Who Needs the Drama?

TV's dark comedies get their day in the sun

The Comeback
Sundays at 8:30 p.m.
HBO

Curb Your Enthusiasm
Season 5 to air
late summer 2005

HBO

"Does Dave Chappelle have to cut a bitch?" Comedies with bite are a ratings success
Comedy Central
"Does Dave Chappelle have to cut a bitch?" Comedies with bite are a ratings success

Chappelle's Show
Postponed indefinitely
Comedy Central

 

Valerie Cherish (Lisa Kudrow) stands in the doorway of her quasi-upscale Manhattan hotel room. At one time, back when Bush Senior was in the White House and Valerie was on the cover of TV Guide, this would've been the Sherry Netherlands; today it looks like the "good room" at a Radisson. Prepping for the up-fronts--the networks' showcase of their fall product--Valerie confronts Paul G, one of the "hip young writers" on her new sitcom, Room and Bored. (In this case, "hip young writer" means "Maxim-reading fat guy who plays internet poker on his laptop during script meetings.") Playing slightly to the reality-TV cameras documenting her comeback attempt, Valerie asks Paul if he could brainstorm some gags for her appearance on the big stage. He stares, then aims his finger at her and makes like he's blowing her brains out. Valerie stands there, embarrassed, then cheerfully deadpans, "Well--that happened!"

Yes. It did happen. While network TV turned into a marathon relay of reality-show humiliation, the one-hour drama turned up blue and cold. The inexplicably beloved Six Feet Under got soapier, its already loony cast growing so insufferably shrill you'd think they were auditioning for a dinner theater reprise of The Boys in the Band. The crime drama sank to new levels, reduced to the tweezed pubic hairs of CSI and the tiresome day-old newsprint of Law & Order. And the "serious human drama"? Forget about it. Take two episodes of House and don't call me in the morning. Right now, dark comedies are where it's at.

In HBO's note-perfect The Comeback, Valerie Cherish has an overgrown but fragile ego. A poor man's Shelley Long in the late '90s, she's making her titular comeback as "Aunt Sassy" on a WB-style comedy featuring shirtless, six-pack-sporting post-teens. The Comeback is a pretend reality show following the "real" Valerie around as a witless, youth-obsessed, talent-deficient industry bonks her on the noggin with an infinite number of metaphorical Wiffle-ball bats. When she asks a costumer for some Juicy Couture instead of the pastel rest-home attire she's been outfitted in, he retorts, "Do you have a juicy ASS?" The Comeback has been dismissed as so much HBO insider baseball, another industry smirkfest about celebrity culture, but its real subject lies well outside of Los Angeles County. America is exposed as a nation of pod people, a high-pressure, image-conscious dance floor where reflection, compassion, and idiosyncrasy are as beads of rain on a riverbed compared to juicy asses.

The gray-bearded granddaddy of the "humiliation comedy" trend is Larry David's five-year-old Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which the semi-demi-billionaire spins intriguing comic tales worthy of Molière and Plautus. Curb initially played as smug narcissism; do we really care if the creator of Seinfeld gets good dinner reservations? Of course, rather than leading to triumph, this leads to deeper pools of degradation--the kind Valerie Cherish is repeatedly subjected to. It works; David makes music of his character's misery.

The funniest thing on TV right now is Chappelle's Show. Except, of course, it isn't on. (Dave Chappelle having taken a break to commune with gazelles in the Belgian Congo and all.) Season Two of the Comedy Central series was recently released on DVD, and in it, Chappelle upholds one of comedy's basic maxims: What's true is funny whether you like it or not. Take Chappelle's parody of MTV's The Real World: A pudgy schlub in a pink polo shirt shacks up with a group of black roommates who might consider the pussy-eating jokes on Def Comedy Jam to be too bourgie. This housing arrangement leads to everything from the despoilment of the schlub's blond suburban girlfriend to his affable dad getting a shiv in his ribs; meanwhile the black 95 percent of the loft expresses hurt and outrage at his presence. Is this a reprise of Chris Rock's "I love black people, I hate niggers" routine (beloved, the New York Times tells us, by white cops across America)? Or an expression of the star and writer's own animosity toward pudgy schlubs in polo shirts? The answer, of course, is both, a double bind that proves hilarious. The more uncomfortable Chappelle's content gets, the higher the ratings climb--a testament, maybe, to our Survivor-bred taste for humiliation, or perhaps (I hope) to the ever-piercing power of so-true-it-hurts comedy.

Can drama keep pace with the progress comedy is making? It might--the stronger episodes of the lagging but still better-than-the-rest Sopranos suggest it's possible. The bottom line is that we live in an essentially comic-pathetic rather than tragic age. Hillary Clinton talking to Jesus, Bill Frist waving a flag at a NASCAR rally, Tom Cruise reprising his Magnolia role on the "I'm Not Gay" tour--our public life is better suited to Roman merriment than Greek introspection. For the moment at least, the dramatists may be writing better diary entries, but the clowns are holding up the mirror to our white-painted, red-nosed faces.

 
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