Television comedy has been having something of a fallow period for the past few years, which is not to say that there aren't any funny shows on, but compared to a decade ago, the number of comedy shows currently on the air is much lower. Part of the problem is that new shows take time to gain traction with audiences, and networks are notoriously impatient for immediate ratings successes. Also, a lot of shows just aren't funny (how is According to Jim still on the air?).
Networks have tried to freshen their comedy offerings by turning away from the traditional three-camera sitcom, shot on a soundstage in front of a live audience, to single-camera shows without laugh tracks such as Arrested Development and The Office. Personally, I prefer shows without a laugh track--I'm comfortable figuring out when I'm supposed to laugh--but it's more important that a show is funny. One of my favorite shows is How I Met Your Mother, which is done on a soundstage with a laugh track. I wouldn't care if it was filmed in an alley, it makes me laugh after a long day.
This year's Best Comedy nominees represent NBC (30 Rock and The Office), HBO (Curb Your Enthusiasm and Entourage), and CBS (Two and a Half Men). I think the academy got it about half right. I don't have HBO, but I have sampled both its entries on DVD, and I don't like either of them. Curb is very much an acquired taste, due to the persona of its creator and central character, Larry David. I watched a few episodes and found him to be more despicable than funny. I know that's supposed to be the point, but I couldn't stand him or anyone else in his orbit. But then, I never cared for Seinfeld, which David was also behind. I found the characters on that show incredibly unlikable, which for me largely precluded finding them funny.
The bits of Entourage that I've seen just bored me. The general consensus among critics is that this past season was not its best, but academy voters have shown a tendency to nominate shows somewhat retroactively, i.e. it was good before, so let's just go ahead and nominate it again.
As for Two and a Half Men, I watched it pretty regularly for a few years, and it's fairly funny, but it's a one-note show. Ninety percent of the jokes are of a crude sexual nature, which can be funny but not over and over and over. The other ten percent of the jokes seem to be about youngster Jake's bodily functions, har har.
30 Rock's gleefully absurd take on the behind-the-scenes workings of a sketch-comedy show is filled with so many jokes, sight gags, and tossed-off lines that it almost requires you to watch each episode twice (which I often do, thanks to my TiVo).
The Office is a sardonic and often surprisingly real look at what life at work is like for many cubicle dwellers, albeit with an exaggerated buffoon of a boss in Michael Scott (Steve Carell). I'll admit that I occasionally grow tired of Michael's infantile behavior, as well as that of his sycophantic and clueless underling Dwight Schrute, but when that happens, the other characters always manage to make up for it, particularly Andy, Kevin, and Angela.
I love both 30 Rock and The Office, both of which have previously won this award (in 2007 and 2006, respectively). I also have fairly large crushes on both Tina Fey (the Saturday Night Live alum who created 30 Rock and stars as harried head writer Liz Lemon, who must play ringmaster to her circus of writers and actors as well as her flaky boss, gloriously played by Alec Baldwin) and Jenna Fischer (The Office's sweet and plucky receptionist Pam Beesly, who holds things together at Dunder Mifflin's Scranton office). The Mrs. refers to them as my "TV girlfriends."
Given the nominated shows, I'd pick 30 Rock to win, mostly because I feel like its creators work really hard to make each episode as funny as possible. If I were choosing the five nominees for this category, my list would include The Office and 30 Rock, ABC's freshman fantasy Pushing Daisies (which was on the list of semifinalists), and CBS's How I Met Your Mother and The New Adventures of Old Christine.
Daisies is a candy-coated visual acid trip wrapped around a throwback detective show, wrapped around a classic story of life, death, and true love, and it's thoroughly original. But it isn't a comedy in the traditional sense--in fact, it defies a label of any kind--and that may have thrown the academy voters. Mother is a three-camera ensemble comedy in the tradition of Friends, but with sharper characterizations and the framing device of a father in 2030 relating to his children the stories of his friendships and relationships as a younger man (shown in flashback as the primary action of the show). Old Christine is also a traditionally shot soundstage show about a divorced woman (Seinfeld's Julia Louis-Dreyfus, somewhat more likable here) trying to raise a son and maintain a cordial relationship with her ex-husband and his new love, also named Christine but younger and dumber. This show succeeds mainly because of the hard-working cast, and because it's genuinely funny. Hopefully, as these shows evolve they will get the recognition they deserve.
Still to come: comedy acting nominees.