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September 4, 2015

When Does a Comedy Stop Being a Comedy?

by Joel Keller, posted Sep 1st 2010 4:29PM
Edie Falco picks up an Emmy for 'Nurse Jackie' at the 2010 Emmy AwardsWhen Edie Falco picked up her Emmy for Outstanding Leading Actress in a Comedy Series for 'Nurse Jackie,' the first words out of her mouth reflected what pretty much everyone watching the ceremony was likely thinking:

"Oh, this is the most ridiculous thing that has ever, ever happened in the history of this lovely awards show," she said. "I'm not funny!"

Falco could have extended that notion to the rest of her show. Sure, 'Nurse Jackie' has its funny moments, and characters like Merritt Wever's Zoey and Peter Facinelli's Coop are there more or less for comic relief. But, for the most part, Falco is dead serious in the title role, and the theme of the show -- Jackie's addictions and how she juggles the various lies in her life -- takes the program to some pretty dark places.

So does that mean it's not a comedy anymore? The popular response is to say "yes," but I'm not so sure, especially after watching the first season of the show 'Louie.'

As I mentioned in my 'Louie' Moment column earlier today, last night's episode of Louis C.K.'s show on FX was as serious as a heart attack, at least outside of C.K.'s stand-up bits. In the episode, Louie dreams about his Catholic school days and how his teacher used such extreme methods to scare the sin out of him and his classmates; the segment where the demented doctor described the physical torture Jesus went through during the crucifixion would have made Mel Gibson gasp.

In the middle of the episode was a sequence that would have been more at home in the original version of 'A Clockwork Orange' than in what is nominally called a sitcom, with young (and adult) Louie flashing on his sins interspersed with the kid running to the church and "freeing" its Jesus from his cross. I didn't laugh once when I saw it, but then again I wasn't supposed to laugh.

It was the most dramatic scene in a season full of morose and dramatic scenes, starting with second episode poker segment where gay slurs were discussed, and the the touching post-fight talk Louie has with Nick DiPaolo in the third episode. And in the episode where Louie backs down from a bully, he follows the punk to Staten Island, where he sees where the kid's abusive streak comes from. When he sits on the stoop with the kid's dad as the dad talked about how hitting was a given when he grew up, there wasn't a laugh to be found, but it was refreshing that the show took such an unexpected and thoughtful turn.

But there hasn't been a time during 'Louie''s first season where I didn't think I was watching a comedy. Louis C.K. is a morose guy, with a dark worldview. It's logical that the show would explore where some of his nihilism comes from; it's supposed to show how Louie's life informs his stand-up and vice versa, and how it's all incorporated into that worldview. If that sometimes means I'm not laughing, then so be it. The show had enough hysterical moments to make up for the serious ones.

My attitude towards 'Louie' and its loose definition of "comedy" is what has been allowing me to cut 'Nurse Jackie' some slack. Like I said, it goes to some dark places, like Jackie's affair with Eddie, her theft of a drug dealer's stash, and the episode where she broke her own finger to hide the fact that she cut off her wedding ring to keep her marriage a secret from her colleagues. But the show is more consistently funny than 'Louie' is, even if those laughs are more chuckles than gut-grabbers. And, if Wever or Facinelli had been nominated for comedy Emmys this year, I wouldn't have even flinched.

The outcry that we're hearing about the show seems to stem from the fact that Falco, who won Emmys for playing the not-at-all-funny Carmela Soprano, beat out such comedic stalwarts as Tina Fey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Amy Poehler. But just because she's a serious character in a lightly funny show doesn't mean she shouldn't be nominated in the comedy category. It's not like she's never done comedy before, as she did a great job guesting on '30 Rock' a couple of years ago.

There are always going to be hard-to-define shows on the air, and if it's hard for me to define what a show is, I sure as heck can't expect the Academy to define it. The producers of 'Nurse Jackie' could have gone either way in how to classify their show, and they decided to classify it as a comedy. Who am I to argue with them?

I'm sure Louis C.K. will do the same when he submits the show for Emmy consideration next year, and no one is going to object to that ... right?

(Follow @joelkeller on Twitter.)

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I think from a creative standpoint its great when a series comes along that is hard to define. Its possible that when "Nurse Jackie" first started it straddled the line between drama and comedy, yet as the show went on it became more serious. We see this in a lot of shows in fact. "House M.D." is considered a drama but particularly in its first few seasons there were a number of moments in an episode where you find yourself laughing. Remember "Nip/Tuck"'s first season? There was just as much dark comedy in that as there was drama. Same with "Six Feet Under", yet with all three of these shows the comedy presented itself less and less as the series went on. The same could be happening to "Nurse Jackie" as well.

September 03 2010 at 4:41 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Young Louie in the episode described above really did a great job of pulling off the scene, and it turned out to be the setup for the punchline at the end with the church custodian, smoking a cigarette, nailing Jesus back up. Classic.

September 02 2010 at 1:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
John F.C. Taylor

There hasn't been a really funny comedy series on the air in years. I'd rather be watching reruns of Home Improvement than any comedy that's on today.

September 01 2010 at 6:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to John F.C. Taylor's comment

Have you not watched "It's always Sunny in Philadelphia" That's comedy. Or do you think if there's not laugh track, it's not a comedy?

I've laughed at a lot of "Louie" and I'd consider it a comedy. But maybe they should create a category for "Sit-com" as well as "Comedy"

September 01 2010 at 8:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
David D

I'm wondering if the half-hour format suggests "comedy." If "Nurse Jackie" or "Tara" was an hour, would they be placed in the "comedy" category? Hmmmmmm...

September 01 2010 at 6:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I think the academy needs to invent a new category called "Dramedy" or "Drama/Comedy." There are those shows that strike a perfect balance between the two or are just a real good mix of the two. Shows like "Castle," "Bones," "Royal Pains," and "White Collar" just to name a few. I think in the "modern era" "Ally McBeal" was one of the first. I seem to remember some heated discussions over whether it and the actors should be put in the Drama categories or the Comedy categories. I think creating a separate category for these shows would clear things up a bit and help them get the recognition they deserve - and I don't think it would take away from the importance or value of an Emmy in any way. If the academy can make for a "Reality" category surely they can make room for this.

September 01 2010 at 5:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Tony DIMeo

I just saw the first season of NURSE JACKIE & I would define it as comedy, however it's very dark comedy which I like there have been a lot of funny moments however GLEE is just not funny

September 01 2010 at 5:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I think "Nurse Jackie" is as much of a comedy as "Glee."

September 01 2010 at 5:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

There seem to be two terms the author and brooke are not familiar with: vicious satire, and black comedy.

Neither is funny to those who have bought into the real-life absurdities that the authors are taking to extremes. Those of us who don't care so much for mainstream culture find them hilarious.

September 01 2010 at 5:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

For years now I have been saying the same thing regarding what is considered a comedy these days. Shows like Nurse Jackie, and The United States of Tara can't truly be considered comedies, and should not be in the same category as say 30 Rock or The Big Bang Theory. US of Tara has funny moments, but it is a very dark, dramatic show. Heck, even Glee isn't fully a comedy either. Funny moments? Yes, (thank you sooo much Jane Lynch!) However, the themes that the show dealt with its first season were far from funny. I vote for a "dramedy" category in all further Emmy shows.

September 01 2010 at 4:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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