The Challenge of Long-Running Comedy TV
|Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/20th Century Fox
|© FX Networks/Everett Collection
To maintain and continue your comedic momentum as a long-running show, you kind of have to get over the import of your own show, the status that the show has built over the years of its run. Too often, a show that finds success and builds a following will find itself too cautious to step on the legacy it has built thus far - whether that is Rick & Morty struggling to balance the built-up lore of the show with its comedy; The Office (US) reducing the true bite that it had in the first half of its run for a sweeter, less awkward, and more respectful tone; or Saturday Night Live’s institution-like status at this point sometime getting in the way of truly funny material, this can definitely be a challenge. A bit of vulnerability is required and in the case of long-running comedy shows, vulnerability means maintaining and continuing a state of play and humility with an already very-established enterprise.
When I think of a show that famously dipped in quality but then has seemed to regain its footing in recent years, I think of The Simpsons. Due to it being perhaps the most famous “TV quality drop-off”, it was a show that I had kind of written off for the longest time – with the attitude of “every year with another Simpsons season is another year of a diminished legacy”. But, in retrospect, that was kind of harsh and dismissive. When I revisited more recent seasons of The Simpsons, I was pleasantly surprised. They seemed to have regained some of the qualities that made the earlier seasons so great – including a more expressive and less rigid style of animation, as well as an increase (if ever-so-slightly) of warmth between characters, especially Simpsons family members. I am almost surprised by how top-notch the jokes are, but the more I think about it, they have always been top notch – if you learn about their rigorous joke-vetting process with their writing staff, how could they not be? It was these other, less obvious factors, that seemed to make the difference in an episode being more than just some great jokes. I think the biggest key, back to my initial point, is a feeling of playfulness and looseness with the show that I think was not there for the longest time, due potentially in part to writers coming in as fans of the show and proceeding with caution as a result.
Another show that has maintained its quality, albeit with maybe a slightly different trajectory, is It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. This show has the advantage of being run by the same people throughout the entirety of its run. Sure, it might have fallen victim to its legacy in some of my less favorite episodes/seasons, posturing itself as “the offensive show” and trying to live up to that instead of simply being funny, but it seems to have managed to just as quickly move out of this slippery slope and regain its footing as it has gone on, even if the show now looks different than the show in the first half of its run. To me, though, this is actually a strength – the creators of the show are not afraid of change in pursuit of the comedy, and seem to make it a point to not overly revere what made the show a comedy mainstay. They still take risks, with half of the last season being in Ireland, and most episodes of this current season being the most playful and heightened that the show has ever been! As I have observed from the show’s podcast (featuring its three showrunners), maintaining this comedic core can be challenging – especially in three-person committee – but the work that goes into it, also apparent from the conversations in the podcast, definitely translates to the freshness of the most recent season.
Other long-running shows manage to navigate this process in similar ways. Family Guy has seemed to improve in quality in recent years, in much the same way as The Simpsons did, by finding a bit of its heart and playfulness again (slight decrease in abject cynicism and having more for Meg to do than to simply be hated). Curb Your Enthusiasm has the auteur benefit that Always Sunny had, and the fact that Larry David can come to the show whenever he is inspired to make a season, as well as his famous “no hugging, no learning” policy, has helped to maintain the freshness of the show. South Park (another show with two people at the helm for the entire run) is experimental with how it keeps things interesting – similar to Always Sunny, it played with continuing storylines (something that while I don’t think plays to the show’s strengths was also very fun to watch) and more generally, when they aren’t trying to be “the show that comments on the world today”, they seem to try to make stuff that they simply find funny.
Just as shows lose their comedic momentum in a variety of ways (indeed, all of the shows discussed above had their dips in quality), so too can shows keep it or regain it in a variety of ways. Whether that is built into the model (creator-driven) from the start, or happens because facilitators of a long-running series manage to make their way back to a more fun, humble, and playful place, it is something that I am always happy to see – happy to that after so many years of production and legacy, these shows can manage to maintain, or regain, a direct pathway from the screen to my funny bone.