When we talk about joke-machine sitcoms, you know the type. They have the same sense of humor and dramatic climate as a 30 Rock episode. It’s the kind that’s hard to articulate, but easily recognized: comedies where misunderstanding the pronunciation of “rural juror” is a series-long gag and characters can change their attire by turning around and walking away without anyone raising his or her eyebrows.
Tina Fey and company broke sitcom barriers with the show-about-a-show for more substantial reasons than just economizing sentences into rapid-fire jokes, but there’s no denying style played a key role. In plenty of ways, 30 Rock was equal parts insufficient and success; while its audience only ever grew sizable with Fey’s Sarah Palin skits, the little sitcom that could was a critical darling. More importantly, peers loved it. The show was awarded three Emmys for outstanding comedy series and holds the record for most nominations given to a comedy series in a single year (22).
This month, the show will be nominated again in almost every category, for certain. And there’s even a fighting chance it will win in plenty of them, too. But the other sitcoms that sprung from the 30 Rock generation have not had the same fate.
The comedy cancellations for the past season were brutal. Most, if not all, joke-machine sitcoms were axed: Don’t Trust the B—– in Apartment 23, Happy Endings, and Go On, to name a few. Cult-status comedy Community barely survived. The same is true for newcomer The Mindy Project, which rides the fence between joke-machine and sitcom with heart as it’s still finding its way. Most of these sitcoms don’t have a standing chance to be recognized with awards, and they certainly don’t have the sizable audience their networks would like them to have. Post-30 Rock, the joke-machine sitcom is still struggling, with regards to both dwindling accolades and anemic ratings.
It’s no wonder why the comedy slate for next year is nothing but broad humor: Children move in with their parents! Parents move in with their children! Smart-alecky kid! Twentysomethings dating in the Big City! Workplace tension! In hopes of garnering massive audiences, and therefore Hollywood praise, networks are bidding on multi-cams and high concept, critics’ approval be damned.
So what does it take to make a joke-machine comedy work?
To figure this out, we must consider the closest thing to a joke-machine sitcom that’s successful today: HBO’s Veep, known for its conveyor belt of vulgar zingers.
The show, which just concluded its second season, is successful in all ways that matter: a sizable audience for HBO, middling critical reviews that err on the side of praise, and recognition by the Academy. Last year, Veep was nominated for outstanding comedy series, and its leading lady, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, was also nominated — and won. Of course, Veep has a lot going for it. It’s on a widely respected network and stars Louis-Dreyfus, who last year tied Lucille Ball for most Emmy nominations for a single actress ever. This year, she will certainly break the record.
No one sets out to make “a low-rated critical darling,” as Fey put so eloquently in her sometime-memoir Bossypants. That’s why Fey and Lorne Michaels began their casting search for 30 Rock with Alec Baldwin. It may not keep a supersized audience, but it causes the Hollywood elite to notice. It’s the same for then-relatively unknown FX casting Glenn Close in Damages, which garnered her a nomination every year it was on. Even Fey herself had built notoriety as the writer for teen movie staple Mean Girls, the anchor of Saturday Night Live‘s “Weekend Update,” and the first female head writer of the show. Step one for joke-machines to be successful during awards season seems to be casting notable and already-recognized stars.
Turning our attention to something like MTV’s Awkward – which is critically acclaimed and can also be called a joke-machine — we have another example of a series that won’t ever be recognized by the Emmys. But its audience is sizable given its network, even with a cast of up-and-comers. Perhaps what Awkward does right is tap into the sentimentality well often enough. Or, perhaps its sense of humor is a perfect fit for the demographic that watches MTV.
Even then, neither Awkward nor Veep are truly in the same vein of 30 Rock like, say, Community may be. What Community lacks in both recognition and audience quantity it makes up for in cult-viewing and solid performances against CBS behemoth The Big Bang Theory. That’s most likely why it’s been saved from the garbage bin time and again.
And therein seems to be the problem. Joke-machines, for all intents and purposes, appear to be the type of humor that resonates with younger audiences. Could slim ratings be blamed on the generation that streams their way through primetime television?
No Happy Ending
Happy Endings, which was recently declared 100% cancelled, didn’t cast a group of showstoppers in terms of reputation. Even the Wayans surname wasn’t enough. The same could be said for Community (which I concede was nominated for two Emmys: in animation for “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” and another in the writing category for episode “Remedial Chaos Theory”). They also didn’t air on MTV, or even The CW, both known for ratings forgiveness when social media buzz, on-demand views and streams are accounted for. The same is true for Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23. Go On had Matthew Perry as a lead, but debuted to low praise (although, Emmy nominations aren’t in yet).
Whatever the case may be, the television landscape is always fickle. But the rapid-fire jokes sitcom subgenre is currently endangered. After this Emmy year, which is sure to include several noms and wins for 30 Rock, it’s difficult to know if or when a joke-machine will be recognized again. And whether or not it’ll ever find the audience size to survive.
Michael Collado is a journalism student and television junkie located in Miami, where he just sits at home and watches TV all day with his best friends couch and cable access. You catch him reviewing TV at NoWhiteNoise.com or tweeting away at @MichaelCollado.