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TV That Matters: Broad comedy, the bane of modern television

By John Thomas


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the nature of broad comedy in today’s fragmented popular culture. I cannot for the life of me find the etymology of the term, but I’d bet my bottom dollar that it has been around since at least 1984, also known as the year that “Who’s The Boss?” premiered. Why is that? Tony Danza, that’s why. It makes sense that back in the broadcast age of television, creators needed to aim for every kind of person as they were aiming their programming at everyone. Today, we still have shows labeled as broad — like everything Chuck Lorre has created, for instance. Yet, unlike 30 years ago, there’s now a large network of niches that the market has allowed to be filled.

“The Kroll Show” is a fantastic sketch series, one of the best on air today. Mostly due to that fact, pretty much nobody would draw parallels between it and the highest rated comedy on television, “The Big Bang Theory.” One makes jokes based on the ailments of our generation; the other is an ailment of our generation. That being said, I would argue that they’re both broad in their own way. I don’t think I can call myself a media theorist yet, but I do have

A theory: the conventions of broad comedy as we viewed them in the form’s heyday have migrated to the cultural nuclei of these entertainment niches. Over almost two seasons, Nick Kroll has crafted less a sketch series and more a variety half hour of different programs that have instantly recognizable characters. They have a loose mythology that capitalizes on the fact that those elements are painted in broad strokes, rounding them out with a series of smart but accessible jokes that may not work within a more harshly defined environment.

What does that sound like? That sounds like “Two and a Half Men.” That sounds like “The Big Bang Theory.” That sounds like “The Michael J. Fox Show,” or, hell, “Dads” even.

See, Bobby Bottleservice is the same kind of character as Sheldon I’mnotgoingtolookuphislastnamebecauseidontwantthatinmybrowserhistoryandifeellikesomeonewillgetsuspiciousiftheyseeikeepdeletingmybrowserhistoryanditsnotlikeilookatpornthatsweirdoranythingbutcomeoneitwouldstillbeawkwardandyeahyeahicouldjustgoaheadandopenupanincognitowindowbutdoireallywanttoputinthateffort?nonoidonot.

They’re built to be funny in a wide variety of material and situations. That might sound super simplistic, but think of, say, any one of Keenan Thompson’s characters on SNL. They’re very funny, but they’re funny within a meticulously constructed world, a world that doesn’t really change from appearance to appearance.

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