The ABC’s (and NBC’s) Of Comedy

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Wednesday night I watched ABC’s comedy block of the Middle, Suburgatory, Modern Family and Happy Endings, and last night NBC’s “Must See T-“ Oh, excuse me, “Comedy Night Done Right!” of Community, The Office, 30 Rock and Up All Night.  Despite this being an off week of programming- mostly reruns and no shows of the oldies- there were still strong episodes from the new guys and I had a solid night of laughs both nights.  But there’s something fresher feeling about ABC’s night vs. NBC’s…something I never thought I’d say.

I’ll admit it, I still unconsciously migrate to NBC on Thursday nights; the gravity of the once-reigning juggernaut that was NBC’s mid 80s- to late 90s Thursday night still pulls me in.  But even after the fall of the Seinfeld-Friends-ER dynasty, NBC was still a comedic kingdom with high, impenetrable walls of ratings.  Even in 2006, to compare NBC’s comedies to that of ABC’s would be a joke.  The Office (wait, wait, wait! The OLD version of The Office you used to love and the show that’s influenced the format of 70% of the comedy you watch now), My Name Is Earl and 30 Rock versus (oh God) George Lopez, According To Jim and the short lived Knights of Prosperity aka Let’s Rob Mick Jagger.  Now I could go on and on about the abomination that was Lopez and Jim, but you get the point: NBC was trying with comedies that loosened and challenged the conventional format of typical network comedy.  Meanwhile, over at the Lower House of Mouse, the comedic field was being led by comedians that lull your grandparents who got lost on their way to CBS into innocuous bubbles of pleasantries and inoffensive humor.

The tables have flipped like a motherf*$ker, my friends.  6 years, a few acquisitions and about twenty-three thousand executive shake-ups have left NBC an appeasing, rating’s starved state surrendering in the face of risk and primarily tasked to cut costs (remember or Wiki The Jay Leno Show).  The Peacock has become unstable and simply schizo in it’s ordering and cancelling of shows. “Give me two fairytale dramas!  Take a risk on Outsourced!  Don’t give Perfect Couples a shot! Give Paul Reiser another show!  Get Paul Resier’s show the hell out of here!  Give Seinfeld’s buddies a talk show!  Put Whitney Cummings in a sexy nurses outfit! Can we get Perfect Couples back?  Well then order me shows that look exactly like Perfect Couples!”  Meanwhile, the NBC comedy survivors are showing their age as they struggle to maintain creative freshness and keep the network’s advertising cash rolling in.

Alec Baldwin holding all of NBC's dreams on his back
Alec Baldwin holding all of NBC's dreams on his back

*Parks and Recreations is the shining exception, of course.  The show has finally wiggled out from under The Office’s shadow and has proven to be an energetic and reassuring microcosm of the political landscape; a refreshing oasis where American government can be good, and above the cantankerous and increasingly venomous civil divide poisoning the national psyche.  But the rest of NBC’s Thursday, even when funny, feels like a retread of something we’ve moved past. This week’s hour of new 30 Rock was hilarious and was an A+ in the sheer number, surprise and writing of celeb cameos… but there was something old hat about it.

NBC’s comedies are capable and often still do hit comedic homeruns, but they’re all wall scrapers to right field and we’ve grown jaded having seen these same balls barely get over the fence a thousand times now.  Even NBC’s retro advertising of “More Colorful” feels comically dated, like a corny Old navy ad preying on nostalgia that it’s target audience simply doesn’t possess.  “NBC: We’re looking backwards, won’t you too?”

Over at ABC there is just a different vibe. The star power wasn’t as high and the gimmick/cameo count paled in comparison. (NBC’s Bill Moynihan did stop by Happy Ending’s in a solid guest appearance).  Both networks’ comedies are roughly equaled in demographic and universal appeal of character but while watching ABC’s lineup, I felt an excitement of the unknown, of not anticipating the character’s every move because I don’t already feel like I know them and their histories inside-out.  Here, I met a comfortably dysfunctional family, a surprisingly fresh fish-out-of-water comedy, a lovingly written, masterfully acted new millennial take on the wholesome family comedy, and a young-and-pretty-in-the-city comedy that like How I Met Your Mother and Friends before it, is unafraid to reflect and embrace the increasingly-diverse connections and relationships of today- and not the tried-and-true staples of yesteryear.

The whole ABC comedy lineu, feels more keyed in and freer to move than NBC.  Perhaps it’s the weight of NBC’s grand legacy of comedy domination that makes it sluggish and befuddled in its recent programming decisions.  But ABC, a network that has always been light on its feet and bold in its lineup choices (being bankrolled by Disney’s empire sure must help), is just more nimble and therefore better able to keep up with America’s accelerating and alternating attention span.  How else do you explain why ABC’s NIGHT OF REPEATS GOT HIGHER RATINGS THAN NBC’S NEW EPISODES on Wednesday night?

*Full disclosure: I don’t watch NBC’s Community.  I’ve watched a few episodes and it just rubs me the wrong way.  It reminds me of Scrubs in how I recognize the cleverness but feel like they’re trying way hard to appeal to my pop vanity with rapid-fire references and extended parodies.  References don’t automatically equal comedy to me.  BUT I am planning on giving it another chance and wholly recognize it as a show that’s unique to the television landscape and striving for originality.  I’ll give it another shot this summer and report back.

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