Jan 16, 2013

Splitting the Check: How Sketch Comedy Shows Of Today Utilize Smaller Audiences

By Josh Oakley

The idea of specificity within comedy is by no means recent, and that applies to nearly all art. While broad comedy, or the emotions spurred on by a melodrama, can be hilarious or affecting, respectively, those modes cannot match attuned knowledge of a singular subject. Attempting to strike that balance between a universal theme and the particulars within that theme can be difficult, but with the age of smaller audiences, the possibilities have grown enormously.

Sketch comedy, in particular, has been allowed to dig into niches in ways it could not have previously. I realized exactly how much voice has been able to triumph in this field after watching the most recent Portlandia ("Nina's Birthday") and the premiere episode of Kroll Show. While the two programs differ in many regards, both of these episodes featured a joke regarding the mind-numbing process of splitting checks. On Kroll, it was a quick moment, while on Portlandia, an entire bit was built around the conceit, but they both knew this to be something worth their comedic time.

Of course, the idea of splitting checks via credit card does not belong to a distinct sub-group (assuming you, as much of the mainstream media does, leave out those that cannot afford such trivial issues, but that argument is best made at a different time, by a writer much more experienced than I). However, those motions-figuring out who owed what, accounting for tax, the moral dilemmas in choosing the right percentage to tip-are extremely defined for anyone who regularly dines out with a group of friends.

There are examples in both of these shows that better show the idea of a more individualized audience. On Kroll Show, a fake teen-drama mocks everything from the general tropes of Degrassi-esque programs, to Canadian culture (the highlight of that being the existence of a "Poutine Dance"). The cadence of Nick Kroll's voice while playing one of two Liz's on a reality show spoof aligns perfectly with the increasingly exaggerated nature of these cartoonish people constantly populating our television screens. Portlandia has had many more episodes, but this week's alone had a wicked section, featuring Patton Oswalt, that involved the self-imposed necessity to reply to e-vites with a witty joke or action (such as claiming to be attending with 97 friends). 

These shows, especially Portlandia, couldn't have existed ten or twenty years ago, and not simply because hipsters (the main subject of Portlandia) or reality TV (Kroll Show's center) weren't as popular back then. Rather, the need for a large audience has disappeared. Or, more to the point, "large audience" does not mean half of what it used to. The beloved dramedy Freaks & Geeks, which lasted less than a complete season, garnered around seven million viewers an episode, but was easily ripped from the schedule. The newest episode of How I Met Your Mother, a show now in its eight season, gearing up for a ninth, pulled in ten million viewers. It is a hit. Freaks & Geeks aired in 1999. The rating slide happened, and it happened quickly.

Every season of Portlandia, I look forward to the return of Kumail Nanjiani. His characters work at various business, and struggle to actually help customers (or in the most recent case, potential loanees). While the joke can be transported from a cell phone store to a restaurant to a bank, each appearance is unique enough to elicit laughter not just from Nanjiani's delivery, but the memories that come flooding into the viewer's head. Who hasn't dealt with an employee at an establishment who can't comprehend that the company's policies are largely bullshit? That sweet spot of something we all have experienced, but with beautiful details (such as one little change necessitating a completely new form at the bank), express everything the writers are trying to say.

Thanks to a disappearing audience for television, these specifics can thrive in ways that were hidden underground before. Of course, that level of detail has always been present; the stand-up comic Bill Hicks is but one of many examples. But now the independent scene has come up for air, and is allowed to mingle with hit programming that wouldn't know "nuanced" if it was shoved in the two full men and the one half-man's faces. This speaks to the larger presence of voices being heard, something every conversation about the sitcom Louie discusses. That's a show that comes, without filter, from its creators mind. 

But Louie is a completely different argument, though it comes to the same conclusion. Portlandia and Kroll Show (and Key and Peele) show how sketch comedy is utterly representative of this cultural change. These shows can build a bit around an incredibly specific idea, and leave it for a new thought within a minute or two. This allows these shows to speak to not only exact cultures, but even smaller pockets within those groups. If you are an avid absorber of shallow culture, there still may be a Kroll Show sketch you cannot relate to, or find the humor in. That's fine, because in just a couple minutes you'll get an entirely new thing to connect to. Sketch comedy shows prove the power that unique voices have in today's culture. And while those voices have always existed, they can finally be heard on a mainstream level. That isn't because the creators have caved to a conventional way of thinking. Rather, the climate of media intake has allowed convention to become an entirely new thing. And nothing says that better than Nick Kroll, dressed in drag, fawning over cupcakes adorned with bikini swimsuits. That image says just about everything, and we're damn lucky for it.

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