The Turn to the Serious


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A recent trend that I have found interesting – and not in the least bit frustrating – is the blending of comedy and drama. It is not so much that I find dramatic comedies or comedic dramas to be bad, it is more that, from what I have noticed, too strong a trend in the serious direction can do a disservice to the comedy genre. Right now, it seems that shows/movies that are more dramatic, albeit with funny moments, are lauded as great comedies, overshadowing actual comedies that might not grab the culture as much in that moment. There seem to be fewer actors in the world of comedy who base their career solely off of their comedy, more often blending comedic work with dramatic work as they navigate their career in the entertainment industry.

Looking to the past, the blending of comedy and drama is definitely not specific to the present. Comedic actors/comedians have often delved into more dramatic work, with Bill Murray (The Razor’s Edge and Lost in Translation) and Adam Sandler (Punch Drunk Love and Uncut Gems) being two examples. Directors of great comedies have often switched genres (Penelope Spheeris directed a seminal punk documentary prior to Wayne’s World, Rob Reiner of This is Spinal Tap switched between more comedic and dramatic movies for the remainder of his career). However, the larger trend over the past number years I think points to a larger trend towards seriousness.

The larger nature of this trend stuck out most clearly to me in relation to specific careers – people who had origins in the comedy world but made the transition to other more dramatic areas of the entertainment/art world.

  1. Aziz Ansari – Comedian and actor in Human Giant and Parks and Rec who most recently created the largely dramatic Master of None

  2. Zach Galfianakis – Comedian and and inspired comedy actor who created and starred in the quieter, and more dramatic, Baskets

  3. Donald Glover – From comedic acting in Community and Derrick Comedy to a hip hop career and creating the more dramatic and ambitious Atlanta

  4. Bill Hader – From SNL to the darker and ambitious Barry

  5. Kumail Nanjiani – Comedian and starrer in Silicon Valley who has transitioned to more standard movie actor, including the superhero world with The Eternals

  6. Bob Odenkirk – Comedy writer from SNL, creator of Mr. Show, who has made a pivot to dramatic, and even dramatic action, acting

  7. Jordan Peele – Sketch/improv comedy background, Key and Peele, who transitioned to more genre/thriller filmmaking starting with Get Out

As you can see, I have put together quite a list. It is representative of how many times I have gone into a show or a movie thinking it would be funny based on the creator, only to realize the more serious tone that was being pursued. Not to say I was disappointed – although based on the fact that I did not finish Atlanta, Masters of None, Barry, or Baskets, maybe I was! 

Interestingly, this trend shows its scope by expanding past specific actors and comedians. Movie franchises have trended this way, too – the first two Ghostbusters, and even the 2016 reimagining, were out-and-out comedies, while the most recent revamp has been more dramatic in nature, albeit with funny moments. There has been a blurring of comedy into non-comedy movies, with the “Marvelization'' of movies meaning that humor is placed in a lot of tentpole movies as a part of the experience – going back to the comedy career idea, a lot of this seems to be from comedy writers/directors making the jump to careers in movies as a whole (Rick and Morty writers and the Russo brothers being two key examples in the world of superhero movies).

Another indicator of this trend can be a particularly frustrating one – the recent blending of comedy and drama that is found in awards season and end-of-year best-of lists. Shows that have funny moments but are ultimately dramas run the gauntlet in the comedy categories. Or at least seem to, with The Bear and Ladybird being two TV and movie examples, respectively. On the awards side, the Golden Globes is a particular offender – to their credit, they are really the only award show to attempt to highlight comedy, and they have been blending the genre with more dramatic fare way before this trend seemed to pick up. However, best-of year-end lists do the same, with many of them including things that I think very technically/objectively would be dramas.

This is not to say there are bad combos of comedy and drama. Paul Rudd is an actor who can cross that line, back and forth, well. Movies like Superbad and shows like Only Murders in the Building (speaking of Paul Rudd) show that you can deal with dramatic themes while still expertly riding the line and sticking the landing as a comedy. But all in all, the attempt to stick that landing seems largely gone in this present moment – very few people seem to start a project with the comedy goal in mind, at least when it comes to TV Shows/movies. Maybe this is because the career viability does not seem to be there, with comedy shows often not making the biggest impression in the zeitgeist, and comedy movies not being a safe bet in theaters at this time. 

As I see more mid-budget comedy movies coming to streaming, and potentially even theaters, I am hopeful that this trend will right itself a little bit. In the case that a career more focused on comedy becomes a viable option again, I think you will see the momentum continue in this positive direction. Ultimately, it may sound trite, but I think people do indeed want to laugh – and I think people do what a larger comedy experience with a crafted structure (TV/movies to say it in another way) to laugh at. What better assurance of the continuation of the comedy genre is there than that!


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