When you think of half-hour comedies, most likely you're thinking of: clichéd sitcom situations; the set-up/punchline formula; and of course a laugh track (in case your sense of humor needs a little direction).
But in 2016, sometimes the best "comedies" didn't even elicit a laugh. In many of the best comedies of the year, jokes felt almost perfunctory, as stories and points of view took center stage over non-stop gags. This has been a trend of comedies in recent years, but 2016 saw it become the norm in almost every half-hour; at least the ones higher up on your cable guide and streaming online, though frequently on network television, too.
Many sitcoms returned with their emphasis on serialization and important messages. HBO's Silicon Valley continued its nail-biting high-pressure story of fumbling through the tech industry, CBS' Mom handled addiction issues as well as any drama, and ABC's Black-ish was arguably the most socially conscious show of the year.
One of the best network comedy episodes of the year was Black-ish's "Hope," which was 30 minutes of insightful conversation about police brutality against unarmed black youths, told from the point of view of an African-American family. It's an episode I remember well for how it made me think, but I can't recall laughing once or even if there was a single joke in it.
That's part of the power of comedy nowadays; it doesn't have to always be light, and can be as important to the social conversation as the most serious of dramas. Conversely, when comedies choose to go heavier, there's an ingrained sense of lightness to it which helps gets its message across. If Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead wants to comment on an important topic, you can bet it'll be a difficult, grim hour.
It's an episode I remember well for how it made me think, but I can't recall laughing once or even if there was a single joke in it.
New series in 2016 picked up on the changing comedy landscape. FX's Atlanta brought in creator and star Donald Glover's fresh point of view for one of the year's best series. The network also gave us Better Things, which crashed the white-guy auteur party with a series showing us what it's like to be a working single mom.
The heavier themes continued with Netflix's brilliant and kooky Lady Dynamite, Maria Bamford's manic look at her own battle with mental illness; Amazon's Fleabag, an unapologetic British import tackling sexuality (and the mistakes that come with it) from a woman's point of view; HBO's Insecure, which explored the "black female experience"; and Seeso's Flowers, a dreary and odd English sitcom about a dysfunctional family dealing with suicide, divorce and other subjects usually reserved for hourlongs. This was a banner year for perspectives in comedy, for all colors, sexes and situations.
And when things in comedy weren't serious, they were serialized — another TV characteristic formerly reserved for dramas. Comedy used to press the reset button after every episode for easy viewing of reruns and to make extra cash from syndication sales. But with the emergence of streaming — which is better suited for quick consumption of comedy than any other genre — season-long stories of comical drama are becoming the norm.
FX's Baskets became one of the best shows on TV not just for Zach Galifianakis' Chip Baskets knocking over a pyramid of champagne glasses, but for his heartbreaking relationship with his mother Christine (Louie Anderson) and twin brother Dale (Galifianakis). NBC's The Good Place gave us the most imaginative network comedy in maybe forever, but it's impossible to drop into midway through because of its riveting, season-long story. And TBS, which had an incredible year of rejuvenation built on the backbone of cable-level comedy, delivered Search Party and People of Earth, two shows notable for their gradual storytelling rather than goofy antics.
True, 2016 also gave us classic style comedies like CBS' Kevin Can Wait; but as we continue to try to classify everything into tidy categories, the definition of "comedy" is becoming more amorphous. It's not a crime against nomenclature: it's the evolution of a genre that's changing as our viewing habits change, and as television becomes more than simply a diversion.
We're witnessing comedy's change into its final form, and it's never been better.