The Comedy Debate: Traditional vs. Cult

the comedy debate

In recent years, the sitcom genre has split into two camps: traditional comedies (the ones that get the ratings) and cult comedies (the ones that get the accolades). There are a few brave comedies that dare to straddle the line earning both popularity and critical praise, like Modern Family, but they are the unicorns of the sitcom world. The traditional comedies tend to sport laugh tracks and obviously stagey sets that are reminiscent of the days of I Love Lucy (the mother of all multi-camera sitcoms), while the cult comedies favor sleek film-style aesthetics and humor that can be downright esoteric at times. Those aren’t hard rules though, for instance The Middle looks like a cult comedy, but if fans of the traditional-leaning CBS lineup ever wander over to ABC they might be pleasantly surprised by the show’s classic sitcom spirit.

At the Television Critics Association’s press tour, Robert Greenblatt, the president of NBC, reportedly said that the network hoped to reach a broader audience with its new crop of sitcoms this season. It makes sense that NBC, which was once able to dub its Thursday night comedy block must see TV and have it be absolutely true, would want to recapture if not a bit of that magic, then at least a fraction of those ratings. However, for fans of the cult comedies NBC has done such a good job of nurturing it’s disheartening to hear the network is moving in a new direction, especially if that means moving away from smart, adventurous storytelling in favor of something that is both safer and duller.

Greenblatt’s news got me thinking about my own comedy preferences; admittedly, I love the cult comedies. Shows like 30 Rock, Community, Happy Endings and Parks and Recreation are among my very favorite shows on television, but I was raised on a steady diet of Nick-At-Nite reruns and the aforementioned Must See TV block. As a result, I’m a firm believer that broad doesn’t necessarily mean bad and I like to think there is room on television for the dizzying experimental heights of Community and the rough around the edges, dirty humor of 2 Broke Girls.

Ideally, what I’d like to see networks aim for when they say they are hoping to broaden the appeal of their comedy lineups is a middle of the road approach. Broad is far too often used as a secret synonym for dumb and that’s how we end up with atrocities like Work It. Seinfeld and Fraiser, two shows that melded what would later be known as cult comedy sensibilities with traditionalism, both became monster hits that earned ratings and critical adoration. More recently we can point to the likes of Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory as shows that are capable of bringing in viewers and earning critical appreciation. I hope that when Greenblatt said he wanted to go broader what he really meant was that he wants to find his own Modern Family, although every time I watch the trailer for Guys With Kids I have my doubts.

We won’t have to wait much longer to see what definition of broad NBC is using; the network is set to start rolling out its new shows on August 8 with the premiere of Go On. In the meantime, NBC can take credit for reawakening the cult vs. traditional debate that has been simmering since we entered into this glorious comedy renaissance.

Where this particular debate is concerned I stand firmly in the middle. Shows like Parks and Recreation have my heart, but there’s room in my life for The Big Bang Theory too. My only real concern is that the networks could push too hard in either direction and we could end up with a dull comedy landscape. What I’ve loved the most about the comedy boom is the wide variety of sitcoms that have come out of it and the thought that we could lose some of the originality that has breathed new life into the genre is depressing. No matter which side of the debate you’re on, you have to admit we are being spoiled with quality comedies right now and I’m sure no one wants to see that change.

Where do you stand on the debate? Do you favor cult comedies, traditional ones or do you like a little of both? I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject in the comments.

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