US TV audiences and dark comedy

US television audiences have a strange relationship with comedy. They definitely enjoy comedy — this is a nation of people both desperately longing for amusement and remarkably easy to amuse — but they have very singular tastes in comedy that almost defy explanation at times. While smaller subsets of the US television audience have a broad view of what constitutes comedy and entertainment, overall, this country has a very narrow view of what’s funny; and, by extension, what belongs on television.

The US loves obvious satire, and it loves slapstick, and it loves excessively evident metaphors, but it has a difficult time with both morbid and dark humour. Which is extremely unfortunate, because both of these forms of humour are my favourites, and they can be among the most subtle when executed well. The lack of interest among larger audiences speaks to a general shying away from morbid humour in the US, where we don’t like to be confronted with dark things like death, preferring instead to clearly isolate our humour from the tragic and horrible things that happen to us.

Good morbid humour can be a fantastic comedic counterpoint in a drama programme that’s generally dark and thoughtful; Six Feet Under provides some of the best examples, with a show firmly anchored in drama that wasn’t afraid to be painfully, explosively funny. It’s perhaps not surprising that it aired on HBO, a cable network with a lower ratings investment than one of the broadcast networks, where ratings rule and much higher numbers of viewers are needed. HBO viewers have a broader set of tastes, the kind that are prepared to deal with dark, hilarious humour that makes light of some of the darkest times in our lives. What made Six Feet Under so brilliant wasn’t just the drama, but what interacted with it; and straight, obvious humour would have been clunky in that setting, as it often is in network dramas when writers attempt to be lighthearted.

But I have a special place in my heart for dark comedies that bring on the most wry, slightly snarky, arch humour and make it a mainstay of their narrative. They aren’t comedies; their emotional complexity and the depth of their jokes takes them beyond simple comedy, especially comedies in the US, which tend more to the simplistic and obvious. But they also aren’t dramas, because they’re meant to elicit dark, barking laughter, not to ensnare audiences in labyrinthine traumatic plots that are intended to make them all weepy between episodes.

One of the most classic examples of a dark comedy — and one that extends far beyond the days of television — is Romeo and Juliet, commonly described as one of Shakespeare’s tragedies. I’m not actually sure he meant it that way, though, and I am not convinced that it was performed that way at the time. As with other of his plays, I suspect it acquired new interpretation and meaning in the intervening years, especially since it was written before the Romantics came into play and ruined everything.

For them, of course, the narrative of the star-crossed lovers had to be a tragedy as they attempted to find their love between two warring families. The unfortunate series of circumstances that led to their double deaths, too, was a tragedy, a marker of the enduring nature of love and how far people are willing to go in pursuit of love, but also of the cruel whims of fortune. The Romantics enjoyed writing long-winded poems and painting dramatic women on cliffs, not dark comedy, and it may be that Romeo and Juliet began its transformation around then.

Because there’s really something darkly funny about the play. We have two families warring back and forth and two youth bent, as youth always are, not just on romance but on pissing off their families by choosing the one lover who couldn’t be less appropriate. That speaks to a sharply comedic mind, not a tragic one; Romeo and Juliet isn’t meant to be slapstick and obviously funny, like The Merry Wives of Windsor, but it’s still funny. And it continues to be funny through the series of ridiculous events that leaves both partners dead because they’re too obsessed with their romantic inclinations to settle down and take a hard look at the world around them; instead, they take their love for each other to the extreme.

Maybe I’m just a dark person, but I find that funny. And that’s the point: In many ways, Romeo and Juliet could be read as a dark comedy, legitimately. Yet, modern audiences across the globe treat it as a tragedy, especially in the US. Audiences in the US are uncomfortable with comedy that can be hard to read, comedy that challenges the viewer, comedy that is not immediately evident — are they supposed to be laughing, or crying? They look to each other for cues and in their mutual confusion, they feel frozen.

It’s why dark comedies never take off on network TV, because they never get the ratings needed to really fly. Which is a tragedy — as it were — because people in the US could use a bit of dark comedy in their lives, an incentive to pop out of the box and see the world around them for what it really is. Like Romeo and Juliet, people make the mistake of seeing the world in absolutist extremes, and they make choices based on incomplete and faulty knowledge, to the cost of themselves and others. On television, that’s not such a huge problem, but it has bigger implications for society as a whole.

Image: Secret Comedy Podcast, Amnesty International UK, Flickr