The definition of comedy is tragedy plus time. At least that’s the lean equation attributed to comedic greats like Carol Burnett and Woody Allen in his film Crimes and Misdemeanors. But if we’re judging by the winners of the 66th Primetime Emmys, comedy might be more aptly defined as: whatever the network execs can watch with their grandkids. As longstanding family-friendly comedies like Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory reign over the Comedy categories, it would seem the Emmys is long overdue to renew its sense of white-washed humor.
Raise your eyebrows at the winners: Ty Burrell won Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for Modern Family, Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series went to Jim Parsons for The Big Bang Theory (for the fourth time, I should add), and Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series went to Modern Family for the episode “Vegas.” Finally, Outstanding Comedy Series was awarded to Modern Family, the sick-on-the-couch, whole milk version of ensemble-driven hahas. It’s a top slot historically reserved for similarly relaxed-fit shows like Cheers, All in the Family, Frasier, and yes, for the fifth year in a row, the very same Modern Family.
It was a shock as much as it was hackneyed choice. As The New Yorker‘s Sarah Larson describes it, “As the night went on, we heard the “Modern Family” song too many times — a sound that for me, in Emmys past, has become synonymous with rage — in part because the “Family” members expect that they’ll be onstage, winning things, and they seem a little too comfortable with noodling around while they’re there.” Twitter exploded in that tell-tale foreseen rage and disappointment. “That crusty old donut left on the office counter Modern Family,” writer Brian Moylan called the series over at The Guardian. By sticking with the old standby for the top award, leaving progressive, cable-based nominees like Louie, Orange is the New Black, Silicon Valley, and Veep in the dust, the Emmys confronted us with a serious question: do we still know what makes a good joke?
Even host Seth Meyers was quick to point out the contention of the category in his opening monologue. “There has been some controversy over which categories some shows were submitted in. For example, Orange is the New Black was submitted as a comedy rather than a drama,” he said. A very self-aware Jim Parsons, accepting for his win for Outstanding Actor on The Big Bang Theory noted in his speech that “there’s no accounting for taste,” when it comes to these selections. In fact, if awards shows were still accounting for taste in comedy, they might have noticed that some of the truly uproariously funny moments on television this year couldn’t possibly come from an ensemble cast bickering about baby showers and impossibly good looking wives, but instead, from the shower stalls of penitentiaries or the cubicles of the disillusioned copywriter.
Orange Is The New Black didn’t win anything? That’s just silly.
— emilynussbaum (@emilynussbaum) August 26, 2014
Never mind: Uzo Aduba won an award. STILL. The division between dramas and comedies really makes zero sense. — emilynussbaum (@emilynussbaum) August 26, 2014
A reminder: MAD MEN isn’t going to win anything tonight but it’s often funnier than any of the Comedy nominees.
— Andy Greenwald (@andygreenwald) August 26, 2014
This year Orange Is the New Black’s distinct dismissal at the Emmys was somewhat perplexing. Wasn’t this the break-away, record-smashing Netflix dark horse? Like Nussbaum, the Emmys had all of us wondering if we should just go ahead and throw away the seemingly arbitrary distinction between comedy and drama. After all, this is television’s cable-and-streaming, sparkling golden age — don’t the two normally come together?
Think of the most delightful, witty, transcendent, and hilarious moments of television this year. Sure, some came boxed in the package of traditional comedy — the stupendous Louie episode “So Did the Fat Lady” took home a statue, while Broad City was a forgotten gut-buster — but most of this year’s brilliant moments come tinged in drama, reflected in the relief moments of some of our darker, prestige series. Think of scenes between Badger, Skinny Pete, and Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad, think of the comedic car rides between McConaughey and Harrelson’s leads on True Detective, or even the defeated stamp of a crushed Peggy Olson on Valentine’s Day on last season’s Mad Men. All of this comedy emerged, not from the assembly line of a laugh factory dressed up in a wacky fluorescent shirt, but fresh out of the awkward, stilted moments of normal “dramatic” human existence. While television continues to progress, diversify, and inarguably become better, it doesn’t mean the genius will always be recognized.
In this year’s best moment, the In Memoriam segment was largely focused on Robin Williams’ brilliance. Billy Crystal eloquently paid tribute to the late comic master, “He made us laugh. Hard. Every time you saw him, on television, movies, nightclubs, arenas, hospitals, homeless shelters, for our troops overseas, and even in a dying girl’s living room for her last wish. He made us laugh, big time. I spent many happy hours with Robin onstage. I mean, the brilliance was astounding, the relentless energy was kind of thrilling. I used to think that if I could just put a saddle on him and stay on for eight seconds, I was going to do okay. […] Robin Williams, what a concept.” These deserved accolades are darkly funny when we’re reminded Robin Williams never won for Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series when he was nominated for Mork & Mindy. Which makes sense — the Emmys always miss the best jokes.