lack of self confidence… you get the point. Things happening are very much secondary in shaping the plot, with character traits being the primary driving force.

Yet, and it is quite a big yet, the characters are also oddly similar. They talk in the same self referential vernacular, they have similar larger-than-life mannerisms and cartoonish emotions. Forget the odd cross of elegantly refined Diane versus the tiny rough fireball Carla or the upright snobbery of Frasier versus the virtually mute slumping Norm. These shows are highly stylised with one over-arching voice that bleeds into every character.

In this pc world they take delight in being non-pc, although in a manner that assures us we’re all part of the multi-coloured joke, with Schmidt suddenly randomly deciding that his long time friend Winston needs more friends of his own kind, which apparently means coke-head rappers. Winston of course takes delight in his friends misguided stereotyping, because he is part of the joke rather than the butt. This extends to a general anti-hero vibe, from the B**** of Apartment 23, who makes her living as a con, to the down and out Nick, schlumping through life, broken in every way, echoed by the New Gay Max, a man no girl wants as her gay BFF, even the girl who has him.  Narcissism is the most lauded and oft referenced character trait in virtually all the NF, adding to that sense of attending an alternative therapy session.

The final defining feature of the new funny is its surrealism. There is no attempt at anchoring this, despite all that cultural referencing, in any sense of credible reality. Most sitcoms push at the boundaries of believability, their static form and rigid cast often invite the ridiculous purely as a means of keeping things fresh, but where Friends and Frasier attempted to ground that in an awareness of consequence, using the everyday to build their stories and staying true to character and back story (for the most part), the New Funny has no boundaries, not even the fourth wall, relying heavily on bizarre physical set ups to generate comedy. Penny in Happy Endings is like a running slapstick gag. In New Girl Nick has an encounter with a old man that leads to him being carried about in a swimming pool, while the three year old in Cougar town enjoys playing with hammers on the neighbours. dance

Some say it began as a tribute to the British form of humour, a la the Office. But Ricky himself credits Seinfeild collaborator Larry David as one of his heroes, and to me it still feels distinctly American in form, not least because of all the shiny locations and pretty people.

However, I can feel the Simpsons, South park, Futurama et al in its over the top set ups, which brings me to Scrubs. It stands unique amongst sit-coms, a brilliant bonkers trip to the surreal side. The creator admits he was attempting to create a real life Simpsons. The characters were unique, the set ups crazier than roadrunner, yet it never shirked from consequence nor undercut the individual in search of a laugh, and it had a searing finesse when it came to dealing with life and death. Maybe what it shows is that funny, like everything else, works best when it follows the rules of story, whatever style you choose.

So the New Funny can work, I’m just not sure it is yet.

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