Comedy’s changed quite a lot in the last fifteen years or so. The shift started roughly when Seinfeld eschewed sentiment and happy endings, and through shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Office, we’ve ended up in a place where good television comedy is no longer just wacky people firing zingers at unsuspecting straight men.
But it appears no-one told the creators of Samantha Who? (8.00pm, Sundays on Seven).
Samantha has amnesia. She’s come out of a coma and she has absolutely no idea who she, or anyone else, is. As she investigates, she begins to realise that the Samantha she doesn’t know was a bit of a monster. And so begins the long road to redemption.
As premises go, it’s pretty good. But its execution makes you feel as if you’re back in the 80s. The cast, with the possible exception of Christina Applegate’s Samantha, are cardboard cut-out caricatures whose only purpose is to provide and/or be the target of the occasional one-liner. There’s the sl-tty friend and the clingy friend (dichotomy, get it?), the quirky parents, the wise doorman, etc etc. You’ve seen them all before.
Which is fine. Really. If the writing’s sharp enough, that type of comedy can be laugh-a-minute. But if the zingers don’t zing, then there’s nothing underneath. And in Samantha Who?, they rarely zing.
30 Rock (11.30pm, Monday on Seven last week, but who knows when after that), however, has been paying attention. On the surface, its premise is probably less compelling than Samantha Who?’s. Liz Lemon is Head Writer on a Saturday Night Live-style comedy show for the General Electric-owned NBC. She gets a new boss (the magnificent Alec Baldwin), who after the brilliant success of his Trivection Oven has been promoted by GE to “Vice President of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming”, and he meddles incessantly in the show. Simple enough.
The difference is that the characters of 30 Rock are real people. Sure, they’re heightened, but just a little. And the situations they deal with are out of the ordinary, but again, just a little. The challenges they face, the questions they have to answer, and the problems they deal with are all so recognisable that 30 Rock, like the best comedies, is emotionally believable.
It’s those real, recognisable human dilemmas, not the zingers, that make 30 Rock funny. Not that it doesn’t have zingers – when Liz gives her boss a stirring pep talk he tells her that “if you were any other woman on earth I’d be turned on right now”. It’s a great line, but strip it back to its sentiment and it reveals a question central to Liz Lemon’s life: how much of her personal life is she sacrificing for her career?
In fact, strip away all the jokes from 30 Rock (or The Office, or Curb Your Enthusiasm) and you’re still left with familiar characters battling their way through life. You’re still left with beautiful observations of human behaviour. You’re still left with humour.